Stay Ahead of the Aircraft

I'm a closeted aviation groupie. I'm an avid subscriber to most of the leading aviation YouTube channels, most of which would make most people's eyes glaze over in only a few minutes time. I'm also embarrassed to admit that I purposely arrive early to the music school I teach at in Charlottesville, VA so I can tune into to listen to live tower communications and watch the arriving and departing air traffic in and around the Charlottesville airport. I would go on, but I'll save myself the embarrassment... 

I think I'm interested in aviation for the incredible scenic views from altitude, and the jet-set sense of adventure, of course, but also because of the planning and professionalism involved in piloting aircraft. The amount of forethought of briefing the flight plan, filing the plan with the FAA, executing the preflight checks, following precise, double, triple, and quadruple checked instructions and procedures, leaves almost nothing for chance. Which, I sometimes crave in my life. 

Amongst the dense and proprietary jargon associated aviation, there is a saying, "always stay ahead of the aircraft". This is meant to remind pilots to never allow themselves to be pushed onto their back foot while flying. Have radio frequencies pre-programmed, memorize airport approach plates, understand missed approach procedures, etc... Be prepared. When the aircraft outflies a pilot's preparedness, the pilot finds themselves in a sudden state of reaction to the world around them. As unanticipated tasks mount on the pilot, so does task saturation and the likelihood of a serious accident. 

Staying ahead of our own musical aircraft is, in my mind, the exact same concept. We as musicians must plan, or practice, within our own vibrant and creative imaginations to stay ahead of ourselves while piloting the composer's piece of music. This means staying on top of the phrase and not letting the instrument dictate what you want to do musically, but acquire the technique, skill, and log the required hours of practice that will enable you to perform the maneuver. 

Inevitably things will go wrong. I hope you excuse the cheesy example, but if you saw the move Sully, I hope you noticed that after the aircraft hit the flock of Geese just after takeoff, the pilots didn't immediately fling themselves into a flurry of commotion trying to solve the problem of a double engine outage. They simply flew the plane. They put their full attention into keeping the aircraft aloft IN THAT MOMENT. As performers, I think we encounter this more often than pilots. In music if a mistake is made and we give up, all is lost. When mistakes happen, we must dig in, refocus, persist, and keep fighting. We really don't have any other options. 

Sure, the unexpected deviates us slightly from our planned path through a piece of music, but it is exactly that which makes live art compelling. We musicians must have the diligence to over-prepare even for the "easiest" gig, but also allow for and be open to the beautiful spontaneous moments then can occur as a product of that preparation. 

feedback: when to listen to it, when to ignore it

Feedback can be a tricky thing. Whether it's from an audition panel, conductor, or peers, it can be difficult to make sense of potentially conflicting information. Here are six ways I try to filter helpful information from musical feedback:

  • Consider your source- For students, your applied teacher is likely best-acquainted with your playing, and can be trusted to give you the most accurate feedback regarding your performance within the context of their own sequenced instruction.
  • Throw out the highs and the lows- This is a great piece of advice I got from friend and former teacher, Chris Carrillo. Be wary of overly positive and negative remarks. Try to find the objective middle ground. This is where you should start implementing the suggestions. 
  • Notice patterns- Which comments are you getting most often? Is it your rhythm? Phrasing? If you often hear the same thing, then focus on that topic early and often!
  • Learn to recognize bad feedback- Good feedback is often, but not always, objective. Look out for comments that are not specifically targeted at musical or technical aspects of your performance. General comments can be helpful, but only if they clearly communicate how to make your performance more effective. 
  • Don't chase your tail- Comments are suggestions, not instruction. There is a danger of taking an audition panel's notes too literally. If you do this, you might find yourself adrift while trying to please less-than-useful feedback. 
  • Stay objective- Positive or negative feedback is not a reflection of you as a person. It is only one person's opinion of one performance. No more, no less. Musicians spend many hours honing their craft, and can become personally or emotionally attached to their musical abilities. Do not fall into the trap of taking constructive criticism personally. 

I hope this helps.