Sunday, March 20, 2011

Learning How Not To Choke

Anyone who reads my blog with any regularity knows that when I travel, I usually have some remarks about or as a result of the books that I read while flying. Today is no different as I just completed a two-leg trip to Kansas City for the Annual National Conference of the American String Teachers Association. My reading material for today was a great little book entitled, "Choke" by Sian Beilock. It is a really interesting read that discusses "what the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to." In the book, she discusses performance and the act of "choking" on the athletic field, the classroom, testing environment, the concert hall, and other everyday situations. But, obviously, I was hoping to pick up some ideas surrounding musical performance specifically both for me and for my students. In reality, I found exactly what I was hoping for and found some great tips and information that should be very timely and applicable for my students, not only in the musical area, but in the classroom as well.

I have definitely noticed that I can't always predict when my nerves will get the best of me in a performance. But, I have seen a trend in recent years of being more nervous for performances that are local and in situations where I REALLY want to do well or inspire the folks that are in the audience. If I don't know the audience, I am much less likely to get nervous and "choke." Just last weekend, I was playing at a funeral for the father of a musician for whom I have tremendous professional and personal respect. In one of the pieces I was playing, which incidentally wasn't that difficult, I managed to "gack" a note in a tricky little shift not so much because it was difficult, but because I was telling myself NOT to mess it up. I had, in fact, choked. I messed up something that I have done perfectly a thousand times in the midst of a pressure filled situation. I messed up when it mattered most. I choked. Haven't we all choked at one point or another? We have all fumbled over words when asking someone out for the first time, missed the easy ground ball, squeaked on the clarinet solo in band, bombed a test, or some other variation the theme. It is a universal problem. But, some folks are more likely to choke than others. What causes the choke? How can we avoid or overcome the choke?

The book is based on a great deal of research and is very well-written. I found several sections of the book to be applicable to my life as a musician and public speaker and will certainly use many of the techniques that Beilock recommends for avoiding the "choke."

Having said that, the section that I found most interesting was on the topic of worrying. Beilock explains that when we allow worrisome thoughts to flood our brain, they take up so much of our working memory (our ability to work with information- regardless of what that information is, or, our general-capacity horsepower) resources, that our performance in any task can suffer tremendously. I guess that is not really a big surprise. But, check this out: even when the pressure filled situation subsides, it takes a while for our working memory resources to get back to normal.

Worries can really crush us. I know that I often will wake up in the middle of the night with an onslaught of worries. Thoughts of tasks that are undone at work, concerns about my children, projects that I am working, upcoming trips and presentations, and a variety of other things can cause me a tremendous amount of worry. I have always wondered how I could combat this.

Beilock gives a number of suggestions to combat worrying and I won't list them all here. For that you will need to buy the book. However, the one suggestion that she gives really resonated with me: write about your worries. She explains that taking the time to write about your worries gives your brain the opportunity to confront the worrisome situations and the act of written disclosure serves to lessen worrisome thoughts. I find this fascinating and intend to apply this to my own life and situation. I have often gotten up in the middle of the night to make lists or to write down the tasks that I am worrying about, but I have never written about the worries themselves.

For musicians, athletes, and academics, there is a great deal of highly applicable information in this book. I recommend it highly. For me students, this is a really thought-provoking book. I believe that it has relevance to your lives as musicians and as scholars. I hope that you will take some time to consider some of the suggestions on choke avoidance.

For now, perform with confidence and I hope that you don't choke!!



Saturday, March 19, 2011

D'Addario at ASTA

This week, I have been at the National Conference of the American String Teachers Association. It has been a magnificent conference with something for everyone. I have participated in educational sessions, learned a ton, given a few sessions, met new friends, and connected with old friends from around the country in the string education community.

One of the most informative sessions that I attended was "Demystifying Your Strings," presented by my friends and colleagues at D'Addario Strings, Lyris Hung and Fan Tau. In the session, they discussed and explained the differences between the various string cores, wrappings, tensions, and other issues surrounding string technology. Fan is simply one of the most knowledgeable engineers in the world of acoustics and designs D'Addario's strings from beginning to end.

The session was really well attended and incredibly interesting. Lyris and Fan are tremendous colleagues and did a great job with this one. In the video, Fan explains the concept of harmonics and how that relates to a "false" string.


Monday, March 7, 2011



Hey friends - take a minute to check out the new release from my friends, "Believer." I recorded a bunch with these guys in the 80's and 90's and am super-impressed with the new material. I hope you like it!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Big Experiences during Mini-Term

This week, the North Carolina School of Science and Math is in the middle of our annual Mini-term. Mini-term is a 7 day period when all other classes stop (we are actually between terms right now) and students can take one class, really focusing in on that topic for the 7 days. This year, there are students traveling to Spain, Belize, and a bunch of places around the world. There are students doing magnificent research that will lead them to big-time science competitions in coming years. There are other classes focusing on film, medicine, finance, languages, aviation and other interesting topics. I even ran into a student that is building a surfboard as his mini-term project. Too cool! The Mini-term week has always been one of my favorites because it really is a chance to focus on one thing or to try something new for the first time. It truly embodies all that we are as an institution at NCSSM.

My course for the week, along with my colleague, Phillip Riggs, is entitled Eastern Regional Orchestra. It happens that the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchestra Festival is during the weekend in the middle of Mini-term, so it is a natural that we would incorporate it into a class format. My students that audition for, and made it into ERO had the opportunity to take the class and really focus in on the event of the weekend. Last week, on Thursday and Friday, the participating students had all day to work on their parts to prepare for the weekend event. By all accounts, they felt good about their re-seating auditions and they really befitted from the time to prepare. Then, from Friday evening until the concert on Sunday afternoon, they fully participated in the 13 hours of rehearsal and related events. The event was a big success and all seemed to be very happy with their part.

The thing that is on my mind today, however, is what we have done after the event. You see, we have had another 5 days in the class and I want to be sure to provide a great learning opportunity for all of these wonderful students throughout the Mini-term. So, class has continued all week with a scheduled concert event each day. We have attended concerts at 4 different colleges or universities in the area with a mind toward experiencing some new things in the field of music as listeners, rather than as performers. The students, then, are asked to journal on their experiences and reactions as we move through the week. I have asked them to address the following points as they journal following the concerts:

  1. Their expectations prior to the concert
  2. Music Selection/Themes of the concert
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Composers that were represented/historical context
  5. Their impressions of the performing space
  6. The performance itself
  7. Their thoughts/impressions following the concert
  8. How did each performance relate to your experience with music and performance?

What a week we have had! We have attended some extraordinary performances that were thought provoking and enlightening in a variety of ways.

On Monday, we attended a concert at Duke University called "Goethe in Song" that was sponsored by the Music and Germanic Languages and Literature Departments. This thought provoiking performance focused on the texts of Goethe and the many ways that those texts have been used in the German Art Song. The performance included songs by Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Hensel, Wolf, and Clara Schumann. Some of the Goethe texts included Erster Verlust, Mignon, Das Veilchen, Ganymed and Dammrung Senkte Sich von oben. There was a magnificent lecture accompanying the performance by Nicholas Rennie of Rutgers University and the performers were Sandra Cotton, mezzo-soprano, accompanied by Ingeborg Walther, piano. This concert embodied all that we represent at NCSSM. It was interdisciplinary, scholarly, thought provoking, and challenging. I couldn't believe how fortunate we were to have stumbled on this lecture/performance as part of Mini-term.

On Tuesday evening, we attended a delightful choral concert at Meredith College in Raleigh. This all-women's school has a wonderful music program and we knew it would be a delightful departure from the heavy programming of the concert on Monday. We were certainly not disappointed! The women of Meredith gave a wonderful performance that included a little bit of everything, from a couple of heavy pieces, to a whimsical pop octet that performed, among other things, For the Longest Time, by Billy Joel, to works by Copland, works from around the world, and others. The groups were polished and graceful. The evening was set in the campus chapel and it made for a perfect venue for the performance. It was everything that a choral concert in that setting should be.

On Wednesday, we headed to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to see their resident faculty string quartet perform. The members of the string faculty there are friends and trusted colleagues and I was excited to hear them perform as a group for the first time. Known as the McIver Quartet, they are Marjorie Bagley and Fabian Lopez on violin, Scott Rawls, viola, and Alex Ezerman, cello. They performed Three Pieces for String Quartet, by Stravinsky, String Quartet No 3, by Jacob ter Veldhuis, and String Quartet no 1 in A Minor, Op. 7, Sz. 40, by Bartok. The performance was magnificent. Certainly, the students' musical horizons were stretched by the contemporary sounds of the works. But, the level of virtuosity demonstrated by the quartet was stunning and the performance was accessible to all in a variety of ways. The kids were floored by the performance and the mood was certainly upbeat as we traveled home late last night.

This evening, we will be heading to Elon College to hear a performance of the Phoenix Piano Trio. They will be performing music by Joseph Haydn, Joaquin Turina, & Marc Eychenne in what I know will be a great evening. I am truly looking forward to another concert tonight!

As I reflect on the week, am so appreciative of the opportunity to teach in this setting. I feel like some real leaning has taken place this week. Our students have been stretched and challenged a bit. They have also been entertained and enlightened. It is so enjoyable to spend time with NCSSM students in a more relaxed setting as well. They aren't nearly as stretched and fragmented as they are during the regular terms and we actually have time to enjoy each other's company. I have had time to offer advice on other things, too, like what to wear to a concert or "how many goodies at the reception following a performance is it appropriate to take?" These things are important. I don't always get to have that impact on these kids and I really welcome it. I have also really enjoyed the opportunity to simply attend concerts. In the context of my busy life, it just doesn't happen too much.

In coming days, I will share some of their journal entries here on my blog. They, of course, will be kept anonymous. But, I want to share with you some of the depth of their experience. In the meantime, I am looking forward to another great concert this evening.



Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Interview

Hi all -
The linked interview was posted on the Electric Violin Shop website this week.
I thought that some of you might be interested.
Best Always,