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Flexible Learning

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

This post was originally written back in November, on an early morning flight to Houston. Due to one reason or another, I never posted it but it’s a topic that’s been rattling around in my head over the last couple weeks. So here’s an edited post with bit of context.

I booked a performance on November 16th in Houston, Texas playing a gala for a group called Progress In Education. This was a social event I was invited to play to make some contacts for my festival in Ghana. I was supposed to fly out on November 15th with plenty of time to rest up and warm up before soundcheck at 6:00pm the next day. Well, all the Virginia readers might recognize that date, on the 15ththe skies opened up and unleashed the thickest, slickest bit of snow I’d seen since driving to Wisconsin for an Master’s audition in 2014. In fact, in my little corner of Virginia we got just shy of 10 inches that day. So naturally, I had to reschedule my flight for the next day. I ended up getting to Houston around 1:00pm. I had 4 hours to take a bit of a nap, warm up, and run through bits of the program before leaving for soundcheck.

The second part of the story is that I wasn’t playing on my guitar. Or I was but I wasn’t… I’ll explain. Because the airline I was flying with has a bad rep with musicians (particularly guitarists) I decided to borrow a guitar from a friend in Houston. As it turns out, the guitar I was borrowing was a guitar I originally owned! I sold it to that friend’s student, who was now letting me play it for this gig. Small world huh? Anyway, playing a ‘new’ guitar for anything requires a bit of retuning of the hands, particularly because this guitar had a smaller body and neck. Of course, due to the snow storm, my period of adjustment to the guitar was drastically cut… to almost nothing.

So, as I was lying in bed the night before the flight, dwelling on all the things that went wrong and could go wrong, I realized something. Like the cat in the cover photo, I had to be flexible to the situation. I’ve played in way more stressful situations (see the end for a second story), I just had to be a bit flexible. Well, the performance ended up going just fine. It was a lovely evening of music and I was able to meet some wonderful people who took great interest in the festival. A success!

In the weeks that have passed since that gig, I’ve had to make some serious adjustments for a myriad of different things both professionally and personally, as we all do. It just got me thinking, as a musician we have to be flexible not only with what life throws at us but in how we learn. Let’s *break that down* a bit.

As musicians, we spend an absurd amount of time preparing our rep to the highest standards possible. I think it was Jascha Heifetz who said he would never perform a work until he had played it for a year. Not even for friends and family. I have my own thoughts on that, but you get my point. How much do you change the way you learn? Do you have the same daily routine that you’re comfortable with? If so, I’d argue you that you might sometimes reach a plateau in your development with that piece. Or you might even burnout with that music. Does any of this ringing a bell? What if we were flexible with the way we learn, what could we do differently to inspire us to take the piece to the next level? Here are a few ways I do just that…

LISTEN. Honestly, sometimes our hands need a break from the repetitive nature of playing the same music over and over again. I believe that as musicians our ears are our greatest gifts. Listen to recordings of your pieces played by your favorite performers. Do some serious comparative listening/watching of a few different recordings. Listen to the full piece or compare some of your hardest passages. Get a couple of clean scores and mark them up with what each person does technically or musically. You can get a LOT of mileage out of comparative listening.

CHANGE THE ROUTINE. Warmup, technique, new rep, old rep. That’s a pretty standard practice routine for many people. Why not warm up by playing certain passages of your rep slowly? Why not do a slow and controlled run through of a piece completely cold? Some people fear hurting their hands. If you damage your hands because you jumped into a rep piece first by playing slow and controlled, you have bigger health concerns and should see a hand specialist about. If you have a preexisting health issue in your hands then take this with a grain of salt. You know your hands better than I, but for those who don’t have any hand problems this shouldn’t be a problem once or twice a week. The key thing here is to no perform the piece at tempo while cold, not for health reasons but for mental reasons. When you’re not warmed up you won’t play as well, so build your morale by playing slow and successfully rather than trying to be Grisha Goryachev first thing in the morning.

SING. If I asked you to solfege the melody of any tune you’re playing could you do it? I know I couldn’t do it for all of my rep, but I could for some. Do you have to solfege? Nah, probably not. BUT you should definitely be singing EVERY SINGLE PIECE you’re playing. Singing is the most efficient way to commit a passage to memory, understand a melody/harmony, and to figure out your phrasing. Give me your best Pavarotti. The more solid your airflow the more accurate your phrasing and the more engaged your mind will be with what you’re doing. If you just kind of sing under your breath I don’t think you can be fully engaged.

PERFORM. Sound too obvious? I guarantee it’s not. How many times a week do you perform? For any student, it should be at least once in your lesson. If you’re in college, hopefully it’s at least twice, once in your lesson and once in studio class. When I have performances coming up or even if I’m just trying to polish something up, I’ll perform for people 3-5 times a week. WHAT? How do you perform so much?? I play for EVERYONE. I’ll ask my wife to listen to me play something at least once a week, record the performance and analyze. I call family members at least two to three times a week and play via facetime. I’ve even played for some of my brother’s friends at college. If I’m on campus I’ll ask friends to listen to me play something and give me feedback. I’ve even gotten both of my daughters to sit and listen to short pieces, the distraction is good practice for a concert setting when a phone goes off or a door slams or someone starts snoring. More formally, I’ll set up library concerts, middle school/high school performances, retirement home performances, house concerts etc… EVERY performance is an opportunity for you to study yourself on a macro level, not the micro you’re accustomed to in practice.

There is no secret to performing well. You just have to be so prepared with your rep that you could play it in your sleep. You want to know what every finger is doing in every moment, why it’s doing it, and how it will shape the music. The four approaches listed above are ways that you can and should be going above and beyond the typical practice session.

As always, I hope you found this post encouraging, helpful or enlightening! If so, leave a like or a comment and share with your friends. I'd love to chat with you all!

If you like what you read, follow me on Facebook and Instagram by clicking the links that are plastered all over my website to see how I implement these and other things in my playing.

Best wishes for a flexible learning journey,


PS – Enjoy this picture of me and my oldest daughter enjoying our snow day back in November!

PPS – A lot of people have been asking about my comprehensive exam results. Well, on Friday I found out that I passed all of them! I am now ABD (all but dissertation) and should graduate with my doctorate around this time next year. All I have left is to play guitar and write about guitar and it is a GREAT feeling!

PPPS – As promised, my second story of a stressful performance situation was the inaugural concert of the 2016 Ghana National Music Festival. I was ready to give an outdoor concert in the beautiful courtyard of the University of Ghana’s Department of Music when, again, the skies opened with beautiful (at the time I don’t think I’d say beautiful…) rain. So, I and the GNMF staff cleared the stage of chairs, music, banners etc… and moved everything to an indoor classroom we had as a backup. This was all just minutes before I was to start playing. I went back outside to retrieve the score to Memories in Miniature, the commissioned work by Ethan Lodics that I was premiering (my first world premiere to boot), when a gust of wind blew the score out of my hands and into a water drain. Soaked clothes, battered ego, wet score, and all, I still had to play. And play I did! And that’s my story of the first concert of the Ghana National Music Festival. I’ve learned a lot since then.


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