Preparing to Become a Professional Musician Part 2

John Hagstrom


Think about how well you remember the things that you are told. One of the biggest frustrations for a teacher is to have a student capable of improvement by using information just learned, but then apparently forgetting that information by the time of their next lesson. How does this happen? It is often caused by the fact that most students are conditioned by their previous schooling to think that immediate and accurate recall is required only on the day of an exam.


Imagine what it would be like if every class you attended had a test given—not an easy quiz, but a test on all of the material covered so far in the class. It would force you to change the level of study and reinforcement you put into the content of what is learned each day in class. It is important to realize that life as a professional musician contains daily expectations for remembering important information—and preparation for each day's challenge as though an exam were being given.


It is not sufficient to remember information only well enough to merely recognize it when you see it or hear it a second time. Your lessons are moments when you are expected to make a presentation of your best preparation, using all of the information you have understood up to that moment. This requires that you study information well enough so that you can recall it quickly, which is far more difficult than recognizing correct answers.


Remembering and applying lessons learned is essential for your viability as a professional musician. There are many times when members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are expected to rehearse a program for concerts in the fall, and then perform the same repertoire again in the spring with little or no additional rehearsal. This was the case with Mahler’s 9th Symphony several years ago. We rehearsed it in Chicago for a week of fall concerts, and then rehearsed it for less than 20 minutes just prior to its next performance on tour in Berlin the following spring. If you are not familiar with that piece, it is over 80 minutes long!  Most of what we were expected to retain had to be recalled without the benefit of more rehearsal. I did not develop that ability overnight, but by challenging myself to become a better student I began to be able to retain important information more effectively—and without having to be reminded over and over. 



Nothing is impossible when you learn how to break up a bigger problem into several smaller and more solvable problems. Some people automatically dismiss their potential to accomplish difficult tasks because they do not see that any difficult task is actually made up of many smaller tasks that are accomplished more easily. For example, you may hear an older student or a professional musician play something that is currently impossible for you to play in the same way. Instead of telling yourself that you could never do the same thing, ask yourself (or your teacher) what the steps are toward building the foundation of your goal. When you can identify the substructure of something difficult, it is much easier to stay motivated as you gradually accomplish each part of the solution.  


This process takes patience and determination, and it begins with an expectation that with a sufficient amount of commitment it will be possible to achieve your goals. Some of these skills may actually take years to develop, but over time they will be possible. There are some aspects of trumpet playing that I have had to work on for ten years or more, and there are things that I am still working on that I expect to achieve in the course of several more years. 



Be aware that our culture conditions us to expect more payback for less investment. Everybody loves a bargain, and it is certainly wise to try not to waste our efforts. It is important, however, to differentiate between economy and greed. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements that promise us something for almost nothing—and getting it immediately without paying for it until later (i.e. no money down on a car, no interest on furniture for two years, no closing costs on a loan, losing weight without exercise, etc.).Though this messaging may tempt us to “buy” a product, it may also inadvertently lead us to expect that we can improve with little or no effort.


In fact, the process of improving over many years on your instrument is one gigantic instance of "pay now--receive later.” If an advertisement for a car described how all of the payments would have to be made first, and then after a few years the car would be delivered to you, it would probably make you laugh because that idea is so far out of alignment with the rest of what we see advertised. Even so, this is the reality of the "bargain" you are making as a music student. Make sure that you are not expecting rewards for little or no investment. This will also help you to value your progress and find enjoyment in each day’s practice. Improvement may be more expensive than you want it to be, but it can be yours…if the price is right. 

Copyright John Hagstrom 2017 (used with permission)