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This month, the wonderful cellist and author Sara Sitzer talks to us about how to maximizing our performance by being mindful about our body movements.  Enjoy her delightfully insightful text and make sure to stop by her website to read more about and from her.  On to Sara!  - RPG
 
 
If you spend the majority of your days with an instrument in your hand, you're an athlete. What we do is physically demanding, exhausting, and, frankly, a bit unnatural! Think about it: we spend hours every day in a practice room, contorting our bodies in an effort to achieve technical perfection and dramatic musicality. And while stretches, yoga, and other healthful activities are key to taking care of ourselves as athletes, the technique that I have found to be the most powerful when it comes to saving energy, preventing injury, and playing more expressively, comes down to one word: 
 
EFFICIENCY.
 
Less is more.
 
Think about biking for a moment. Ya know how serious bikers wear those dorky spandex shorts and funny tops? Well, it actually makes it easier for them to ride faster! Without loose clothing flapping against the wind and heavy fabric to soak up sweat, the outfit itself becomes a tool towards efficient riding.
 
Umm.... you're not suggesting that I wear spandex for any performance that involves fast notes, are you?
 
 
Luckily, for us musicians, I can happily attest that spandex is NOT the answer! But, like biking, we can look into what we are doing while we play that gets in the way of being able to sound the best we can. Next time you practice, take a video of yourself and, when you watch it, ask these questions:
 
1. What physical movements do I habitually incorporate into my playing?
2. Are these movements necessary?
 
I've been working up a few orchestral excerpts lately, and, asking myself these questions in a recent practice session, realized that every time I started the opening melody in the second movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, I made a sweeping gesture with my bow arm and dipped my head down. I had been struggling to get it to sound flowing and easy, and suddenly it dawned on me that perhaps such a large gesture was actually getting in the way. Being conscious to keep my gesture small, concise, and efficient, I tried the passage again. The difference was striking--not only did the melody sound more legato and free, but, physically, I felt more in control and less tense. The physical movement I had been making was unnecessary and haphazard, and though it looked like I was simply playing musically, in actuality, I was playing inefficiently.
 
 
Don't die onstage.
 
 
Often times, when we're playing an especially romantic or intense piece of music, our physical movements become more romantic and intense right along with it. This always makes me think of something my former teacher, Uri Vardi, used to tell me: When an actor plays Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet," he doesn't actually die. His character dies, but he himself is only acting. Likewise, when we play an incredibly passionate piece of music, the goal is to channel the passion into our sound, not to allow the passion to creep into our physical movements. Physical tension is a musician's greatest enemy, but what we don't always realize is that it is our effort to play expressively and musically that often leads to the worst kind of tension. Learning to separate the musical drama from the physical drama can be what allows us to minimize pain and tension, and also tends to give us the freedom to make that musical drama more effective, exciting, and expressive.
 
Now, don't get me wrong. Moving when you play isn't bad, and I'm not suggesting you be stiff and still! After all, there are many virtuosic players out there who move a LOT! (Just look Yo-yo Ma or Joshua Bell!) But what I have learned in 25 years of cello playing is that the absolute best thing you can do for both your body and your sound is to be aware of the way you move, constantly evaluating whether what you're doing while you play is helping you achieve the sound your want or simply getting in the way. The way you use your body should always be intentional and thought-through. It is through constant awareness, evaluation, and intentionality that you can find the most of efficient playing style for you, which I think you'll find not only makes you a better musician, but also a happier, healthier artist.
 
 
Sara Sitzer, Cellist
 
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Sara Sitzer leads a varied life as an orchestral, chamber, and solo cellist, as well as administrator and writer. She has performed recitals all over the world, from the new Frank Gehry designed New World Center in Miami Beach to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Her performing career has taken her to Israel, Japan, England, Australia, as well as throughout the United States.

 

 

This month, I am thrilled and truly honored to welcome the amazingly inspiring Ellen McSweeney!  If you are not already a follower, you soon will be (or should be!).  Ellen’s creative force is phenomenal, and her delightful enthusiasm positively radiate in the community that surrounds her.  Enjoy this awesome text from Ellen!  - RPG

 

I've been a freelance violinist in Chicago for more than eight years now, and it’s brought me some pretty wonderful opportunities. I've played chamber music at Millennium Park, Ganz Hall, WBEZ, the Empty Bottle, and everywhere in between. As I've grown as a player, my performance opportunities have grown with me.

 

 

Memorization on the mental violin

 

I am so very excited to welcome Wil Herzog as my first guest blogger for 2016! 

Wil is a wonderful human being and amazing violinist.  He and I met at Northwestern University and shared many talks about violin technique in dingy smelly practice rooms.  He is someone who’s opinion and insight I value tremendously and who’s friendship I consider precious. 

In this post, Wil shares a few of his thoughts and strategies on how to maximize your time away from your instrument and achieve musical magic in your head!  And now, to Wil!

 

Memorization on the Mental Violin – by Wil Herzog

Undergraduate technique class at Northwestern was nearly the same this week as any other.  As usual, each student took a turn to stand at the front of the room and play scales and arpeggios in response to the prompts provided by me, the instructor.  However, this week, each student also played an eight-measure excerpt of a Corelli sonata from memory.  All of the performances were near flawless, with only an occasional hesitation or stumble.  After everyone had taken a turn, I posed the big question: “So… how did it go?”  The students giggled and began the discussion.  The conclusion: it had gone surprisingly well.  What made this week’s assignment unique?  The students had been asked to prepare the given excerpt and perform it memorized without ever playing it on the violin or listening to a recording.

Recognize that the harder you work and the better prepared you are, the more luck you might have.  - Ed Bradley

For the last entry of 2015, I want to encourage you to go all in, at all times, in all lessons!

As I mentioned two weeks ago, you pay good money for your lessons and it would be wise to take full advantage of the knowledge that a teacher is trying to transmit to you.  How fast you progress will be directly proportional to how much care you take in preparing for your lesson.  Every.  Single.  Week. 

Before the lesson

Schedule your daily practice sessions at the beginning of the week, and organize them in your practice journal (you have one, right?), making sure you are progressing each day toward the completion of all assigned tasks. 

 

 Working hard and working smart sometimes can be two different things.  -  Byron Dorgan

The KitchenNow that you have brought your groceries home, the fun can begin!  You have the ingredients, and all you need is a good recipe to prepare a delicious meal.

Here is one of the many ways you can break down your “cooking” session.  As you get closer to performance dates, the ratio might change a little bit to include more performance practice, but proper planning and consistency will allow you to stay relatively stable in your routine.

The fractions are based on an hour of practicing, i.e. 1/12 of 60 minutes = 5 minutes.  A student practicing 4 hours a day can therefore multiple by 4 to know the approximate ratio (i.e. 1/12 = 20 minutes).

Be thorough and mindful!  If you feel that your practice sessions are not as productive as they could be, what better time than now to begin making the most out of them?  After all, how can you expect different results if you are doing the same old thing?  As Henry Ford so perfectly put it: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Warm up: 1/12

  • Always, always, always warm up.  It is the best way to prepare yourself for the work ahead and to prevent injuries.  Select exercises that warm up both arms and hands. 
  • Long tones, Schradieck, Gavriloff.

 

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. - Leonardo da Vinci

Bring Your Groceries HomeI am noticing a common pattern among you, my students, and I can sadly report that I occasionally fell into the same trap at your age: you don’t bring your groceries home!  Going to your lesson to receive instruction from your teacher is a little bit like going to the grocery store.  You go to the store, fill your cart with items, pay, and then bring the food home to eat so you can remain alive, healthy, thriving as a person.  But a lot of you are in the habit of casually leaving the bags behind at the cash register!

Week after week, some of you walk in the studio without having put in a real effort to solve the problems addressed in the previous lesson.  What you get then is what I call a “repeat lesson,” when the teacher has to repeat and explain the same concepts all over again.  It is hard for you to improve significantly and difficult for a teacher to move forward when, lesson after lesson, the same material and the same notions must be revisited.  Some of you do try to a certain extent, but several of you revert to the same old bad habits whenever something feels slightly uncomfortable or requires real effort to accomplish.  Fight this urge and tackle your bad habits!

 

Make it easy to go right, and hard to go wrong.  – Gretchen Rubin

The Location

Like all disciplines, studying music requires focus and clarity of thought.  One of the best ways to achieve this is by creating a work space that enhances your ability to concentrate and helps you stay on target. 

In her book, Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin explains that one of the most powerful strategies to create healthy habits is the Strategy of Convenience: “by making it convenient and pleasant, you make it easier on yourself to keep up with it.”  It’s aSecret of Adulthood for Habits: Make it easy to go right, and hard to go wrong.  You want to make it as easy as possible to just pop in your work space and get something done.

You need a few basics tools – your music, something to hold it, a metronome, a pencil, enough room to move your arms – and you need to work on your ability to zone out distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.

 

Managing your time without setting priorities is like shooting randomly and calling whatever you hit the target.  – Peter Turla

THe ScheduleI have talked about finding your vision and setting a plan of action.  Now comes the time to talk about a way to organize your time that might help you become more effective in acting towards achieving your goals.

Knowing how to build a well-organized schedule can be an instrumental element in becoming an efficient and successful person.  Personally, I like to take some time at the beginning of each week, usually on Sunday evening, to plan the upcoming days.  I plan everything - practice time, rehearsals, concerts, appointments, teaching, cooking, working, studying, cleaning, leisure time, etc. - and I try to be as precise and detailed as possible.  Proceeding this way allows me to maximize my time and prevent unpleasant surprises.  Not 100% of what I plan gets done, but I’m 100% more efficient by planning ahead of time. 

The Plan 

Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.  -  Alan Lakein

 

In the last entry, I suggested that you take some time to reflect on where you stand and where you want to go.  Now that you have the picture, you have to think of your plan.  I agree with the technique presented in almost every self-help book, which is to put your plan on paper and to break long term goals into short-term, achievable increments.

If you don’t know where to start and you are not too sure how to move forward, you might want to consider finding a mentor.  Most of you already have one—your private teacher.  Your teacher will, without a doubt, be more than happy to answer any question you have and to help you establish your plan and follow through with it (sometimes, for your own good, in spite of yourself!).  If you want even more input, think of someone who lives the life you dream of living and reach out to him/her.  Ask them out for coffee and pick their brain on their personal strategies to achieve success.  What did they do to get where they are?  What did they have to sacrifice?  What qualities were essential in their success?  What did they learn from their mistakes?  What mistakes should you avoid?   What did they learn from their successes?  What steps should you take?

 

 

 There is nothing like a dream to create the future.  -  Victor Hugo

The Picture

 

Ah!  September!  The air is filled with optimism and the possibilities appear limitless!  Like January 1st, the beginning of the school year opens the door to reinvention.  It is the perfect moment to pause, reflect, assess, and plan.  A clean slate is laid before us and everything is possible. 

As any time management expert or success guru will tell you, you need to know where you want to go, or you go nowhere.  And while you put some effort into thinking about where you are going, it is also a good idea to take in where you are.

At the beginning of each school year, I ask my students to mull over a few points and write a short essay.  The exercise (hopefully) allows them to evaluate their current situation and develop a vision for their future.  

I am including it here and invite you to ponder the questions and do your own self-assessment.  Feel free to share your essays and thoughts with me at contact@reneepaulegauthier.com, and I will be happy to offer you feedback and/or discussion. 

I encourage you to be as honest and spontaneous as you can be.  Allow yourself one short sentence per question and let the answers come to you naturally, sticking with the first thing that comes to your mind.  Try to complete the exercise in less than 10 minutes.  The time factor and concise answers will promote a fluidity in your thoughts and provide insight into things which are important to you, some of which you might not have realized before.

In a short essay, please briefly describe: 

     

 

If you get stuck, draw with a different pen. Change your tools; it may free your thinking.  -  Paul Arden

 

The Tools of the TradeAs I have mentioned several times, getting creative with your practicing techniques can yield fantastic results.  Any and every exercise can be tweaked and tailored to your needs.  In Dig Deep, I elaborated on the fact that we need to turn off the automatic pilot and really use our mind to analyze the problem and find ways to solve it.  Using your imagination to come up with new exercises is not only fun, it fires up the synapses in your brain, solidifying your skills. 

Technology can be your friend in this area.  In addition to listening to the repertoire you are working on and browsing the internet for articles and videos about music making (read here for ways to incorporate these into your routine), there are several tools you can use to enhance your practice sessions.  Having written in detail about how to record yourself, I will now turn to a few other tools of the trade.  

Check Your Pulse

 

Honestly, as you can imagine, it really isn't all that fun directing yourself, running back and forth to the monitors to see if you're terrible or not.  -  George Clooney

 

 In my last post, I discussed ways to make the most of the summer period and strongly encouraged students to embrace and incorporate technology into their practicing arsenal.  One of the best way to ensure monitoring and accelerate progress is by recording yourself.

Summer Is Coming 

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

Exams are over, library books have been returned, and summer is slowly making its way here.  If you are a serious high school level violin student, you most likely will not take summer off from practicing.  If you are a college music major, you most definitely should not.

 

Growing Heap 

 A little and a little, collected together, becomes a great deal; the heap in the barn consists of single grains, and drop and drop make the inundation.  - Saadi

 

Lately I have been talking to all my friends about my new favourite podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.  I thoroughly enjoy the wise and practical advice that the sisters/authors Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft deliver with charming candidness and good humor.  I have become a loyal listener from the very first episode in which Ms. Rubin elaborates on the “argument of the growing heap.”  This was extremely interesting to me, being about one of the most important aspects of the discipline of violin playing and one about which I have been thinking about so much lately. 

 Je me souviens

Je me souviens is the official motto of Quebec, the province of Canada where I’m from. It means "I remember".

Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories. - Thomas Chapais, Québec, 1895

 

A couple of years ago, I read an excellent text published on the excellent Bulletproof Musician blog and written by the excellent horn player/teacher and fearless performance wizard Jeff Nelsen.

Grit Is Great

 

Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.  - Booker T. Washington

Ain’t nothin’ like hard work.  Don’t be afraid of it!  Embrace it, cultivate it. 

Of course, we should all strive to keep a balanced life.  Keeping time for all important things: family, health, work, and leisure, is a good habit to develop.  But when the time to work comes, we should not be afraid to go all in.

Eat That Frog

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. - Mark Twain

In the last post I talked about one trick to adopt to get ourselves in the practice room.  I would now like to talk about a concept which I had known about for what seems to be forever (thank you, Mom!) but was presented to me in a fresh way a couple months ago during a visit to the Savor blog.  In a short video segment the former concert pianist and deeply inspiring young successful entrepreneur Angela Jia Kim (founder of Om Aroma & Co and creator of the Manifest Method) discusses how you can increase your productivity by simply “eating that frog.”

Commit to ten 

 Each goodly thing is hardest to begin.  -  Edmund Spenser

 

Sometimes, one of the hardest thing about practicing the violin is to actually start.  For most people, procrastination is often the sign of an underlying problem.  For a violinist, it can stem from a fear of failure, a feeling of inadequacy, a lack of motivation, and/or discouragement in the face of the amount of work ahead.  Playing the violin, or any musical instrument, is a deeply personal experience.  At the root of it all is a deep love for music.  Then, after years of hard work, discipline, and sacrifices, it becomes an intrinsic part of who we are.  One feels exposed, revealed.  The never ending pursuit of perfection combined with accumulating deadlines can often make the climb to the mountain top seem way too steep.  Sometimes, it is simply scary because we usually put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves and, for this reason, the violin resting in the case becomes a feared object embodying a large panoply of frustrations and insecurities. 

 

 Questions are the answer.  – Anthony Robbins

An important part of deep practice is introspection.  Fixing any problem and improving any passage begins by first analyzing the issue at hand by asking yourself questions.  In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Anthony Robbins asserts (with reason) that our questions determine our thoughts and, therefore, our actions.   Still according to Robbins, quality questions create a quality life.  In the violin studio, this could be translated as “quality questions create a quality practice session.”  The best way to deepen your focus during a practice session is by being fully aware and by maintaining an inquiring mind. 

Seek And You Shall Find 

 You will find only what you bring in. - Yoda

 

After discussing my philosophy as a teacher in the first post of the year, I would like to turn my attention to the second partner in the musical team: the student.  Having been there myself, I realize how easy it is for students to forget the critical importance of their active participation in the process.  Not only in violin playing, but in all other subjects, students often approach lessons/classes in a passive state, showing up ready to take in what is to be offered but without having done thorough preparatory work. 

Work Together, We Can 

 Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice. - Yoda

 

For the first post of the year (can you believe the calendar reads 2015?!), I want take a few minutes to reflect on my values as a teacher and guide.  It is important for me to provide my students with solid notions about violin playing and music in general, to instill in them the desire to apply and deepen that knowledge outside of the studio, and to hopefully reach them on a personal level and help them develop solid human values.

 

 

Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.  –Samuel Beckett

 

As I stated in the first installment of this blog, first, there is art.  But for art to reach the listener’s heart, there needs to be a limited amount of filters between the artist’s conception of a work and his/her audience’s ears.  Technical mastery of basic elements will give the performer the freedom to interpret music , beyond merely playing notes.   

Mind over finger

 

 Technique is conception - Zvi Zeitlin

 

“Technique is conception” my beloved old teacher Zvi Zeitlin would often repeat.  When not shouting at me, or laughing at some clever remark he had just made, he loved to point out how everything about violin playing originated first in the mind.  Of course, as a young and naive pupil, it took me years and countless hours of mindless/useless practice to fully grasp the importance of this concept.

Price of shortcut 

 Hasten slowly and ye shall soon arrive.  - Jetsun Milarepa

 

Anyone who has ever taken a lesson with me knows that I love a good analogy as much as anybody.  One that y I like to use with my students is the comparison of inefficient and impatient practice with rushing out the door.  We know how things happen when we get ready in a rush! This is when we drop, spill, knock things down, and forget important steps in our morning routine.  We might make it out of the house in time, but with crumpled clothes, disheveled hair, coffee stained pants, and our packed lunch sitting back home in the fridge.

 

House of brick 

 Then the third little pig built himself a house of bricks. It took him a long time to build it, and it was a very strong house. - Children tale

 

First, there is art.  The artistic message is the essence of what we do.  But for the message to be communicated truthfully, the transmitting medium must be effective.  At the basis of an effective performance (“effective” taking on different meanings for each performer and/or listener) is a solid technique.  A solid technique allows the musician to experience freedom from the limitations imposed on him by the markings on the page and lets his vision of a work take place.  However, reaching mastery takes time . . . lots of time.  It requires dedication, discipline, and a long term vision which guides everyday (every minute!) decisions.

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