1) Take a cup and fill it to the brim with water
2) Place cup on a table
3) Stand at the table facing the cup
a) Relax completely
b) Take note at how relaxed you are
c) The goal is to remain this relaxed throughout this exercise
4) Take note of any part of your body that becomes tense, and relax them as you do these steps
5) Using your dominant hand, reach for the cup very slowly
a) Be sure to keep your neck, shoulders, and back relaxed as you reach
6) Slowly grasp the cup, only enough to lift it without dropping
b) Do not over squeeze
c) Still make sure your neck, shoulders and back are relaxed
7) Slowly lift the cup from the table to a drinking position
a) Watch that your neck, shoulders and back do not tense as you lift it
b) Do not over squeeze the cup, only as firm as necessary
c) Bring the cup to you, and do not lean your head forward towards the cup
8) Take a sip
a) Watch that your neck, shoulders and back do not tense as you do this
b) Do not over squeeze the cup, only as firm as necessary
9) Slowly place cup back onto the table
10) Observe if you are as relaxed as you were in the beginning
a) If you are not as relaxed, which body part was tense?
b) If you repeat the exercise, observe when and where that body part becomes tense
c) Isolate this way and relax as necessary to make this action more efficient
d) This exercise can be applied to any everyday task
"Your eyes deceive you, don't use them"-Star Wars
Something I remember as a child was my attempts to try things I saw on television, all good things thankfully. Like when I first got into wrestling and still thought it was real, I started working out profusely and got really big and muscular in a fairly short amount of time. It was really awesome knowing that I could actually have certain things I saw help me in real life, not just physically but mentally. A show like "Avatar the Last Airbender" has so many adult themes/coming of age themes, and I found it helpful for me to see kids go through what I was going through at that age, even though they were fictional. Long story short, any medium can be inspiring in the real world and I keep my eyes open for anything that helps.
Star Wars has always been one of those series where people could quote scenes or even the entire movie verbatim. My dad loved the series and we would watch it often enough that I became obsessed myself, and every time I'd watch it, I would find something that I didn't notice before. The above quote is one of those things. As a percussionist, hand eye coordination is a big part of what we do, especially on keyboard instruments (pianists are in the same boat as well). Because of this, our reliance on our eyes for where things are in relation to where we are is something we develop very early on in our development. However, once we generally know where things are, do we really need to look anymore? The energy we spend on looking at the A natural, and then aiming for it, takes away from the reaction time. If we know where the A is, why look? Honestly, it's a comfort thing I think.
Take snare drum for instance. It's only in one spot. Why look at it? Your sticks aren't gonna go over the edge. If anything, looking at the drum made me more nervous because I was trying to make sure things were exactly in one place and that I hit the drum correctly, instead of just dropping the sticks and using my sense of touch. They say, when one sense is gone, all the others are heightened, so I thought to myself, can I use that to my advantage? If Beethoven can make more beautiful music after he's lost his hearing, what can I do if I stop looking at what I'm playing? The obvious progression therefore was to practice in total darkness. At DePaul, there were a couple rooms where if you turned the lights out, it was pitch black. So I turned the lights out, and a couple things happened.
The first thing is the feeling of darkness. Cold and spacious. Everything feels like it's farther than it really is, but also it feels like nothing is around, vacant and just chilly. A scale feels really contained when played like that, the space is magnified extremely (or minimized). The other thing was that I still had my eyes open, so I was looking at darkness. When you have your eyes closed you may still have a sense of light on the outside of the lids, or maybe not, but your not looking at what is dark because it's basically caused by your closed eyes, and you can open them whenever you want. But knowing that you are staring at darkness and can't "open your eyes" is a really weird feeling. A lot of trust has to come into play here. The fact that the floor is there. When you feel a door handle, you question it. Is this the correct door. Sense of direction, which way is which. Everything you know becomes questioned.
There I stood by the light switch, and I knew that the xylophone was in the opposite direction, about five feet away. Ok, so I make an exact U-Turn, and walk like five steps forward. I tried that, and bumped my calf on a chair, luckily it was the soft part. Then I hit a music stand trying to move the chair. Finally I found the xylophone and realized I didn't know where my stick bag was. More hilarity ensued of course, but I did get to play a scale eventually. And It Sucked. C-major is so hard without a point of reference to look at, but I learned a lot from it. My left hand loves to travel too far in the direction it is going. My right hand tends to ignore where the left is, so if my intention is to play CDE, my left will play C and my right will play C, because it doesn't know what my left is doing, or where to go in relation to it. Sooo many doubled notes. After about 10 minutes, I could play a C-major scale going up well and kind of going down. When I turned the lights back on, I could play both ways without a second thought.
My whole philosophy about technique is to be able to do something harder than the thing you have to do. So, if I can play an excerpt blindfolded, it'll be way easier when I can actually see. I don't play blindfolded as often now, but man, when I did, my playing really improved, and my sense of where things were on instruments was enhanced as well. I say give it a try. Even if you don't actually look at your instrument, see how you feel when playing in total darkness. All you have is your sense of touch and hearing, and really those are the senses that we really need to focus on as musicians. Our eyes may tell us where things are generally, but really our sense of touch tells us exactly where things are, and our hearing if it's right. I'm sure intonation would be pretty poor if we just used our eyes to locate a note. Even if we know exactly where a note is one day, things change all the time and we have to react quickly, not look for the next exact position with our eyes. In any case, this quote gave me another practice tool that really helped me, and if nothing else, gave me something to challenge myself with for a very long time.
To create sound movement must occur. With this movement comes the opportunity for either efficient or inefficient motions, and accurate or inaccurate execution, and all causes can be found in two places: the mind and the body. Closing the gap between what’s in the mind and its manifestation through the body is key to creating more fluid and immediate responses in our playing.
1) What Do We Use?- whatever instrument we play, there are specific body parts that we use in specific ways. Knowing exactly what those parts are, how they interact with others, how they move and how their movements affect the sound is key to being comfortable with playing anything.
2) When Do We Use?- what are the circumstances that call for a specific movement? Maybe it’s a subito piano, or a faster tempo. Explore those scenarios and figure out what is being used at those times. The more scenarios you study, the more knowledge you’ll have about what you do, good or bad, and if it can be “better” or if it’s fine.
3) Why Do We Use?- why in those situations do we use what we use? Are there other options or is this the only way it will work?
4) How Do We Use?- is there ease or difficulty in the execution? If difficulty, is this caused by lack of experience, lack of physical facility, tension, etc.
What are we developing the physical technique to do? What effects are we trying to create?
1) Timbre- what general sound are we going for? Even if the required sound is darker or brighter, the core of the sound should be stable and match the beauty of your normal sound. What in the body facilitates that (a bright, dark and general sound)?
2) Dynamics- can we maintain the quality of sound while playing different dynamics? The common tendency is for the sound to get brighter as the dynamic increases and darker as it decreases. How do we make the character of sound consistent, and what does the body have to do in order to accomplish that?
3) Tempo- can we maintain the quality of sound while playing at different tempi? What does it feel like to play fast, slow and everything in between, within the confines of a bright, dark, general, etc. sound?
How do we develop the technique? Exercises that specifically target each part of the body that we will eventually use in a performance, in various situations including dynamics, tempos, timbre, lengths of notes, etc. Explore and experience.
1) Long Tones
3) Dynamic Contrast
4) Subito Dynamics
6) Rhythmic Integrity
At Interlochen I was tasked to do a masterclass, so I wrote out three options: one about accessory instruments, one about the physical aspects of percussion, and one about my process of developing my technique for performances. This is the outline of the last one and I hope it is helpful!
Preparatory, Instinctive, Improvisatory- Joshua D. Jones
The most important step is the preparation. This is where foundation is laid. The bigger the structure the deeper the foundation must be and the building can get as big as you want it to get.
1) Warm Up- simple, calm, easy exercises that get the blood flowing, muscles ready and the mind focused. Scales, rudiments etc.
2) Goal Oriented Practice- with a set goal in mind you know the end from the beginning. This will influence what steps, explorative measures, that will get you there.
3) Quality vs. Quantity- every goal has an immeasurable time of accomplishment attached to it. If one tries to place a time maximum on their practice the focus is no longer solely on the goal itself, but making sure one gets to that X hour mark. It is what we do with whatever time that we have that makes a difference. Make sure, if time organization is a factor, that it is also goal oriented and not making a time mark.
4) Exploration in Practice- having an active imagination during practice will decrease opportunity for redundancy. Find other intelligent ways to arrive at the goal.
5) Over-Tension = Trouble- if you’re too tense you are getting in your own way of naturally producing the results that you want. There is also a difference between gaining endurance and straining muscles. If it hurts, you’ve gone passed the limit and you must stop immediately. Know your body and be smart! Once you are practicing naturally you can begin to make what you are practicing into second nature.
Repetition is like a determined person with a small shovel. If they keep digging, no matter how small the shovel, the hole will continue to get larger. The bigger the hole, the easier it is to fall into it. The longer you do something the more it becomes a part of you, eventually into a second nature, Instinct.
1) Slow Practice- doesn’t mean just practicing the tempo slower, but EVERYTHING SLOWER. That includes every motion involved with every action. Anything practiced slow enough is easy to do.
2) Mental Practice- everything we do begins in the mind. If we exercise what we see, hear and feel in our mind it will influence what we do physically and make it that much more tangible.
3) Listening- the sound we produce is caused by the brain. If we know the sound we want, our body either will know how to create that sound or must be instructed on how to produce it. Having an imaginative, open ear is key to making music. The ear influences the feel, and the feel influences the sound. Whichever way you are more comfortable with looking at, eventually the other alternative will click and you will be able to use both pathways to make music.
4) Feeling- remember it is your body that is producing the sound through the instrument. Natural motions are the key to gaining instinct. The more natural the motions you are learning feel, the more it will become second nature. Remember, over-tension creates trouble.
5) Practicing the Basics- remember, the deeper the foundation, the taller and more stable the structure can be. If you want to add to your physical repertoire of techniques, or build the building higher, the more you must build and strengthen your basics. Fluidity between anything technically “elementary” must first become second nature before more can be added to it, for everything extends from those basics.
The first two steps are both apart of the preparative process, but once the work has been put in you must let it happen. When it is performed naturally it will never be wrong and you can consciously make changes to it if you want to, not merely play a rehearsed mechanical performance. Everything you practice must have the openness and freedom to be improvised on, musically, dynamically, tempo wise etc.
1) Halls/Auditoriums- more than likely we are practicing in small practice rooms. This becomes a problem if our technique hasn’t been prepped for the size of a large auditorium. This can be countered by finding time in larger spaces and listening to the differences or imagining what the difference could be while in a practice room. It’s easier to do the latter if you have at least one experience in a larger hall, but not impossible. You cannot go into a hall and play your prepared “practice” room pieces. You must adapt to the hall. This is why having it already second nature is important, because you won’t have to worry about playing to the hall and the technique at the same time. Your imagination will direct what your body already knows how to do.
2) Playing WITH People- remember that you are apart of a group. What you do with your part influences them and vice versa. Even if you are soloing, the hall is your partner. It sounds different with people sitting in the chairs and you must adapt to that. Conductors also may do something different and you must be in a flexible position in order to follow them. Again, if it’s second nature, you can consciously manipulate subconscious processes.
3) Find the NEW- even though we prepare and have a certain vision for a piece, there is always something new to find while we perform. Another instrument we didn’t notice or another duet we weren’t aware we were apart of. When we search for these things during performance it makes it more interactive for the orchestra and more enjoyable for the audience.
4) Act on Your Instincts- if the atmosphere creates an idea that is appropriate at the time, act on it! That’s a musical moment that you can create and give life to that performance. The more those happen the more alive the concert will be! It is scary, but if you second guess yourself in that moment, it will be lost. Have courage at all times and you will be rewarded with another great experience.
5) HAVE FUN- this should be a new experience every time and exciting to be apart of something that is ever changing. The more you “play around” in this environment, the more you will learn about everything involved, the piece, the orchestra, the audience, the conductor, the hall and most importantly yourself!
Using no way as way, using no limitation as limitation- Bruce Lee
Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our imaginations, our possibilities become limitless- Jamie Paolinetti
True, no man can do more than his best: but what is his best? Just as far as his imagination will go. That is a man’s best- E. Douglas Taylor
You have to fail to find the New- Robin Williams
Be You. Be Heard- Josh Jones
One of the things we should and do strive for is flexibility and versatility within our instrument and musicality, and while hours and hours of practice get us to a certain level of ability, the "last phase" is a lot less concrete than we'd like it to be. I'd get really frustrated with myself in college, and even now sometimes, because of my inability to make something sound "like my instructor's sound or interpretation." I'd get even more frustrated going into an audition, playing what I thought was a great round, technically sound, and wouldn't get passed the first round or wouldn't win in the final round. I thought that practicing my technique and the pieces at all the tempos and dynamics was enough for my lessons and the audition, but there was always something missing. 2+2 just was not equaling 4 and I did not know why, and it was making me crazy.
Instructors can't directly teach what the "missing ingredient" is, but they can direct you towards what it is for you. You've probably heard these phrases before: "Sing more" "Play it like a vocalist" "It should flow more" "Play it like a dance" "It should sound scarier" "More elegant", etc. The adjectives could go on, but none of them give us a specific answer, at least one that we can process into a technical exercise in the moment. These are all feelings or subjective ideas, but they all produce an emotional response, both in the musician and in the listener. It's basically going for an effect rather than trying to play the page, by playing the page as an effect (that's the way I think of it now). Yes, we have to play the page, but if that's all we're doing, there's no point and it ends up sounding boring. Usually we take this problem and try to solve it by phrasing more and/or having more dynamic contrast. This does help a lot and usually will work, especially in excerpts, but when a solo piece comes up, specifically Bach, there's a certain way of playing his music, traditionally and otherwise, that makes it sound great and not just good. You can't spell out what it is, because it's so subjective and almost indescribable.
If I had to give this a specific description to what it is, as far as what it is to me and what my instructors and colleagues have told me, it's this: technical ability to accomplish (as close to) anything that is thrown your way, letting your technique become like conversational speech (making that technique second nature so you don't have to think about it and just play), playing the effects on the page (if there's a waltz pattern, there's a certain way a waltz feels, same with a march or otherwise), going for your personal musical choices and instincts (not just playing a rehearsed way of playing but always looking for another way, within the structure of that piece). Finding freedom within your technique, within the pieces you play, and within your musicality and instincts of expression (some people say playing classical music like it's jazz, basically like you are making it up, or making it sound natural and "unrehearsed").
As soon as I let go of worrying about playing everything exactly as I rehearsed, or playing perfectly, I started feeling freer in my performances and it allowed me to focus on and make more phrases, even better than I had rehearsed. The same goes for my technique. When I knew I was at a point where I didn't have to work to make anything happen, I accepted that, "It doesn't have to be a battle every time" or "I don't have to do anything to make this work." That's when my technique really started feeling more natural and second nature, and again I could focus on the music more, rather than worrying about what sounds come out. Your body and brain are extremely intelligent and really good at playing off of your instincts, so if you have worked out the technical parts of the piece, just let go, go for the musical idea and your body will make it happen.
It's scary though because we want to make sure things happen in our performance. That's what we practiced all those hours for right? We probably broke everything down, played things through slowly, tuned every single note, listened to a million recordings, but if we don't let go, it will sound like we are trying, or working hard, basically, it won't sound natural. We have to get to a point where we don't have to worry about our technique. If we can produce the music on the page and the phrases we want, then our technique is fine, and we have to be ok with that. Our technique is fine. Now we simply need to let go, let our bodies do what we know they can do, and just go for the music and the effects it asks for. If we've done the specific work on the piece, we don't have to do that specific work in the performance. Just let it go, be free and play.
This month marks the third time I've gotten thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which the muscles in the neck cave in on the nerves, causing fatigue and loss of feeling in the fingers. With auditions a month away, you'd think I'd be freaking out, which I am, but not as much as even I thought. Rest isn't required in most cases, but particular stretches and exercises are to be done daily and often. In my case, fatigue is the biggest side effect, making lifting cymbals or playing timpani very difficult after a certain period of time. Even soft playing, as the majority of my technique stems from my back and shoulder, is very frustrating because of the lack of weight support and loss of feeling. I actually had two lessons this weekend, and as I played, none of my phrasings or dynamic extremes came across. So, I had to "work harder." It was very frustrating.
Tuesday, I'll be doing a mock audition, in preparation for the Chicago Civic Orchestra audition, and rather than physically practicing, I am working on my stretches, eating fruits and veggies, and mentally going over the music through reading the page and meditation. It's funny that this should happen now, as I was planning on doing a new meditation regimen anyway, so it gives me a reason to start a little earlier. Still, I do miss being at 100% and I do get frustrate that I can't play stick control for hours, but while the body may be out of commission, the mind is still active and can be put to good use. I highly recommend mental practice. The last time I had this condition was my senior year of college, and I had to play a recital with it. So, I mentally practiced everything, ran through what I could, including Casey Cangelosi's "White Knuckle Stroll" and Pius Cheung's "Etude in D Major." Fortunately, by taking breaks and doing stretches in between pieces, I was able to play the concert.
This injury isn't painful, and is remedied fairly quickly, but if I had to stop everything and just stretch, I would. Depending on what may come our way, as far as physical injury, the most important thing is a correct diagnosis and a healthy recovery. I haven't practiced at all this weekend, other than my lessons, and I don't plan on practicing today. However, I do plan on walking into my mock audition and playing very well, because I trust my preparation and my strategies of metal practicing. If you've done the work, all you have to do is trust and let it happen. Adjustments can be made throughout the rounds and even during the pieces themselves, if need be, so keep your ears open, and your body and mind flexible enough to react. Know your body, listen to it. If you have to stop, stop! Don't ignore signs of anything that is unusual and get it checked out as soon as you can. When you have to recover, don't rush it! Rather take the time now than have something permanently be a problem.
Something that I became obsessed with in college was instinct and reflexes within playing. While we work to develop our technique, become more "in control" of our bodies to produce sounds and music, we must also work to develop our instinctual technique. When you hear a sudden drop in sound, what is the instinct? Similar questions can be "answered," or discovered through constantly experimenting, and listening to different versions of pieces, or just any type of music in general. Of course, you have to prepare your music, you have to know the notes, the tempo changes, etc., but the mistake comes in when you are with the group or on the stage and you go on autopilot. Maybe the conductor decides to completely ignore the ritardando, and you are the only one doing it. Maybe you play a solo in an audition at a certain tempo but the hall is too wet, so the tempo you chose makes it sound muddy. If you aren't reacting, through your preparation, then things are more likely to go wrong.
It's probably the scariest, most difficult thing to accept about our development, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important things about performing that we can grasp. It does leave us vulnerable. It is almost counter intuitive to, basically, be willing to ignore your prepared style and method and simply react to what you hear. Maybe your plan works, maybe it doesn't, but you won't know if your closed off from the moment. Be willing to change, or else it might not sound appropriate or clear, etc. Again, prepare as much as you can. You should have control over everything that you can control, but there are always variables that will come up in the moment. The more comfortable you are with reacting within, or without, your prepared method, the better you will feel when change does come. Don't prepare to play, playing should be a reaction, a combination of your prior knowledge, your preparation and the information available to you at that moment. Don't just go on auto pilot, react and respond; that will make the magic happen.
The physical aspect of auditions, to me, has three main sides to it: performance, energy, and neutral state. In the days leading up to the audition, it's really important to take care of yourself. Enough nutrition and water to avoid any sickness and dehydration, and enough rest to avoid exhaustion and burnout. This is your "neutral" state, where you are in the holding area or musician's lounge waiting to play. Know what foods will be good for that day, it's different for everyone. Maybe coffee makes you jittery, so don't drink it well before that day comes, allowing it to completely leave your system. Every chance you have to make sure your body is ready to work, take it, go all out with it. You want to be thinking about the music, not, "Man, I'm really hungry/tired."
Next is the energy state, where "nerves" come into play. In my opinion nerves are just extra energy for your body to complete a difficult task, in our case, performing in front of a panel, any audience really. The trouble with this state is that it's hard to practice navigating these energies outside of the actual audition. Many have recommended running up and down a flight if stairs, or doing jumping jacks to simulate that feeling, but, at least for me, it doesn't feel the same. However, if you create a situation where you have to perform in front of a panel, that will give rise to the energy. So, getting in front of people, putting yourself on the spot and playing for as many audiences as you can will help you get to know that feeling, so that, when they do come up, it's not new to you, but common, even welcome. Nerves will help you play better, not worse.
Finally, the performance, my favorite part. As you are preparing for the audition, you will become more accustomed to the physical endurance and activity that will be required during rounds, and it's important to really learn and practice that. In my case, how does one go from playing a loud excerpt to a soft one? What if they ask you to replay a snare excerpt after you've played a cymbal excerpt? Playing different combinations of lists will help simulate different circumstances you may be faced with during a round, and gives you more flexibility within the entire audition. Try longer lists, or go from loud sustained excerpts to soft articulate ones. The more combinations you can try, the less surprised you'll be with whatever they put in front of you. When you do go to play, it should feel as close as possible to how you practiced. Yes, you have to adjust to the hall, but rather over or under working, just adjust whatever feel you've worked on to that difference.
I've tried a lot of things when it comes to preparing the body for an audition, and it really comes down to what will make you as comfortable as possible in a "stressful" situation. Take note anything that happens whenever you get nervous, not just when you perform. Do your hands shake, does your breathing thin out or get faster? Even ask yourself what you'd prefer during the moments before the audition. Do you like to eat in the morning or do you feel better if you haven't eaten (I like eating way before, giving me a chance to digest, but not feel hungry or full). Answer as many questions as you can pose and when the day comes you won't be as surprised if something does come up. If you take those proper steps to take care of yourself and plan for the physical demands, and issues that come with nerves, you will have a better handle on any performance. Happy practicing!
People don't usually ask me the specifics of my practice, and quite frankly I wouldn't even know where to start with explaining it. It tends to be very sporadic regardless of the goal, but it's heavily based in technique and fundamental exercises. Along side this is a lot of physical training that I do including working out, cardio to a certain extent and reflex training. I was fairly young when I started working out and it really stunted my growth, but luckily I grew to a height where I could still perform with little to no issues. The downside of this, for me personally, is that if I stop this regimen, especially the body building aspect, my technique begins to suffer. I can't play as easily, efficiently or as fast as I normally would when my muscles are at their strongest, and I think it's because of my early start with body building. Though this is a requirement for me, no one has to exercise to be a "good performer."
I would not recommend my workout to everyone, but I do think a general exercise that keeps the body fresh and youthful is essential to our lives. Take walks, maybe bring along a book to read and you can get the best of both worlds, having to do cardio and hold something fairly light for a longer period of time. If you do decide to begin some sort of workout, always start slow and really do your research to find out what would best suit your needs/desires. Know what you can and can't do, and if you are unsure, lean on the side of caution. Not everyone can be an Olympic champion, but we all can run at some level, and this is also true in percussion. I personally don't have the fastest fingers; Jojo Mayer basically blows everyone else out the water as far as that goes. Still, with proper and smart work, we can achieve our own personal peaks that give us full access and freedom to perform and express ourselves naturally without having to over work. We all have our own personal costs for our performances, and the sooner they're identified, the sooner they can be addressed.
One of the themes in my overall development has been slow practice. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I really understood what it actually meant. I had begun to not only practice notes and rhythms at slow tempos, but I also started slowing the motions themselves down. This could be compared to Tai Chi as far as the idea of slow movements giving you a chance to pin point and fix any unnecessary tension or hesitation. I literally think about every aspect of my strokes and movements towards and away from notes or positions that my body finds itself in. As I speed things along, I try to maintain, as closely as possible, the feeling of ease and care that each stroke had when it was slow. This has done wonders for my overall playing and my awareness during performance.
My best friend, Sara Neilson, is a bassist and she once decided that she would try to play her long tone exercises as slow as 30bpms. Of course this is difficult because there has to be a certain amount of impulse to get the note going, and there has to be a certain amount of pressure and speed to the stroke to sustain it. I think she eventually was able to play a 56 second long tone....WIth 1 down bow! She of course saw great improvement in her playing overall. This attention to her basic stroke helped her fix more things in less time and that's exactly why I continue to do the same. We now play long tones together whenever we are in the same city. My favorite dance duo, Les Twins, also practice slowly and even perform in slow motion at times (which literally looks unreal). It's amazing to see their bodies, not emulating the perception of slow motion, but actually doing the movements slow! It was incredible.
So please, don't count out the importance of practicing slow. It gives you a chance to locate any mistakes you are prone to making, or even notice bad tendencies and habits during your performance. Take the time now so you don't have to relearn or unlearn anything. Literally, slow and steady will get you to where you want to go.