Keeping The Musical Drive Going When Everything’s At A Standstill

As of the time of this writing, we are less than one month from the one year anniversary of arts and culture grinding to a halt in Nova Scotia as a direct result of the global Covid-19 crisis. I remember the week leading up to it well. On Monday, Canada had its first Covid-related death, though it had still not entered the Maritimes. On Wednesday, I played a pickup gig with a jazz band at a senior’s home, as Canada topped 100 cases. On Thursday, the local Symphony cancelled the remainder of its season. On Friday, the universities cancelled in-person classes. On Saturday, I taught two lessons and assisted in one youth ensemble rehearsal. I remember the mood in rehearsal was pretty down, the director being acutely aware that it was time to pull the plug. On Sunday, Nova Scotia announced its first active cases, and that was the end of everything.

Since then, Nova Scotia has had some small periods of single-digit or even zero active cases. There have been some windows where small concerts are allowed, almost always by invite only, with proper physical distancing, and a reduced audience capacity. Us trumpet players are asked to wear bell covers and modified masks, and though I’m a staunch supporter of face masks, I’m much more skeptical of the efficacy of instrumental masks, or even the contagious range of most instruments’ “exhale zones,” for lack of a proper term.

Though we cannot perform to nearly the same degree we’re used to, and there are even strict limitations on how we can rehearse right now, one thing we can do that’s unchanged is practice. But is it really unchanged? What’s different between practicing now, and practicing pre-pandemic? The simplest answer is that it has to do with our goals.

Goal Setting Before the Pandemic

For many people who struggled to practice effectively before the pandemic began, that struggle was often related to structuring your practice session. These are the students that take their instrument out of the case, and then ask themselves, “now what?” In my own teaching, I address this issue by offering a four step structure to one’s practice session: by planning out in advance what you’re going to play, you don’t feel quite so aimless when you take the instrument out of the case.

Each step in my practice routine is based on achieving a specific goal. First, the warm-up, which promotes healthy airflow, listening closely to the sound you’re making, and expanding the range in both directions. Second, technical practice such as scales, arpeggios, and lip slurs, to develop dexterity of the fingers and tongue. Third, what I call the “due dates,” are to practice pieces for upcoming performances, including school and community ensembles, recitals, examinations, and any other gigs you might have. And finally, personal/fun practice, where you get to try out new repertoire, improvise, play old stuff that you like, or do anything else that you enjoy that’s not covered in the first three steps. By saving the best for last, it helps you get through the first couple steps because the reward awaits, and by ending on the best step, it leaves room for the student to continue playing after their “practice time” is up.

So, about those “due dates”…

You probably noticed the current problem with my practice method. If there are no concerts happening, what goal is there to practice towards? What due date are we trying to meet? You’re trying your best to improve your tone quality, and practice your scales, and increase your flexibility and dexterity, and learn everything you can about being a good musician, but where’s the payoff? Sure, there are people out there who are happy to make music in their room for just themselves, but I’d hazard to claim that they’re in the minority. Music making, at its core, is an art to be shared. When we play music, we do so with the intent of having that music heard. It doesn’t necessarily have to be by a paying audience, it could simply be by friends, family, or colleagues, but it is heard nonetheless.

So that’s the pickle that I found myself in this past spring, and still do now to some degree. I can practice at home, and work on my technical facility, or my phrasing, or my long tones, or my lip slurs, or sightread some new repertoire. But what’s the purpose of that repertoire? I’m not performing it. Why would I practice music for my ensembles? We’re not meeting. Don’t even get me started on things like orchestral excerpts. In what world are you expecting to find an audition? As the virus spread, and the pandemic started to become a longer and longer-term part of our lives, I don’t blame anyone whose fire for music wavered. Especially those of us who were struggling to find our stride before this all happened. All of a sudden, what few and fleeting goals we were grasping towards were yanked away indefinitely, and even writing this out is causing a wash of those emotions again. It’s very hard, not being able to make music.

Okay, time to stop being sad. The world just cranked music-making up to hard mode. What are we going to do about it?

Keeping the Drive Alive

If there’s one truth to being a good musician, even during the best of times, it’s that you need to be in the 1% that the system floats to the top early you can’t be a quitter. It takes hard work and perseverance to hone your craft. (It also takes a lot of luck and is often helped or hampered by some unfair advantages at a young age, but that’s the topic for a future entry)

I’ve had to think a lot about what my goals are when I practice these days as well. I’ve come up with four areas that I really think are the focal points to a successful pandemic plan, or at least a musical pandemic plan. So, here are my musical pandemic goals, and if you’re struggling to find your own musical pandemic goals, hopefully they’ll inspire you to re-kindle that flame and become the best musician you can be.

I want to stress one more time though: this is a worldwide emergency. You need to come first. If you are in a comfortable place, relatively safe, where you feel you have the time and energy to improve, that’s great. If you are currently in survival mode, or barely hanging on, that is your priority. Simply making it though is the most important thing you can do. You’re under no obligation to learn new skills if the weight of a world falling to pieces has you done in. I see you, and I support you. The rest of this article is for when you’ve made it, you’ve stabilized, and you’re ready to move on. Prioritize your safety and your secured existence first.

Goal #1: Coming Out of the Gate Swinging

The first one’s pretty obvious, but: a lot of us are probably going to be pretty out of shape by the time public concerts are back in full swing. If you want to have a leg up, you’ll want to make sure you’re at maximum capacity right from the start. It’s easy to let things slide, harder to be diligent and keep yourself in peak condition. If you can be as strong (or stronger!) a player when all this is done, that alone should mean you’ve been successful. However, if you’re able to take advantage of all the “extra time” we have on our hands, there’s more we can do than just practice our instrument alone.

Goal #2: Sharing Your Music Online

Music, more than most other artistic disciplines, is a social art. We want to share, and we want to be heard. So, since we’re doing everything else online, why not throw caution to the wind and make music online? Lots of musicians have been posting snippets of their practicing as a kind of live practice journal. I’ve even been doing something similar, as I work my way through the 150 songs from The Art of Phrasing in the Arban’s Book.

Remember, even if you’re a more junior musician, the point of posting online is not to compete, get as many views as possible, or show up others. It’s to share, but it’s also to create a goal for yourself. At the end of the day, I don’t care if no one watches my stuff, because I’m doing it to give myself a goal. By having something to work on, with a self-imposed schedule, that progresses from easy to difficult, it simulates the kind of structure that you might have during the time in your life when you were improving the fastest. Not to mention, recording yourself and listening to it is good for your development anyways, so I’ve actually noticed and addressed (I hope!) some things in my own playing over the course of this project. Watching the video and audio quality get slowly better over time is a nice touch as well.

Goal #3: Expanding Your Abilities

When you live the busy life of a musician, it can be so much work keeping up with the music, styles, and programmes that you’re already playing that you don’t have time to add new skills on top of that. Now that those shows have slowed down, maybe now’s the time to expand your skillset!

If you don’t have any experience improvising, well, there’s no one to play with right now except for backing tracks, so it’s a great time to start. If you find your theory skills are lacking, reading and learning for fun because you want to is much more enjoyable than learning in a classroom that you only have to be in for credit. If there’s a style you love but haven’t had time to learn, go down the YouTube rabbit hole and immerse yourself in the sound. You can find lots of masterclasses and discussion videos with world-class players, if you just take the time to look.

Well? Get going.

Goal #4: Building Up Your Music Collection

One thing I’ve thought several times before the pandemic, as a young musician struggling to find my stride, is that I’d like to get a band or ensemble together, but I don’t have the time to build up a repertoire for them to play, and no one’s going to want to join a group that has nothing to play. Well, now’s the time to build your library up. Composing and arranging are just as important to music-making as performing, since in all but the freest of jam sessions, the performers need something to play. Take some time to sit down and write, maybe alternating with your regular instrumental practice. Reach out to colleagues who play instruments you might not know how to write for and ask them for tips (drums, I imagine, is a big one here). That way, when we get out the other end of this, and people are looking for things to do, you’ve got the resources to start gigging right away. You could even post some teasers online in the meantime!

In Conclusion

I’ll say it again: if you need to be in survival mode, that’s valid. No one is asking for you to make grand strides while the entire world is in a barely-functional panic mode. But if you’re ready to make progress, and you don’t know how, hopefully some of these suggestions will help guide you down the path of improving your musical abilities.

Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.

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