Rate of Return

Thanks for visiting this page, and deeming my comments worthy of a few minutes of your time. It has been far too long since my last post, but then again, I wanted to make sure there was something of merit to post rather than simply rambling at random! Today’s post is not about anything technical, or even musical, regarding trombone playing, but rather is about how we invest – invest our time, concentration, and even money – in the practice room.

 

There are already numerous articles out there regarding practice techniques and strategy, but my comments are much broader and simpler. Over the past year or so, I’ve been living a separate life in the real estate investment world. Not only has it been a wonderful distraction and a way to exercise a “different muscle”, but it has been enlightening and incredibly educational. Oh yeah, it’s also profitable! Many of the concepts I have been learning apply directly to music — foremost on my mind right now is the importance of a wide network and fostering relationships — while some concepts simply don’t relate.

 

During a meeting this past week, an associate was discussing rate of returns: short-term versus long-term. A lightbulb went on over my head: time for a new blog!! An oversimplified explanation of rate of return is how long it takes to get your initial cash investment back. After that, everything else is profit. Many investors look at the long-term return of purchasing a building foremost. These folks are considering their profit in several years – perhaps 20 years or more — after the building has been bringing in rents and appreciating in value over a long time. Primarily, the goal is to have the building pay for its own operation, plus recoup the initial cash investment. The big payoff comes when you sell the building after significant appreciation. That’s where the real money is made. The downside of this is the cost of having your capital (money) tied up for a long period of time before it starts to pay you back, also known as opportunity cost.

Even simpler: imagine how pathetic the interest rate on your savings account, or possibly even 403B/401K looks when you consider how much money you need to have in there to compound interest! Of course, accounts like these have a different purpose and functionality, and you have to keep putting money into them so they build exponentially – hopefully!

 

So, what about short-term returns? Most real estate investors will be looking at something called “Cash Over Cash”, which is the rate of how quickly you recoup your initial investment, measured over the course of a year. Let’s say you purchase a $100,000 building and have to put down $20,000 towards the mortgage. During the first year, you profit $20,000 after taxes, mortgage, maintenance, etc. That $20,000 profit completely reimburses your initial investment, thus being a 100% “Cash Over Cash” return. That’s a damn good investment, a fantastic short-term return, and would qualify for what I would call a “unicorn”.

 

So how the heck does this apply to trombone or music at all? I will attempt to draw some parallels. I wager that most of us have grown up practicing for the long-term return, doing our daily diligence to develop the skills we need over a long period of time. Of course, this is necessary to acquire these abilities with a standard of excellence, but why can we not focus on – and achieve –  short-term returns as well? I’m not talking about cramming to learn a piece in a day, but setting up a solid goal for yourself and a method to achieve it in a relatively short amount of time. There is also a difference between short-term returns and a quick fix. You want to play a high D, but can’t seem to get above a Bb? Sure, you could jam the horn into your face and squeeze your butt cheeks together, but this is a quick solution that we all know is not dependable – or healthy!

 

Still too vague and abstract for you? Here’s an example from personal experience. Years ago, I decided to learn and perform Folk Rabe’s Basta. I was playing over 10 recitals that year, and it fit perfectly into the program I chose. The only problem was that I couldn’t play all the against the grain rapid slurs, at least in a controlled, clear, and rhythmic fashion. Instead of just ripping away at them, I dedicated a few minutes a day to slurs in Brad Edwards’ Lip Slurs book and Schlossberg that worked with this technique. I played scales with alternate positions going across the grain as much as I could (see Charlie Vernon’s book). Within a couple weeks, I achieved the fluency required to play Basta the way I wanted.  The frustrating part of all of this was how simple it was to just determine my goal and the path to get there, which I had procrastinated for years because I figured these skills would be acquired via long-term returns.

 

Maybe I’m just rambling, or over-generalizing the trombone population, but I bet most of you get stuck in a rut of going through the motions while remaining overly dependent upon long-term returns. Of course we will all benefit from long-term returns solely by the nature of practice and repetition. But remember, for long-term returns, your capital (in this case, time and work) is tied up. Can you free up some of this capital to achieve better short-term returns?I challenge you to think of one element of your playing on which you can focus and improve in just a few days or weeks. It could be your posture, breathing, legato, range, etc. but pick somethingon which you can invest in a short-term return. All it takes is a little planning and daily discipline, and as long as you are investing the capital [of time and energy], what’s to lose??

 

A Musician’s Life – some working insight

Recently, I reached out to my FaceBook friends for help preparing upcoming lectures I am presenting regarding the personal aspects of being an orchestral musician. Some rather interesting questions poured in, most of which I will incorporate into my lectures next week. However, one batch of extensive, specific questions came in from a young trombonist I met while visiting Baylor University several years ago as a guest artist. Jacob Small is a talented young man who is now pursuing his DMA at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I think you’ll agree that these are some tough questions! I figured this would make a good blog post, so here we go!

How did your practice change from before your gig to after winning your gig?

This is a multi-pronged answer.

1) Winning an audition gives you confidence and a sense of validation. Everything you invested in pays off in a very measurable kind of way: employment! However, there is still so much growth that should continue to happen, which leads me to…

2) My practice became about bettering myself as a trombone player, which in hindsight was misguided. I falsely convinced myself that I needed to become more accurate, consistent, and virtuosic as an instrument operator, when in reality, I needed to become a better listener, story-teller, and interpreter. It took a few years to realize this, and several poor audition performances, until…

3) I invested in musical voice. I decided to play repertoire I wanted to play, and not repertoire that was popular, or that I thought I should play. For example, I started working on more song cycles and gave up on Pryor. The songs spoke to me, therefore motivated me, while the Pryor pieces just seemed to be technical exercises and a basis to compare trombone-operation to others. I also used the stability of my position to explore bass trombone, which I had spent a year on in college. Having several opportunities to ‘slide over’ (nyuk nyuk) in the orchestra eventually led to me becoming Acting Bass Trombone for two years, and also gain several other opportunities outside of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

(Post-publication edit: I believe it is imperative to continue taking lessons after winning a job. Winning a job makes you an expert on very little — continuing to gain experience, knowledge, and skill are necessary. Growing as a musician keeps you fresh!)

What is a common piece of advice given to young musicians you think is false?

“Take any gig you are offered.” Sometimes it’s just not worth it, or you end up de-valuing yourself. Experience is tremendously important, but sometimes the job itself can be damaging – physically and/or mentally!

How do you keep excerpts (as a student) fresh and how do you keep daily orchestra rehearsals and music (as a professional) fresh and exciting?

The temptation with excerpts is to “run them” over and over again, when they deserve to be broken down into simpler steps. Often, breaking them down into simpler patterns or motifs proves to be more mentally engaging! I further believe that not enough attention is paid to the origin of the excerpt and it’s musical significance. At some point we’ve all been guilty of this, as it is part of the learning process, but…if you can find what makes it tick, and in turn, how that makes you tick, then you have something musically engaging which with to work. I don’t believe that can ever get old, as long as you take some breaks (even years!) and are well-rounded in your overall practice.

As for daily orchestra rehearsals and music, the honest truth is that sometimes it really does feel like a job. You have little say in WHAT is played, and often, HOW it is played. That being said, you learn to listen to different areas of the orchestra and incorporate your practice goals into the job. I often work on air attacks during rock/pop shows or anything else where we just play whole notes. For the last few years, I’ve been working on efficiency and trying to keep the ‘song’ in what I’m playing, not just operating the trombone. I will freely admit that I don’t always succeed!

When you have a busy schedule, what things in your practice session don’t make the cut and why?

A full warm-up/maintenance routine is the first to go. Sometimes the time just evaporates (my fault, usually) or I am too physically tired. Any professional musician with children can attest to being tired, or lacking sleep! When it’s a fatigue-inducing week, I try to focus on staying supple through soft playing, and keeping my best sound going as simply as possible.

One thing that time and experience will teach you is what you need to do to be comfortable and ready to play. In general, 10-15 minutes is all I need to be ready for rehearsal or a concert. I don’t like to depend on this, but sometimes there are other factors that determine your schedule. Sick kid? Dog won’t come back inside? Decided to clean your slide and the cleaning rod got stuck? Forgot your music at home? Yeah, it can happen.

Any advice on avoiding work place conflict?

This is a tough topic. We wrap our egos so completely in our playing and musical personalities, and most of these egos are super-fragile. It’s not a job we just execute between 9-5, but rather one that we allow (sadly) to define us as people. We all hear the horror stories of people not getting along, sitting next to each other for decades and not speaking.

As a student and rookie professional, I never understood how this could happen, but after a decade of being a professional, I do now. Learning to respectfully disagree is an invaluable skill, and having tact goes a long way! The best advice I can give is to remember why you got into this field, and try to keep that at the forefront of your thoughts when things get tense. Everyone needs the benefit of the doubt sometimes, but like one of my mother’s refrigerator magnets states: “When people show you their true colors, believe them.” Sometimes you just need to steer clear.

What mental preparation did you find most helpful and which did you find have the adverse effect?

Zero mental preparation has the most adverse effect! I’ve gone through different waves of self-doubt, overconfidence/hubris, and being ‘in the zone’. The best audition I ever played followed a 10-day orchestra tour. I had little time and space to play the trombone, but I had many hours on a tour bus. I had my sheet music, recordings, a tuner, and my headphones on that bus, and would mentally perform each excerpt. I used the tuner to see if I could ‘pluck’ the first note of the excerpt out of thin air. Great practice!

Nerves have been an off/on issue for me since graduate school. The funny thing is that recitals and most solo performances don’t bother me. Auditions are another story. I played some very confident, in-control auditions circa 2009-2011 – everything before and after that was pretty shakey. I could get into all sorts of reasons why, but in order to stay relevant to your question, I believe it’s because I was trying to prove something to myself. As a student and rookie professional, I was trying to prove that I belonged. As an experienced orchestra player and auditioner, I was trying to prove I was still relevant! During that golden period, I was just trying to play great music. We can be our own worst enemies, and there are so many wonderful resources for working through this: Bulletproof Musician, Don Green, Jeff Nelson, etc.

For me, feeling passionate about the music and having the absolute commitment to every detail is the key. Excerpts still provide a challenge, as frankly, I don’t like some of them!

What do you feel solo repertoire/recital rep accomplishes in the grand scheme of audition preparation?

Learning to play with style. Also, the practice of performing. As previously stated, I have a much easier time with recitals than auditions. I believe this is because I choose my recital repertoire; it is not dictated to me. The trick is to carry that over to the excerpts!

Do you have any tips for a young musician doing the “real person/out of school thing” especially if they haven’t won any jobs yet?

You must be creative about finding performance/teaching opportunities that not only pay, but also challenge you to improve. While freelancing in Chicago, I kept a journal in my car and would write down every church, retirement community, school, or other possible gig/teaching location that I could pitch a performance or my pedagogical services. My quartet was a tremendous resource for me — Tim Higgins, Tim Owner, Chris Davis, then Steve Menard. On that note, be in a serious chamber ensemble. Holding each other to high standards is extremely beneficial, and great preparation for section playing!

You must be extremely proactive about finding/creating opportunities for mock auditions, substitute work, band director networking, chamber music, and lessons. This is where most people with talent fail, as they expect that opportunities will arrive because they are good at the instrument. Doesn’t work that way.

What role has the quality of your sleep played in your performances?

You don’t realize how important sleep is until you have kids. You also don’t realize your capabilities on little sleep until you have kids! Honestly, I try not to think about it. If I allow myself to be enslaved to sleep or lack thereof, it becomes a distraction. 7.5 hrs is ideal for me, which nowadays, is pretty regular. But, even a 10 minute power nap an hour or two before concert time can be a real boost.

What purchase ($100 or less) has effected the quality of your life the most (music or otherwise)?

Ummmm…

1) First retirement account contribution. I know it’s a repetitive ‘purchase’, but get one going now! It’s harder the longer you wait. (also one of my best lessons from Charlie Vernon)

2) New socks. I love how amazing a new pair of socks feels. My wife can verify my love of new socks.

3) Date night. Gotta make time for quality time with my wife, Danielle, as we are the foundation of the family and keepers of each others happiness.

What is your most gifted book?

Gotta admit, I don’t read much anymore. Well, I never really read a ton, but if there is one book I could come back to every week it would be “Zen in the Art of Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams. So many literal applications to what we do. I also love anything WWII.

Vocal repertoire revisited

A few years ago, I asked Dr. Cory Mixdorf (University of Arkansas) to write a guest blog for me based on a clinic he did regarding the preparation and performance of vocal repertoire. It is a rather thoughtful, convincing article that you can read here to get up to speed. I have been wanting to add my thoughts to this for quite some time, not only to reinforce Dr. Mixdorf’s points, but also add a few of my own.

It has always seemed to me that there are two ‘dug-in’ camps regarding the performance of vocal repertoire on trombone. One side says “Why bother? You can’t hear the words anyway. We have enough trombone repertoire from which to choose.” The other side — to which I heartily subscribe — says “Of course we should play vocal repertoire! We are a vocal instrument and this repertoire offers wonderful study and value regardless of missing text.”

I’m not here to say that I am right and you are wrong, but I would argue that there is a tremendous amount to gain from the study and performance of art songs, lieder, arias, folk tunes, and even Broadway/film melodies. First of all, the overall caliber of composer and wealth of compositions in the vocal repertoire is far superior to that of the trombone catalog. Granted, we have some wonderful repertoire, but nothing that truly compares to Brahms, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, Butterworth, Faure, Rachmaninoff, etc. We often fall into a trap as instrumentalists — especially brass players — of studying “Grade B” or lesser music. There is a place for it, and what I call Grade B might be your A+ prime, and vice versa, but we as a subculture too often get caught up on a trending composer or style that offers little aside from technical display. I’m not going to name names, and I’m sure we are all guilty of it, but there is that “bandwagon” repertoire from which can be challenging to break away. The masters who have set text to song offer something deeper for both the performer and audience to experience.

Furthermore, study of vocal repertoire directly benefits study of other repertoire, be it solos, etudes, or excerpts. Not only does the vocal approach help transport you out of the mindset of instrument operator, but seeing the direct relationship between text and compositional technique can greatly broaden your perspectives on non-vocal works. For example, Schubert’s “Der Atlas” from his Schwanengesäng cycle correlates to moments in the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony — at least to me. It is quite strong, forte playing that demands full, broad sound but also crystal clear articulation and direction of phrasing. It is frighteningly easy to lose control of sound and go BLASTO in both of these works, but the vocal concept greatly aids in avoiding this.

Along a similar veign, “Let Beauty Awake” from Vaughan-Williams Songs of Travel yields this lovely legatissimo, flowing style yet with a demand for clear articulation on repeated notes that helps me set the right mindset for the solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Rather than just trying to play great trombone technique and sound, one must become a vocalist. To me, that is a much more daunting task if one avoids the vocal repertoire! Put another way, give yourself the opportunity to break free of instrument operator.

The compositional and music theory aspect also play a role. Experiencing the direct correlation between text and compositional device greatly influences how we choose to play a phrase. When I prepare a song, I’m not just looking to play my best legato and make it all sound like a Bordogni. I analyze the chord qualities, differences in repeated text or compositional material, and generally how the composer conveys or supports the text through the notes. How do these qualities effect my musical interpretation and technical execution? Thinking this way opens up more possibilities and can offer more clarity of interpretation when you adapt this to non-vocal repertoire. Suddenly, the first page of the Ropartz, or Jongen, or Martin become something greater than a technical achievement.   I realize that without scanning exact examples of harmonic progressions, rhythmic devices, etc, it is difficult to point out exact places — perhaps in a future installment.

The last point I want to make relates to articulation. As trombonists, we tend to focus on either marcato or legato. So much of what we do is one or the other! However, I’ve always found that vocal repertoire demands much more nuance and exploring the “gray areas” in between marcato and legato. By studying the text and composers markings, we can adapt a more linguistic approach to playing. You make find yourself breaking written slurs in order to emulate the enunciation of a syllable, or using a firmer legato tongue than natural. This is great! It is rare that our trombone repertoire challenges us to make these decisions and employ such nuanced gradations of articulation. Embrace it, experiment with it, and carry it over to other repertoire.

OK, this is my last, last point. Listen to singers. Get multiple recordings. Follow the piano score. Be curious.