Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘music performance

The Transformative Power of Music

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Folks, this is the first in a three-part series. All will start with “The Transformative Power of…”, so you have been warned if this isn’t your thing. (Though why it wouldn’t be, I haven’t any idea whatsoever.)

Music can transform your life, if you let it.

What do I mean by this? (I can practically hear a few of you thinking, “Barb, you have gone off your rocker with this one. What gives?”) It’s simple: music can actually heal you. Or at least improve your mood while giving shape to your feelings, which is nearly as good.

Who hasn’t felt better after singing in the shower? Who hasn’t felt better after singing along to their favorite songs in the car?

For me, playing music takes that feeling and amps it up to eleven. (H/t if you got the Spinal Tap reference, there.) And being able to play music in a group, whether it’s a concert band, a jazz band, a small group, or just by myself, is one of the best feelings there is when it’s going right.

But as this post is titled “the transformative power of music,” I suppose I should get down to brass tacks.

After my husband Michael died in 2004, I didn’t want to do anything. My grief was so profound, it took me at least five years to process, and another few after that to realize I still had a life to live — and what was I going to do about it? All that time, my health worsened, my hands especially, and when I decided I wanted to play my instruments again (sax, clarinet, and oboe), I was barely able to do it due to my hands aching so much.

And it wasn’t just trying to play my instruments that made me frustrated. I was to the point with my hands that driving in the car was painful. I could only use one hand a few minutes at a time, and then switch off to the other. It was just that bad.

Fortunately, I went through a few rounds of occupational therapy, which helped a great deal. The pain lessened, I gained range of motion again, and I learned how to properly stretch the areas. And ever since, when my hands have started approaching that state again, I’ve asked for — and received — another date with the occupational therapist, and gone through more therapy as required.

Mind, I’d have never gone through with any of that if I hadn’t wanted to play my instruments again. But I did. And that allowed me to make a positive decision in the depths of my grief to do something positive, meaningful, and healthy.

Anyway, in September of 2011, I asked to play in the UW-Parkside Community Band again. (I’d been a member before I left the area for graduate school, back in the day.) One of my professors from Parkside, Mark Eichner, was still conducting it, and he told me when rehearsals were for the December concert. So I rejoined it in late October, played the next concert, and voila! I was a performing musician again.

(For the record, my first concert back was on alto sax, and I played a lengthy solo on a piece called “Roma.”)

Soon after, I rejoined the Racine Concert Band in 2012, again on alto sax. (I’d been a member of this in high school and again in college, and only stopped when I moved away to attend graduate school in Nebraska.) Ever since, I’ve played many concerts with them. Most have been on alto, but a few have been on clarinet.

And last week, on Saturday, I played clarinet — first chair, de facto concert master/mistress — with the UW-Parkside 50th anniversary alumni band. That was an exceptionally challenging concert, as we had only one rehearsal beforehand and the parts were very tough. But I was there early, practiced my parts, and was as prepared as I could be.

It paid off. The concert went well. And I had a few folks come up to me afterward, praising what I did (nice, when you can get it), along with asking why I wear a neckstrap to play the clarinet as few clarinetists do. (It helps keep the weight off my hands, and allows me to play for a longer period of time with a whole lot less pain.)

Why am I going into all this detail? Mostly to explain what playing music has done for me. It has given me my confidence back. It has reminded me I can still do something, something positive, something very few other people can do.  It has rewarded my perseverance and search for excellence…it has allowed me to give the gift of music to others in performance, also.

All in all, music has transformed my life.

You don’t have to be a musician to allow music to transform yours, though. Just listen to whatever you want. If you are hurting, let the pain out. If you are healing, allow yourself to feel safe and comforted. And if you just want to hear music for the sake of music, good for you: that’s the best listening experience of all.

What do you think of this blog? Tell me about it in the comments!

Preparation Is Key

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Folks, I recently played a concert with the Racine Concert Band, and I was struck by the difference good mental preparation made in my performance.

When I was younger, I never thought about this at all…I figured if I’d done the work, learned the pieces, my instrument was in good repair and I had a good reed, that’s all I needed to do. But preparation doesn’t stop with the mechanics of playing music; it actually starts there.

Because I have hand problems now, I have to think a great deal more about what I’m going to do, whether it’s with music, writing, or anything else. And what I’ve found is that if I put myself into a calmer frame of mind and tell myself I’m going to do the best I can, and not beat myself up beforehand because I can’t do what I once was so easily able to do, I come pretty close to being able to do what I used to do so effortlessly.

Now, I did prepare for big moments on stage, of course. I mentally played through solos, recitals, various high-profile gigs…so this mindset is not totally alien to me.

I’d never thought about it with a run-of-the-mill concert before, though.

So, as I was thinking about this, I wondered if it might help my writing, to stay in that same mindset as best I can. Just the belief that I can do it may make a difference on a bad day…and we all need that, whether we realize it or not.

Granted, I write on different days for different reasons. Sometimes I am writing an intensely emotional scene and I need to be able to feel that. Staying detached under such a circumstance won’t work.

But the belief that I can affect my own outcome a little…that is worth having.

You see, the biggest threat to creativity is the belief that it doesn’t matter. That who you are, that what you create, won’t ever make a difference to anyone.

We creative types have to have at least a small bit of an ego to take up a creative profession; otherwise, we’d get ground to powder quickly, as creating against strong headwinds is not for the faint of heart.

So, just for today, I want you — and me — to believe one thing:

It does matter.

What you do, what you create, what you are, all matters.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. And keep doing whatever you need to do, in order to be your best self.

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 25, 2017 at 10:36 am

What Auditions Are Like

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Folks, I remain more sick than well. But as I listen to my readers, and had a request a week or so ago to discuss what auditions are like, I figured, “Why not?”

Before I get started, I’d best explain something for readers who are somewhat new to me. I’m a trained classical musician; I also play jazz, have backed up pop vocalists, and understand most if not all musical forms. (I can even explain Gregorian chant to a degree, even if I cannot sing it.) I have two degrees in music performance — specifically, in saxophone performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and in clarinet and saxophone performance from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. My first instrument was the oboe, and I was known for that in high school; I took up the saxophone at age 15 because I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble, and took up the clarinet at age 17 because I liked the sound of the instrument (besides, on jazz charts that needed the clarinet, I felt inadequate because I didn’t know how to play it).

All of this may give you some idea as to what my qualifications are, but in case it doesn’t, let me make it clear. I’ve auditioned for colleges, both for positions and for scholarships; I’ve auditioned for symphony orchestras; I’ve auditioned for local groups, upon occasion; I’ve auditioned for small groups, large groups, jazz groups, classical groups…you name it, I’ve probably auditioned for it.

Regardless of your instrument, there are some things every musician who auditions for a group or placement needs to consider.

First, what’s the venue? If it’s an orchestra, you’re going to need to bone up on your orchestral excerpts — and the orchestra in question will send you a list of the pieces they’re expecting you to play, so you’d best get familiar with them. If it’s a jazz band, you’ll have to prove you can sight-read a few jazz charts, and possibly show that you can improvise a jazz solo with a rhythm section (you’ll especially need to do this if you’re auditioning for tenor saxophone, bass or trumpet, but you should be prepared to improvise if needed on any instrument). If it’s a pop group, you’ll need to sight-read, show that you can play a short, tasteful improvised solo (as for the most part, pop groups play with vocalists and they are the stars, not you), and if it’s for anything else, you’ll need a familiarity with the music being played and a willingness to sight-read anything put in front of you.

Second, what instruments are you going to need to bring? I am a woodwind specialist and play three instruments — oboe, clarinet, and saxophone. But if I’m going for an audition with a symphony orchestra to become their principal clarinetist, I’ll need to bring my clarinet and an A clarinet (a clarinet tuned one half-step below a B-flat clarinet, the standard clarinet played in the United States). If I’m going to an audition with a jazz ensemble, I might need to bring my saxophone and my clarinet (only rarely will you play oboe with a jazz band). And if I’m going to an audition with a concert band, I’d best make sure what instrument they want and what additional instruments they may need me to play down the road before I go.

Third, you need to have a strategy when you audition. You need to be prepared for your nerves, for the possibility of long waits that run far over your expected audition time, and as many other problems as possible in order not to get thrown so you can perform the best possible audition you can.

My last symphonic audition for a position as a clarinetist with a symphony orchestra is a case in point (note: this was over ten years ago, but very little has changed since then). The committee was running at least an hour and forty minutes behind, it was the middle of summer and the air conditioning had conked out, and the toilets were overflowing — one of the worst possible combinations I could’ve ever imagined auditioning amidst, to be perfectly honest.

But those weren’t the only hurdles. There were the other clarinetists warming up that I couldn’t help but hear, all of whom sounded (in the moment, at least) better than me. Some had better “pedigrees” than I did — that is, degrees from more acclaimed music schools, or better-known teachers, or who were younger and/or had traveled the world with other groups and could prove it. And some had all of the very best and most up-to-date instruments with all of the optional trill keys, and of course none of their keys were sticking despite the humidity and the terrible conditions, but mine were, and then they called my name…

Under such bad conditions, it’s surprising anyone can win an audition, to be honest. (To be fair, most auditions are held under much, much better conditions. Thank goodness, or none of us would be likely to try for jobs.) You’ve practiced for hours, sure, and you have the music down cold, but you weren’t expecting any of the other stuff to occur.

In my case, I did not win that audition. I did, however, perform credibly enough that I was asked to stick around for a few hours while they made a determination (meaning I wasn’t one of the first people dismissed to go home). And under those particular conditions, I was happy with that — and secretly, I wondered if I were better off not to win this particular audition.

Now, how does an instrumental audition compare to a vocal audition? Most of what I just told you is the same. You prepare a piece or two of your own, usually, and must be ready to sight-read something or prove you can sing (or play) another style if requested. You have no control over the venue, you have no control over how long they may be running behind…the only person you can control is yourself.

That’s why I said something about audition strategies. Because thinking in advance about what the worst-case scenario could be sometimes brings peace of mind. And thinking in advance about the best-case scenario — that you are going to give your best-ever performance, that they will love what you’re doing and want to hire you on the spot — certainly does no harm, either.

Figure out which strategy works for you, whether you’re a fatalist, an optimist, or a combination of both. And use it.

That’s the best way to make sure you’ll have a good audition. Because you’ve done all the work in advance to set yourself up for success.