Should You Follow Your Passion?

I recently listened to the YouTube video, “Don’t Follow Your Passion”, by Mike Rowe and was rather intrigued by the title because it goes against the common advice given to musicians to “follow your passion”. I wanted to take an opportunity to breakdown his opinions, and share my perspective as a professional double bass player and private teacher.

#1 — “Look, I understand the importance of persistence, and the value of encouragement, but who tells a stranger to never give up on their dreams?”

From the standpoint of Rowe, he appears to make the case that telling strangers to follow their dreams can inevitably lead them to failure and rejection down the road. While I agree that Rowe might be helping people discover untapped opportunity in other areas, he does not take into account that people can continue to grow and learn about a field that they are passionate about while making a living in another profession — up until the point that they have developed the necessary mastery and expertise for their desired career. This can be made more difficult if one decides to start a family and have children early on, or if the person is saddled in student loan debt. But without these barriers, most people that work 40 hours a week can forgo leisure to continue to pursue their passion.

#2 — “Year after year, thousands of aspiring American Idols show up with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t possess the skills they thought they did. What is really amazing though, is not their lack of talent — the world is full of people who can’t sing. It’s their genuine shock at being rejected — the incredible realization that their passion and ability had nothing to do with each other.”

I believe that Rowe is correct in stating that meeting standards and expectations have absolutely nothing to do with passion, but he fails to come up with a solution to help someone perform better at what they are passionate about. Rowe immediately resorts to encouraging people to find other opportunities without realizing that the person might have been only a couple of pieces of advice away from being successful and meeting their desired goal. Contrary to Rowe’s advice, this is why persistence and discipline matter greatly.

Consider a similar situation where a student dreams about making National Honors Society, but is rejected because their poor grades and extracurricular activities have nothing to do with their desire to get into NHS. According to Mike Rowe’s logic, it would be best for that student to come to a level of acceptance that they quote “suck” (I will use Rowe’s words), and take a shop class where there is a greater opportunity to succeed but does not address the issue regarding the student’s desire to succeed academically. Rather than suggesting resources that can help this student improve such as tutoring, extra classes, and books that can effectively address studying habits, Rowe thinks that it is best to quit before even trying again.

#3 — “When people follow their passion they miss out on all sorts of opportunities they didn’t even know existed.”

My main issue with this statement is that the same can be said for the reverse; that if you do not follow your passion, you can potentially sell yourself short by forgoing dozens of opportunities to overcome challenges and obstacles. Figuring out the process that leads to achieving your desired goals is one of the greatest rewards in life. This advice can be applied to financial matters, career matters, and even improving your relationships with others. You can quit and wallow in regret for years; or you can try to find resources that will help you develop the problem solving and troubleshooting skills necessary to improve.

Recently I read about a violinist named Shenghua Hu that won an audition for the second violin section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and an audition for the principal second violin within a two year period after losing 30 professional orchestra auditions. Had he decided to quit, he would never have experienced the satisfaction that comes with making it into one of the most prestigious orchestras of the world.

The Only Way to Keep Orchestras Alive: Start Championing New Music

The first time that I attended a contemporary music venue was when I attended Robert Black’s recital over at the Hartt School at University of Hartford back in May of 2010. I went to the concert expecting that I would be listening to standard solo repertoire such as a concerto by Bottesini or Koussevitzky. Instead, I was exposed to an avant-garde double bass solo by Jacob Druckman entitled Valentine. At a moment that I was expecting to hear pleasant sounds and beautifully phrased melodies, suddenly my mood shifted to feelings of confusion and bewilderment as I watched Mr. Black hit the bass with timpani sticks while simultaneously making a vocal, hissing sound.

Level of Exposure to Contemporary Music

One of the things I appreciated most about attending the Hartt School was that we had nearly 24/7 exposure to contemporary music. Between studying with Robert Black, who was one of the founding member of a New York-based contemporary ensemble, Bang On A Can All-Stars, and performing in the Hartt Orchestra; being a Hartt double bass student meant that you had limitless exposure to new music. Edward Cumming, the conductor of the Hartt Orchestra (and former conductor of the Hartford Symphony) was actively programming all different types of new music (or “newer” works)— we had the opportunity to perform the music of unbelievable composers such as John Corligiano, who also simultaneously came as a guest to provide feedback on our rehearsals. One of the greatest aspects of performing contemporary music is that you can invite, call, text, or FaceTime the living composer, and gain direct information from them on how to perform the piece. The Hartt Orchestra was avidly programming the works of the school’s faculty and composition students.

Orchestras Do Not Advertise New Music As A Way To Draw New Audiences

Back in driving school many years ago, I was taught that people drive in the direction where they are focusing most intently on. Mainstream symphony orchestras are not taking enough risk by refusing to draw their audiences’ attention to new music. Here, I will share with you three ways in which orchestras are too timid to make a statement with conviction and advertise contemporary works as the main piece of the evening.

1 ) They hardly ever program new music on the second half of a concert because they fear that audiences will not stick around

2 ) The posters that appear on bus shelters and subway stations hardly ever advertise an event with the words “A ‘Must-See’ World Premiere Coming Soon to Symphony Hall”.

3) They hardly ever program repeat performances of a piece over the course of several consecutive years so that the music becomes more “mainstream” to listeners

I am particularly passionate about the third reason because back in the days when Petrouchka was first being performed by the Boston Symphony, Pierre Monteux conducted repeat performances of this work over the course of several years. Fast forward to 2017, and Petrouchka is now widely accepted as mainstream orchestral repertoire, even though the style and execution are radically different than a Mozart performance. Orchestras have to take greater responsibility for the future of the ensemble (perhaps now more than ever before) by directing their audiences’ attention toward the latest compositional trends, at the risk of alienating concertgoers with more conservative tastes.

5 Benefits That Come From Practicing Pizzicato

Want to improve your left-hand technique? You should try practicing your solos and excerpts pizzicato for awhile.

“Why pizzicato?”, you might ask.

Here are my five key reasons for why you should strategically practice all of your arco material pizzicato sometime in the early stages of preparing for an audition or performance:

1 ) You are firmly pressing the string into the fingerboard for each note

Want to know the easiest way to compromise your overall tone quality? If you are not fully pressing the string into the fingerboard enough, your tone will come across as muffled and your bowing arm will have to work harder to compensate for the lack of projection and clarity in the left hand. Practicing pizzicato requires you to apply enough weight with the left hand into each note in order to achieve clarity in the right hand. Notice what happens when you try to play pizzicato with a disengaged left hand: the note will barely speak, there is a quick decay and an ugly vibrating sound at the end. You need to apply enough weight with the left hand to achieve a resonant sound when you approach pizzicato. Your fingers should hold the string down as if you were emulating the nut on your bass when you play open strings.

2 ) You become completely aware of the way that you approach shifting

The most important part of shifting is that you stop the note in the left hand before your right hand articulates the note. How can you possibly play a note pizzicato without the left hand stopping the note? It is physically impossible. Yet so many string players cannot get clarity in their fast “arco” runs because the left hand is not able to keep up with what is going on in the right hand. You need to practice pizzicato and choreograph your shifts. Take note on how fast or slow the left hand needs to respond in order to get to the next note. The two biggest reasons for why you are not getting clarity in your runs are: A) You are not approaching your practicing by isolating the left hand and B) You are not choreographing your shifts.

3) Your vibrato improves

Is your approach to vibrato enhancing the music that you are playing or taking away from the music? Once you have visualized the sound that you are looking to achieve, you are going to want to execute vibrato when it is appropriate to do so. But how do you know how wide or fast to execute your vibrato? Practicing vibrato while playing pizzicato ensures that you vibrate at just the right width and speed while still keeping the fundamental note resonant and clear.

4) Your phrasing improves

We often think of phrasing as what we are doing with the bow but when you practice pizzicato, you still need to craft your phrases and your left hand is going to play a more significant role in that. Coordinating the left-hand and right-hand as a string player is similar to understanding Newton’s third law in physics, where each action has an equal and opposite reaction. As an example, if you are trying to emphasize a note in the right hand, your left hand is going to have to work harder to keep the note stopped and prevent the string from moving.

In conclusion, if you want to polish up your tone and get your left-hand more engaged in your overall approach to playing, you need to incorporate some pizzicato practice into your agenda.

Keep practicing!

Darren Sacks

5 Tips that Will Improve Your Practice Sessions as a String Player

Almost every musician faces a batter’s slump once in awhile. Maybe you feel like you are not making headway in your practice sessions. Maybe you are continuing to have trouble articulating all of the notes in those fast Tchaikovksy runs, or you are having some trouble getting the double-stops in tune in your Bach solo.

Let me offer a couple of suggestions that will help you to conquer any slump in your practice sessions:

1 ) Break Up Your Solos and Excerpts into Smaller Sections

The number one reason why musicians have trouble practicing is because they try to learn too much at one time. Attempting to fish through notes and make it through the end of your new solo in one session is a completely inefficient way to practice. Consider breaking up your solo into smaller sections to be learned over the course of a longer period of time. This will allow you to set higher standards for each individual section and give you a chance to choreograph the left and right hand for each individual note as it transitions into the next.

2 ) Use Your Metronome

Not only will using a metronome help you to solidify your tempo, but it will challenge you to practice in a controlled manner. Put brackets around one difficult section, start with the first note and line it up with the metronome. As you become comfortable with the first note, add the next note to the first and continue to add notes until you reach the end of the bracketed section. One overlooked benefit of using a metronome in this method of practicing is that with each repetition you start to disengage from the page and focus on what you are doing physically with the instrument. You start to think about what part of the bow you are using, the kind of weight that you are applying with the bow, the speed of your shifts, and so many other components related to kinesthetic learning, all within a controlled environment.

3 ) Temporarily Modify the Rhythms and Dynamics

This is a great strategy for practicing fast passages and runs. If the written rhythm consists of four measures of sixteenth notes, consider practicing it as if the passage was written entirely as a dotted-sixteenth, thirty-second note rhythm throughout. You will notice that you will be practicing swifter shifts in the left hand to accommodate the dotted rhythm as opposed to the straight rhythm. If the written dynamic is marked forte, try practicing it piannissimo for awhile, and you’ll notice that you are forced to further clarify and articulate notes with the left hand.

4) Practice Difficult Passages at a Different Part of the Bow

Is your sound scratchy and unreliable when you play softly at the lower half of the bow? Try practicing the same passage at the upper half of the bow, adjust your bow speed, and see if you notice a difference. You can always find a halfway point between the tip and the frog, but at least you should start to notice a change in your tone and a difference in the way that you engage the forefinger into the string.

5 ) Clarify Your Goals and Find Your Reason for Practicing

Almost every musician has faced a moment when they start to disengage from their practice sessions. While there is no doubt that musicians can go through periods of burnout, often times we simply need to remember why we are practicing and why we enjoy playing. What excites you most about being a musician? What do you ultimately want to do with your music? Maybe you want to perform like your favorite artist. Maybe you want to solo in front of a professional orchestra. Maybe you want to start a non-profit and help people in your community. Maybe a standing ovation excites you. Maybe inspiring children to join their school’s orchestra and inevitably engage with classical music is what gets you excited. Whatever that goal might be, figure out that one thing in the future that excites you so much that you have to pick up the instrument over doing anything else. Writing down your goals and dreams will help you to associate practicing more with passion than with boredom or a mere task to complete.

Keep Practicing!

Darren Sacks