Category Archives: Practicing

State of Practice, State of Backtice

Well what a busy February it’s been!  I just got done a marathon set of gigs playing with the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Three Men and Three Women in Black (Johnny Cash tribute band), and the every ebullient Polkadelphia.  I also recently picked up some private students on piano, which has afforded me a massive new set of challenges.

However, there’s some unfinished business I want to go over.  A few months back I began posting about my new adventures in creating a good practice space, finding a good practice method, and following through with my practice schedule.  And back in October, I posted about several health issues I had run up against, most pressingly severe back pain.  I also outlined a few of the solutions I was trying to remedy the situation and get my back on track.  Since then there really haven’t been any updates.  So allow me to bring you up to speed.

So let’s start with the practice space.  Allow me to give you a virtual tour:


Door open

I had the lens flares professionally installed.

Opening the door reveals…

Practice room

Let’s get this out of the way first of all.  That’s the chair.  The glorious Wenger Musician’s Chair that I’ve been craving for years.  It’s quite tall (which is good, because I am too), very sturdy, and very comfortable.  In fact, the thing I notice most about playing in it is that I don’t notice anything at all playing in it.  With my old squeaky, low, and rickety chair, I was constantly adjusting and feeling where it was inadequate.  Now I just practice.

Next up, notice the oversized mirror in front of the chair.  I used to use a thin door-hanging mirror, but this is so much better.  Not only is the angle consistent so I’m always seeing myself in the same perspective, but I can see my whole body now.  This is huge, as the tuba is unwieldy and often awkwardly positioned.  I can see what I’m doing and make immediate adjustments.  I also like that it’s wall-mounted rather than leaning up against the wall.  This allows me to get really close and pay special attention to my embouchure.

Aww… it’s a nice window.  I use this to get distracted by the colony of feral cats that hangs out in my backyard.

The tangle of wires includes a space heater, which is sometimes my biggest motivator for going to practice.  I keep the rest of my house at a balmy 57 degrees, so having a 70-80 degree space makes practice so much fun.

That beautiful rug at the bottom was a thrift store find.  Together with the wall hanging (coming up soon), it absorbs some of the sound in the otherwise wooden room.  I was finding that I had a hard time hearing myself while playing and needed to dampen the reverberating sound, and this does the job nicely.

Let’s look at more of the space.

More Practice Room

That’s the wall hanging.  I’ve been told by several people that it’s very “me,” but no one can explain why.  In any case, it absorbs the sound quite nicely.

The bookcase was added in to house my music (which for some reason was in a completely different room for a while). It’s in a bit of disarray, but it’s actually still well-organized, broken down by etudes, solos, orchestral works, and band binders.  On top is the invaluable metronome, of which one teacher once told me “If you aren’t using a metronome, you are wasting your time.”  The clock makes it so I don’t need to bring a phone in if I don’t want to.  And if you look very carefully…


There’s a fortunately very blurry picture of my touring days singing Sweet Transvestite.  Just to remind me of where I’ve been.

So that’s the space, and having a comfortable and inviting space is the first step towards having meaningful and productive practice.  Clearly though, it’s not the last step.

Firstly I’ve been conscientiously making the time to practice.  At the very least I go through a 15 minute practice routine each day.  Most days I follow it up with either another session or two of playing etudes, solos, or orchestral excerpts; or I have a gig for which I need to save my chops.  For those of you interested, here’s my 15 minute daily routine:

Mouthpiece buzzing and lip bends (to warm up and “stretch” the embouchure)
Long tones in the middle and low ranges (concentrating on tone quality and breath control) mm=60
Articulation in intervals across the middle and low ranges (concentrating on consistency of attack) mm=72
Lip slurs going from half notes to sixteenth notes (concentrating on smooth transitions between notes) mm=72

Wow, looking at that I notice no work on the upper range.  I’ll have to change that.

Pano Tuner

A tuner isn’t just a fish that comes in a can.

I’ve also added another tool to my arsenal after being (very nicely) shamed by my good friend and first teacher Jay Krush.  When I played for him recently, he started the lesson by saying “and of course you’re using a metronome and a tuner every time you play, right?”  Metronome, check!  Tuner… oops.  While I’ve been paying more attention to the adjusting the intonation of my instrument, I hadn’t gotten specific with it to see how close/far I was.  So I downloaded an app called Pano Tuner after downloading and discarding about 20 apps that couldn’t properly register the tuba’s low range.

It has been an absolutely ear-opening experience using the tuner.  I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that it took me this long to embrace it.  I now use it every day for my routine, and often when I play the other material as well to see where I am. Also as a result, I’m adjusting my slides more often as I play, which is very entertaining to watch for those of you in the audience.

And as an absolute shocker, I’m sounding a lot better than I did before.  A friend recently commented to me that I was in good form for a show, and I told him “I’ve recently discovered that if I actually sit down and practice my music, I tend to sound a lot better when it comes time to perform.”  One of those silly revelations filed under “why didn’t you know this before?”

I still have lots of improvements to make, but I’m on a track towards being the sort of musician I want to be.  Woo hoo!

Now, onto my back issues.  When I last posted, an ice pick was deeply lodged in my shoulder blade with almost constant pain.  I went through a list of the therapies that I was trying to alleviate the pain and fix the problem.  They included exercises, massage, an acupressure mat, a strange hook thing, Alexander Technique, and a handcart for my equipment.

After several months of working through the pain, with a relapse or two thrown in, I am feeling great.  Here’s what I think helped the most:

  1. Acupressure Mat.  While this had the least long-lasting effect, taking the pain away for even 20 minutes was really important.  I would lie on this on my floor before going to bed, and then fall asleep.  In 20-60 minutes, I’d usually wake up and make my way to bed.  It was very relaxing and therapeutic.
  2. Yoga. I had a breakthrough a few months back in which I started trying yoga classes again after taking a 2 month hiatus.  My first class back, I had a lot of shoulder pain and had to modify my poses.  The next day I was very sore.  The following day I felt fantastic.  I think I had to push myself to strengthen my muscles.
  3. Alexander Technique. This is the opposite of the acupressure mat.  It had the least short-term effect and the most long-term effect.  Taking a detailed look at how I stand, sit, walk, and play was incredible.  I learned that my idea of good posture was in fact straining my body (I blame the ATTENTION of marching band).  Now that I’ve had a few months of it, I take note of it in the many arenas of my life.  Big shoutout to my teacher Ann Johnson.

Then there were things I didn’t expect that were helpful:

  1. Swimming.  In yet another “why didn’t I realize this” moment, I started swimming again after a 7 month break (lost my swimming privileges when I left my old job).  Turns out that the 2 days each week I had been swimming for 8 years was in fact beneficial to my body.  When I stopped and didn’t replace it with something else, my body started to fall apart.  Now that I’m swimming twice a week again, I feel extraordinarily better.  It has once again become one of the most important things in my life.
  2. Mattress pad.  I had been waking up each morning incredibly sore, particularly if I slept on my side.  In fact, I had to train myself to not turn to my left side in my sleep, or I would be in terrible pain after about 5 minutes.  I had a spare foam IKEA mattress that was a lot softer than my current mattress.  After putting it on top of my spring coil mattress, I found I could rest more easily on my side with more support.  I know a lot of people say a firm mattress is the way to go, but after I put on the soft mattress my morning soreness went away.

So here I am today, well-practiced and fitter than I was.  In a more comfortable room with a better chair.  And constantly trying to improve.  There are days in which I wonder if I’ll meet the high standards I set for myself across my life.  Then I think about Pablo Casals’ response after being asked why he still practiced so hard while he was in his 90’s.

“Because I think I am making some progress.”


Mozart is Closer

This week we have a guest blog written by my good friend Chris Hahn.  I asked Chris to talk about the study of music from the perspective of an entrepreneur. 

light bulbThe light just burned out in the room in which I do so much of my creative work at home.  As a result, I’ve been forced to turn on a much less powerful, non-fluorescent, environmentally crushing, incandescent light.  At first I was enraged by this change, I can’t see anything properly, not my practice piano’s keys, nor my computer’s keyboard, nor the stuff on the floor that I trip over now from time to time.  I have to admit to myself that I’m wasting so much more energy for so much less light.  And yet, something has changed.  When I play the piano something feels softer.  I can move slower.  I don’t have to think as much about the mistakes I was making before.  Mozart is closer somehow.  The space is new.

Outside of this light-burned-out creative space I have done much over the last fifteen years.  I worked for Microsoft for a while, worked for various startup companies, and founded, built up, and sold a software company with some really incredible people.  I have spent my entire life focused on technology, writing software, designing systems, and solving problems that improve people’s lives.

About a year ago, I decided to start studying classical piano with a teacher who has helped me tremendously.  Before that, I tried to teach myself piano for two years (big mistake, find a teacher/mentor!).  So what made me decide to embark on the journey of learning piano at all?  Truthfully, I was influenced by reading Eric Kandel’s book “In Search of Memory“.  In this book, Kandel opened up my eyes to the idea that the human brain is a lot more plastic than I had historically believed.  This made me think that it’s never too late to pick up something new.  I had always wanted to be a great musician, but I was assuming that I was past the right time to study, I was too old.  In a moment of potentially hubristic clarity I said to myself, “I’m going to play every day, for 10 years, study hard, and at the end of that, I will be playing with an orchestra.”  Knowing that my brain could still change in radical ways, and knowing that neurons learn and grow slowly, over time, with mixtures of repetition and breaks between repetition, I figured it was only a matter of time and dedication.  When I combined that thinking with my experience in business, where failure is the norm, and perseverance is the differentiator between those who win and those who don’t, I felt that this choice to become a pianist at a later age wasn’t stupid, it was entirely logical.

What I have learned up to now is that I continue to surprise myself in studying piano.  Furthermore, studying has had benefits in other aspects of my life.  For one, using the piano has helped me to find a way to slow down and focus more.  This enhances my ability to work with people and to write better software.  It has enhanced my knowledge of history and humanity.  I was surprised to learn that Franz Liszt was pretty much the Justin Bieber of his day.

    Justin Bieber & Franz Liszt - Successful Heartthrobs of their Time

Justin Bieber & Franz Liszt – Successful Heartthrobs of their Time

I started reading Mozart’s letters where I learned about his sister Nannerl.  I learned how Nannerl was a talented composer crushed by the treatment of women at the time.  It is a tragedy to think that there was a 2nd Mozart, and all of humanity has lost something for its ignorance.

Mozart and Nannerl from the movie “Mozart’s Sister”

Mozart and Nannerl from the movie “Mozart’s Sister”

I have been surprised by how much I can play only one real year into my studies.  Things like Chopin’s Nocturn No 20, Mozart’s Fantasie KV 475, or Franz Liszt’s Libestraum No 3 all come from memory now, proving to me that my brain is capable of changing in remarkable ways given time and effort.

I suppose the moral of this whole story is that, when the light goes out in your creative space, it is helpful not to think of it as a setback.  Truly “talented” people pick themselves up from this kind of thing and find another way.  They trust that failure isn’t an exception it is the rule.  And they know, consciously or instinctively, that achieving anything of merit requires nothing more than time, effort, and desire.

Chris HahnChris Hahn is a technology executive at IMS Health/Appature building applications using huge amounts of data for customers in the healthcare industry.

Don’t Get Me Started

I sit in my practice room with my tuba resting in my lap.  On this cold winter day, I am kept toasty by the space heater humming in the corner.  In the large mirror on the wall, my reflection scrutinizes my posture, searching for hints of physical tension in the way I hold the instrument.  I lean forward, then lean backwards trying to gauge the point in which I am balanced on the chair and on my torso.  I feel the support as my feet root firmly onto the hardwood floor.  I bring the mouthpiece lightly to my lips, testing the way the warm metal feels.  After one more relaxing exhale, I open my mouth and take in as much air as possible, form a tight seal against the mouthpiece, shape my mouth to play a C, and expel my air through the horn.

Ffffffff……womp!  Sigh…

I’ve done it countless times, but getting the note to start consistently instead of flubbing it is still a daily struggle.  Once the note starts, I can make it sound beautiful, but getting it to start is daunting and often demoralizing.  And that’s just the beginning (ha!).

I’ve been looking to start teaching privately in the last few months.  My strongest areas are tuba, trombone, and accordion, but there isn’t a huge demand for that compared to an instrument like piano.  While I’m not the strongest pianist, I have performed plenty on the instrument, and the demand for piano teachers is much higher than the other instruments I play.  I know that once I begin to teach piano, everything will fall into place.  But how do I take that first step and start things rolling.  Where do I start?

I recently called a friend of mine who is an accomplished singer in a variety of choral chamber groups.  She was lamenting the lack of initiative in the groups she sings in, talking about some of the directions she’d like to take them.  “I’d love to focus on modern choral music, written within the past few years.  I think there’s a real market for it in my community.  But I have no idea who I’d talk to about getting it started.”

On a “completely different” note, I’ve been missing an important part of my life since I left my full time job.  Namely, I used to go to the pool twice a week to swim laps for a half hour.  Now that I don’t have access to a cheap recreation center, I haven’t been exercising nearly as much.  During the summer, I started walking more and then running, something I haven’t done since college.  Just as I was getting into the swing of things, the weather turned colder.  When it’s not absolutely frigid outside, I see people running and biking with special gear and multiple layers.  I’d love to try it myself, but I’m afraid of getting embarrassed by these veterans who have been doing it all their lives.  I wouldn’t even know where to start.

track and field and dan

Yes I know the hurdles don’t actually accelerate. But did you know that this arcade game is one of the most likely to give you a heart attack?

Ok, I think I’ve made my point.  Often the most difficult hurdles to leap over are the simple ones of going from 0 mph to 1 mph.  It’s tough getting started with a project, a conversation, a new skill set; even with the process of getting started!  Lately, I’ve been inundated with examples of encountering obstacles in the simple process of trying something new.  So how do we create the momentum to get us up and running?

Firstly, in the case of the conversation with my vocalist friend, I found that approaching her issues from a non-her perspective gave me an edge in seeing the big picture.  Namely, I reminded her she worked at a university.  Her role at the university puts her in contact with many different departments, including the music department.  Which just happens to have a great composition program.  I told her about how when I worked at a university, I used to come into contact with people from the music department.  I would introduce myself as a musician and form a connection.  Most often, that connection was one of simple camaraderie, but I had also seen some of them performing when I wasn’t working.  And since leaving, I have even gotten some work from them as a freelance musician.

In that case, my knowledge of how this system worked for me, and my reminder that she worked in a similar system gave her a template to follow in starting to pursue her own goals.

As for my private teaching, I recently reached out to a pianist friend of mine who has been teaching privately for years.  She discussed some of the books and exercises that she uses for her beginning piano students.  While this was incredibly helpful in showing me some examples of how I could start teaching, what was even more useful (and impressive) was the checklist she showed me.  It listed out all the different tools students should have available to them before they start moving on to more advanced repertoire.  It included things as basic as “Left Hand vs. Right Hand” and “playing loud and quiet” to more advanced concepts such as “syncopated rhythms” and “arpeggios.”  Truthfully, the contents of the checklist were unimportant; rather, the mere fact that there was a checklist with subjects that she deemed important for the students to know was the real eye opener.  When I have my own set of priorities of the components a student should know, I feel like I’ll be so much more prepared and confident in my piano pedagogy skills.

One common thread to each of these solutions is the input of a friend or mentor to help get things started.  Rather than talk about the process we can do to find a good mentor, I want to talk about how we can actually BE a good mentor.  See, I’ve taught countless seminars on a variety of technological subjects, and I know from experience that it is far more important to be an empathetic teacher than a knowledgeable one.  Now clearly, we need to have knowledge of our subject matter to be effective at helping others to grasp it.  However, without the communication skills to meet the student (or mentee) where they’re at, the knowledge is pointless.

We all have things that we’re great at whether it’s a musical instrument, the arcade game Track and Field (see the picture above), or navigating the Affordable Care Act website.  If you are helping someone learn how to do that thing you’re great at, think back to the difficulties you encountered when you first approached it.  Guide them through the pitfalls with relatable language.  Something like:

“Getting notes to start consistently on the tuba is something I’ve worked on for a long time.  There are days where they sound better and days where I don’t even feel like I can play a single note.  However, I found these exercises helped a lot.”

In that way you are pointing out things to be aware of, letting them know that you’ve encountered the same issues, and giving them a potential solution.  You’re also making a connection between yourself and the person you’re helping.  I find a casual approach helps me with that.  Empathy is really important here.  If you are detached, mechanical, or overly discouraging, you can easily break the connection and trust necessary so that they can ask for help and advice.

So let’s summarize.

Having trouble getting started with something?

  1. Ask someone outside your situation for a fresh perspective.
  2. Make a list of the components that make up the thing you want to do.
  3. Ask for help from someone who has encountered a similar issue.

Has somebody asked you for help starting something new?

  1. Offer a template that has worked for you.
  2. Use relatable language to help establish trust and offer solutions.
  3. Be empathetic!  Listen, offer encouragement, talk about similar issues you have run into.

Above all, try to recognize the paralysis that can set in when you begin something new.  Remind yourself that there are countless solutions and plenty of people to help you.  Reach out to embrace the new like we did when we were children.  Be wide-eyed and wonderstruck.

Then you may begin.

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