Playing to Your Weaknesses

It’s human nature to be critical, and it’s time to get real about what musicians are judged on the most: our weaknesses.


Audition season is upon us, and it’s both my favorite and least favorite time of year in the realm of musical academia. It’s a time where I’m most encouraged and motivated by the sheer amount of raw talent that’s out there. It’s a time where numerous musicians are celebrating their work in the most pressure-ridden environment there is. It’s nothing short of a spectacle that we get to do this on the frequent, and it’s a very unique process and event that musicians get to take a part in.


Achieving success is simply a matter of making your weaknesses less noticeable.


It’s also a season of rejections, missed opportunities, shortcomings, weaknesses, red flags, dumb decisions, “too little, too late” realizations, and soiled expectations. For many, this season is going to be the absolute worst experience ever, and there’s no sugarcoating it. Some folks out there are going to realize just how behind they really are in comparison to others, and others are going to relish in the fulfillment of dreams becoming reality.

This extreme black and white dichotomy creates a sense of “winners” and “losers,” and that really stinks. Some people coming in to auditions are at an automatic disadvantage because of lack of facility or opportunity to grow in their craft. Some people just clearly aren’t meant to pursue this as a career (and it’s more loving and caring to tell those people that on the spot). Others are what I would call “so good, it’s stupid.” Then, there’s everyone in between: people that are proficient, with clear strengths and clear weaknesses.

These are the people I care most about because that’s where I fall. It’s who I am. I’ve had to work extremely hard to get to where I’m at now, and it has been the furthest thing from easy. To those who see themselves on that same trajectory, let me tell you this: you can freakin’ do it.

For the in-between person, you’ve probably been told to “play to your strengths.” But guess what? Have you ever been to an amazing restaurant that had incredible food but terrible service? What did you remember the most?

“Yikes.”

Clearly, we have to think upside down.

Forget about what you’re good at, and think about the weaknesses in your playing that could potentially leave a bad sight or feeling in a panel’s eyes and ears. Think about anything in your playing that could potentially bring negative thoughts into the experience of your listeners. Identify those things, and attack them. 

Attack them because those weaknesses are what you’re always being judged on. Attack them because they have the chance to deny you an amazing opportunity. Attack them because you want your audience to have a positive experience in watching you perform. Attack them in the hope that one day your weaknesses could actually become your greatest strengths!

It’s not about getting completely rid of your weaknesses. They are there for a reason. They are there to help you grow. They are there to give you something to strive toward.

Achieving success is simply a matter of making your weaknesses less noticeable.

Will those weaknesses still show up in performance from time to time? Absolutely. But, what professors and panels are looking for is clear evidence that you’re devoted to working on it and getting better.

You know the saying, “Fake it til’ you make it?”

This is that idea in action.

With that said, this audition season, don’t be the guy at the gym that has The Rock’s upper body but clearly skips leg day every week. Strive to be the person with the whole package, even if it means sacrificing your “ridiculously awesome” qualities somewhere else. You’ll be glad you did.


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Josh McClellan is a percussionist who is currently pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at The University of Texas at Austin. To learn more, click here.

 

On Leaving Eastman

by Josh McClellan

There is an allure and culture within Eastman that makes it seem like so much more than just a school. No matter how much or how little you know another student, teacher, or alum, there is this permeating understanding that we all are in this together, no matter what situation any of us find ourselves in.

At Eastman, everyone is motivated to share their musical ability not merely for personal gain but for the enrichment and uplifting of our friends, our colleagues, our community, our art, and our school. As students and alums, we represent the legacy created by our predecessors everywhere we go, for each of us is another important piece in an almost century-long story that is the Eastman School of Music.

Even with all the sentimentality, history, and wealth of musical activity that Eastman offers, it is not a school that is absent of issues. Just like any other music school, some rehearsals can be dreadful, some lessons can be demoralizing, problems can persist between classmates, and competition can get unhealthy. But, underneath all these unfortunate yet normal obstacles of musical life is a rich, sustaining quality of community that never leaves any wound open. After all, we know that we can’t go about performing music as if our chairs are cubicles, separating us from the real people that are contributing to the performance or supporting it in the audience. We must perform music as people. 

We, indeed, are not machines.

Most musicians, especially those from Eastman, will agree that our art is so much more genuine and affecting when we’re performing with our friends. The synthesis of parts becomes more connected. Ensemble communication becomes less obligatory and more natural and instinctive. Mistakes are still inevitable, but they cease to be detrimental to the end product. As musicians, we are there, not for the music, the money, or any super grandiose, intellectual reason…we’re just there for each other, and that reason alone is enough to keep going.

If there’s anything that Eastman teaches as most important above all, it is that we as musicians have to truly enjoy what we do in order to have any meaningful impact on the world, for we are ambassadors, not just for a building or a name, but for the quality of artistic community that is, in my mind and so many others, the distinctive quality of Eastman.

For students, this shows that when we leave, we take everything with us that makes this place great. We might be overjoyed to be relieved of the stress, the gut-punching schedule, and the rigorous, often cumbersome coursework,  but I can’t help but think about how much all of this concentrated activity benefits us as artists and professionals once our time on Gibbs Street is done.

Sometimes, we’re going to have too much on our plate. Sometimes, we’re going to be running from gig to gig with no time in between. Sometimes, we’re going to have to communicate professional knowledge on something that isn’t our expertise. Sometimes, what we’re doing just isn’t going to mean that much, and that’s okay.

What matters is that we’re doing it, and doing it well.

Receiving a degree from Eastman might mark the end of our time “on the block,” but it cements our place within a worldwide network of artists and scholars committed to the “enrichment of community life.”

In other words, “It’s never over.”


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Josh McClellan is a percussionist, educator, and arts leader with a primary mission of cultivating a uniquely diverse musical life of refined, genuine, and spirited engagements that bridge the current divides between traditional and popular audiences. He currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia.

To learn more, click here.

Fighting Familiarity at Eastman

by Josh McClellan

Every day I walk down Gibbs Street, go through the wooden, windowed double doors into the Main Hall of the Eastman School of Music, look down the corridor to the Grand Staircase, and see the entrances to Eastman Theatre and Kilbourn Hall on my left and right, I try to stop and think of my teachers and so many others’ teachers.

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gibbs street at night in the fall

Eastman has been, and still is, home to them all. 

For those fortunate to receive acceptances and attend the school, you will find an agreement among them all that there is indeed a unique spirit that exists inside of these walls. Ask anyone about their first concert in Eastman Theatre, and they can tell you the pieces they played, who conducted, who they played it with, and all the crazy things that happened.

They will also tell you that it changed their life. 

Ask anyone about the concerts they wish they hadn’t missed, and I bet almost all of them were concerts that were in Kilbourn Hall on a weeknight. Ask anyone why they actually went to a concert, and they probably won’t mention the repertoire. Instead, they will say, “I went to go watch my friends play.” 

Ask anyone why they came to Eastman, and you probably won’t get these answers: 

1. “Because I got in.”
2. “The financial aid was really great.”
3. “This one teacher is better than every other teacher ever.” 

The reasons you’ll usually hear are:

1. “The people really made me want to come here.”
2. “When I saw this one concert, it was so ridiculous that knew I
had to come here.”
3. “My old teacher went here, and I really wanted to carry on the lineage.”
4. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else after I auditioned here.”
5. “Mark Scatterday”

As a Master’s student graduating in May, this semester definitely represents my peak familiarity with the school. I don’t have trouble finding classrooms in the annex anymore, I don’t tense up or freak out when I see Professor Burritt in the Main Hall, the winter isn’t as miserable and annoying, and I can tell you what all of my friends order at Javas. I also know that if I ever want to find a practice room that I just need to wake up early before the madness ensues.

But a few weeks ago, I caught myself. 

I was rehearsing on the Eastman Theatre stage with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and once 5:25pm came, I packed up, covered the timpani, and left the hall. 

I realized I never looked out into the hall. I didn’t look up at the chandelier. I didn’t really think much at all about where I was. I don’t even think that I was listening to the sound that much. I didn’t talk to anyone either. 

I was taking it all for granted. 

And there are countless people out there that would give up anything to be here.

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eastman theatre | february 2017

Flashback to senior year of high school, getting rejected from Eastman in the Spring of 2012 wrecked me. It was my dream. It exemplified everything I wanted to be as a musician, and it didn’t pan out. 

If that wasn’t cause for determination, what would have been? Even as an inexperienced 18 year old, I knew what the walls meant. I heard the sound in the balcony of the theatre, and I had already fallen in love with the lighted canopy over the brick sidewalks on Gibbs Street. I knew that this had to be my home at some point. (Side note: I almost didn’t even apply to Eastman for graduate school…)

Thanks to three years of studying with Dr. Christopher Norton (Eastman BM ’83, MA ’86) as well as countless conversations after class with Dr. William Pursell (Eastman BM ’52, MM ’53, DMA ’95) during my undergraduate study at Belmont University, dreams became reality when I was given the option.

Four years of crushingly difficult yet diligent musical improvement later, the doors were finally opened for me, and in November 2016, my name was on the list of members of the Eastman Percussion Ensemble. Surreal….and it’s one of the few things I still haven’t gotten used to. 

Considering all the sacrifices, blistered hands, early mornings, late nights, and general hardships that I went through just to get here, why would I ever let something as casual as familiarity soil that feeling? 

Eastman is too special, not just to me but those who came before, to let that be the case.

So, if you are auditioning at Eastman this year, know that you are not auditioning for a school.

You are auditioning for a family. 


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Josh McClellan is a percussionist currently studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. 

To learn more, click here.

The Pressure of Burnout

Sometimes, everything just stops.

You’re tired of being asked to do things.

You’re tired of expending yourself day in and day out without any signs of the pressure letting up.

You’re just tired of being in survival mode all the time instead of really living.

Burnout is scary.

This phenomenon speaks a lot to how professional life (across all disciplines) is beginning to affect people in the 21st century, but here, I want to focus on one particular group: musicians.

Musicians don’t have the luxury of “clocking out,” and any time not spent cultivating the craft easily feels like time wasted.

The work day isn’t 9 AM to 5 PM. It’s 7 AM to 11 PM.

This feeling amongst musicians is a result of what is called “cutthroat culture.” In my own life, I give this title to the cutthroat culture: “negatively motivated competition.” 

Negatively motivated competition can have some serious effects on one’s psyche if the wheels in the practice room, the concert hall, or personal life start to come off.

With that said, here are some of things I say to myself when I hit personal lows:

1. “I can’t take time for myself because I will feel like I am putting off something.”
2. “I have never been able to play this passage right no matter how I practice it. Something must be wrong with me.”
3. “I hate feeling like I’m always trying to do things instead of actually being able to do them.”
4. “You know what? This sucks.”
5. “I suck.”
6. ( …general darkness… )
7. (Go back to the top and go through all that again. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect $200.)

(deep breath)

(sigh)

This is where that kind of self-dialogue always ends up. (see below)

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I could go into my own personal solutions for identifying, avoiding, and/or conquering burnout, but there are these people called doctors who go to school for 10 years to help us with these sorts of issues. I’m personally going to look to them for help, and you should too.

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic Staff (arguably the best group of doctors in the world) has to say about burnout:

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from mayoclinic.org

Lack of control, extremes of activity, lack of social support, work-life imbalance… 

Is it safe to say that these characteristics have become normal, maybe even accepted, in music? I think it’s fair to all musicians to say “yes.” 

A lack of routine that defines many musicians’ daily lives naturally results in a lack of control.

The sheer amount of material that musicians are expected to know and willingly take on completely normalizes extremes of activity.

The self-confined nature of the practice room, lack of availability of jobs in many musical fields (e.g. orchestra positions), and general comparativeness amongst musicians often creates competition that can generate a complete absence of social support.

“Music is my life.” …work life imbalance.

Most of us are severely hurting ourselves and we don’t even know it. 

But there are ways to get out of it.

Speaking from my own experience, the only way for me to do this consists of the following steps:

1. Step away from your instrument. Leave the building if you have to.
2. Seek professional help from a certified therapist.
3. Create a daily routine that gives yourself time before you spend time.
4. Actually tell yourself, “Everything’s going to be ok.” Don’t wait for someone else to tell it to you.
5. Intentionally seek positivity in everything you do. If so many people in the world are so passionate about being negative and cynical, you can be equally contagious with your positivity.

These are just a few solutions that work for me, but I encourage you to create your own routine and your own provisions that create a safety net for yourself.

People quit their dream jobs because of this. Don’t let yourself become a statistic. 

For more information about burnout and mental health, I’d encourage you to visit mayoclinic.org.

Thanks for reading,
JM

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Josh McClellan is a percussionist currently studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.

To learn more, click here.

 

 

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The Pressure of “No Pressure”


“No pressure.”

I love and hate this phrase. If we’re being honest, many things we do really aren’t that important! Nevertheless, when I hear the phrase “No pressure” spoken toward me, it rarely eases my own self-inflicted pressure toward a given situation. Thinking about this reality made me ask myself one thing: 

Do “No Pressure” situations exist in music? 

In any performing or visual art, the pressure to execute on a consistently high level permeates everyday life.

Everything has a purpose.

Everything is leading to something.

Rarely, if ever, does an opportunity come that is truly “non-consequential.”

For most of what my colleagues and I do in music, it seems as if there is retribution for every situation, and every botched performance, bad practice session, or weird hour can feel like huge setbacks in our constant strive to better ourselves.

So is there any place where musicians can say “no pressure” and actually mean it?

Probably not, but…

We can acknowledge the fact that pressure will always exist.

AND

We can find ways to manage it, so let’s start analyzing. 

One consistency between my good experiences and the bad is the degree of pressure I felt in the moment. 

Maybe this is why my practice room run-throughs of my solos sound better than any of my performances.

Maybe this is why dress rehearsals sound better than concerts. 

Maybe this is why a football team can go undefeated during the regular season and lose the championship game, and the day after, all of the analysts on TV say the following in one way or another: 

“They just couldn’t handle the pressure.”

At some point in the process, the pressure goes full throttle…
then we stop playing for our own desire to get better
and we start hoping that we don’t screw up.

I think many of us, myself included, could benefit from losing the above mindset. 

Simply put, we are telling ourselves “No Pressure” in all of the wrong environments, which leaves us vastly unprepared for the real pressure when it comes. 

Pressure is a feeling that is certainly good to get used to, as it arises often in personal and professional life. The more used to it you are, the more high pressure scenarios you will successfully endure. This, however, requires daily solutions that will condition our minds and bodies to respond positively to pressure.

Here are a couple good examples of places where I like to put the pressure on:

everyday practice (challenge yourself to learn all the notes to a new piece by a date sooner than what you think you’re capable of)
chamber group / large ensemble rehearsals (treat the first rehearsal as if it’s the performance)


TAKEAWAYS

1. Create your own solutions to keep pressure from dominating your mind in performance situations.

2. Be courageous and use pressure as a motivational tool in your journey of improvement. 



So I’ll be saying this to myself the next time I’m on stage: 

“No pressure, man. It’s going to be great.”

Thanks for reading,
JM

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Josh McClellan is a percussionist currently studying at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.

To learn more, click here.

 

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