How often do you practise your instrument? How often do you play it? What do these two terms mean to you? How are they different and how do they overlap? Practice is always a hot topic in music teaching - how much should students practise and how should they practise? There's more talk about practice strategies these days than there is about lengths of time, but the "how long should I practise for?" question still pops up repeatedly. Music teachers still vent their frustrations over students who "don't do enough practice".
I find that adult students in particular tend to 'confess' to a lack of practice - many, many lessons begin with "I haven't done as much as I'd like/ I should have". Sometimes that means they haven't had the time/ energy/ motivation and they've hardly picked up their instrument. But sometimes, it turns out that it means "I haven't worked on the pieces we worked on in my last lesson, and I haven't done those exercises that we agreed would be beneficial to improve my high notes, but I have played my instrument at wind band, and met up with some friends to do quartets, and played along at a folk session in the pub". Yet, they feel like a 'bad pupil' because they haven't done the assigned tasks.
The interplay of play and practice isn't always easy to unpick - I like a sports analogy when it comes to learning music, but is it really like football, where you train (practise) then go out and play a game (perform) or is it more like yoga where the doing (playing) is also the practising? Is it somewhere in-between or a mixture of the two? With the student who's doing lots of playing, I always think (and say) that that's brilliant, it's what playing an instrument is about! Playing is both practice in itself, and putting practice into action. You learn so much from playing with other people, you get pushed by having to 'keep up', you pick up or improve skills in context. So why do we do this other thing, this practising which is generally less fun and less 'musical'?
The simple answer to that is that practice builds the skills that make playing more enjoyable. If you join an ensemble but find it difficult to play at the speed that everyone else is galloping along at, you might feel frustrated. Then practising exercises on your own that will help increase your finger speed will hopefully lead to a more comfortable experience in the group, feeling like you're part of making music rather than struggling to keep up. If you feel self-conscious because your high notes are squeaky or out-of-tune, then working on those in isolation boosts your confidence when you next share them with other people. We practice scale patterns because it means that when we're presented with a new piece of music, some magic* thing occurs in our brains which means we see that string of notes and our fingers know exactly what to do to produce them (*not actually magic at all, but it can seem like it if you've never reached that point yourself, and even if you have, sometimes you still step back and think "woah, how DOES that happen?").
I will admit to some, err, debates with students over practice, but it tends to be when they've set themselves a goal, such as an exam, but aren't doing the things they need to do to reach that goal. Even then, often the problem is not so much not practising their scales or whatever, but actually just not playing the instrument very often. And perhaps that is in part because they feel that if they take it out to play then what they should be doing is practising, and practising is hard and not always fun. Whereas the difficult practising bits would actually be made easier by the familiarity with your instrument that comes from playing it regularly.
I've experienced this myself with the piano. I neither play nor practise the piano very often. Sometimes I'll sit down to play something on it, but because I'm nowhere near as familiar with it as I am with the flute, I get frustrated by not being able to do things so easily. I 'need' to play the piano maybe a couple of times a year, to accompany early grade students in exams, and these accompaniments which I think I should be able to play quite easily sometimes take a fair bit of practice. However, I KNOW I actually enjoy playing the piano when I feel more competent at it. I don't love it in the same way as I do playing the flute - it doesn't feel the same to me as a way of expressing things through music - but it is a useful skill in my line of work and, well, I think I'm intrigued as to what playing the piano better would actually feel like! I really enjoy accompanying, but I know that my skill level limits how much of this I can do. So, I've set myself a challenge, to do some regular piano practice and playing. I've chosen three pieces, initially, that I want to work on 'properly'. I've got a list of scales and arpeggios from a particular grade exam to try to master, because it seemed like a good point to aim at, to start with. I've got a big pile of books to pick and choose things to try out, so I'll also be playing as well as focussed practising. I'm going to give it a try over the summer, while other work is quieter, and see what happens when I practise what I preach! I'll let you know how I get on.
A reporter once asked the celebrated orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein what was the most difficult instrument to play. "Second fiddle! I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that's a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
It's supposed to be the pinnacle of ensemble playing, being on the 'first' part. It means you're the best, you can play all the hard stuff, you can do the twiddly bits. It's just one step down from being a soloist. It's fascinating watching the jostling for position - both physically and metaphorically - that can happen in some groups. So-and-so should play first because they've been here the longest. Whatshername should do it because she's 'better'. Ask a big group of musicians to allocate themselves to parts and some will rush to either end - they want to play first because they're 'good enough', or they want to play fourth or fifth because they're 'not good enough'. They want to show off or they want to hide. They'll insist on playing the top part or they'll step back and offer it to someone who they think is better than them - there can be a game of "no, no, after you"... "no, no, I insist".
This ranking of musicianship is ingrained in us from the early stages of playing - 'first' is something to aim for, it's where the better players end up. And it's true that first parts tend to be more technically challenging and mostly, in a higher register, which is something that flute players, at least, learn as we get more advanced. But that doesn't mean that playing second (or other parts in different ensembles, such as a flute choir) is easy or any less valuable. You might not get the high twiddly bits, but you might have a vital harmony part. Can you blast out those lower notes so they blend with the higher ones elsewhere rather than being drowned out by them? Can you maintain a repeated pattern on the same couple of notes for ages without it losing energy? Can you handle playing on the off-beats for ages? Can you concentrate to count for lots of bars rest?! Can you match your sound to that of the person playing first? Someone once described the role of orchestral flutes to me as the first providing the 'colour' and the second having to adapt into that first players sound - that's quite a skill. Sometimes the second or third part will be doing something completely different to the first, and having to blend with the violins or the French horns.
As individual instrumentalists, our education doesn't always prepare us for this - flute players, for example, mostly learn solo repertoire. We're used to playing the tune (I've had transfer students who could only play the top line of duets because they'd never played the second part - they found it such a challenge visually to follow the lower line!). So when we join an ensemble, we might opt for what seems like the 'easier' part, but then discover that it isn't that at all. We're not accustomed to playing harmony parts, to making so much use of our low notes, to playing parts with so many gaps in them. Equally, ensemble directors might order the parts with the most experienced players on first and least experienced on 'lower' parts, and find the balance really not working.
I wish we could get away from this idea of first as better. One of my very accomplished flute colleagues likes to sit in different places at our ensemble rehearsals, and noted that some less advanced players asked why she was "lowering herself" to play third or fourth flute. But it's enjoyable, good for your playing, and great for exercising different skills to mix it up. In the orchestra I play with, we have three regular flautists, and we rotate around parts, depending on who would prefer to play what and playing to our strengths. For our next season, we're playing first for one concert each, and second for one half of each of the other concerts (with the occasional piece that needs all three). We figured it out through an online chat whilst one of our number was sunning herself on holiday, and I was on my sofa. We put forward our requests to play certain parts because of musical preferences, because we wanted to be in or out of our comfort zone, and so we could have a quieter time when other parts of our lives were hectic. It works - nobody feels left out or under pressure. It keeps us on our toes and makes us better players because we all get a turn at the twiddly bits, the harmony bits, the counting, the matching our sound to other people's.
So, I guess this is an appeal to players, not to get hung up on the numbers. The composer wrote two parts or seven parts because they wanted them all, so they're all important. Try them all. Feel how glorious it is to play a bassline, to harmonise under the melody. Twiddle away on top or embrace those syncopated rhythms in the middle. And to teachers, too - get your students playing duets with you, and group pieces with each other, right from the start. Help them to be a flexible player who can happily get stuck in with any part of an ensemble and do a great job of it.
A few links:
This article by flautist Rachel Taylor Geier has a great summary of the skills needed to play second flute.
An excellent blog post by David Barton Music about the role of duets in lessons.
"Who's on first?" - nothing to do with music but I was introduced to this comedy sketch last year, it inspired the title of this post, and the play on words makes me laugh so much!
Why do people play musical instruments? Why do they have music lessons? There are all sorts of reasons. To quote one of my younger students "I just like the sound!" - that's usually a big factor. Quite often, especially with adult students, there's a desire to to learn so they can play in a group. Even if the initial decision to learn is because you 'like the sound', people often develop ambitions to be able to join an ensemble or to play together with friends.
It sounds like a good plan, to get to the stage where you can play with other people, but I think there's a lot to unpick here. For me, playing with other people is a huge part of what playing music is 'about' - the communication, the connection, the teamwork, the blending of sounds - and I can probably be a bit evangelical about it. But it isn't a compulsory aspect of learning an instrument, and it is absolutely fine if what you want to do is play on your own, in your own house, because you like the experience of making a nice sound, but feel no particular desire to do that anywhere else or with anyone else. Music in this way can be very therapeutic - sometimes it's an escape from the stresses of life. Sometimes I shut myself in my spare room and just play whatever I feel like, and it makes me feel better.
I'm also somewhat bothered by the idea that you have to reach a certain level of competency to play with other people - you have to be 'good enough'. Of course, if an established ensemble has a minimum standard, then obviously you have to meet that to join. In some cases, this can be a good motivator to practice and improve your playing. Sometimes you need the 'piece of paper' to show you're the appropriate standard, and I've had students set themselves goals of passing a particular exam so that they can join the next level up of school orchestra, or their nearest amateur wind band. However, I strongly believe that as long as you can make some sounds, you're 'good enough' to play with others in some way, if that's what you want to do. When I run student workshops, everyone is invited, no matter how long they've been playing for - and when we play as a group there are parts for everyone, even if I have to write a new part that just consists of Bs, As and Gs for someone who's only been playing a few weeks.
Part of the problem with waiting until you're 'good enough' to play with others is that when you do reach that stage, you don't have any experience of playing with others! In one worst case scenario, you could be Grade 8 'on paper' but only ever have worked on exam pieces and not much else, and the only ensemble playing you've done is once a year with an accompanist, whose job it is to follow your playing, whatever you do. You could be technically brilliant, but just not used to playing a part that isn't 'the tune' and listening out for how your part fits in with everyone else. You might not have a lot of experience of sight-reading. You might not have any idea how to follow a conductor.
Now, none of this is the fault of the student, but it strikes me that if one of your aims is to play in an ensemble, then one of the things you really need to learn is ensemble skills. That includes experience of listening to other parts and fitting in with them. It involves getting used to playing harmony parts and thinking about how they work in the piece as a whole, being sensitive to how loud or quiet you need to play, considering how to match your articulation or phrasing to what other people are doing. You need to get used to 'keeping going' whatever happens - there's a mantra about sight-reading for exams where people are told to keep going, don't go back and correct a mistake, and this is absolutely vital if you want to keep your place in ensemble music. You need to practice keeping in time with a whole load of other people - either by following a conductor or communicating somehow as a group. And really, the only way to learn these things is to do them. Teachers can help - I do 'playing together' and 'call and response' activities in lessons from the very start, and encourage students to learn duets for us to play together, rather than just using them as a 'fun' thing to do at the end of a lesson (this blog post from David Barton Music is also well worth reading on this topic). It occurred to me a while back that tutor books often have the student playing the top line of duets, for quite a long time, and then it can be quite tricky when you ask them to try playing the bottom line - your eyes just get used to looking in the same place - so have made a point of finding duets where both parts are manageable in the early stages. I think recorded backing tracks can play a useful role here as well, for the experience of playing along with 'someone else' who isn't going to adapt to you.
Individual lessons can only do so much towards this though, and just playing with other people helps to make you better at playing with other people. It's one of the reasons I run Sheffield Flute Choir and also why we have an annual summer playday where anyone can come and join in (as well as improving people's skills, the other main reason is that it's fun getting together with loads of other flute players!). Obviously, getting guidance from more experienced ensemble members and leaders can be invaluable too, and *subtle move into advertising here* that's why I've asked Carla Rees to join us for the playday this August. I've experienced Carla's ensemble-leading quite a few times now, including with the rarescale Flute Academy and I'm every time I come away feeling like I've learned something new about how to play as a group. She has some serious words of wisdom about shifting your mindset from playing like a soloist to working as a team. If you'd like to hear them, and explore a range of excellent flute ensemble repertoire at the same time, come and join us in Sheffield on August 25th for our Summer Flute Ensemble Day.
Do you ever feel like the worst musician in the room/ orchestra/ world? I'm sure we've all been in situations where we feel like we're much worse than everyone else at whatever it is we're doing. Sometimes we are, actually, technically, the worst. I could recount many memories of playing various sports or games where I was the weakest, the least coordinated, the slowest runner. There was the time I played rounders with some work colleagues and everyone else was good or at least passable at it. I failed to catch anything, other than a ball to the head when I entirely misjudged how fast it was coming at me.
I have also been in musical situations where I've been the least technically-accomplished player or the least experienced. I remember sitting at the far end of a row of six flutes in a youth orchestra, feeling like everyone else was so much better than me, probably because they were.
It's something I hear from a lot of other people too - they worry about playing in a group or coming to a workshop because "I'll be the worst there", "everyone is better than me". It's fairly common with adult learners, as they feel they 'should' be more accomplished simply because they're adults.
I understand that worry, but if you can re-frame 'being the worst' it can help you enjoy and benefit from experiences that you might have otherwise avoided. For one thing, the language of 'better' and 'worse' is fairly unhelpful, and suggests that it's in some way a failing not to be as 'good' as someone else. It is language that sadly pervades some musical environments so it's no wonder that people feel intimidated by this sense that they're being ranked into levels of 'how good you are'. It's part of the (damaging, in my opinion) discourse of 'natural talent' that suggests you're somehow inferior if you can't currently do something.
However, I think it's better to think of yourself as at a different stage on your musical journey - perhaps you started later, or you haven't had as much time to dedicate to it. It may be that some people have found solutions that work for them to problems you're still struggling with. This is all OK, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you're willing to learn and try to find solutions, then the only people who should be ashamed are those who look down on others for not being at the same stage as them. Maybe you could have practised more/ better, but it's more productive to go and do some constructive practice now than to beat yourself up about not having done it in the past.
Yes, it is difficult to feel like everyone else in the room can do things that you can't. It is OK to feel like you've got a long way to go, and even a bit envious of someone else's lovely tone or amazing finger-work. But you can turn that around - see it as something to aspire to. Learn from them. And don't forget to appreciate your own skills too - maybe you can't play super-fast but you can get amazingly loud volume. Maybe you don't yet have the tone you want (if you're a flute player, that's a lifelong search!) but you can sight-read/ busk your way through most things. Maybe you aren't the best at any of these things, but you're a generally reliable, happy soul to have around in rehearsals. Whatever the case, you have your own unique qualities in your playing, and none of these things make you a better or worse person (except maybe being reliable and cheerful to be around, which is definitely a good thing).
The vast majority of people will not be looking down at you because you're not a virtuoso - in fact, most will be too busy worrying about their own playing, but those who are more advanced can make things easier on other people too, by being sensitive to the fact that others might find their level of skill and/ or confidence intimidating. If you find something easy, it can feel natural to always be the one volunteering to demonstrate, or play the solo, but you can support other people by stepping back sometimes, by being supportive, offering encouragement and sharing things you've found helpful in your own learning (without sounding like a know-it-all!). Teachers can help by making their teaching constructive and encouraging, rather than a list of things that the student has done wrong. They can openly talk about the aspects of playing that they find/ have found difficult and how they've worked on them.
I've written before about awareness as part of my series on being a reliable musician and I think that applies here too - be aware of how your behaviour is affecting yourself and other people, whether that's putting yourself down and grumbling about finding things too hard, or acting in a way which might make other people feel bad about themselves and their playing. And remember that how you play is not a reflection on your worth as a person!
In odd bits of spare time, sitting on the bus or having a cup of tea in the evening, I really like reading the Mumsnet forums. It's such an insight into human life and people's ideas and how people can have such varying opinions on a subject and all be sure that their opinion is right. It's probably also the reason why I have such a clean washing machine, the Household section is full of some incredible wisdom. Recently I read discussions about whether a family should still pay their cleaner when they had told her not to come that week because of the snow, and about whether a childminder should still charge her clients if she was open but they'd decided not to travel to her due to the weather. Opinions were sharply divided between "if it's you that cancels, you should still pay" and "they're self-employed - if they don't do the work they don't get the money".
Similarly with music lessons, it probably often feels like a straightforward exchange - a set amount of money for a set amount of the teacher's time, a bit like buying a product.
Music teachers charge different rates, in different ways, and have different policies about things like charging for cancellations, but there is a definite shift in the 'industry' towards not being paid purely for 'hours of teaching done'. I'm not entirely sure why this has come to a head so much recently. Certainly, the very recent bad weather has seen many teaching colleagues worrying about lack of income due to cancellations. But even before that, in the last few years, there have been endless conversations about the unreliability and unpredictability of a teaching income.
It's been suggested that part of the issue is that music lessons aren't seen as a priority (this is a far bigger problem in education than just affecting private music teaching, but perhaps it's part of a wider trend). Of course the vast majority of our students aren't going to go on to do music as a career, but it's true that sometimes it's seen as the thing that's most expendable aside everything else they're doing. And of course, it's each individual student's/ family's choice as to how important it is to them. I'm sure most music teachers will confirm, though, that they're often asked to cancel or reschedule in favour of a sporting event or a school trip or something else. Of course it's easier to reschedule or cancel the thing that involves the individual teacher, rather than a group event, and we teachers do our best to offer alternatives where we can. However, many of us teach numerous other students (at the time of writing this I have 30+) and timetabling is a tricky art as it is, so rescheduling isn't necessarily easy.
So, yes, the music teacher's heart sinks a bit when they get another text cancelling a lesson. Even if you have a cancellation policy - say 48 hours in advance of a lesson or it's chargeable - this isn't always easy to enforce and people do argue over it. We worry about how we maintain our student's progress when they're missing lessons. We worry about losing income and whether we can really afford to keep doing this job we love. It is a lovely job, at its heart, but it's also very definitely a job. For most of the teachers I know, it's not something we do 'on the side' - it's our main, or indeed sole, income. We're not like the old stereotyped image of the 'little lady piano teacher down the road' who teaches for a bit of pocket money whilst her husband pays all the bills.
I've recently changed to a monthly 'subscription' system - this entitles students to me being available to teach them for a certain number of lessons per year. Rather than paying on the day or according to the number of lessons they have in a particular month, the amount for the year is split into 12 equal monthly instalments (it can easily be worked out pro-rata for people starting part-way through a year). Currently, it's 42 lessons per year for those who have weekly lessons, which allows some flexibility on both sides for planned holidays etc. Students/ parents know exactly how much they're paying every month. I know that I have a steady income, which makes it easier for me to carry on teaching as a career and devote more time and energy to the musical and educational side of it rather than the 'worrying about money' side.
It's a bit like a gym membership, although students obviously can't just have a lesson any time! They are, in part, paying for me to reserve a regular space in my timetable for them - which can't easily be replaced by other paid work if they cancel a lesson. As giving them 'access' to so many lessons per year, it's also reflecting the fact that teaching is about more than just the hour a week you might spend being actively taught. If you look at a music teacher's timetable, it might look like they have lots of spare time - mine sometimes has whole mornings free and gaps between lessons! However, ask any teacher what they do with that time, and they will tell you about the admin. Just today, I've spent the whole morning sending out and replying to emails, scanning and copying documents, doing some online promotion for concerts, researching resources and arranging travel for a some training which will benefit my teaching.
I travel to my students, so my teaching also includes travel time/ expenses. Teachers who don't travel have the expense of premises and more than likely buying and maintaining a piano. We need working computers, printers, scanners, and TONS of ink. We have to keep up-to-date with books, resources, instruments, methods, teaching ideas - so we have to buy things and go to conferences and do CPD courses. We have books that we'll happily lend you, but you're also partly paying for access to this library of ours. We need to pay for DBS checks, public liability insurance, professional memberships. We have to maintain good quality instruments in good working order to be able to teach you to play yours.
(There's another excellent explanation of the monthly payment system and what you're paying for in Tim Topham's studio policy - he also writes in more detail for teachers about this system here.)
We also do need to take time off - sometimes at short notice if we're ill (or snowed in) - and the flexibility of the subscription system allows me to make that up at a later date without doing any complicated calculations - students are assigned a 'make-up credit' which can be used against another lesson. The monthly payment system won't work for everyone - not all teachers will want to work that way. I have a handful of students who have ad-hoc lessons because their work or health circumstances mean they can't easily commit to a regular time-slot. However an individual teacher decides to charge for lessons and deal with cancellations, by having lessons with them you're agreeing to accept their policy. If you haven't read it or you argue with it, you're making it difficult for them to do their job.
Mainly, we do this job because we love it, and we care about our students learning to play and enjoying music. We know that the best way to do this is through regular lessons, a commitment to learning, and a happy, committed teacher! We're only human, and in fact, being musicians, we're probably some of the more sensitive, worrying humans around. We work strange hours as it is, and we struggle to set office hours, but believe me, some of us have sleepless nights about financial worries and how to reply to those difficult emails. How can we teach well when we're stressed?
So please do read your teacher's terms and conditions - we know, it's quite boring, but it saves us having to debate whether you owe us money in a particular circumstance, and spending time sending emails back and forth which could be better spent on us finding out about new and exciting pieces of music for you to learn. Please ask us if you have questions about payments, but please don't assume that your teacher is trying to scam you out of money if you think there might be a mistake. Please don't assume that just because it's a 'lovely job' we only turn up for your hour's lesson and are spending the rest of the week lazing around, occasionally leisurely polishing our washing machines. If you're having problems paying, please let us know rather than ignoring it and making us have to chase you (again, more time and awkwardness). We're musicians, there's a good chance we know exactly what it's like to be worrying about the bills!
I had finished my series of blog posts on 'The Reliable Musician' - the skills and qualities that musicians need (aside from playing) to get on well when playing with other people. However, a few conversations with people about how we can actually 'teach' or pass on these skills have prompted me to write a bit more. The qualities and habits I've written about have been described by various people as 'common sense' but also as 'unwritten rules' or 'unspoken agreements' - how do we encourage our students and the other musicians we come in contact with to behave in these helpful ways?
I suppose writing a series of blog posts was part of my attempt to explain the behaviours that I think make for a good, reliable musician - behaviours that I've seen the positive results of (and the problems that the opposite can cause). I can only hope that people visit my blog and/ or see them pop up on social media and find them useful. If there's a sense that these are some sort of secret, hidden rules that only (some) musicians know about though, maybe we need to state them more clearly.
We can talk to our students about these things - we don't need to present them with a list of rules for going to rehearsals, but maybe if it's the first time they've joined an ensemble, there's no harm in reminding them that they need to take a pencil, might need a music stand etc. It's worth us talking about our own rehearsals/ playing work and how we prepare for these. We can model good behaviour by responding to their enquiries promptly and talking about/ demonstrating how we work on the music we need to practise.
We can encourage good habits by stating our expectations of our students and ensemble members - if we're arranging an event we can give out information sheets, or emails, reinforced by verbal instructions if needed, about what people need to bring and how early they need to be there. We can give clear directions, such as needing to respond with availability by a certain date, or what people need to do if they can't make a rehearsal.
We could talk more openly about the behaviours that make us want to work with people, and be less tolerant of the ones that don't. But it can be difficult to challenge someone's behaviour, especially if it's gone unchallenged for a long time. Sometimes musicians will be 'not invited back' if people find them unreliable, but often the link between the unreliability and the lack of future work isn't made clear - and how does anyone learn from that? Do we worry that people will be upset, or that they'll be angry and defensive if we tell them what the problem is?
Musicians are renowned for worrying about their reputation - which is usually based on how 'good' they are, but perhaps they need to worry more about their character - taking this to be their habits and behaviours around working with other people. And if we get frustrated by the way people behave, then we need to think about the best ways to influence that behaviour and somehow teach/ explain/ demonstrate how their habits affect other people, and therefore inevitably themselves.
I think this is the last part of this series, although I'll probably hit 'post' and think of a whole load of other things to say!
Most of the qualities I've written are really about awareness and putting other people first.
Getting to know what's 'normal' and expected for the group you're playing with is really important when it comes to working well with people. Observe and ask. Is the conductor open to group discussions during the rehearsal or do they want you to save any questions for the break? What's the atmosphere like - is it full of jokes, or are you expected to take things very seriously? How do other people behave in the group? If you want to fit in, you may need to modify how you behave - of course, you might decide that you the culture of that group doesn't suit you, and that's fair enough too, but you can only find this out by observing and being aware of what's going on around you.
Generally, musical training encourages self-awareness - recognising your habits and what you're doing when you play your instrument. I recently read this article which describes two types of self-awareness - internal (which is knowing yourself well, probably what we normally refer to as self-awareness) and external, which is to do with being aware of how others see us and how are actions affect them. This article suggests that being good at both makes people good at 'leading' and I reckon a combination of the two makes for a musician who is good to work with too.
Make it about them not you
Most of these qualities are really about putting other people first, about not making yourself the centre of everything. About calmly getting on with the 'job' (or acting calm, even if you're not feeling it) and not making a fuss. If you're playing in a group, you're not the most important person, nobody is. If it's just you and an accompanist, you're still a team. Even if you're playing solo, completely on your own, if there's any sort of audience there, you're not the most important one. But all of the above habits are good for you too - being organised, informed, and on time makes things far less stressful, and they make you the sort of person who is valued, respected, and asked to do things.
Nobody expects you to be perfect, and you will have to odd 'off' day where you accidentally double-book yourself, forget your music stand, don't leave enough time to get to the venue, or inexplicably play like you haven't practised even when you've done loads, but if you're generally reliable, people know that's an off day and not your usual style. If you're exceptionally highly skilled at playing, you might be able to get away without doing some of these things - you could be late, demanding, difficult and diva-ish - but even then, imagine how much better it would be to be brilliant, reliable and friendly - what a combination!
I'm borrowing this phrase from a friend of mine who uses the word 'cheerful' a lot - not a word I had heard or used a great deal before I met her, but one which I now think should be used more! I don't mean you have to be relentlessly happy all the time, but constant complaining and muttering about things is really off-putting and disrespectful to the people around you. If you have a problem with something musical and someone can help, ask about it! If you have an issue with something else to do with the group, find an appropriate time to raise it with whoever can do something about it.
If you don't like the music, well, that's something you have to put up with sometimes - if you like the majority of what a group plays, then try to see the odd 'horrible' piece as a learning experience. If you don't like the majority of what a group plays, then you'd need to have another very good reason for carrying on playing with them (maybe you're getting paid huge amounts of money and that's more important to you at this point of time). Grumbling about it isn't going to change how much you like it.
Despite the photo above, a comedy grumble about a tricky key signature is usually acceptable. It is fine to explain if something is difficult on your instrument - a group of flautists I play with has a non-flautist as a conductor, and he's very open to learning about the peculiarities of the flute and why we are struggling with something in particular! Explanation is nearly always much more useful than complaint or excuses (more on this below).
You should apologise if you're (occasionally, unavoidably) late for rehearsal. You should apologise if you accidentally knock over your colleague's music stand or hit them on the head with a piccolo (if you're doing these things deliberately, you probably shouldn't be there). You really don't need to apologise if you play a wrong note or make another musical mistake - for one thing, everyone does it. For another, there's a chance that nobody noticed anyway, and by apologising, you're just drawing attention to it. If they did notice, they already know about it - if they think it needs to be pointed out, they'll point it out ("remember that's a B flat in that bar"). If they think it was just one of those slips that happens to everyone sometimes, they won't mention it, so you don't need to mention it either. Everyone has bad days, and everyone knows that everyone else has bad days, so if you're having a bad day, just do your best, try to remain as cheerful as possible and don't make a huge show of what a bad day you're having.
Often apologies sound like justifications - "I know what I'm doing, really, I just didn't do it that time". Instead of telling people you know what you're doing, it's far more convincing to show that you know what you're doing, by doing your best to concentrate, practise and improve. It's fine (and indeed a good idea) to acknowledge things you need to work on - say you're in a quintet and you're trying to figure out part of a piece, and you know that it'll fit together better once you've mastered those semiquavers, then it's good to say "I know my timing is a bit off there, and I need to practise those semiquavers before next time" - it shows awareness, both of what you're doing and how it affects the whole (then do go and practise that bit for next time).
Don't make excuses
The same goes for making excuses - "I haven't had time to practice this week" (that will either be obvious, or it won't, either way, you don't really need to tell everyone). As discussed in the last post, explanations are OK, if they are helpful - if you tell the conductor "my flute has suddenly broken and I can't play any Fs" that is possibly useful, as they then know there's a technical issue and there's no point in replaying that bar with all the Fs in it this evening, because no number of repetitions is going to make it sound right.
This isn't to say you shouldn't offload to your friends if there's something bothering you about a group - or you had a bad tone day or you just can't stand a piece of music that you're having to play - that can be very therapeutic and a good idea, indeed a better idea than muttering behind your stand when you should be listening to the conductor. Playing music isn't going to be completely fun all the time, and it's unlikely that a group is going to completely suit you 100% of the time. If you're unhappy a lot in a particular group, then maybe it isn't right for you. If you can cheerfully accept that there will be bits that are challenging, find that fulfilling and get on with what you're there to do, things will be much happier all round.
So you've got yourself organised to get to rehearsals regularly, and on time. What now?
Listen to recordings of the pieces you're rehearsing to help you get to know them. This really helps them stick in your head, and can often answer questions that you have about how something should sound. It helps rehearsals run more smoothly if everyone knows what the outcome is meant to be.
Listen to other people - both musically and in what they're telling/ asking/ suggesting/ discussing that you do. Listen for instructions about what you're doing next, which bar you need to play from, and how you need to try to play it. Listen when other people are being given advice or directions, because these could apply to you too, and they might affect how you play your part. If the conductor asks one section to play from bar 126, there's a good chance they'll subsequently ask everyone to play from the same place, so listen to that bar number even if you aren't playing this time through. Listen to how your part fits in - is it supposed to blend in or stick out? Listen to how other people are playing - do you need to match them or sound different?
Listen to people talking about their experiences and learn from them.
As mentioned in the previous post, I think a diary is vital - either online or paper, or both. Put things in it, soon after you know about them. Check it. If you forget to put things in your diary, how about setting an alarm to remind you once a week (or however often is useful) to sit down and update it?Same thing for checking it regularly. Stop trying to remember when everything is happening, and get it all out of your brain onto paper (or virtual paper).
Write notes in rehearsals, whether it's on the music itself (in pencil, or the librarian will scowl at you), or on a post-it note or in the back of your diary if it's not relating to a particular bar/ note but something you need to remember more generally.
Other people's annotations on the sheet music can be useful too. You might find helpful hints that people have worked out for how to play a particular trill, for example. However, be aware that old scribblings might not be relevant to your group's (or this particular) performance - don't trust someone else's markings that you're not doing the repeats, unless you know that's definitely true!
Obviously you have to read the music, but also read any instructions you've been sent/ given. Most groups communicate by email these days, or they might have a members web page with dates etc on. Read them. Reply if a reply is needed (and by the date you're asked to reply by). Ask about things you need to know that haven't been covered, but otherwise read, note down what you need to, and don't be that person texting the night before to ask if there's a rehearsal when you can check your emails/ the website/ your diary. Sometimes you'll be asked to fill in some sort of form (e.g. Doodle Poll) to conform your availability or attendance - unless you have some sort of technical difficulty doing this, then follow the instructions and fill in the poll (because if you don't, the person managing it then has to collate information from emails and texts and things people have said to them in passing, instead just seeing it all together in the poll... can you tell this one is a bit of a personal plea?!).
Extra musician bonus points are given for reading ABOUT the music you're playing - what do you know about it? Why was it written? What period of history is it from? How does this affect how it's played? This doesn't have to be extensive research in a library archive, even a quick glance through a Wikipedia article can help!
And to help you do all this... be prepared
Being prepared by practising goes without saying, I hope. But just in case it doesn't... if you have access to the music, then at least some level of familiarity of it is extremely helpful. It may be that your group does a lot of sight-reading (we do at flute choir, it's one of the aims to help people improve their sight-reading skills!), but if you're expected to practise outside rehearsals, then do. Don't be the person who is obviously only reading their part once a week (and yes, it is obvious), whilst everyone else is squeezing in five minutes a day and getting to know the piece.
For rehearsals - take a music stand - unless you're specifically told that you don't need to take a stand, you probably need to take a stand. Take your instrument(s). Take a pencil. Take your music - I've got a tray near my front door with all the music I'm currently working on, so if it's Tuesday and I'm going to orchestra rehearsal, I can grab the folder with my orchestra parts in. If you tend to forget things, write yourself a list and stick it to the front door and check you've got everything before you leave the house. If you think you'll forget to check the list, set a reminder on your phone for five minutes before you need to leave the house, to remind you to look at the list.
If you know that instructions are likely to come by email, check your emails regularly. It's all about getting into habits that make it easier for you to turn up and do a good job.
The first part of my series on the skills that make you the sort of person people want to make music with talked about being on time. This second part leads on from that, and can be summed up simply as 'be there'.
Even worse than being late is just not turning up without letting anyone know. If you say you're going to do something, do it. If you later find you can't do it, then let people know as soon as you can, and if you not being there is going to cause a problem, offer a solution if you possibly can, such as finding someone else to replace ('dep' for) you at a rehearsal. As with normally being on time, if you're normally dependable, people understand that you might occasionally need to be absent through illness, an unexpected situation at home, an occasional accidental double-booking, or something else that comes up where you need to make a decision whether to attend. Even nice things, like a holiday that means you miss one of the weekly rehearsals you go to, are not generally a problem if you let people know well in advance. If you regularly agree to do things and then don't turn up, that is a certain recipe for not being asked back, asked to do other things or recommended to other people.
The thing is that rehearsals are not just about learning your part - in fact, that's what practising at home is for. They're about learning to play together as a group, and how the piece works as a whole. They're about finding out how your conductor/ group specifically wants to play that piece and for all the little bits of information that you pick up along the way. They're about getting help with those bits that you can't quite figure out on your own. Even if you can play it all easily, the other people around you also need to get used to playing with you and hearing how it sounds as a whole.
I think there are two things that help you do manage to 'turn up' - the first is keeping a diary. 'Keeping' a diary as in actually writing in it (or using an electronic one). Put appointments in as soon as you can - I generally put everything in my Google calendar immediately, then sit down once a week or so to update my paper diary. Whatever works for you, but don't rely on scraps of paper or your memory. However good your memory is, writing it down helps to reinforce it, and it gives you space in your brain to think about more important things like what to have for tea. Of course, if you put appointments in a diary, you do then need to remember to look at it, so get into a pattern of checking it regularly. If it's an electronic one you can usually set it to remind you of things too, so if you're likely to forget to check it, you can get it to beep at you and tell you to go to rehearsal in two hours' time. The time it takes to set all this up is worth the time - and hassle - it saves later.
The second thing is not over-committing yourself. Musicians (especially when they're training/ at university etc) are often told that they need to say 'yes' to everything - don't turn down an opportunity. You might never get the chance again! Or they get swept away with enthusiasm and want to do EVERYTHING. The trouble with that is that you can end up too busy, things start to clash with each other, and you get so worn out that you can't manage to do any of them well. It is tricky to get the right balance for and work out what to prioritise, and I fear that perhaps you do have to reach the point of doing too much before you realise that you need to let some things go. If you start to find yourself feeling over-stretched and letting people down because you've got too much happening, then you probably need to scale (musical pun not intended, but since it's there I'll leave it in) it back a bit.
However, people do and will understand, and generally respect other people's decisions to prioritise one thing over another, whether that's a one-off or in the long term. They might be disappointed if you don't choose or stop coming to their 'thing' but if they get huffy/ rude about it, I'd suggest that maybe you don't want to work with them anyway. They don't need to know all the details and it's fine to turn down an offer with a simple "I've got a prior commitment that day, but would be interested if you need someone again in future". If you can recommend someone else who might be able to do it instead, that's even better and often much appreciated.
Yes, sometimes the decisions are difficult. You might not get the chance to do exactly the same thing again, but actually, I'm not sure that many 'opportunities' are so life-changing that it'll drastically damage your musical career (whatever that means to you) by not taking them. On the other hand, being known as a person who reliably turns up is definitely a good thing.
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The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!