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Play Your Heart Out

This month, I'm really excited to bring you a wonderful post by trumpet player Mike Brozick.  Mike was kind enough to take the time to share his wisdom with us and his post is totally inspiring and motivating!  Enjoy! RPG

“First you master your instrument.

Then you master the music.

Then you forget all about that and just play.”

-Charlie Parker

We spend a lot of time mastering our instrument, but how do we go from refining the fundamentals to performing for an audience? After you lay a foundation of technique and begin to build your repertoire, it is important to distinguish between two complementary forms of practice: programming practice and performance practice -- or as Parker puts it, mastering the music and then forgetting about all that and just playing.

These two practice strategies could not be more different. Programming practice is analytical and self-critical with the goal of improving greatly with each repetition. Performance practice summons everything learned so it can be presented in one confident and accurate shot. Without performance practice, performing in front of an audience can be quite scary, like flying a plane without ever stepping into a flight simulator. Performance practice is something we can and should do every day.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein

After I spend time on fundamentals, I move on to my programming practice of musical repertoire in the form of etudes, solos, excerpts or any performance parts. At this point it's no longer about “mastering your instrument,” it's about the music. Athletes do plenty of sit-ups and pushups to build their body, but leave that behind once they step on to the field. Here you want to build your musical imagination and your ability to project this on your instrument efficiently. Have your favorite recordings at hand and really take time to listen. I certainly listen to music throughout the day, but I use my practice time to deliberately sit down with the sheet music and study what my musical heroes do artistically. Just as we learn to speak before learning to read, imitation and learning by ear can be a powerful tool.

Before playing a passage on your instrument, try “pre-hearing,” in as much detail as possible, the phrase you are about to play. Becoming acquainted with your inner instrument, and aware of the fact that you have control of the way you sound in your head, should be something you use to your advantage. As you read these words right now, you have no problem hearing your inner speaking voice. Now re-read that sentence in the voice of someone else, like Morgan Freeman. With practice you can be just as skillful with your inner instrument, looking at the page and imagining the most beautiful sounds possible. Just as you think before you speak, hear before you play.

Mental practicing has a surprisingly physical component. A study conducted at the University of Chicago found basketball players who visualized making free throws improved nearly as much over 30 days as those who physically practiced. When you imagine yourself playing a difficult passage, and can play it accurately in your mind, your brain actually sends almost undetectable signals to the same muscles used in the actual act of physically playing your instrument. Brain scans have confirmed that imagining an activity and physically doing an activity are almost identical in the brain.

Sing your music, like an actor reading a script aloud, and bring the printed notes to life. Not having the instrument in your hands forces you to be accurate with your pitch and rhythm, and draws your attention to the inflection or natural communication that is inherent in the human voice.

To ensure you are able to bring every single marking on the page to life with the greatest of ease, “slow and steady wins the race.” While practicing slowly, you have more time to listen and avoid mistakes. When you slow down, your brain is more aware of subtle and important information and learns to make efficient movements with less effort. You can choose to improve slowly by practicing fast or improve fast by practicing slowly.

A successful performance requires summoning all the work I’ve done in mastering my instrument and the music to perform under pressure. I don’t want to wait to be in front of an audience and my colleagues to figure this out. I make a big distinction between my programming practice and performance practice and even set up two music stands. One with a stereo and a keyboard close at hand and the other is in front of my audience: often my pug, Arthur, and always my microphone. At this point I stop practicing to improve and record a performance. Just like real life, I play my best once through and move on.

Shift your focus away from perfection to expression. The type of concentration you need in programming is self-critical whereas in performance you draw upon self-affirming concentration. Practice turning off that “chatter” when you go into performance mode while at the same time learning what you need to do to be accurate. Recording gives you a daily deadline to stop fixing things and produce something beautiful and of the highest quality. Having the microphone on the other side of the room encourages you to listen to your sound “out there” -- taking the focus off of yourself and giving it to your audience.

Once you record your music, do not listen until tomorrow! Give yourself time to forget. If you listen back too soon you are merely replaying what is in your short term memory. Find a time of day to listen to your daily practice. For me, I listen to yesterday's recordings first thing in the morning on my walks with Arthur. Pixar, the groundbreaking and beloved animation studio, starts every morning watching yesterday's animation so they can approach the day's work with fresh eyes. Ask yourself: What is working and what is not and what was I not noticing yesterday? While you record, leave yourself verbal notes. Tell yourself what you've been doing in your practice so you can listen to the result. Are my strategies working or do I need to try something new? Daily recording and listening also gives you a long-term view of your progress. If you are working on a concerto or excerpts over a month you can get a realistic view of how you are progressing each day. What areas are improving faster than other areas and what areas need more attention?

Finally, take time to listen to what you have accomplished and enjoy your own musical expression. Be your biggest fan and most devoted audience member by recording your performance practice. If you can listen to your own music making, and really love it for where you are in your musical journey, while being encouraging of where you want to go, you'll be more prepared to share your musical self with others.

Mike Brozick is a member of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, the principal trumpet of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra and is a performing member of the the Chicago Philharmonic. He has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Milwaukee Symphony, Grant Park Orchestra under the batons of Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas, Manfred Honeck and Sir Andrew Davis. He has recorded Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has performed on the Pittsburgh Symphony's European tour throughout Spain and in Vienna's Musikverein. At Lyric Opera he was featured on stage as one of the King’s Trumpets in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and playing the Egyptian trumpet in Verdi’s “Aida.” As a chamber musician he is a member of the Elgin Chamber Brass, International Chamber Artists, and has performed live on Chicago’s classical music radio station WFMT. Mr. Brozick earned his Bachelor of Music Education degree from Duquesne University and a Master of Music in performance from Rice University and was a Fulbright Fellow studying at the Stätliche Hochschule für Musik in Detmold, Germany. Mike is an active recitalist and has been featured as a soloist with the DuPage Symphony Orchestra, Salt Creek Sinfonietta, and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.


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