3 Steps To Developing Your Own Authority As A Musician

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When I was pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I was a confident trumpet player. I had the unyielding belief that I could win any audition, learn any skill, and do anything I wanted in my career. I had great teachers and friends that were supportive and helped to build me up. As I neared the end of my time at Northwestern University, I was fortunate enough to win a position with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. My career had begun.

Then a funny thing happened. I noticed that once I was on my own, the confidence I relied on was suddenly gone. I wasn’t being built up and supported in the same way I was in college. Instead of playing the way my teachers told me to play, I was now responsible for figuring out how I wanted to play. I didn’t know how to find my own source of confidence, or what to do about it.

It took me years of not advancing at auditions and soul searching before I came up with an answer for how to develop my own authority as a musician. I share this now with the hope that it won’t take you nearly as long as it took me to find confidence in your own voice.

Recording

Before we get into the meat of the article, I wanted to make sure I defined authority. Authority is defined as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”. This process is often guided by a teacher in our early years of learning an instrument. For continued growth and progress, we need to take steps toward being our own authority. As such, authority as I am using in this article would be defined as, “Confidence in your own skills and interpretations”.

The first step toward developing authority in your playing is recording yourself. We’ve all been told how recording yourself is essential for improving, but many of us still don’t do it in practice. If we want to maximize our potential, we have to record ourselves. We need to get real and honest about what we ACTUALLY sound like, not just what we want to BELIEVE we sound like. It can be uncomfortable to do, but only at first. Once you are in the habit of recording yourself, and you have seen the benefits that come with the knowledge it yields, hitting the red button becomes much easier.

Hoarding hours of practice recordings will not help us improve. We must review the recordings and extract valuable information that will inform the next practice session. Borrowing from Burton Kaplan’s book “Practicing for Artistic Success”, here is a framework you can use to guide your recording process.

Step 1: Record yourself

These days, you don’t need an expensive microphone to get a recording you can learn from. Your iPhone will provide sufficient quality. Place the recorder as far away from you as you can in the space you are in, and hit record. Play through your material without stopping. Treat it the same way you would a performance.

Step 2: Listen back

Listen back to what you recorded, and identify areas of improvement from this list: tone, intonation, expression, and rhythm. Be specific when logging your observations. If your rhythm is weak, saying “I rushed sometimes” is not as helpful as “I need to stay steady on 16th notes in measure 5”. If tone is a weak part of the presentation, saying “My sound is bad” is not as helpful as “The tone needs clarity”. The more specific you can be about the shortcomings, the more directly you can approach finding ways to improve.

Step 3: Record again

Some issues can be fixed simply by being aware of them. Recording yourself again and listening back can show you if the weaknesses you heard were fundamental issues in your playing, or simply a lack of focus/awareness. If the weakness persists with repetitive recording, you know it’s a fundamental weakness to improve.

Step 4: Design a program to address weaknesses

Once you have targeted your own weaknesses, you can design a program to improve them. A program doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to be planned out. Knowing which exercises you are going to use to address the weaknesses you find is all you need to get started. The more detailed the plan, the more information you will get.

Planning out your practice is essential to improvement because when you follow a plan, you can pinpoint what is contributing to your improvement, and you can spend more time doing stuff that works. If your practice is “random”, you may see progress. But without the ability to know exactly what works and what doesn’t, you will not know what to do when your progress slows.  Continuous improvement would then rely on luck.

I chose to outline recording as a first step because I believe most people don’t have intimate knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses. Our teachers listen to us regularly to develop an understanding of our skills, then use their experience and knowledge of practice materials to help us guide our practice. The first step in developing your own authority, separate from a teacher or colleague, is using a recorder to learn about yourself — like a teacher would. Then, armed with this new awareness, we start the process of teaching ourselves, and owning our progress. 

Listening/Score Study

Recording yourself is an essential first step, but for many players, it won’t be enough to achieve greatness. I’ve read countless interviews with successful musicians. When they are asked, “How did you gain confidence in your job?”, a common answer is, “I listened to the greats and copied their style”. This makes sense. If you are learning to speak a new language, immersion is the fastest way to make the new language feel natural. 

When I was an undergrad, I played in a brass quintet that performed in churches on Sunday mornings. One of the church’s often programmed contemporary music for the quintet to play. At first, these charts were very difficult for me. I didn’t understand how to play in a commercial style, and no matter how much someone tried to help me, I couldn’t quite get the style right. 

It wasn’t until I began regularly listening to recordings of big bands that playing in that style made more sense. I had spent enough time immersing myself through recordings that people didn’t have to explain it anymore — I developed my own authority to interpret the music.

Score study is also an invaluable tool to develop confidence in performance through increased awareness. Learning what other instruments are playing immediately gives you the understanding of your role in the music. If someone questions your interpretation, you can back up your decisions with evidence from the score, rather than saying, “That’s how I like it”.

Combining listening and score study, you can answer questions such as: “How loud should I play here?” “How long should I hold this note?” “Where should this phrase go?” You can answer questions about rhythm, intonation, expression, and tone quality. If after this deeper study you still aren’t sure of your own interpretation, copying the greats is a good place to start.

Playing For Others

Between recording and listening/score study, I believe most musicians can answer 95% of the questions they have about what’s wrong and how to fix it. If you haven’t developed confidence and authority through the use of those resources, playing for others can be helpful to guide you to your desired destination.

Playing for others is something we are all accustomed to incorporating into our preparation. Whether we schedule mock auditions, take lessons with teachers, or just ask a friend to listen casually, we understand the value of getting an outside opinion in order to improve. However, I also believe this resource can slow the development of our own authority if we are not careful.

Developing our own authority means developing confidence in our own knowledge, instincts, and preparation. When we play for others with the purpose of learning, we are saying, “I don’t think I know enough to get me to where I want to go, and I need help”. There is nothing wrong with this in theory, but practical application isn’t always so harmless.

I have a friend who is taking an upcoming trumpet audition. We are working together and he is using a program that I wrote for him to follow for his audition preparation. Throughout the program, I have scheduled in mock auditions for him to be able to practice taking an audition, and get valuable feedback that he needs to refine his audition presentation.

For the first few mock rounds, my friend found a great space to use and invited musicians he respected to listen to him play and give feedback. After the mock rounds, he would call me and I would ask how the rounds went. His response would be something like this:

“I played an excerpt well, but the people listening told me that I should play it differently from how I presented it. They wanted it louder than I did it. But I don’t know if I can do that and sound the way I want to sound. What do I do?”

Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you. I know it’s happened to me. You get feedback that you don’t know if you agree with, and you begin to doubt your interpretation. Or maybe you play for multiple people, and you get conflicting comments; one person said it’s too fast, another said it’s just right. What do you do?

To be successful and compelling in any performance, we need to be committed to our own version of the music. Granted, for things like orchestra auditions, there is a “mainstream” way of doing things that you need to find. But generally speaking, situations like this are an example of how playing for others can cause more confusion than clarity. In the end, the feedback you receive needs to serve building confidence in your playing.

Now, I am not recommending that people should never play for each other. I am recommending that the person doing the performing understands what they are hoping to get from playing for others, and be very clear about what those expectations are. Are you looking for feedback because you are unsure of the best interpretation of Mahler 5? Communicate that. Are you looking for someone to sit and listen because it makes you nervous, but you don’t need help from them? Make that clear. Brene Brown says it well: Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.

Invest In You

In the end, music is about sharing our passion and joy with others. It’s not about being “right” or “wrong”. Competitions, auditions, and chair placements can often take the focus from developing ourselves over time and shift it to figuring out the “right way” to play so you can win the race. With this approach you can enjoy short term success, but if you don’t have systems set in place to continue that growth, you’ll never reach your full potential. You’ll be so worried about what everyone else thinks about how you should play, that you never stop and ask yourself, “How do I want to play?”. And that may be the most important question of all.

 

“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” – Lao Tzu

 

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