NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

EXRE-MI00125-5

AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

piano-1024x682

AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

03 23 andrius zlabys 2015-01-17 4 photo-d.matvejavas©

Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

8333_450

There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

Touched by Creativity in Nature

by Joshua Roman

With Maggie Stapleton and Rachel Nesvig at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier (Washington State).

It’s no secret that some of the greatest composers in history have sought inspiration, solace, and rejuvenation in nature. Beethoven loved to escape Vienna to walk through the countryside, and Bartok was an avid collector of insects in addition to folk melodies from the countryside. And they certainly weren’t the only ones.

So good for them, right? Now we’ve got the (insert superlative) music they wrote, and we also get a glimpse into the natural world as they experienced it. At least, that’s what I would guess is the attitude of many of us based on our general (if not total) lack of engagement with the great outdoors. Myself, I’ve always loved being outside, and felt frustrated by the fact that my cello does not acclimate very well to wind, rain, heat, cold, or humidity. So being outdoors, which is a natural part of much of my life, has been largely separated from my artistic endeavors. A few multimedia projects – like some of the videos I shot outside for the Popper Project or my Everyday Bach videos – have hinted at a connection, but it’s only really this summer that I’ve begun to feel a tangible and powerful, even primal, creative force arise when out in nature.

View from Mount Si (little Si) near Seattle, Washington.

It started with a hike near Seattle. I was so ready to do something non-digital, something peaceful, that took me away from the demands of this life that start out joyful, but can easily pile up and become overwhelming due to their sheer volume. Here’s a picture from the summit – I was already feeling a calm but directional energy throughout the ascent, but upon reaching this view it exploded into a force of deep, resonant sound that was surprising and exciting. It was a sound that I couldn’t identify, except that it had a rolling momentum and begged to be orchestrated. Someday, it will. In the meantime, I cannot forget how it came from the peak next to ours, and though the grandeur was bigger than I knew how to express, the desire to share it was so very strong.

Lake Morraine near Banff, Canada.

At that point, I immediately knew I needed to do more of this. Luckily, my summer has taken me to such strikingly beautiful places as Banff to perform for TED in a collaborative concert I curated with other TED Fellows, Boulder for a series I curated (as well as for the Colorado Music Festival), and Maine for the Bay Chamber Concerts summer festival.

View from Bear Peak in Boulder, Colorado.

Looking at photos of stunning views is always nice, but for me they are most powerful when they serve as a reminder tied to a real experience. I’ve had more music come to mind in these places–a result of the inspiration and the sense of release we feel when we connect with our physical bodies and engage with the natural world around us. I think it’s about centering – a rich tapestry of experiences can certainly help us to learn about human expressiveness and the essential parts of our existence, but it’s important to find a way to stay grounded. Connecting with nature is a great way to achieve this balance.

View of the bay near Rockport, Maine.

Sometimes, if you can pull it off, a day or three away from everything goes a long way towards clearing the mind and allowing natural creative energy to flow. But even if that’s out of the question, finding a quiet park for a stroll, or a trail just outside of the city, can make a difference in the flow of artistry. If you can manage it, get outside–whether near or far–and allow yourself to be open to that special source which has inspired so many of our heroes – nothing is better than tapping into that directly.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Town Music Season Finale: Q&A with Andrius Žlabys

by Joshua Roman

On Tuesday, I’ll be joined on my chamber music series Town Music by Johnny Gandelsman, Arnaud Sussman, Kyle Armbrust, and Andrius Žlabys for a program of 20th and 21st Century works. We’ll present the world premiere of “Movement for String Quartet and Piano”, written by Andrius and commissioned by Town Hall Seattle. Andrius is a fantastic musician and a regular collaborator of mine, so I jumped at the chance to interview him over the phone about composing, performing, and his new piece.

download (2)By the way, you can hear this performance LIVE on Second Inversion – tune into the 24/7 stream on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm PST!

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

EXRE-MI00125-5

AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

piano-1024x682

AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

03 23 andrius zlabys 2015-01-17 4 photo-d.matvejavas©

Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

8333_450

There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

I hope you’ll be able to join us at Town Hall for the Town Music season finale on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm. If you’re not in Seattle, you can listen worldwide on the webstream here at Second Inversion!

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist

Girl Power!

by Joshua Roman

Damn, those girls can sing!

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Photo credits: Rachel Clee

I recently had the honor of collaborating with an incredible group of young women. Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, asked me to join them for a concert of canons spanning a timeline from the 13th Century to this year, with a world premiere of “Our Voice”, which I wrote this year for the girls and my cello.

I had worked with the chorus and their music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe last year on Vireo, a filmed opera by Lisa, and had been impressed by their musicianship and enthusiastic approach to new music. Our musical interaction in that work was mostly tangential, but it was enough to get the wheels turning in my head about how the cello could fit in the group, or contrast in a powerful way. There was lots of room for experimentation, and not just in the song I wrote. A lot of the canons we performed could easily be complete on their own, without the cello butting in, so it was in some ways a leap of faith that I would be able to complement the girls without distracting from the point of each little piece. I have to say, it was really Lisa’s daring vision that convinced me to embark on this project, and in the end she was spot on.

Most of the program was filled with canons that stuck pretty close to the “rules” – so creativity was definitely necessary to keep things from becoming too formulaic. In “Duo Way Robin” (Anonymous, 13th Cent.), I experimented with starting the canon myself and then moving to drones and rhythmic percussion on the body of the cello. In our selections from Haydn’s “The Ten Commandments of the Arts and other secular canons”, I improvised connections between each short canon. After leading the girls into each canon by playing a predetermined cue, I would mix it up by doubling a voice, taking a voice myself, or sitting out for a while and adding appropriate harmony below. The Franck and the Brahms had violin or viola solos which were easy to transcribe and didn’t require additional arrangement.

IMG_0035

“Our Voice”, the song I wrote for the girls, went through several forms before taking its final shape. In the end, I wrote the lyrics myself, something I had never done before. I found it quite difficult, and tried to imagine what I would want if I were in their shoes. I realized that the temptation to write something cherubic was front and center, and thought they must certainly be excited for characters to contrast with that, something with a little more bite. I ended up writing something I hoped would be empowering and also a bit defiant. “Listen to our voice”, and “we can be anything we choose” countered the tongue-in-cheek use of angelic harmonies on the word “angels”. One line, which I never felt I got exactly right in wording, but really felt like the right tone; “sure we’re angelic, but we’re so much more than that” was a transitional phrase that I heard repeated and sung in the hallways backstage. I was surprised and delighted to find it was actually some
of the girls’ favorite line
, and to that end felt very gratified that perhaps some of my words might prove useful to the girls as they build their own identities.

That was both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward; going after the goal of writing more than just a nice-sounding piece. Empathy is an important skill in any music-writing, but setting myself up with something so specific was rather daunting. Especially given the task of writing lyrics for the first time, decided to only play slightly with vocal techniques and canon intricacy, leaving the structure through-composed and letting the voices flock or join together in other ways as obvious turning points in the piece. All I really wanted was to write something they would enjoy, and that would make them feel strong, capable, and proud of themselves. Once again, hearing other people take notes I had written – this time even words – and make real music out of them, moved me far beyond what I expected.

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Thank you, girls, for showing me I can do this, too!

Four Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Practice Session

by Joshua Roman

I’m gearing up for the next trip as my 3 week stint at home in NYC comes to a close. It’s been nice to have so much time in one spot, especially as I’m putting the final touches on my new(ish) apartment space and getting my taxes out of the way. I love to use my time at home to prepare for upcoming performances, so that I can be present as much as possible while traveling. Lately I’ve been thinking about how to best use the practice time I have, whether at home or on the road, and some basic principles came to mind. I think they’re worth sharing. In fact, some of these principles are applicable to many tasks, pursuits, or other focus and skill-dependent activities – like writing a blog post!

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 11(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

1. Have a clear goal.

This is something that I’ve learned over the years, and I wish there were more emphasis placed on it when we are developing our practice habits. When you pick up your instrument, make sure you already know what you want to accomplish, and how much time you have to do it. Hours spent in the practice room are not the signifier of progress. Playing with the vague intent to generally “get better” is not as effective as having a basic plan to follow, and it’s better to change that goal mid-way through than have no goal at all. This goal can be as detailed as nailing a particular passage, or learning a certain amount of music and detail (I find this works best when you’ve studied the score beforehand with no instrument) or it can be a less tangible but still important goal, like setting aside time to:

2. Explore.

While task-oriented practicing is effective in achieving specific goals, music is also about exploring and finding your voice. New techniques, new sounds, sometimes even entirely new approaches or styles are waiting to be discovered if we would just experiment a little. I like to explore as part of my warm-up; mixing scales with little fragments of music I like, often adding some improv and loosely structured goofing-off. And by loosely structured, I really just mean setting a time limit so that I don’t neglect the more schedule-dependent results that I need to achieve. It’s nice to have time for this at the end of practicing, as well. This practice technique is particularly fun to throw into rehearsals. 🙂

3. Take breaks.

Breaks are an incredibly important part of practicing. Sometimes it feels like I get into a zone, and things just click. Often, after a practice session where I stay in that zone for too long, I find I didn’t really do anything once I got there other than just repeat things or run them for my own pleasure. That’s also important, but in terms of the lasting effects of any particular session, science and anecdotal evidence have shown us that letting the brain rest in between exercises (muscular or mental) increases our ability to retain the progress we’ve made. How many breaks you should take depends on the nature of what you’re practicing and way it fits into your day. I like to never play for more than 50 consecutive minutes, and if I’m working on something particularly gnarly or have a fast-approaching deadline, I cut that down to 30 minutes max. It might seem counter-intuitive, but in the end I get more out of the time I use and my muscles feel better as well. You can still do intense sessions; if I have a limited amount of time within the day to get things done I might do 50 min on, 10 min off for a few hours. I use a timer to help manage this, and generally stop right when it goes off unless I’m within one or two minutes from finishing whatever I’m working on at the moment. The timer I use is on my phone, which leads me to the next very important point:

4. Turn off distractions.

Phones have airplane mode, but mine might as well be called “practice mode”. It’s very important to make sure your mind is with you when you are practicing. This is the time you are developing the habits on which you will rely in performance, and the ability to focus is paramount. Shut the computer, hide the iPad, and turn off notifications on all of your devices. If you’re really concerned about missing an important message, many devices have features that will let you control just who can reach you at certain times. Otherwise, FOMO is not an excuse! You can check in on Snapchat and Facebook when the timer goes off; you’ll have to grab the phone to stop the timer anyway. For random ‘to do’s’ and inspirational thoughts that jump into your mind, set a pen and paper next to you to catch those items, and move on quickly. Personally, I do not consider the vibrate or silent mode extreme enough – airplane mode is the way to go.

One exception to this: I do enjoy experimenting with distraction sometimes, and think it’s worth it as a way to test your level of focus. I grew up in a house full of practicing, talking, and sometimes yelling (four kids, what do you expect?). Tuning out the noises around me was a necessity, and in some ways I’ve found that a busy practice environment can sharpen your focus if you approach it with the right attitude. Now, I will sometimes turn on the television and/or radio in my hotel room, and practice “against” it. I always feel good when I realize I have no clue what show is on even though it’s right in front of me. On the other end of the spectrum, I also like to practice with a sleep mask, and even earplugs, just to force myself to focus on the ear/mind/body connection.

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 1There are many elements to a good practice session, and everyone has their own unique personality which influences the nuances of their practice habits. What to practice, how much to practice, and when to practice are all important questions, and maintaining enough objectivity to know whether your practice technique is effective can be tough. I used to think I practiced best at night, but eventually realized that was just when I liked playing the most, because physical technique somehow gets easier for me later in the day. However, my best and longest lasting results currently come from first-thing-after-I-wake-up practicing. Ugh. Not a fun discovery. Sometimes that just means I take more naps, though…

(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

I strongly recommend that no matter how advanced you are, or happy with your routine, you change it up every once in a while to see what you might be missing. There’s always another way to look at things, and often we get comfortable with “good enough”, when “great” is just around the corner, waiting for us to look up and adjust our path.

These four simple tips are ways you can help bring the best attention to your practicing, whatever stage of a routine you may be in at the moment. Soon, I’ll be posting a few more specific thoughts on practicing in the 21st century. We may not be able to ask Brahms or Bach about fingerings, but we have a few tools of which they might well have been envious!

PLAYLIST:
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (full album)
John Cage – “Dream” from
Maurizio Grandinetti – Cage & Dowland: Equivoci
Ayub Ogada – En Mana Kuoyo (full album)