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Lifelong Learning

Erich Tucker | November 2017

    The function of music in our world is vast and constantly changing. Music is fundamental to all cultures across the globe and across time. Music is an essential component of politics, religion, education, athletics, dance, social circles, celebrations, courtship, television and film. There are few barriers music can not cross. In times of hardship or tragedy, one might guess music would be the first luxury to be sacrificed, but it often becomes our most visited haven.
    My ideas overflow from my experiences on stage and in the classroom. My intent is for them to be useful not only in the performance of music, but for the process of living life as well. I challenge you to see yourself as an artist and a lifelong learner. You will create the sounds that our planet so desperately needs.

An artist’s journey is never complete.

    There is always room for expansion, regardless of your current level of musical greatness. There will always be a next level, next performance and new heights. Artists reinvent themselves day after day, year after year. The world is ever changing, and our ability to adapt to new settings is fundamental to success. Be ready and flexible. Explore new ideas as often as time allows.

There is no such thing as first chair.
    First chair is an illusion. You are never truly any better or worse than any other musician. All musicians are  unique and have their own strengths and weaknesses. There is more than enough room for everyone.
    That being understood, healthy competition is one of the most valuable opportunities for musical growth available today. The preparation for and execution of a competition will sharpen all levels of your musicianship. Allow yourself these growing experiences as often as possible. The process is just as valuable as the winning.
    I have met many performers who struggle (or have struggled) with arrogance or insecurity. This is a self-sabotaging continuum for an artist. Remove all forms of arrogance and insecurity from your music making. Regardless of current roles, profession, or relationships, we are all in this together. Determined as I am to be the best at what I do, I am equally determined to enjoy the process. Make every attempt to have the time of your life while competing.

Nobody picks you until you pick yourself.

    Stop waiting. Stop dreaming. Stop wishing for a sudden magical discovery of your talent. Go to the practice room. Look in the mirror. Decide right now that you are 100% awesome. Speak this truth aloud to yourself. Believe wholeheartedly in yourself. Let go of anything that hinders you. Play incredible music right now. Your belief in your own greatness is fundamental to success. Understanding your true value will transform your musical career. Intentionally select the best thoughts possible. Pay attention to both your external environment and internal intuition. If you want others to believe in your success, you must first believe in it.

Your performance of music is a gift.

    Paula Robison once said, “It is your responsibility every time you breathe into your instrument to make the world a better place.” I completely agree. Perform as much as possible. Always be on the lookout for ways to connect with audiences. Take auditions. Give recitals. Record albums. Your audience may have heard a standard repertoire piece billions of times, but they have never heard you play it. Be original. You are the only one who can offer your unique gifts to the world.
    Demonstrate extreme gratitude and kindness in all situations. People may not remember what you played, but they will always remember how they felt while you played and interacted with them.

Style is everything in music.
    Your message and the inflection with which you deliver it are equally important. Develop a unique sense of musical fashion, a unique voice. Tone, timbre, and phrasing affect all aspects of your performance. Consciously choose how you will play each note. Consider that as a performer you are in a partnership with the composer – their musical ideas and your interpretation. In some instances, a wrong note executed with grace and style can be more welcome than a stale correct note. Be fascinating and tell a story through your music to captivate the  audience.

If you want to be a great musician, first listen to great music.
    Listening is a direct pathway to musical proficiency. Attend concerts. Consume masterful recordings. There is no substitute. Let the renowned musical masters of the past and present inspire you. Listen to soloists of your own instrument or genre, but also listen to performers of all musical mediums. Constantly expand your music library playlists to include new and diverse sounds. Listen to music that makes you feel alive.
    People learn by copying. We are by nature creatures of imitation. It is not possible to make a perfect copy of anything, so in this imitative process you will always be adding your unique flavor to the piece.

Music is a language. Learn to read, write, listen and speak it.
    To most effectively and efficiently communicate in a language, you should be able to read, write, listen and speak it. All four components significantly influence each other. A great deal of time in classrooms today is spent teaching music reading. This is a essential skill, but imagine your overall competency in a language if you could only read it but not speak or write using it.
    Understanding music theory increases sightreading skill. The moment students learn to improvise, their music reading skills improve. This is the magic formula that is missing from so many music education classrooms. I often share with flute students short, fun, improvisational games before teaching them to read music. 
    Music improvisation, at its most basic level, is not that different than the imagination of a child on a playground. Make up sounds. Imagine stories. We are all born creative geniuses. Jazz is a wonderful expression of musical improvisation, but it is not the only one. Improv can be an exciting addition to your personal practice and performance. Many of the greatest composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, were known for their improvisational abilities.

Sing and play. 

    Singing and instrumental music are two sides of the same coin. To be a well-rounded musician you should explore both skill sets. Instrumentalists learn a great deal about music when they sing, and singers experience a greater understanding of the piece when they are able to produce the sounds on an instrument. I encourage instrumentalists to take advantage of sightsinging and ear training as well as opportunities to sing solo or in a choir.

Learning and education are not the same.
    Education is the responsibility of the teacher and school to create an environment where information is presented effectively. Learning is the responsibility of the student to absorb the information. This is a two-way street. There are many highly educated people who have not learned very much, and there are many people who have learned a great deal without much formal education. Take responsibility for your own learning and seek beneficial educational environments.
    Take an Alice in Wonderland approach. Be curious about everything. Look things up. Research pieces and composers. Ask powerful questions. Wonder. Be prepared in all settings. Remember that from day one of your career in music, someone is always listening.
    Realize that at whatever level you currently are, you do not already know everything there is to know. Be receptive and teachable. Make a conscious choice that you will be a lifelong learner. Open your mind, body, and heart to new experiences. 

Take care of your body.
    Eat, move and breathe consciously. These are fundamental components to musicianship. Your body is part of your instrument. Eat well and drink plenty of water. Include physical activity as a part of your daily routine. I love running, walking, yoga, cross-training, dance and kick-boxing. Include stretching, especially on long practice days to keep your body flexible. Be sure to get enough sleep. Attention to your general health as well as learning proper performance posture can also prevent potentially devastating injuries, especially given the repetitive motions musicians must make. 
    Playing a wind instrument or singing requires advanced breathing techniques. Breath is also intrinsically tied to human emotions. Slow, calm breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system encouraging a relaxed, peaceful experience. Fear or anxiety induces short quick bursts of air, which can lead to a fight, flight or freeze response. The lengthening of breath can instantly allow the physical body to override perceived fear. 

Be intentional with practice time.
    Daily practice should have clear and reasonable goals. Practice in short blocks of time as frequently as possible to ensure both mind and body are fully engaged. Focus your attention and keep track of your progress. Be intelligent and kind to yourself when practicing. Notice errors and quickly fix them. No matter how talented you are, never rely on talent alone. Visualize your victory, then work hard to meet your goals.
    Music may very well be an extension of the soul, a portal to connect with emotion, but the process of learning music is a technical skill, an articulation of fine motor skills and coordination. This requires focused discipline, effort, and the proper tools. Start slowly, find the patterns, and work toward perfection. You should also have a pencil, tuner and a recording device handy. When frustration sneaks into your practice room, chase it out, and change things up. Instead of blasting through it, which rarely works, think of a new way to approach a problem. Adjust your speed, articulation, octave, or isolate a smaller group of notes. It is absolutely essential to stay in a positive frame of mind while practicing, and have as much fun as possible in the process. Accept that at times you will make mistakes. Learn from them and quickly move on.
    After mastering a new piece or skill, celebrate and evaluate what you have learned. This locks in your learning. Oprah Winfrey says, “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” After a successful day of practicing, reward yourself. You have earned it!

Explore new music technology.
    Keep up to date with technology that can help you. I have witnessed the development of Pandora, SmartMusic, Facebook, Napster, Myspace, Shazam, YouTube, TonalEnergy, metronome and tuner apps, virtual choirs, worldwide high-definition opera in theater performances, Kickstarter, TuneCore, CD Baby, iPad, iPhone, GarageBand, Signify, Dubsmash, Finale, and many others.

Observe others learning.
    Private music instruction from a master teacher designed specifically for one student is valuable. However, it can be challenging to absorb information during an individual lesson. You may be so busy thinking about what you are going to play next that you gloss over listening to what the teacher is really saying. It is wonderful when a student has the opportunity to take a lesson and observe a lesson.
    I encourage my students to arrive early or stay late to watch other lessons. A side benefit of having students observe each other is that the student in the lesson gains experience playing in front of others. Recording weekly lessons to watch later can also be helpful.

Create an inspiring, distraction-free practice space.

    To get the most out of your practice time, design a space that will both remind and inspire you to practice. It should be beautiful and relatively free of distraction. Decorate the walls or music stand. Find an innovative way to express your unique style. Make it a place where you love to play.
    In my studio, I have designed a blue, grey and purple wall near a window with natural light and four flourishing green plants. I have placed three magical tools nearby to inspire me: Thor’s hammer, Dumbledore’s Elder wand, and a Leonardo da Vinci collector’s book. When I am in this space, I feel centered, clear, and motivated.
    Turn off texting, social media, telephones, television and any other form of distraction. While I enjoy our current level of technology and its ever advancing capabilities, I am grateful that I did not grow up with them. Spend time off the grid each day, outside of your practice time. Walk outside. Play a game. A 24/7 connection to technology is not healthy. Allow your mind time to reset.

Remove complaining from your professional musical career.
    Make a conscious choice right now to remove negative thinking from your life. When people begin to complain around you, steer the conversation in another direction, leave, or take action to fix the problem. Complain-ing will rarely serve your performance well. A mental framework set on success will enable you to achieve much more. This also affects how people perceive you as well.

Keep studying in the summer.
    Younger music students who continue to take lessons over summer break make significantly more progress than those who do not. With no school work to interfere, summer offers extra time for practice and lessons, and students generally progress at an exponentially faster rate. It is also the best time to attend a music festival, camp or masterclass. As a child, I attended a summer band camp at Florida State University, a summer flute camp at the University of Central Florida, and Canon Summer Music Camp at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. These experiences reinforced the musical concepts I learned with my teachers and provided three fantastic adventures filled with new music friends and incredible opportunities. As an adult I am drawn to events like the National Flute Association convention where there are many opportunities to learn and collaborae with other artists.
    Even periodic summer instruction is worth its’ weight in gold. My studio has the option of a few summer video lessons to build consistency during summer travels, or students can electronically send in recordings of their pieces. With current advances in musical technology, a high-quality music education is becoming increasingly more accessible. While sometimes a short break away may be necessary to stay fresh, long breaks in study tend to impede progress.

Play music you truly love.
    When choosing music for a recital or special function, if you have a choice, select music that you love playing. Perform with other musicians whose work you truly adore. You should feel fun, clear, and centered when you are playing. Like children on a playground, jump and skip through your notes. Enjoy them. The audience will appreciate your love of the music you are playing. Decide which kind of music you want to specialize in. I absolutely love to watch James Galway play the flute, not just because of his tone and technical mastery, but because I see how much he loves playing every single note.
    Students who have not yet reached the place in their musicianship where they know what they truly love to play can benefit from the advice of a wise teacher. Be open to honest discussions with your teacher on the pieces you want to learn. It is also importation to learn pieces that show off your skills, and music that develops new skills.

A dynamic student-teacher partnership is essential for success.
    Find a music instructor to light the pathway on your musical journey. There are three main qualities that I suggest you search for in a prospective teacher. The first and foremost quality of a great teacher is that they are friendly and encouraging and genuinely want to offer their wisdom. Not that every moment of every lesson is entirely fun, but in general the teacher is should inspire you. A good teacher also will care about your success and growth. The teacher should also be knowledgeable enough to lead you where you want to go and be able to explain ideas in a way you will understand. When you have found a music teacher you truly want to learn from, move heaven and earth to study with him or her. Make the effort to travel for lessons or connect through the internet if the teacher is not in your area. I have studied flute with Linda Votapka, Ruth Gudeman, Karen Adrian, Judy Pierce and Shauna Thompson. To this day I am beyond amazed at the depth of their knowledge and generosity in sharing with me.