Thursday, January 31, 2008

Teeth and Knees: Bad Habits

I've been noticing recently some physical, non-musical things I do while playing. Mainly, the reason I've been noticing his because these things are causing me pain: I clench my teeth and lock my knees when I play. I'm sure they are affecting my playing via my phrasing and tempo. It's not a consistent thing. It doesn't even happen just when playing a more difficult piece. It's intermittent, habitual, and seemingly random.

This reminds me of the importance of not picking up bad performance habits. Beyond these physical habits, I’m trying to break some bowing habits (e.g., starting everything with a down bow or not using hooked bowing) and some bad fingering habits. (I'm not as worried about the fingering as the bowing as my intonation is good. Maybe I’m even on to another "new method.") In the end, these habits serve as roadblocks in my playing and a need to break them.

I've been able to break other bad performance habits. For example, I used to brathe heavily through my mouth to the tempo of the music. This created a strange "huffing" or "whooping" sound on 1 and 3, 2 and 4, … or every beat. Fortunately I broke the habit. Unfortunately, there are at least four recordings out there where, if you listen carefully, you have definitive proof of this bad habit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Goals and Goal Setting

I've been thinking about undertaking some research on goal setting and individual behavior when facing goals. In part, this is because I use goals all the time to motivate my own efforts. For example, I use goals (and crazy commitments to other people) to motivate making progress on research (e.g., writing one good paragraph a day, writing a proposal every two months) and musical etudes (e.g., playing a certain piece, playing at a certain tempo). I use longer-term goals (e.g., finishing writing a trade book by summer, learning to play Bottesini's Concerto #2 in B minor by the end of the year) and short-term goals. The latter are particularly useful when organizing my day. In fact, I keep a little journal, tracking my time in various endeavors against a goal regarding an amount of time for each. (The point or goal of the journal is to try and minimize the time their waste in a given day. Keeping the journal may be a waste of time in itself, but I only spend 5 minutes on that per day.) This helps me balance my musical and professional activities and serves as a reminder of where should spend my time versus where am spending my time.

In some sense, I'm following the advice embedded in a paper by Chip Heath (Goals as Reference Points, Health, Larrick and Wu, Cognitive Psychology, 1999): goals serve as reference points that can motivate behavior, but can just as easily be discouraging and counterproductive. For me, meeting small goals (e.g. writing one good paragraph per day, practicing for two hours a day) serve to motivate me in the right ways. My little journal documents my subgoals which lead to my longer-term goals.

I think goal setting is a valuable exercise and people should set goals, using to improve themselves. This can mean using goals in somewhat indirect ways (e.g., the benefits of, say, reading one book per month is that you enjoy one book per month and you get better at reading; the goal of this blog is to get me to write more and, hopefully, better). The key is setting goals that are meaningful, attainable, and provide the right motivation.

That said, I'm not too rigid about my goals. Missing a short-term or subgoal it's pretty insignificant. Hell, my goals are more of a wish list. I can miss most of them and really not sweat it. The motivating force is that I feel good about myself when I meet my goals. Setting small ,daily subgoals means I’m more likely to meet them (and hence my longer term goals) and therefore feel good about myself. In the end, that's the ultimate goal.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wrist Twists

Musicians often neglect the importance of their physical health. I have many friends who have suffered preventable injuries that have had a big negative effect on their playing. For me, my wrists have often bother me and in my plain painful (and as a result on enjoyable). One "cure" I found has been yoga. Particular positions (e.g., downward dog, back bending) give opportunities for your wrist open up and stretch. This builds muscles and flexibility which can prevent the repetitive strain injuries.

Jason Heath recently referred to a post by Denson Angulo in which the following exercise was presented:

step 1: Extend your arms in front of you with your palms facing out (wrists bent up/back) lock the elbows

step 2: make fists as hard as you can squeeze

step 3: open your hands as ‘hard’ as you can. fully extend the fingers.

step 4: repeat steps 2 & 3 as fast as you can for as long as you can…

i doubt many people here can go past 1 minute without wanting to cry.

this will strengthen and stretch muscles and strengthen the insertion points of your tendons….

I was able to do this for about 45 seconds. However, it seems to me that this is the wrong kind of exercise to be building flexibility as it seems to create a workout for the tendons (and some associated muscles) and opens the risk for excessive strain.

Here are the exercises that I do and recommend to others. They focus on stretching the rest in building flexibility: The first is to hold your arms out to the side creating a straight line from one wrist to the other (i.e., arms held out to be in line with the shoulders). Move the hands so they face vertically (perpendicular to the wrists) and hold them there for three breaths. Then counterbalanced the stretch by making the fingers face downwards (again perpendicular to the wrists) and hold this for another three breaths. This not only flexes the wrist but also opens up muscles throughout the arm (in particular the armpit) which are important for rotation and movement of the whole arm (something I encourage when playing pizzicato or slapping).

The second stretch was suggested to me by yoga instructor. Sit on your knees with your hands on the floor, hands turned outward so that the fingers are pointing towards the knees. Your hands should be about 1 foot in front of your knees. Pushing your palms down and keeping your back straight, pull your hips back. This pulls back your whole torso and opens and stretches the wrists. Do this for a count of five breaths and then repeat the posture with the wrists stacked, palms up, fingers facing the knees. This reverses the stretch and builds/stretches muscles in the top of the forearm. This stretch has worked great for me and, when space and decorum permit, I try to do this before the start of each gig.


Being a parent of a child with autism, I'm used to certain manner in which we (i.e., my son and I) do things. For example, restaurant dining usually involves getting up and wandering around with my son, singing songs of the table, and having conversations in which I talk to and answer for my son. To other patrons this probably looks a bit odd. (In my experience servers and patrons are very understanding and make all sorts of accommodations for us.)

This last week we went out for fries after an afternoon of hiking. We went to a restaurant we'd been to before and as before, arrived there about 3 p.m. The restaurant is usually empty around this time (save for a few people there for coffee) but on this visit there were several people eating, including a mom with her two children. We went about our usual routine but I couldn't help but notice how the other family talked, ate, and behaved. I didn’t feel any jealousy, self-pity, or frustration. (At one time, when my son was first diagnosed, these were the only emotions I felt). I just kind of realized that, at least for the last while, I had forgotten how a "typical" kid does things, and hence how a typical parent and child interact and do things like eat at a restaurant.

We typically measure what is normal relative to a benchmark. A large literature in behavioral economics (e.g., prospect theory, the theory of mental accounting, and insights from research on subjective well-being) has demonstrated this time and time again. I guess this is part of the reason why children without special needs are referred to as "typical" rather than "normal". Our dining experience made me recognize (again) how important interacting with others, observing the world, and taking advantage of the opportunities social interactions present are in working with my child. By observing these things and taking advantage of these opportunities, I have a reference of what is typical. This helps me challenge and push my son to behaving "typically" and being more independent. Having challenges in one's life (e.g., an autistic child) can naturally breed a sense of isolation and motivate behavior that separates you from others. Not only is this bad to the well-being of a caregiver, but it can be bad for the therapy design and well-being of a child.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rockabilly in the Orchestra

So I had my first rehearsal in an orchestra. The bass line consisted of five bassists, all of which were roughly half my age (not that that should matter, but in some strange way it did). They were all very friendly in greeting me. Our first piece was Tchaikovsky's 4th. Sight reading this piece gave me three insights: my sight reading needs a lot of work, the other players in the section are VERY good, and I'm not as bad as I thought. I actually held up OK. One guy even commented that he thought I did well for my first time in an orchestra. Some of them even asked me for advice on playing pizzicato. (I didn't slap anything or stand on my bass. That would have really impressed them!) In other words, I did OK and I felt great leaving the rehearsal. The later pieces were a couple of student compositions and part of the Brandenburg Concerto. (I didn't do so well in the last one.)

There is something about playing in an orchestra (this one is only about 40 pieces) that is magical. Being with that many musicians playing a piece (almost regardless of how it comes together) is inspiring and gives you a kick. I have to admit that for the last year (at least) I've been thinking of putting things down and leaving my current band. I feel inspired by the experience to try and become more proficient and more creative in all my musical projects.

I now understand the desire to be in the ranks of an orchestra. I've always said that people should have to, at some point, perform in front of others. Whether its playing music, giving a public talk, lecturing, teaching a yoga class... whatever. The idea is that you should have to get up there, give something your all AND let yourself be judged by others. Most times, you never hear the judges comments. Most times those comments are good/neutral. Sometimes they are bad, and sometimes you can learn from those comments. Now I think I should add performing as an anonymous part of a group. This lets you experience the magic of having a group come together and play. The key is that, if it goes well, you'll never get the credit for it. You will however get an inner spark or "kick" from the experience.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My first (real) audition

So I took a big step: I auditioned for the orchestra at the university. At 40 years old and only having recently started taking lessons (only 1 lesson thus far) it was more than a bit daunting. In fact, I wavered between canceling and showing up with increasing frequency as the audition approached.

Although I've been playing for years, I never had the opportunity to take lessons. I also never had the opportunity (or until recently the desire) to play classical music. There is always a challenge, an excitement, and fear in the new. On my mind as the audition approached was the latter: failing in front of a colleague (the conductor), failing in front of the other musicians if I do make it to the rehearsal. In addition, there is something about being my age and joining an orchestra where, on average, I'm twice as old as everyone else is a bit embarrassing or at least causes me to question the path I chose. I know that these fears/anxieties are ill placed and just stand in my way of moving on and getting better at playing, but they are there and they are real. That's part of the challenge and the excitement I guess: over coming this kind of mental crap.

Anyway, the day of the audition I practiced at home for almost three hours. This included scales (good idea) and trying to pick some new pieces to play at the audition (bad idea). I played horribly at the audition, stopping and re-starting several intermediate solo pieces. I was amazed at how bad I was playing relative to how things went at home. I told the conductor I was nervous and I apologized. He told me my intonation was good, he though I had good rhythm. Then he gave me the "what the hell" shrug and told me to be at the rehearsal the next night. So, for the first time, I'm playing in an orchestra.