Hiding out in the section

Psychologists have noticed that a person working in a group will do less work than he or she would do if working alone. This behavior, which goes by the name of the Ringelmann effect, has been verified in many studies. In one, the more people there were in a group of people who were asked to shout, the softer each individual person shouted even though everyone was always asked to shout as loudly as possible.

As a rule, the more people in a group, the less each work each individual does.

David McRaney writes about this behavior in his book You Are Not So Smart. “[W]hen you join the efforts of others toward a common goal, everyone has a tendency to loaf more than if each was working alone.” He calls this behavior “social loafing.” Employers are well aware of social loafing. That’s why they track each individual employee’s productivity. I worked for a large corporation many years ago, when it wasn’t so easy to track an employee’s productivity, and I can attest that there was no shortage of social loafing occurring in the hallways between the cubicles and offices.

I imagine that many band and orchestra teachers have noticed this social loafing behavior among their students, but we just call it “hiding out in the section.” It’s well known among band teachers that if there are eight flute players in the section and all are playing the same part, each student will play it less well in the group than he or she would individually. And some will take it to the extreme and hardly be able to play their part at all, probably hoping that no one will notice.

I met a woman a few years ago who told me that she played flute in her high school band but never did anything more than pretend to play. She would just blow and move her fingers randomly. Amazingly, her band teacher never noticed (or at least, being stretched to the limit, probably noticed but didn’t say anything). Being in a group takes the pressure off.

I’ve found myself feeling a bit annoyed by this phenomenon. When it comes to playing a challenging section of music, I ask my students to practice at home, but they often don’t. Why? I think it’s because they know that others are playing the same music, so their not being able to play the part individually won’t be so noticeable. They are trying to hide out in the section.

The antidote. The one thing that counteracts the Ringelmann effect is what McRaney calls “evaluation apprehension,” in other words, a test. If you know that you are going to be tested individually on the material, you will work harder so as not to sound bad in front of your peers. You can’t hide out in the section when you are the only one playing. That might explain why instruments that tend to play by themselves, such as the tuba and the piano, prepare their music thoroughly. There’s no section to hide in. Every note you play is heard.

Musical training, if done right, encourages each person to think of their part as essential to the overall character of the piece. Mature musicians learn to think of themselves as soloists, no matter what part they play, whether third trombone or first violin. When Michael Tilson Thomas took the job of conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, he is reported to have told the musicians in the orchestra to think of themselves as soloists. That doesn’t mean that the tuba should play so as to obstruct the sound of the first violins. It’s not willfully playing your part louder than others. It’s realizing that your part, even when part of the “hidden” inner harmony, deserves to be played at the highest possible level. Such playing takes maturity and humility, which may explain why not every musical ensemble plays at the highest level or why young musicians must learn how to do it.

To address my annoyance, I’m going to try to get around the Ringelmann effect by having my students perform the challenging sections of their music in front of the class in a short recital format. For example, if the alto saxophones have an especially challenging eight measures of music to play in a particular arrangement, each player will be asked to perform those eight measures as a recital in front of the class with the expectation that these “recitals” will improve the overall quality of the ensemble. We will see how it goes.

She has to want to do math for herself, not for me

Years ago, when I taught mathematics, one of my students dropped my class halfway through the school year. I asked her mother for an explanation, and she replied, “She isn’t committing time to do her math and it has been a cause of stress for her. I don’t want her to study math because I want her to, she has to want to do it for herself. This isn’t the case so it’s probably best for her not to continue.”

This unusual line of thought spun me off into a maze of thoughts about math education. Maybe my student’s mom was right. Should you compel your child to study mathematics? And especially when it can cause stress? Do children study math because they want to or because their parents want them to? Why do schools require math?

Outside of a few math aficionados, most young people study math because it’s part of the school curriculum. To be blunt, for many young people, math is a hoop that must be jumped through on the way to graduation. Most of us, if we don’t end up in science, accounting, or engineering-related professions, don’t actually use math beyond the level of arithmetic in our adult lives. Even then, our phones can now figure out the tip on a restaurant bill quicker than we can, so what were all those years of math for?

I began to see the logic in my student’s mom’s reply. We don’t really need math, so why are we forcing our children to take it? Sure, the aficionados should be taught math since they clearly have the talent for it, but what about the rest of us?

A little fiction. I have to admit that I made up that little anecdote, but it is based in reality. The truth is the only math I have taught was to my son, and in that case only arithmetic. But the fabrication was for a good reason: we usually cannot see clearly that which is right in front of us. We take things for granted. We study math, but do we really know why other than that it’s required by the school our child attends or that some experts have told us it’s necessary? We take it for granted that math is required but that other subjects, such as music are elective. In other words, you’ve got to take math whether you like it or not because someone in the past said so, but you only take music if you want to or, as some people say, if you’ve got the talent or inspiration for it. I often wonder how those priorities became fixed in our school curriculum.

The actual reply I got from my student’s mother—who was responding to me when I asked her why her daughter had dropped band class in the middle of the school year—went as follows: “She isn’t committing time to practice and it has been a cause of stress for her. I don’t want her to do it because I want her to, she has to want to do it for herself. This isn’t the case so it’s probably best for her not to continue.”

Notice the subtext and assumptions in that reply. Music is a subject that we believe should be limited to those who are inspired to study it. She was essentially saying that she didn’t want to compel her daughter to do something that required hard work. Music, like math and other challenging subjects, takes good old-fashion hard work.

Now do you see how much we assume about the essentialness of math, music, and other subjects that we study? We assume that math is life-and-death mandatory and that music is optional. What about the many subjects—accounting, behavioral economics, social psychology, auto repair, cognitive science, graphic design, marketing, to name just a few—that we could teach young people but do not? It might be time examine our assumptions by turning our attention to the received curriculum and asking why we teach subject A but not subject B.

A logistics problem? Could instrumental music’s status as an elective boil down to a logistics problem? To study math, you need a book, some paper, a pencil, a calculator, perhaps a few other lightweight objects. To have a school band or orchestra, you need an (often large and somewhat expensive) instrument, a method book, sheet music, music stands, and a large room to fit all those players. In other words, math is an easy logistics problem. Music, just like auto shop, is a complicated one. And that’s one of the reasons that music, the most human of arts, that which has accompanied us in celebration and in despair from the earliest of times, is an elective in our schools.

The other reason—one I’ve written about several times before—is that you don’t really need to play an instrument any longer to have music in your life. Our ancestors had to make their own music. Now, with a few swipes of a finger or thumb, you can listen to anything ever recorded, from Bach to Beyonce. After all, why struggle to learn a musical instrument, why devote so much time over so many years, when it’s so easy to just sit back and be entertained by whatever you desire to hear at the moment? That’s a tough question, but one worth thinking about deeply.

The iPhone vs. the saxophone

Tristan Harris used to work for Google. In 2012 he gave a company talk arguing that “we [have] a moral responsibility to create an attention economy that doesn’t weaken people’s relationships or distract people to death.” To that list, I would add a third responsibility: the attention economy should not prevent people from doing sustained focused work.

Harris’s bosses must have been impressed because he was soon appointed the company’s “design ethicist.” Yet the work of designing ethics wasn’t apparently as high a priority to Google as Harris had hoped, and he eventually left Google to start the non-profit Center for Humane Technology. The Center aims to bring the harmful effects of the internet economy to the public’s attention. It’s a David v. Goliath struggle.

I sense that many of us are aware of the harmful facets of the digital world we inhabit, especially those who came of age before it enveloped us so completely. In a presentation at a recent technology conference, Harris warned, “When your business model is extracting data and attention out of people,” the result is “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” (Harris was first brought to my attention by Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik.)

There’s a war going on in our culture—not the “Culture Wars” between left and right. The war I refer to goes deeper, to the very core of what it means to be human regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum. One the one hand, there are forces driving us to ever shortening attention spans and constant superficial stimulation. In opposition to these potent forces, however, are much older traditions of patience, perseverance, and deep knowledge. (To be fair, this war didn’t commence with the Internet age. I trace its origins to the rise of the original mass distractor, television.)

When history calls. You can’t help but feel sorry for the monks of Lindisfarne on the British Isles on June 7 in the year 793, carrying on their routines, unaware that their tranquil lives were about to be upended by Viking invaders on June 8. On that day, the past collided quickly and violently with the present as the Vikings descended on their monastery. In our case, the collision between past and present is much slower, so slow, perhaps that you may not have noticed it. Nevertheless, we stand at a juncture in history.

Virtually all of us now carry a potent little device in our back pockets that can entertain and distract us endlessly. This device gives us immediate access to a brave new world of immediate gratification and endless stimulation, and nothing is more than a few strokes of the thumbs away. To be sure, these devices have many purposes, many of them very useful, but, as Tristan Harris noted, we are foolish to ignore their malign side, especially as our children are growing up with these devices appended to their bodies.

By now you may be wondering what this has to do with music. Before I get to the answer, I am reminded of a joke: How long does it take to make an apple pie? [Dramatic pause] Billions of years. First, you have to create the universe, then the stars, then habitable planets, then soil, then apple trees. The joke illustrates the idea that even the most “trivial” of things has a unfathomably long pedigree. There are literally billions of years of cause and effect behind everything in our lives, from apple pies to the highest arts.

Fifteen years. Learning to play a musical instrument exemplifies and perhaps epitomizes the traditions of the past. To play a musical instrument, you spend years patiently working on a craft—scales, arpeggios, etudes, recitals, hours of practice—to achieve the goal of mastery. To get back to the joke about about creating an apple pie, how long does it take to play Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 in E flat major? [Dramatic pause again] A minimum of 15 years. The piece’s duration is measured in minutes, but the preparation needed to get those minutes just right lasts for thousands of hours stretched over many years. Thousands of hours of knowledge, patience, perseverance, and struggle.

Or, to take another example, consider the music of Western music’s greatest composer, J.S. Bach. With great care and workmanlike attention over a span of many decades, he wrote some of the most majestic music human ears have ever heard. The quantity, leave alone the quality, of his work is staggering. Just copying one of his masterpieces by hand would take more time than most of us could imagine spending on a single task. And yet Bach—and many others who are less well known today—did it. They built cathedrals of music out of knowledge, patience, perseverance, and struggle. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to note that their towering achievements may never be repeated—or even approached if we go too far down the road of shortened attention.

Does being human mean that we have everything we want within easy reach? Want something? Touch a few buttons, or just speak to your smart speaker, and it can be delivered to your door almost immediately. Want to watch a Korean soap opera ore distract yourself with Candy Crush? Want to put some light jazz on in the background? All of this is available and so very easy to reach with a few finger or thumb motions.

By now, you should be able to tell which side of this struggle I am on. The other side in this war seems to be whispering that nothing need be hard anymore. Relax and let the machines do it. To me, that’s a problem in the way that I define what it means to be human. The meaning of life emerges from the struggle for survival, for mastery, for greatness. Make it too easy, allow the algorithms and devices to do all the hard stuff, and you lose the essence. The brain atrophies when we always allow the computer to navigate for us. The false paradise of instant gratification and ease may sound nice, but I just don’t think it’s a place where humans will thrive.

What worries me in particular is that short-term gratification and constant distraction are becoming the new traditions that we will bequeath to our heirs. Will our descendants be like the characters from the movie “Wall-E,” needing nothing but to be passive consumers of food and entertainment? I hope not, but I also know that the war will be a long and difficult one. The other side has massive advantages that my side cannot match. But I’m sticking with my saxophone.

Women knock down brass barriers

When I was in junior high school—the time of the BeeGees, back-pocket hair brushes, and green M&M’s—only one girl played a brass instrument in our school band, and I am embarrassed to say that we boys often teased her. Her named was Wendy and she played the cornet. We didn’t tease her to her face because she was tough and probably would have punched us, but we did make comments about her when she was out of earshot, though she certainly must have known what we were saying. One time a fight broke out in the band room between her and a boy who played the trombone. Maybe she’d just had enough of putting up with our comments. Our sweater-clad band teacher, Mr. Pontrelli, didn’t seem to know how to stop it. He stayed in his chair and called out, “Hey, guys cut it out,” but they ignored him, and the wrestling went on for a long time before fizzling out on its own.

Like the fish in the joke who responds to the statement from another fish, “Water’s nice today, isn’t it?” with the question, “What’s water?” it never occurred to me to question why only boys played brass instruments in my school. Somehow, I believed without knowing why that brass was meant for boys and girls played the flute. How thoughtless we were!

For a bit of context, brass is a family of instruments that includes, in addition to the cornet, the trumpet, French horn, trombone, baritone, and tuba. It’s true that brass instruments are physically demanding—a lot of air has to jet through a tiny hole in the mouthpiece—which may explain why women were not encouraged to play them in the past. Brass was probably seen as too physically demanding and “masculine” for women.

This has changed since I was in school, and we are very fortunate. Today, some of the best brass players are women. From Norway, there’s Tine Ting Helseth, and from the UK, Alison Balsom, both international trumpet stars. Here in the US, we have Mary Elizabeth Bowden who is blazing a trail as an A-list trumpet soloist. On the trombone, we have Megumi Kanda, Shannon Barnett, and Amy Bowers. In jazz, there are many excellent women brass players, including Ingrid Jensen, Andrea Motis, Rita Payes, and Angeleisha Rodgers.

Even in major league symphony orchestras, where men still dominate brass sections, there are signs that women are breaking in to the club. Orchestral players such as Nicole Cash, Amanda Stewart, Rebecca Cherion, and Karen Bliznik are not just members of major orchestras, but also occupy some of the top seats in their sections.

Instrumental music still hasn’t come to a transformational juncture, as sports did in the US with the arrival of Title IX in the early 1970s, but there is hope that more women will excel at brass instrument playing and become mentors to girls and young women.

Regulating your emotions for better performance

Tennis great Billie Jean King is fond of saying that “pressure is a privilege.” The advice comes from a great athlete but applies equally to musicians. According to this wisdom, those who perform under pressure—whether athletes, musicians, or students taking an exam—are not burdened by an onerous task, but are in fact privileged to be in a situation where the pressure is on and the expectations are high. In other words, competition brings out the best in us, and those who compete are lucky to do so.

The psychology of athletes has been well studied, but that of musicians, less so. (That probably reflects that fact that sports is a gargantuan business compared to music.) Nonetheless, the findings of sports psychology can presumably be applied to music since both fields require performance under pressure.

Emotion regulators. In both fields, those who perform best have learned how to regulate their emotions. In a recent study of athletes, summarized by music psychologist Noa Kageyama in his blog at bulletproofmusician.com, four strategies for managing emotions emerged at the top. Athletes in the study went through a variety of different emotional states as they competed, but the best athletes—those with the best objective performance—used four specific ways to regulate their emotions: physical preparation, positive self-talk, planning, and impression management. Here is how they might apply to musicians:

  1. Physical preparation. For musicians, getting ready to perform may include such things as playing scales, long-tones, and other types of warm-ups, such as stretching, breathing, and yoga.

  2. Positive self-talk. With this emotion regulator, your inner dialogue is positive and supportive. Instead of saying, “How could I have played a wong note there?” you might say, “Thank goodness I finally made my first mistake.”

  3. Planning. This regulator calls for visualizing a successful performance, imagining how each piece will start and what to do in case of a mistake or other problems. In this case, one “hears” and imagines the performance before actually getting on stage. Of course, “hearing” during the performance is also essential, as I’ve written in an earlier blog post.

  4. Impression management. This regulator calls for trying to act more confident than you feel, controlling how you appear to others. Years ago I saw the trumpet player Rolf Smedvig in concert. He was known as a virtuoso, but on that evening he wasn’t performing his best. Nonetheless, he took a chest thrusting bow after each solo. I wonder whether he wasn’t doing some” impression management” on the audience.

We know the four emotion regulators the best athletes use. But what are the emotional tar pits, the places to avoid? The worst things you can focus on: catastrophizing, self-blame, rumination, and expressive suppression.

  1. Catastrophizing. Here you worry about all the bad things that could occur and give too much weight to problems. A missed note becomes a judgment about your ability as a musician.

  2. Self-blame. With this harmful emotion regulator, you remind yourself of all the things that you should have done after it is too late to do anything about it. “I should have practiced more. Why didn’t I practice more?”

  3. Rumination: Here, you dwell on the bad parts of performing, such as sweaty hands, shakiness, and feelings of nervousness. The key word is “dwell.” Those side effects of performing may occur, but should not be focused on.

  4. Expressive suppression. This often-tried but still unhelpful technique involves trying to convince yourself that you are not nervous. As I’ve said elsewhere, you cannot deceive yourself when performing. You may try to pretend you’re cool as a cucumber, but you know you’re doing something under pressure.

P.S. One reader of this blog requested that I present the information in an audio format, essentially a podcast. I cannot promise anything, but I am looking into this and will let you know whether this is possible for me.

Musicians have what employers want

If you put a list of the traits employers seek from their employees next to a list of the qualities that musicians develop as part of their training, you will see that the two lists match.

What do employers want? Team players, persistence, problem-solving, ability to take feedback, collaboration, emotional strength, and the ability to learn from mistakes.

University of North Carolina music professor Jennifer S. Walter recently summarized these traits in an article for the National Association for Music Education’s monthly magazine, Teaching Music.

  1. Musicians learn to work in a structured environment that requires responsibility and dependability. If music classrooms are to achieve the objectives of a large group, they must be highly structured. Each student learns to function as a part of a larger whole. The teacher guides the students, acting as a quiet and responsive authority whose leadership comes from deep knowledge of the material under study.

  2. Musicians learn how to persist in the face of setbacks. Musicians set the bar very high: public performance. Along the this rigorous way, there are many difficulties to overcome.

  3. Musicians learn how to solve large problems by breaking them down into smaller pieces. Musicians decipher pages of printed symbols and turn them into art, a process that can only be done slowly and patiently.

  4. Musicians learn how to take feedback, both positive and negative, without losing their poise. The term “diva” is a pejorative name for a self-important person who can’t take criticism. In reality, there are very few actual divas in instrumental music.

  5. Musicians learn how to collaborate on a large scale. Many individual parts must come together to create the whole experience of a band or orchestra, and musicians must both develop as individuals and have a sense of how to achieve the goals of the group.

  6. Musicians learn how to stay on an even keel. Music accompanies all the moods and phases of life, from high to low. Name a mood or feeling and you will find music that goes with it.

  7. Musicians learn how to deal with failure. Handling failure is part of learning how to perform on a musical instrument. Every musician, including the virtuosos, has stories of embarrassing moments played out in public. And yet they bounce back for the next performance.

You are not good enough or old enough to quit

“Mom, I quit,” Condoleeza yelled.

“You are neither good enough nor old enough to quit,” retorted her mother.

Stanford University professor and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recounted this outburst as part of a speech she gave in 2017 about the power of music education.

Frustrated with the difficulty of learning to play the piano, Rice stood up from her bench one day when she was 10 years old, marched into the kitchen, and yelled at her mother that she’d had enough and was giving up. Her mother wisely held firm against her daughter, telling her to go back to her bench and continue practicing. Rice went back to the piano and continued playing. Later in her speech she remarked that she was “really glad my mother didn’t let me quit at 10.” Although the piano didn’t become her profession, Rice became a very accomplished musician (playing a solo recital for Queen Elizabeth) not to mention a very successful law professor and diplomat.

Let’s imagine for a minute, however, that her mother had given in to her 10-year old daughter and replied, “You’re right, honey, playing the piano is hard. I’ll leave the decision to quit up to you.” Rice may indeed have quit playing because a 10-year old does see into the future and understand the consequences of her actions. But where would she be today? Would she have become a professor at Stanford or the first female African-American Secretary of State? We can’t know for sure, of course, but in her talk Rice drew a direct line from the discipline she learned studying music to her success as a professor and diplomat.

Learning to play a musical instrument requires tremendous discipline, mental toughness, long-term thinking, and daily routine. According to Rice, these are the very qualities that brought her success in other areas of her life. Without the musical training, Rice believes that she may not have made it as far as she did in her academic and professional lives.

The litmus test. The truth is there is no faking it in music. Music performance is a kind of litmus test. Kids regularly get away with shoddy work in school (I’ve done some of that myself in my youth), but with music you cannot fake achievement. There is no last-minute cramming, no padding an essay with fancy words in the hope of sounding vaguely like an expert, no getting by on your smarts, no guessing the right answer. In music, you’ve simply got to do the long-term work, and that requires discipline.

How many people, looking back on their childhoods, are likely to say, “'I’m so glad my parents made me quit playing. I’ve really benefitted from not having a music education.” I daresay there are very few. You will, however, often hear the opposite: “I’m so glad that my parents would not let me quit. There were times when I wanted to quit, but they wouldn’t let me.” Or this sad comment, which I hear regularly from my adult students who are coming back to music. “I wish my parents hadn’t let me quit when I was younger. I’m not exactly sure why I quit. Maybe it was peer pressure or the feeling that someone else was better than me.” Bless those firm parents from years ago. Although their firmness certainly wasn’t appreciated at the time, it was the right thing to do.

Learning a musical instrument will teach you how to work. How to really work. Not how to fake it at the last minute, or sweet talk your way to a good grade, but how to take the countless small steps over a long time that are needed to get someplace that is worth going to.

Hear the music in your imagination!

Can you hear music in your imagination? Great musicians insist that it’s not only possible to “hear” music in your mind but that it’s actually essential to do so. A famous pianist once said that if you play before you hear, your performance will be built on accidents, so you must get the order right by hearing before playing. And a famous trumpeter known for flawless performances under high pressure remarked that he simply plays what he hears in his imagination. And of course Beethoven famously composed music after losing his hearing.

It seems that having a musical imagination is essential for musical performance, but do we have an innate ability to hear music in our minds? I haven’t conducted any research on the subject, but my years of experience working with young musicians has shown me that although beginners don’t usually have the ability to imagine music, they can develop it and the more they work at it, the more fully it develops.

What’s the best ways to develop your musical imagination, to increase your ability to “hear” music in your mind? To develop a sense of what we’d like to hear when performing, we have to have a reservoir of sounds in mind. Listening to great players and absorbing their sounds is the best way to do this. Luckily, we have a wealth of great musicians available to listen to online. (I maintain a list of great players on the “instruments” page of this website and encourage my students to use this resource.)

There’s a mistaken notion that we should try to develop our own sound as soon as possible. In fact, the best approach is to imitate the sounds of different players. No beginner can have a truly original sound. If we work hard and imitate many great players, we may over a long time of practice and dedication develop our own sound. Even Louis Armstrong didn’t sound like Louis Armstrong when he started playing.

My advice for music students in brief: listen, love, imitate, repeat.

Nervous about performing, part 2

Over the years of teaching band, I have played a role in the following unfortunate scenario many times. A week before a performance, the students play the concert program well in rehearsal, staying focused on their individual parts but also paying attention to each other and the conductor (me). They are relaxed because they are not playing for an audience. They look at me for their cues and if they play a wrong note or get lost, they quickly recover.

In concert, however, the performance doesn’t quite gel. A few students retreat into a private sphere of fear, not daring to look up from their music stand at me and each going at his or her own tempo, some rushing and others dragging the tempo. Some students get lost and others simply stop playing entirely, hoping perhaps that their absence won’t be noticed. Sadly, it takes only a few students overcome with fear to sap the whole band’s performance. Like a team sport, band suffers when the whole team is not at their best. If a few links weaken, the chain falls apart, and even Lebron James can’t make up the difference.

We make it through the concert, but we don’t give the audience the best performance that we can. What a pity, I think, that we couldn’t show what we are truly capable of.

I have also led concerts where the music was played even better than in the rehearsal. The rush of playing music for an audience turned what had been good music in rehearsal into an exciting and excellent performance. The students stay focused on their music and also follow my cues, and the performance surprises and delights me even as I am leading it.

I began to think about the gap between a poor performance and an excellent one and read many articles on the subject of performance psychology, both in sports and music.

I came across a blog by Noa Kageyama, a performance psychologist and Julliard faculty member. He’s a funny and knowledgeable writer whose blog is worth your time even if you don’t play a musical instrument. Kageyama summarizes the strategies that can lead to better performance. He focuses on music, but the ideas could be employed in other areas where anxiety about making a mistake in front of an audience is present.

  1. Practice effectively (know your music)

  2. Manage nerves (the body’s response to adrenaline)

  3. Build confidence (by performing often)

  4. Become fearless (not playing tentatively or worrying about mistakes)

  5. Control your attention (control the inner voice that criticizes your performance)

  6. Be resilient (recover quickly from mistakes and setbacks)

No magic wand. Kageyama is careful to note that there is no way to get rid of performance anxiety completely. We are hard wired for it, and it’s a futile quest to pretend to be above and beyond nervousness. But there is help, most importantly, knowing your music.

Knowing your music is the most important of the strategies. That’s because there is no way around the fact that you must be an expert on your part. If you are playing second clarinet on “Jingle Bells,” then you must be an expert at your part, knowing each note, dynamic, and articulation. Where students sometimes fall down is that they don’t practice their parts sufficiently, hoping perhaps to hide in the section under the cover of another student who knows the music better.

In my program, insufficient practice ties into the parental support issue that I write about so often. Because our band classes meet only once a week, I count on the students to practice their music at home. But the truth is that some don’t do that, and their parents are not diligent about keeping their children to a practice routine at home. I don’t blame the parents because I know that their own lives are often hectic, but I do try to encourage them to help their children make time for practice at home. I once read a newspaper profile of the trumpet player Timothy Wilson. His mother was quoted in the article and her words sum up the idea very memorably. “If you live in my house,” his mother said, “you have to brush your teeth and practice your instrument.”

I will discuss the other strategies in future blog posts.

Nervous about performing?

In high school I had a friend named Mike Watts. It was a very lucky friendship for me because I was a band geek who loved playing and listening to music, and Mike’s father happened to be Ernie Watts. Ernie Watts is not a household name, but among jazz and popular musicians, he’s known worldwide as one of the A-list saxophone players. He’s played and recorded with everybody from Buddy Rich to the Rolling Stones. To use a sports analogy, for me it was like being a basketball fanatic and having Stephen Curry’s child as your friend.

Mike played the clarinet in the band and I played the trumpet. I could not get enough of music, signing up for every music class, workshop, scholarship, competition, honor band, or other playing opportunity I could find. I also loved listening to music and could spend hours daydreaming to a Rudolf Serkin LP I had just bought at Wherehouse Music in Van Nuys.

(One day, riding my bike home from the record store with a John Coltrane album in my right hand, I crashed into a parked car and flew over the hood, landing on someone’s front lawn. My record sailed across the grass to the front door of the house. A man came out of the house, picked up the record and asked me if I was okay. When I responded that I wasn’t badly hurt, he replied, “Well, at least you have good taste in music.”)

Love-hate relationship. Still, my relationship with music wasn’t all love. I loved playing and listening to music, but I often hated to perform because of overwhelming anxiety. I was afraid to make a mistake in front of an audience. In essence musical performance anxiety comes down to that: are you afraid to make a mistake in front of an audience?

It was very kind of Mike to invite me to come along to one of his father’s gigs. On that particular concert, Ernie was playing in a back-up orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angles (the former home of the LA Phil) for a popular flute player named Hubert Laws. This was in the days when musicians could afford to hire a small orchestra, including string and horn sections of woodwinds and brass to back them up at a live concert.

Hubert Laws is not a household name these days, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a big name in jazz and instrumental pop. Popular enough that he could sell out a venue like the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and hire an orchestra to back him up.

For me, being backstage at the Hubert Laws concert and meeting the musicians was a dream come true. I met Snooky Young, a trumpeter who had played in Count Basie’s big band as well as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band with Doc Severinsen for many years. When he learned that I was a serious trumpet player, he gave me a few simple words of encouragement. “Keep on playing and you’ll get your chance.” When a player of that stature gives a young person a few words of encouragement, the effect lasts for years.

The musicians did a short rehearsal and sound check then broke for dinner before the performance that night. During the rehearsal, Ernie had to go to the front of the stage with Hubert Laws and perform a difficult passage of music on the flute, not his main instrument. The thought of doing that made me feel nervous even though I was safely watching from offstage with Mike.

At dinner, which we ate in a diner next to the concert hall, I asked Mr. Watts whether he ever felt nervous performing in front of so many people. His reply has stuck with me ever since. “I don’t feel nervous if I’m prepared and I know exactly what I’m doing. I only feel nervous if I’m not prepared.”