Sound Advice

Whenever I have the opportunity to hold a drum clinic or adjudicate a music festival and tape record comments for the performers, I often find myself saying to the students something like, "I hope my comments, at the very least, reiterate things that your teachers tell you on a weekly basis."; After all, I only instruct the students for a very short period of time, and don't know where they were a year or a month ago.; Their regular band directors and private teachers are the best judges when it comes to tracking progress; however, hearing from a guest lecturer or judge, the same advice their teachers have said 1000 times before, is often the energy needed to drive it home, where they can finally apply that concept.

Oddly enough, two of those ah-ha moments for me came from lessons that two of my friends told me about. I was indirectly influenced by their private teachers.

The first story was relayed to me by my friend, Rose, a clarinet major from Penn State. She had been studying clarinet with a renowned clarinet teacher at PSU for a few years at the time, was performing in the Wind Ensemble, and was also president of the world famous PSU Blue Band. During one of her private clarinet lessons she was struggling through an exercise, as so many of us can identify with. Inevitably, when the instructor asked why she couldn’t execute the particularly difficult clarinet passage, she, like many of us, started making excuses, trying to rationalize why she hadn't stepped up and practiced more.

We’ve all done it, whether in failing to prepare our music, neglecting our chores around the house, or always eating better…tomorrow, we all makes excuse at one time or another for our own shortcomings. In this situation, Rose’s teacher's response to her excuses was an epiphany moment for her, so much so, that when she relayed the story to me, it immediately increased my mental 'words to live by' list.

Rose listed her excuses for being unprepared and her teacher answered very simply, "I cannot grade you on good intentions." Wow! What a brilliant comeback to a student's excuses. That short phrase said so much. We all have reasons for not practicing or for being unprepared, but no one comes to a concert to hear 'good intentions', the audience wants, and deserves results!

Since Rose relayed this story to me, I have used that phrase verbatim with my own students, and with myself. The next time you think you’re too busy or stressed out to practice, remember the words of that clarinet instructor: "I cannot grade you on good intentions." I can guarantee you'll find the time to start sheddin' right away!

The next second-hand lesson I received was from my college roommate, Robert. We both performed in the West Chester University Marching Band our first years of college. Robert had arranged to take few pre-semester lessons with his private trumpet teacher in August, during band camp. Needless to say, Robert was not at the top of his game after two months off from the rigors of life as an undergraduate music student. The trumpet instructor agreed to meet Robert in his studio in the music building for a few lessons. This professor was a very tall gentleman, at least 6' 4", always dressed to the nines in a bow tie and jacket, and with a pair of reading glasses that hung just at the end of his nose, so that when you spoke to him, he peered over the glasses and literally looked down at you (a very imposing presence to say the least.).

Well, Robert went into his lesson and began struggling through some of the etudes that he was responsible to play at the beginning of each lesson. By the time he reached the second etude it was obvious that his chops weren't quite where they were when the summer began. The silence from the trumpet instructor was deafening as he continued to look down at his desk and read something. Each time Robert stopped, due to mistakes in his execution of the passage, the instructor would wait a few seconds, then in a very soft yet stern voice, he would say, "...again." Ultimately, Robert wanted the instructor to say ‘skip this one’, to give him a respite from the feeling of drowning in a sea of mistakes and sub par tone production. But each time he stopped, there was an awkward silence and the foreboding "...again" that resonated throughout the small studio. Finally, after many failed attempts at the exercise, Robert started making excuses for his performance, or lack thereof. The instructor never stopped looking down at the desk. Robert went on and on about his busy summer, never finding quite enough time to practice, and so forth. Then he finally said the following, "I'm sorry, but I'm just not in the groove right now...know what I mean?” The professor didn't say a word for what seemed like an eternity, and kept peering down at his desk. When he finally did lift his head, looking over those tiny reading glasses, staring straight into my quivering friend's eyes, he said "Robert...I'm never out of the groove.” Again, wow! "I'm never out of the groove." What a powerful phrase for musicians to remember and attitude with which to start everyday.

Even though I didn't study with either of my friends' teachers, their words have inspired me, and I repeat them to myself regularly. Our performance level, preparation and work ethic is truly up to us. Hopefully these words that were imparted to me by great musicians, from their master teachers, will inspire you and leave an indelible mark on you and your students too:

"I cannot grade you on good intentions."

"...I'm never out of the groove.”

Now get practicing!