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Lately I’ve been plagued by a question that I cannot get off of my mind. Ever since I finished reading “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, this question has dug at me and forced me to confront a lot of the weaknesses and insecurities I’ve carried with me this far in my career. It’s such a simple question, but the journey to answering it has been enlightening and motivating. The question that I’ve been trying to answer is “Why Not?”
The answer I have come up with for this question can be summed up with an experience I had recently with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. It happened a few weeks ago when we performed Petrouchka.
As is the case for most trumpet players, I’ve been practicing the excerpts from Stravinsky’s ballet “Petrouchka” for many years. I’ve played them in countless auditions with varying levels of success. Although I had done a lot of work in the past, I thought this performance would be a good chance to try out some new practice strategies for my preparation.
The first thing I did was I made a two week plan to learn the Ballerinas Dance. This plan had me starting at half tempo and slowly working my way up to my goal tempo. I actually shared the practice program on my Instagram story, so others could try it out too. Check out my story highlight on my profile if you want to see for yourself.
The other thing I did for this preparation that I had never done before was extensive score study. For me, score study has never been a major part of my preparation. I certainly listened to a recording with my part in hand, but I honestly just felt like I could get away with not studying and still be successful.
Since score study is new to me, and kind of overwhelming, I chose to break it up into sections and study each section a few times each day. For example: I would listen to the first 5-6 minutes of the piece, go back to the beginning, and listen to the same section again. I would do that a total of 3 times. I wanted to have some familiarity with the sections each day, as well as give myself the opportunity to watch different parts on each listen. The first time I would listen to the trumpet part, the second I would listen to a different but prominent part, and the third I would listen to the strings.
When the week of rehearsals came around, I was amazed at how the two parts of my preparation came together. On the playing side, I felt totally confident. I knew how I wanted each phrase to go — both because I had practiced it slowly and because I knew how it fit into the whole ensemble.
Through this experience, I noticed 3 things:
- I was more consistent
Whether it was during a rehearsal or a concert, each time I played the Ballerinas Dance, it was consistently at the top of my ability. While I may have gotten better at the trumpet over the years, I would credit this particular success to sticking with my plan.
- I was prepared for anything (literally)
There is a point during the piece where the first trumpet part has a quick page turn, and then there is a short little solo that must be played. On the night of the first concert, I went to turn my page, and my whole part fell off of the stand and landed near the assistant principal horn, out of arm’s reach. All of these thoughts crossed my mind in an instant: “Should I stop and pick up my music?” “Should I play it memorized?” “Should I get the horn players attention?” Because I had studied the score so much, I was actually able to play the lick memorized, wait a couple of measures, and play the next entrance memorized too. Neither of them were terribly difficult, but I knew exactly where they were supposed to be played due to my knowledge of the score.
- I enjoyed myself
I’m sure it’s blasphemous to say, but lately I haven’t been feeling much joy when playing concerts with the orchestra (I cover this in more detail in my podcast episode ‘The 3 F’s Of Orchestral Success‘). However, I can say with total certainty that I felt joy during this concert. I believe the reason is because of what I learned from my interviews with people like Demondrae Thurman and Barbara Butler. Studying the score and immersing myself in the music led to an ability to appreciate the music more and be able to relax while performing because I was confident in what I knew.
The question of “Why Not?” had been burning for weeks before I had the opportunity to prepare for this performance of “Petrouchka”. I kept asking myself, “What does it mean to work as hard as I can?” I’m not a believer that practicing more hours is ever the answer, so there must be something else.
All of that preparation led to having a great week playing a masterwork with the orchestra, and I’m very proud of that. So what now? What can I learn from that? To me, success in the moment is something to be celebrated, but it doesn’t mean much long term. In order to be successful over a career, we have to take these small victories and build on them.
Through this experience, I’ve learned that there are countless opportunities of growth I have missed out on because I thought they wouldn’t matter. I’ve always felt that the difference between me not studying the score and me being the most informed person to ever play a piece of music wasn’t going to be a big margin. When you tell yourself that, it’s pretty easy to skip little things that could add up to a lot.
So why not study the score for a big piece like “Petrouchka”? Why stop there? Why not study the score or read up on EVERY piece that I will play in the orchestra? Why not make a specific plan for every difficult lick I might encounter? The answer to those questions is simple: my reason for doing it is external.
To be able to overcome our own reasons for “Why Not?”, we have to understand that the reason we work on material has to be for more than the result. If we just work hard so we can have a successful performance, we’re missing so much growth opportunity. If we view every audition, recital, concert, rehearsal, lesson, or practice session as an opportunity to challenge ourselves, we can start putting money in the bank and enjoy living off of the interest later.
How do we do this? How do we invest in ourselves? By not skipping the important stuff. Instead of skipping it, we should aim to find an amount of time that feels insignificant today, but will add up to big rewards in the future.
What I’ve decided to do is to study the scores of pieces that I am playing or will play with the orchestra for just 10 minutes a day. That’s it. Everyone has 10 minutes. I’m willing to bet the breaks you take in your practice session add up to more than 10 minutes. The time is there, we just need to be creative about how we find it.
I did the math to find out how much time I could have studied since I graduated from Northwestern if I did it for 10 minutes a day. I graduated in June of 2012. If we calculate the time between graduation and June 2019, that’s 7 years (if I did my math right). 10 minutes a day for one week is 70 minutes a week. 70 minutes a week times 52 weeks is 3640 minutes. 3640 minutes times 7 years is 25,480 minutes. That’s 424 hours, which reduces down to 17 1/2 days (there’s even some room for missing a day here and there built in)
What would I know now if I used those 10 minutes a day to learn something new? If my experience playing “Petrouchka” is any indication, at the very least I would be a much more confident and consistent performer.
Starting now, what are you going to do for 10 minutes a day that will add up massively over time?
“Anytime you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.” – Jeff Olsen from The Slight Edge
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If you liked this blog post, check out this one, where I talk about what I learned from reading just 30 minutes every day for a month!