Get better. Practice less.*

*Some restrictions apply

I took some arts administration courses while I was studying at Indiana University, thinking that it might open up some interesting possibilities for future work, or at least give me a greater sense of perspective on the business of classical music. I wasn’t expecting bassoon advice when I signed up for a course taught by Michael Rushton, and I’m sure he similarly didn’t expect to be offering any advice on music performance. One of the key themes of that course was the law of diminishing returns, and two years later it would save me when I had an audition to prepare, but not the time or energy to properly do so. I got the job. Here’s how.

So first off, the law is pretty much what it sounds like. As you invest more resources (time, money, etc.) in a given task, the return you get on your investment decreases. The law doesn’t work for all things but it applies in a big way to practicing. Someone who doesn’t practice is probably not going to sound great. If they spend an hour a day practicing, there’s going to be a huge difference in their musical abilities compared to the non-practicer. If they practice two hours every day, there will be a noticeably higher degree of refinement in their playing, but productivity is going to decline somewhat in the second hour as the mind tires. Three hours a day will yield an audible difference once more, but a more subtle one.

From three hours up, an untrained listener will perceive very little difference in performance from the harder and harder working musician, but negative influences begin to intrude as practice time increases. As daily practice loads reach and exceed six hours, risks of physical and psychological injury become significant. Eventually you get to a point of counter-productivity, where you’re becoming worse with every added minute of practice.

There comes a point where a rational person declines to practice any further, and instead devotes their time to other activities. During my undergrad years I wasn’t a rational person and practiced as much as physically possible. It was a dumb way of doing things and I wasted a lot of time while constantly living at the physical and mental breaking point. I got a little less dumb in grad school.

When I was preparing the KWS audition, I didn’t have a lot of energy to spare. I was facing the stress of a very low-income existence in an expensive city, and I was deeply depressed and burned out. I kept falling short on my practice goals until I finally accepted that two hours a day was the realistic limit for my playing, at least while I was working full-time at a coffee shop.

The time limit made audition prep an exercise in extreme efficiency. A vast amount of mental focus had to go into every note, since there was no time for excessive repetition to build the correct neural pathways. I was forced to jump more frequently between excerpts, in order to cover the complete list every two or three days, and the jumping taught me to quickly “change character” between excerpts, just as I’d have to do in the audition.

I used some of my time that was freed up by me practicing less to plan out practice sessions in detail so I would be free to get straight to work during the sessions themselves. After every session I would take notes on my practice and check if I met my objectives – if not, I’d make changes to the plan for my next session until I found a process that worked. One of the most important implications of the law of diminishing returns is that if you put resources into something you aren’t already putting resources into, you’re going to get more bang for your buck than if you put the same resources into more of what you’re already doing. By taking a half hour a week I was using for practice and using it to planning, I got to the point where I was accomplishing in two hours of playing what used to take me four.

I put some more of the time I used to spend practicing into score study, listening and generally forming ideas about how the excerpts should sound without the bassoon in my hands. This completely changed my confidence in presenting the excerpts – since auditions are alien and freakish experiences unrelated to normal music making, I like to imagine a ghost orchestra around me playing along with the excerpt so I don’t feel so alone on the stage. The more detail I could put into my mental picture of the accompaniment, the easier it was to make music in the audition room, instead of just playing  bassoon by myself behind a screen wondering when the panel would put me out of my misery and send me out to drown my sorrows at the pub next door.

As I started to really learn the excerpts as pieces of music away from the bassoon, something truly frightening happened: I started having my own opinions about things, about how the excerpts should be played, and those opinions were formed from my years of experience with music rather than by what famous bassoonist X said in a masterclass one time. Then it hit me that the panel wasn’t looking to hire someone terrified of disappointing their teachers by using the wrong amount of vibrato in Bolero, they wanted to hire a musician who was not just flexible and competent, but who would play music, not just excerpts, without having to be told to do so.

Anyways, to make a long story short, if you’re not where you want to be, and you think the answer might be to do what you’re already doing, but more of it, maybe consider attacking the problem from other angles. When you come at an issue from more than one direction, you’re literally building stronger physical connections in your brain. You are building a better brain for yourself. How cool is that?!?


Reach out and touch someone

The KW Symphony just wrapped up our second stretch of outreach concerts in the community. We did seven shows in eight days at venues all over the city and at all times of the day. We played entirely in spaces that were not designed with an orchestra in mind – this presented some logistical challenges but also made for some highly pleasant surprises. The meeting room at Google’s Kitchener HQ had remarkably good acoustics, and there’s a visually and sonically gorgeous theatre at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo that I’d love to play a recital in.

Outreach is a ridiculously broad term that encompasses a variety of activities, but the basic principle is using the orchestra to engage with people in a positive way outside of the concert hall. It’s a bit of raising awareness of who we are and what we do, a bit of bringing music to people who can’t necessarily come to us, and a bit of just going out and giving music to the community because that’s what we should be doing. It’s a tricky thing to do well, because “the community” isn’t a homogenous entity but a crazily diverse body of people with vastly different needs and expectations. Our assistant conductor, Daniel Bartholemew-Poyser, really takes ownership of this problem and adjusts the programming and his speaking to reach whatever group we’re performing for. He also sings “Bad Romance” in front of an audience remarkably well. His presence on the podium makes these shows a great deal of fun.

A major quirk of the past week’s outreach effort is that I wasn’t scheduled to play anything that Dan was conducting – my contribution was limited to two movements of chamber music. Not that I’m complaining! Chamber music can be a very playful and joyous experience – you get to really react and respond to the musical gestures your colleagues make, and contribute your own musical ideas that a sensitive colleague will then absorb and spin out in their next phrase. The piece as a whole might be thoroughly rehearsed, but that kind of fine musical interaction is a totally live and spontaneous musical experience. You swing back and forth between being a leader and a follower and mentally engage with what you’re doing at a higher level. It’s a full-brain workout and it feels great.

Outreach being concluded, we’re moving on to our Yuletide Spectacular. Very few tickets left for all four of these shows, and a packed house brings a really wonderful energy to a performance.

Soon to come at mikeybassoon – more shop talk! I’m in the process of getting together some thoughts on everyone’s favourite thing, auditions! More to come…

A sort of stable chaos

A respectable blanket of snow has arrived. The abrupt shifts in weather mirror the entropy of the symphony season. Conductors, concert programs and venues fly by – we ended October with an “outreach week” that saw the orchestra playing in six different spaces over four days, and last week’s Baroque and Beyond program saw us rehearsing in Kitchener before performing shows in Waterloo, Guelph and Cambridge. Against this chaotic backdrop the disciplined work that happens outside of scheduled “working hours” stays constant – searching for weaknesses in technique, preparing for particularly fierce musical challenges in the months ahead, scraping reeds.

It’s a bit like Donkey Kong Country. Everything’s moving really fast and is risky and dangerous, but you have to keep your eye on the future and find the next exploding barrel to jump into or you get nothing done.

My feelings about the state of things aboard the good ship KWS have been given a considerable lift of late, with two key announcements on the organization’s leadership. After a year of searching we have an executive director, whose enthusiasm about this orchestra is incredibly contagious. We’ve also been searching for a concertmaster since before I joined the orchestra, and everyone is delighted to hear that we’ll have a fabulous musician taking up that position in the new year. Onward and upward.

The next folder on our stands is an intriguing one, a collaboration with Canadian authors Miriam Toews and Wayne Grady – writers responding to musical selections, and musicians responding to written selections. From there, on to the November Signature program, after which I can finally shake out the hand cramp from the third movement of the Barber Violin Concerto. After that the holiday season is upon us and the perennial challenges of the Nutcracker (the KWS is back in the pit at CITS for the first time in many years!) beckon, followed by a “holiday” woodshedding the Stravinsky Octet and the Brahms Violin Concerto.

The 2015 schedule is unusually dense – two programs a week virtually every week until the end of the season. Bring it on.

Getting Better + Season Opener

It’s vexing that there is only so much that one can do well at any particular time. I have countless creative projects at any one time that I want to be pursuing and never have either the time or the physical endurance to carry them all through. Lately I’ve been making a project out of becoming well. I have neglected my mental and physical well being for many years to make a go of a career in music. I was largely okay with this until it started to negatively impact my playing. Now I choose to fight back. I’m slowly getting better. I probably will be for most of my life. Good mental health is like good fitness or musicianship – it’s about the daily work that pays off in the long run.

I was feeling pretty worn out by the end of last season but just as I imagined, I was bored out of my mind about halfway through the summer (the KWS has a 38 week season and the musicians are temporarily laid off around June each year until the next season begins). The orchestra season started on the early side this year, right at the beginning of September, kicking off with a program of mostly standard encore fare with Time For Three as our guest soloists. TF3 are fantastic – fun, accessible, and musically stellar. The reaction from the audience was lovely. Orchestras all over have spent the last couple decades trying to figure out ways to integrate popular music into the orchestral concert paradigm and most of these efforts have been pretty bad. It’s refreshing to hear a group like TF3 who make artistic quality an up-front priority and genuinely own what they do on stage. Plus they’re nice folks. Check ‘em out.

This concert also brought with it a “modern orchestra musician” moment for me when I was asked by Edwin to do an impromptu on-camera interview before one of the rehearsals about my favourite music from the show. When it came time for me to speak sounds came out of my mouth and failed to assemble themselves into anything a linguist might recognize as speech. The final product was edited into something quite coherent by someone who also handles many administrative affairs, sets up chairs and stands for rehearsals, works to keep our guest artists comfortable and content, arranges the odd christmas carol for the orchestra to play on our Yuletide Spectacular, and has played some smooth and soothing piano to set the atmosphere for gala events. The folks who keep the KWS running wear many varied and stylish hats!

Apologies, readers (if there are any!) for the lengthy absence. This has been a busy few months, with many surprises (both the bad and wonderful kinds) that have distracted me from writing. I first started this blog with the intent of writing about music just as I was entering a new phase of my life as a full-time professional musician. More than a year has now passed since I got my lucky break and I’ve had many longtime dreams fulfilled amidst the challenges and hardships. It’s been nothing like I’ve expected. I suppose I should have expected as much.

One year seems like an appropriate milestone to reflect on what I’ve learned so far. I’m sure I will look back on this in another year (or more likely next month) and realize how little I really knew when I wrote this. No matter. I’m going to write this down for all to see before I can convince myself that I’m wrong about everything and don’t know what I’m talking about.

Practicing is not about preparing your part until it’s perfect, nor is it about preparing your part until it’s good enough. It’s about getting better. You push against the limits of what you’re capable of and over time those limits start to give way. You become just a bit more capable than you were before, and that opens up opportunities and allows you to engage with your craft on a level that’s just a little bit deeper. More depth yields greater satisfaction, but the satisfaction doesn’t last unless you keep pushing farther. You build towards a greater artistry one day at a time.

The job provides an environment in which to showcase your art and a paycheque. It does not provide happiness. Happiness must be cultivated.

The ways in which orchestral musicians contribute to their ensemble are varied, and not just limited to musical artistry. Young players bring energy and enthusiasm to the table while older ones bring wisdom gained through decades of hard-earned experience. A musician who plays solos with courage and flair is an example of someone who contributes very publicly to an orchestra’s success. A musician who works behind the scenes to solve problems and bring people together is no less vital to the health and productivity of their organization.

No one can accurately predict the future, and this applies as much to job satisfaction and artistic success as it does to ticket sales and the overall state of the economy. I’ve played extraordinarily emotional music and felt very little, and I’ve played music that I considered totally unremarkable and suddenly been struck by a sense of deep contentment and happiness in my choice of career. The job will not always be as wonderful as you want it to but sometimes it will be better than you ever imagined.

Belated anniversary

Safety First

A holiday is a great time to stop and notice things about the world around you that you don’t have time for normally. Today I explored the perimeter of my new abode for the first time and discovered that like many houses in the neighbourhood, mine has a built-in escape ladder, a tremendously useful thing when you life on the third storey.

It’s also a good chance to get an instrument that’s not quite in peak performance condition in for a quick service. In the process of inspecting my bassoon to make a wish list of potential repairs, I discovered something I never expected to see again – a series of cracks in the finish of the wing joint, running parallel to the grain of the wood. The first time I saw this was a little under two years ago with my previous instrument. It indicates that water is seeping into the wood and causing it to swell, eventually leading to a sharp deterioration in performance. The tubes that are meant to protect that very thing from happening turned out to be improperly sealed. It’s a rare condition. I’m a little stunned to have encountered it twice in as many years.

I don’t mean to ramble on. My point is, if you see something weird with your bassoon, like a ton of cracks that are hard to explain, get the darn thing in to a qualified repair person as soon as you can. The problem will only get worse if you leave it.


I’ve played a lot of differently formatted concerts over the last few weeks. Concert formats matter. A good concert format has the potential to radically change an audience member’s perception of the complete concert experience. That subjective perception of concert experience quality in turn influences the audience member’s willingness to buy tickets in the future. (For concrete examples of how concert format can be altered to significantly change the traditional concert experience, see this recent study by the New World Symphony in Miami:

The overture/concerto/symphony concert format has become the traditional “three course meal” of the orchestral world. A short and often energetic piece arouses audience interest and demonstrates the ensemble’s virtuosity. A lengthier piece follows in which a guest soloist’s command of their voice or instrument is thoroughly showcased. After intermission comes a substantial work which is often the intellectual centrepiece of the program – though as with all of theses rules of format, this need not be the case. Overture/concerto/symphony is a total programming cliche in the orchestral world, so it’s strange we only had one such performance this month.

Our first show this month really went off the beaten track of concert formatting by involving a yoga instructor who led the crowd in a series of movements and guided meditations with the intent of involving our audience more deeply in the listening experience. The program ran a little over an hour with no intermission and took place at the Conrad Centre (the downtown venue where the symphony’s offices are located), in a smallish black-box theatre. The musical selections involved in this show were mostly individual movements of larger works, although we did also play the entire Stravinsky Octet and Peter Hatch’s oboe concert, titled Undr. This concert was part of our Intersections series, which is our usual avenue for turning concert format on its head.

We then moved on to our Paris Festival – two totally different Signature series programs in one weekend at Centre in the Square. Each program used a theme to give the music we were presenting context within the intellectual and artistic currents of turn-of-the-century Paris. Sunday’s program was the one “traditional” concert of the month, devoted Parisian salon culture. The Friday/Saturday show dealt with the traditional, conservatoire-trained composers of the period in the first half before exploring the anarchic world of the cabaret beginning at intermission. This exploration was not only musical – one of our administrators spent intermission “sleeping” on stage in a monkey costume, our two conductors battled each other with an inflatable hammer and on one of the evenings our guest soloist came out to join us for our encore in a pig suit.

The next week found us in the same venue but this time backing Latin Grammy winners Tiempo Libre, with a couple orchestral showpieces thrown in for good measure. The week after that had us performing montages from Pixar films synched to video. It was a huge technical challenge to rehearse and pull this all off in concert, as we had to be right in step not just with the visual cues, but also a couple of audio tracks (sound effects and the odd guitar riff).

What interests me about having so many different concert experiences in a compressed period of time is being able to really compare the apparent audience response and energy level with each of them. I can’t speculate on what reached the audience best (there’s inevitably a separation, both psychological and physical, between what happens on stage and how sound and light reach the folks in the seats) but there’s something comforting about the fact that each of these wildly different concert experiences got an enthusiastic response. There’s something fundamental about experiencing live music that speaks to the people’s humanity. The thirst for live music will be what keeps orchestras alive as we continue the eternal struggle to stay financially sound and artistically vibrant.

Listening In

We’re just about at the halfway point of the 13/14 KWS season. There’s a lot of awesome stuff piled into the second half – I’m particularly looking forward to tackling Petrushka, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Stravinsky Octet for the first time. We’ll be looking ahead to the future quite a bit in the coming weeks, officially announcing the 14/15 season in February and holding auditions to select our next assistant conductor in a couple of months. Our administration, meanwhile, continues to push the boundaries of quantum physics by existing in several different times at once, working hard to keep all of the above on track while hammering out details for the 15/16 season and beyond.

Lately I’ve been focussed on preparing for an audition with the Toronto Symphony, which took place on Wednesday. Auditions are peculiar creatures that govern a large part of your life for weeks or months at a stretch and then suddenly end with an hour’s worth of playing (and only that much if you’re a finalist for the job). You know the odds are steep going in, but failing to win still stings. It sounds trite and ridiculous to cheerfully intone that failing to win auditions is still a great learning experience, but seriously, it is. Preparing an audition is a lengthy process that challenges your discipline, organizational ability and imagination. In the hours after an audition ends, there’s a moment of clarity where you know exactly what worked and what didn’t, and you have a great sense of how to approach things differently next time. It’s neat.

Since the audition fell during rehearsals for a Signature series concert in KW, I was off that program and took advantage of the opportunity to hear the orchestra as an audience member on Friday. I’m fascinated by acoustics, a subject I could probably ramble on about for several posts, and this fascination has practical implications for me because the sound we hear playing on stage is quite far removed from what the audience hears in the hall. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of how you sound in the hall when someone else is playing in your place, of course, but you notice how certain registers (across all instruments) tend to blend into the texture while others project quite easily. Hopefully I can apply what I’ve learned to some kind of useful end in the coming weeks.


After seven weeks of orchestral playing (plus ongoing rehearsals and performances with the Blythwood Winds) things are suddenly much quieter, in a figurative and literal sense. I’m not needed for this weekend’s Messiah with the Grand Philharmonic Choir. My ears are asking me for a rest and I’m obliging them with a week off of music listening. This comes hard to me after so many years of being desperately afraid that there was too much repertoire out there that I did not know well enough. Fear sometimes helps in a pinch, but in general it’s a pretty lame motivator.

Listening has given way to old pursuits that I once loved and gave up to the bassoon in a fear-driven effort to be better. I am reading again, entranced by tales of the evolution of the conducting profession, spy thrillers and horticultural treatises. With the latter I hope to nurse my begonia back to its former glory – it looks sad and defeated right now and the only advice my past experience has taught me is to instruct the plant to do more long tones. My gardening adventures are probably going to end up with me like Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz dragging a peace lilly from gig to gig, rambling on to colleagues about the meditative benefits of plant ownership. But that’s beside the point. My point is that books are wonderful. Having intellectual pursuits outside of music again is wonderful.


November’s half over. Scary. It’s been a wonderfully eclectic few weeks since I posted last. I used to be afraid that a career in music performance would get overly repetitive and similar, yet since September I have:

  • Played music from the original Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, arranged for wind quintet, in a bar
  • Played our national anthem with the music upside-down and backwards during a photo shoot
  • Played contrabassoon in a concerto for power trio and orchestra composed around themes by Rush
  • Performed in concert with a remote-controlled, helium-filled mechanical shark

Next up are two weeks of orchestral works I’ve long wanted to play, each combined with a new and unfamiliar treat to sink my bassoony teeth into. More on that later. I need to get to bed.


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