Contrabass Conversations

Education, Festivals, Opportunity, Orchestras, Pedagogy

Summer is Coming–Go Study Music!


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By Jason Heath

Ah, summer….

For me, the very word conjures up images of reading a chunky novel under a tree, without a care in the world.

For you, summer might bring to mind different images, like clocking in at some nondescript job to earn extra cash, or perhaps cranking out a couple of classes for a degree program. Regardless, for most music students and professionals, summer is the season for something a little different.

Even though cramming in an extra class or taking a summer job may seem necessary (I’ve done both in the past), I would highly recommend that all music students find a music camp or festival to attend each and every summer.

Why spend those precious summer days studying music?

There are a ton of reasons, but here are my top three:

  1. Change of Scenery – It’s quite easy to get comfortable with the routine and familiarity of seeing the same teachers, colleagues, and friends. Getting out of that “safe zone” and doing something new in the summer can jumpstart your thinking and propel you to the next level in your musical development.
  2. Develop a Network – When we travel somewhere new, we immerse ourselves in a circle of colleagues and mentors that we were unlikely to have met otherwise. Music is like many other professions: your network typically turns out to be the most critical factor in your overall career success. Why not broaden that network? The risks are low and the rewards are huge.
  3. See the World – While I was in college, I deliberately applied for overseas summer festivals, which enabled me to travel the world for several summers without spending a dime of my own money. I probably learned more in my summers in Russia, Germany, and Japan than I did in my entire undergraduate experience. Travel reorients your perspective in a really healthy way. Even if you can’t make overseas summer festivals work, exploring a different region of your country can have a similar effect on your perspective. My summer experiences in stateside locales like Charleston, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Oregon were a study in contrasts, and I came away from these experiences with greater knowledge and respect for these distinct regions of the United States.

I know that I developed more as a musician during each summer of studies than in an entire year of school. There really is no substitute for summer study.

Might summer study cost you money? Sure.

Might it be inconvenient? Of course.

But find a way to make it happen. It will pay off immensely in the long run.

 

My Summer Music Experiences

I’ve played in a wide variety of festivals over the years, beginning in high school and continuing to the present day. Here’s a brief summary of what I did in the summer and what I got out of each experience:

National High School Music Institute (1992-93) – For nearly 70 years, Northwestern University had a great summer music program. They killed off the music component of the High School Institute a few years ago right after hiring me as the program’s bass teacher—I hope it wasn’t my fault! The experience of studying with Jeff Bradetich (at the time a professor at Northwestern—Jeff currently teaches bass at the University of North Texas) opened my eyes to the possibilities of the double bass. He was my primary role model through high school, and he totally changed my bass playing.

Take Away: Even though Northwestern was 600 miles away from my hometown, making the effort to study at this program opened my eyes to the vastness of the music world outside of my little safety bubble.  I got radically better between 1992 and 1993 mainly through what I learned at this program.

American Russian Youth Orchestra (1997) – Now defunct, this festival was off-the-charts madness. This was my first experience leaving the country besides short jaunts to Canada and Mexico when I was a little kid, and what a way to start out with foreign travel! We were led by American Symphony Orchestra Music Director andBard College President Leon Botstein, an interesting musical figure if ever there was one. I’m so sad that this festival faded. It was insanely cool to tour Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and other destinations with this strong ensemble. My colleagues from this festival went on to hold positions in the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and many other major orchestras.

Take Away: I feel like I began this festival as a kid and finished it as an adult.  My worldview and life perspective totally shifted in these seven weeks. I remember having a hard time even remembering what I used to think about prior to doing this festival.  Have you ever had an experience like I’m describing?  One that shifts your thinking so radically that you have a hard time identifying with yourself from a couple of months earlier?  If not, maybe you will in the future—it’s a strange feeling to “jump” like that in your thinking.

Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (1998) – After the insanity of the American Russian Youth Orchestra, I didn’t know what to expect from Schleswig-Holstein. This turned out to be a much more “traditional” musical festival, though it was really cool for me to play in a majority European orchestra. American Russian was set up to be exactly 50/50 American and Russian in all respects: players, repertoire, conductors, and venues. There were close to 20 countries represented in Schleswig-Holstein, mostly from Europe. Rehearsals were conducted in both German and English, and I learned a huge amount working with double bass coaches Wolfgang Güttler andJanne Saksala.

Take Away: While American Russian was more of a “life experience,” I got a lot more out of Schleswig-Holstein in terms of my double bass education.  Playing in a section with players from Germany, Sweden, and Turkey opened my eyes to other approaches to the double bass.  These coaches were both interesting to work with, albeit with quite different styles to their teaching.  We also played concerts all over Germany as well as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.  This was my first chance to see Europe, and doing it in a musical context (and for free) was excellent.

Pacific Music Festival (2000) – This may be the most fun I’ve ever had in a single month! The people organizing this festival really get it right. It was a great orchestra and was also a giant party from beginning to end (Kampai!). Michael Tilson-Thomas was the primary conductor at that time, and a large percentage of the ensemble was made up of people from the New World Symphony. Charles Dutoit was the other conductor that summer. I made a lot of new friends and got to play great repertoire, including Mahler’s Third Symphony outdoors in Sapporo in the summer—certainly one of the most dehydrating performances of my life!

Take Away: I did this festival right after completing my masters degree and had a fair amount of anxiety about what the future held for me (sound familiar, anyone?).  Spending a summer with musicians around my same age from all over the globe that were in a similar situation of starting to find their path in the world of music turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time.

Spoleto Festival USA (2001-02) – Charleston, South Carolina is a beautiful city with a rich artistic tradition. Gian Carlo Menotti started this festival nearly 40 years ago as an American counterpart to the Festival of Two Worldsin Spoleto, Italy. While I never got the chance to play the Italian festival (I’ve heard that it’s an unforgettable experience), spending parts of May and June in this historic American city was extremely fun. In addition to performing in the festival, I took as much time as possible to check out plays, art exhibitions, and other musical performances. I saw David Sedaris and David Rakoff speak, with predictably hilarious results. I spent my mornings running along the Battery in historic Charleston, admiring the beautiful houses and watching the palmetto fronds sway in the ocean breezes. Illinois seemed as exciting as a wet paper bag in comparison.

Take Away: I had fewer “ah-ha” moments at these later summer festivals—unlike my earlier experiences, these were paid gigs and I approached them more like a working vacation.  Still, the experience of getting out of the Midwest and exploring a totally different part of the country with colleagues outside of my familiar circle was rejuvenating.

Britt Festival (2002) – I’ve always loved the West Coast. I love the quirkiness of Venice and the ridiculously multicultural melting pot of Los Angeles. I love the majesty and beauty of San Francisco. I love worrying about seeing a dinosaur poke around a tree in the redwood forests. I could go on and on—the black sand beaches of coastal Oregon, the mysteries of the Olympic Peninsula. I jumped at the chance to go out to southern Oregon and play a summer at the Britt Festival. The bass section, led by the always interesting Dave Anderson, was a pleasure to work with, and the orchestra was excellent. What I really remember most, however, was spending time outdoors in this beautiful part of the country, climbing Mount McLoughlin with other musicians, taking lots of smaller hikes, and spending a lot of time reading outdoors.

Take Away: I really got bitten by the West Coast bug on this festival.  It was hard to head back to the land of corn after spending a summer surrounded by this kind of natural beauty.  After driving over 5200 miles round-trip, I also started to think a little more critically about cost/benefit ratio when looking at summer festivals.  As a result, this was the last festival that I did that was more than a few hours from home.

Des Moines Metro Opera (2002-03) – My wife played in the orchestra for this festival for five years, and I joined her for a couple of summers early in my freelance career. I had a great time, worked with good colleagues, and made some decent money by summer gig standards. I always had two prisms through with I looked at gigs: the regular season prism, which always paid more, and the summer prism, which always paid less. With that as a given, this gig worked out well. Playing in the same orchestra as my wife (which we rarely did) was an added benefit.

Take Away: This may seem strange, but the first thing that comes to mind for this gig are fireflies flashing their “tails” in the thick, humid funk of Iowa summers. The whole festival stayed on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, a few miles south of Des Moines proper.  Indiana is small-town America personified, with friendly townsfolk and great apple pie. No major life lessons learned here—just a good professional gig for the summer.

Midsummer’s Music Festival (2004-16) –  I finally “found my home” with this chamber music festival. Aftervagabonding about for so many summers, I finally settled down with this Door County, Wisconsin festival in 2004 and have been doing it every summer since then. Like I did with the Des Moines Opera, I think of beautiful summer days and nights, with plenty of time for hiking, reading, practicing, and relaxing.  Check out the Midsummer’s Music website—you’ll see a familiar face on this year’s promotional materials!

Take Away: I feel so lucky to have connected with this opportunity to play chamber music with outstanding colleagues like these. It’s a rare opportunity for bass players to play any chamber music at all, and through this festival I have delved into all corners of the repertoire. These past 11 seasons have been great for my musicianship, and I have looked forward to each summer and the new challenges and satisfactions that this festival will bring.

 

Programs Worth Checking Out

There are a ton of summer programs out there—way too many for me to list here.  The following are my stock recommendations to my students. I’m primarily a classical bass player and am typically pointing students toward these types of summer experiences. There are many other festivals out there that will cater more to your specific needs, but I think that the following are really excellent.

I’ve dropped a few bass teacher recommendations in these descriptions (I can’t help it–it’s my world), and I’ll likely do an addendum post on my blog with bass-specific festivals and camps. If you have a great festival to recommend, leave a comment or send me an email at feedback@contrabassconversations.com.

Aspen Music Festival and School – The Aspen Festival has been training musicians for well over a half-century, and it’s on the resumes of successful musicians worldwide. Running from mid-June through mid-August, Aspen offers orchestral, opera, conducting,and composition programs, to name a few. I have had many students attend over the years, and they come back with a huge bump in their knowledge and ability. Aspen offers limited fellowships as well as partial financial assistance. Bassists have the opportunity to study with a wide variety of excellent teachers. My students always got a lot out of their time with Bruce Bransby, but there are many excellent opinions for all instrumentalists.

Tanglewood Music Center – Tanglewood is another highly desirable summer program. Originating in 1940 as the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood offers full fellowships for all participants and opportunities to closely collaborate with members of the Boston Symphony like Principal Bass Ed Barker and Assistant Principal BassLawrence Wolfe. Highly competitive and highly recommended.

Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) – This is the high school companion program that also takes place at Tanglewood. Students at BUTI also get to work with Boston Symphony musicians, perform in master classes, and check out the multitude of live performances taking place.

Interlochen Center for the Arts – Interlochen is another long-running program (it’s almost 90 years old!) with an established tradition of excellence. Their Summer Music Camp is designed for students from 3rd through 12th grade.  Much more than music is offered at Interlochen, including dance, creative writing, visual arts, and film. It truly is a summer arts experience. Bassists get to study with Lawrence Hurst and Jack Budrow, two venerable masters of the instrument.

National Repertory Orchestra – This program (NRO for short) is an interesting model. Led by the Cleveland Institute’s Carl Topilow, this program is focused on cramming as much orchestral repertoire as humanly possible into eight weeks. I’ve never done this program but have heard that it rocks. It’s all-expenses-paid and moves through repertoire at an astonishing pace. It’s a great way to get experience and learn repertoire.

Music Academy of the West – Would you like to live in paradise for a summer? Then check out this festival! Set in Santa Barbara, California, it’s another great all-expense-paid festival that provides lessons, ensemble experience, chamber music, and much more. I was actually slated to go to this festival but bailed at the last minute (never bail at the last minute, by the way—it’s bad karma) to do the Britt Festival. I’ve had students attend and have heard great things.

National Orchestral Institute – At only four weeks, this is one of the shorter festivals on this list. This is another festival that I got into but bailed on to do… something… American Russian? I can’t remember. Regardless, it’s like a short and intensive Aspen, and bassists get a chance to study with three Jedi masters of the instrument: Max Dimoff, Jeff Turner, and Ali Yazdanfar.

Domaine Forget – Based in Quebec, this festival runs from early June through late August. I’ve never been myself,but I’ve had a lot of students go and have heard rave reviews from all. Bassists get the chance to study with another couple of superstars: Paul Ellison and David Allen Moore.

 

How to Get the Most Out of Your Summer Music Experiences

Regardless of the specific festival that you end up doing, there are a few strategies that, if followed, can help you to wring the most value out of your summer study.

  1. Arrive with an open mind – Maybe you got into your “dream program,” or maybe you’re headed to something that sounds a bit more dodgy. Keeping an open mind and being receptive to new ideas is crucial to growth and development.
  2. Appreciate the differences in your colleagues – When you see a different approach, rather than thinking “hey, that’s not how I do it!”, try thinking “wow—that’s really different that what I do—what can I take away from this?” Being mixed up with people from different musical backgrounds and styles of training is one of the most beneficial things about doing a festival, after all. Embrace the differences, even if they strike you as peculiar. At worst, you’ll find out what not to do, and you’re likely to walk away with some new concepts and techniques.
  3. Absorb the culture of the locale – You’ve probably picked up on this already, but a big part of what I love about summer festivals is the opportunity to travel somewhere far from my regular digs. Though I am working on my craft and attending musical events at festivals, I try to reserve at least a portion of every day to soak in the local culture. I hit up the most recommended restaurants, hiking trails, and coffee shops. I try to get to know some locals and check out some events outside of the specific festival. To me, that’s another essential part of the experience.
  4. Learn from your summer mentors – Music students spend a large amount of time with their primary private teacher. Summer study is a great way to get that intense one-on-one experience but from someone new. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from a great teacher in only a few lessons if you really focus on taking in all that this experience has to offer. Other mentors could include your orchestra conductor, chamber coach, or your fellow colleagues at the festival. There are potential mentors everywhere—seek them out!
  5. Relax and enjoy the experience! – My final bit of advice is simple—don’t be in too much of a hurry to solve all of the world’s problems. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. Be open-minded and absorb what you can, but relax and enjoy the journey. Humans are much more receptive to new ideas when they’re relaxed. Try to find a sense of balance between the intensity of learning new things and the languid and uncrushed pace of absorption, reflection, and synthesis. You need both. The great book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman comes to mind as a good model for approaching your learning. Look for the moments of lightheartedness in the learning process, and don’t be afraid to kick up your feet on a hot summer night and watch the fireflies light up the sky.

 

Jason Heath teaches double bass at DePaul University and hosts the podcast Contrabass Conversations (http://contrabassconversations.com), featuring interviews from principal bassists from major orchestras.

Technology

My Strange Path from Disgruntled Freelancer to Double Bass Guru


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By Jason Heath

I never intended to build anything online.  All I ever wanted to do was play bass and enjoy life.

gruntled.jpg

Part 1 – Becoming a Blogger

It happened by accident, really, though I think that’s how these things so frequently happen.  I was looking for a way to deliver important information to my ever-growing bass studio as seamlessly as possible.  Since I was always forgetting what we had covered the past week, I ended up taking notes on my students’ lessons, summarizing what we worked on along with any links to materials that they should order, camps to check out, and materials to order.  I actually keep these summaries up on the blog for historical purposes, and I still think that it’s a helpful way to organize lesson content for students.

After poking around for a simple solution, I stumbled upon Google’s service Blogger.  Though I’d never had an interest in blogging (and was really only dimly aware of what blogging was), this service seemed like the simplest way to easily update content.  I started my one-post blog and kept it that way for quite a while, eventually adding a links page and a couple other resource pages.

Around this time, I decided, for a multitude of reasons, so get out of the freelancing game and go back to school for a music education degree.  Though freelancing was working out well for me, I started to think about the future and think about what I’d be likely to be doing in five, ten, or twenty years.  At that point, I was driving 50,000+ miles a year playing in five different orchestras and teaching 40-50 private students, holding down two part-time university jobs and teaching at a handful of area high schools.  I didn’t see much beyond this “rat race” given my current career trajectory, so I decided to go back to school and learn some new skills.

Deciding to dump this lifestyle (though, truth be told, I never really dumped it–it just morphed as I went on my new journey) liberated me, in a way.  What was I doing with my life?  Did I need to put in those four, five, and six hour practice days each day?  I started to find myself with more free time and more creative juices as I eased up on all the driving and freelance grinding.  My mind started to shoot off in different directions, and ideas for projects started to come to me.

For one thing, I’d always liked writing.  I had some success getting my writing published at Northwestern University during my undergraduate years, and I really enjoyed the act of crafting a piece of prose.  It was both similar and different from practicing, tapping into a creative part of my brain that, as I used more and more, I quite enjoyed exercising.  Like working a muscle, writing sharpens with frequency for me, and I began to derive satisfaction from the craft of creating a tight piece of prose.

So I started doing some actual writing on my blog.  I kept it short at first: a link to something cool, a bass photo discovered on Flickr, or a blurb about an upcoming live event were typical posts.  As I began to write, I also started poking around online and seeing if anyone else was doing this kind of writing in the classical music sphere.  There were a few other bass people on Blogger that I found, and even more in the broader world of classical music.

I linked to them.  They linked back.  Conversations and cross-blogging (a sort of early re-tweeting that bloggers did constantly back in the day) occurred.  Anyone active in these spheres in the mid-2000’s will remember this type of community conversation, similar in some regards to the contemporary climate of Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram.

At some point in the first few months of the blog, I began to realize that quite a few people had discovered my blog. I started to look forward to checking in with the community after I got home from gigging and teaching. I began to set aside time specifically to work on this. Ideas for topics started to flow, and before long I was putting out three posts a day, mostly focused on bass but also venturing into other topics like education, classical music news, and the like.  I set up a stat counter and watched the numbers grow over time.

At a certain point, I decided to actually start writing on the site and not just linking and posting photos.  Like most freelancers, I had built up my fair share of eccentric gig experiences. I began to crank these out at the pace of one a week.  I also had a lot of thoughts percolating in my brain during those unless hours of driving to gigs.  I found that I enjoyed the writing and actually looked forward to it, jotting down new ideas of topics to cover.

Blog traffic increased, and I decided to save my craziest experience of all, the tale of my exploding Saturn wagon, for a while, building up a bigger audience before dropping that particular morsel.  When I did put that story out, I saw traffic increase substantially!  During the years that the blog was really cookin’ (2006-2008), I put out three daily posts each weekday, with at least one fairly substantial piece of prose each week.  I was enjoying writing, linking, and posting, but I felt like there was more that I could do.

Part 2 – Starting The Podcast

I’ll share a secret—I’ve never really cared that much about the blog.  Well….. that’s not exactly true, but if I were to point to something that I’m proud of doing over the past 10 years, the blog would not certainly not be it.  The podcast, on the other hand, is something about which I am fiercely proud, and I think that it is something that has had a marked impact on the global bass community and that will be accessed and used for years to come.  At this point, I’ve interviewed a huge number of influential performers and teachers and created a body of work that has lasting value.  If the blog is a tabloid, the podcast is a research library.

I also had the feeling my writing was taking on a dark tone, with a lot of negativity about professional music in general.  Those who know me in person (or who listen to the podcast) know that I’m a really upbeat and positive person, and while I felt that I was digging into important realities of professional music with my Road Warrior series and other such writing, I knew that I’d rather build something of more lasting value than these dark ruminations about career prospects for musicians.

Prior to launching on New Year’s Day of 2007, I had purchased recording gear, researched podcast hosting and distribution, and began laying the groundwork for a weekly show.  This planning started to happen in the summer of 2006, which was pretty early on for podcasting, but I had become obsessed with it as a form of distribution and consumption.

I didn’t get my first guest until the fourth episode of the podcast, and I can hear how out on a limb I am in these initial episodes when I listen back.  I was also realizing what a massive amount of work a podcast was to create.  Each early episode (I was keeping it to 20 minutes in the first few episodes) took several hours to record, edit, compile, upload, and promote, and I now end up spending easily 10 hours per episode and sometimes much more than that.

Fortunately, the feedback and goodwill toward this new offering of mine was tremendous, and the guests kept flowing in.  My good friend John Grillo jumped in early on to help co-host these episodes, bringing his powerful network of contacts into the Contrabass Conversations universe.  We put out orchestral excerpt analyses, music episodes, and much more than just interviews, and it was staggering to look back on 2007 alone and see what we had created.

This back catalog of Contrabass Conversations is much different than that of most other podcasts.  For one thing, these really are timeless in nature, featuring in-depth discussions with major performers and teachers on the bass talking about technique, auditions, career advice, and the like.

Part 3 – How I Built a Community

There’s a big difference between getting online traffic and actually building a genuine community. I like to think that I’ve done the latter, and here are the three key ways in which I did it:

  1. Depth of Content – I’ve posted many a cat video in my day, but a real online community is probably not built on that (except an online community of cat video lovers, I suppose, but you know what I mean).  If I look it my stats for the 3600+ posts on doublebassblog.org, I find that the vast majority of hits land on the chunky bass articles and resources.  My most popular articles are accessed dozens of times a day at the very least, even though most of those are approaching 10 years in age.
  2. Engagement of Community Members – In the heyday of the blog, I had guest writers, cross-posts, and debates in the comments on a daily basis.  As my focus shifted to the podcast, I featured guest interviewers and other contributions from bassists worldwide.
  3. Consistency – I was super consistent… until I took five years off!  But if you didn’t catch this earlier, doing this kind of stuff at a high level of quality is incredibly time-intensive.  As my terrestrial job increased in hours, I finally threw up my hands and stopped putting out anything new on either the blog or podcast.  Now, having restarted after five years of inactivity, I find the community back and bigger than ever.

It has been particularly fascinating getting the podcast re-launched.  We had about a half-million downloads (that’s a big number for podcasting) from the launch in 2007 until the relaunch in November of 2015.  In the six weeks that we’ve re-launched, we’ve had 100,000 podcast downloads and counting.  That’s a lot of listens!  The momentum behind this thing is remarkable, and I can’t wait to see where we end up in another six weeks, let alone six months!

Part 4 – Blogging is Evolving

Things have changed a lot these last few years in terms of online content, and blogging has hugely changed.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that blogging is irrelevant, but the idea of people landing on a specific web page and consuming all new content has largely been replaced by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks.

Think about it—how often do you read a New York Times story?  Where did you land upon it? Facebook?  Twitter?  The front page of nytimes.com?  It’s probably not option #3 if you’re like most people.

Podcasting, on the other hand, has exploded in the years that I’ve taken off, largely due to the massive rise in smartphones.  Gone are the days of downloading podcasts on the desktop and then syncing to an iPod.  These days, streaming directly from a phone is the norm.  This is a huge game changer for podcasting, and this increased access makes podcasting as easily accessible as any other form of media.

 

Part 5 – Mobile Rules the Roost

These days, we are more mobile than ever, and the world of apps rules most elements of our day.  That’s why I’m so excited to have the Contrabass Conversations app out now!  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what precisely would be of value in an app, and I am really happy with the combination of podcast episodes (they’re all in there along with app-exclusive bonus content), bass-centric blog posts, bass technique video resources, and other helpful resources.  It’s an exciting new world out there for musicians, and the preponderance of mobile devices is a huge game changer in terms of how we access and interact with resources.

Pedagogy

When Practicing Goes Off the Rails


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By Jason Heath

Everyone has a bad week of practicing now and then. I’m certainly no exception!

This happened once every few weeks for me in college. Maybe I had a big project. Maybe I was doing a lot of traveling. Whatever the circumstances, life got in the way, and suddenly I found myself realizing that I haven’t actually done a thing since last week’s lesson.

As a student, what should I do in this situation?  De-rail the lesson with conversation?  Fake it and brace myself for the same old comments when I can’t play anything?  Just admit that I had a bad week?

It must have been just as obvious to my teachers when I didn’t practice as it is to me with my own students now.

The problem was that now they were stuck with me for the next hour.

Handling a Bad Week of Practicing

Now that I am a teacher, I see things from a different perspective. Early on in my teaching career, I used to get visibly mad when my students didn’t practice. That sometimes produced results, but down deep it just didn’t sit right with me, and as I got older I learned other mechanisms that worked more effectively for me.

These days, my new mantra is “how can I help?”  After all, this person is paying me for my expertise, whether directly out of their pocket in private situations or through their student loans in a college setting.

Do I wish that they had practiced? Of course, and if it becomes habitual then we have a serious conversation and I try to help.

Some of my colleagues make their non-practicing students practice in the studio on their own for most of the lesson. These colleagues will leave the room out to socialize, catch up on email, or check Facebook, and then come back for the last 10 minutes of the lesson to listen to what the student has now practiced.  While I understand this tactic (you’re wasting my time by not practicing, so you will now spend this lesson time practicing), I’ve never really been able to do that, at least not since my first few years teaching (when I was a little more of a hothead).

Tactics for Handling “Bad Practice Week” Lessons

These days, I find that I do one of three things with students when they don’t practice:

1. Practice with them – Maybe I’m a pushover, but if someone hasn’t been working, unless I am in a really foul mood I will switch hats and become their practicing coach, barking at them like a coach and doing with them what they should have been doing on their own that week.  Again, they’re paying me for this time, and I want to offer something of value.  While I’d certainly be able to offer more value if they had practiced, and least I can do some reps with instruction and help them to strengthen some elements of their playing.

2. Help them with practice strategies – A lot of people have no idea how to practice.  This is understandable.  Practicing effectively involves creative problem-solving skills and a great deal of thought and awareness.  It is actually a pretty sophisticated skill and takes time to develop.  When my students don’t practice and as a result I don’t have much new to offer them (yup, you still stink), this can be a worthwhile way to spend our time together.

3. Play amateur psychologist – Sometimes a student is having issues that transcend the practice room.  As I’ve gotten older and had more experience working with young people, I’ve become more confident in knowing when I can offer some “dad advice” and help them to work through things in their life.  I probably only fall into this role 5% of the time that I’m teaching bass lessons, but I’m ready and willing to be an amateur life coach with my students if that will help them.

After going at it both ways (yelling at them for not practicing versus using the aforementioned techniques), I’ve found that the latter leads to more consistent practicing and a stronger relationship with the student, which leads to more practicing… a healthy positive cycle for sure.

Final Thoughts

In an ideal world, all of my students would consistently practice three hours or more every day and follow to the letter every instruction of mine.  But… (shocker)….. this doesn’t always happen!  Choosing how to deal with the times that aren’t ideal will actually strengthen practice habits if approached correctly.

Jason Heath teaches double bass at DePaul University and hosts the podcast Contrabass Conversations (http://contrabassconversations.com), featuring interviews from principal bassists from major orchestras.