Monday, December 26, 2011

Too Busy?

I hope you all are enjoying a wonderfully relaxing holiday season with your family and friends.  I think most of us use this time each year to reflect over the past 12 months, making observations about life and gleaning nuggets of wisdom.

In 2011, I encountered a situation I had never faced before.  I found myself with so many opportunities to play, lecture, and teach private lessons that I simply could not do it all.  What a wonderful situation to be in!  On the other hand, it was also a distressing situation.  You see, now I had to make some difficult choices and let some people down.  So now I am asking myself these questions:  How do you know when your performing schedule is too full?  How do you decide what opportunities to let go and which to take?

This time, the answer to the first question was obvious.  I knew that I had too many things on my plate because I could not figure out the logistics of being everywhere that I needed to be.  It was simply impossible to drive the distances required and fulfill all of my duties in the available time.  As I've continued to ponder this situation, I have asked myself if there were other signs signaling a problem -- if the scheduling had not been a problem.  Here's what I've come up with.

I didn't feel overwhelmed by the music.  I felt as though I could have played more music and done it excellently.  A very wise friend, however, made a comment that struck a nerve.  He said that no one else cares about your personal health and mental well-being, so sometimes you simply have to know when to say "no."  While I could have easily played the music for these performances, I had to pay attention to some other things.  With my current schedule, I was experiencing a lot of fatigue physically.  I found myself relying on sodas, chocolate, and jumping jacks to get me through the day.  There were stretches of 10 or 12 days where my only communication with my parents was by phone. (This is more alarming when you realize that I LIVE in their home to assist them.)  I wasn't away from home;  I was just coming in late at night and departing the next morning before they were awake.  That was causing a certain amount of emotional stress as well since I felt that I was not honoring commitments that I had made to my family.  While I am actively pursuing my career with all my might, I must insure that I am taking care of myself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Musicians will always have times of extremely difficult schedules, but these are normally associated with the final preparations for an upcoming performance.  I knew I was in trouble when there were no performances approaching and I was keeping this insane schedule.  When my career begins to eat away at time devoted to other areas of my life for extended periods of time, it's time to re-evaluate the schedule.

Now the question was how to decide which opportunities to turn down.  That was an easier problem to solve. I asked myself two simple questions.  1)  Will this performance significantly advance my career goals?  2) Does this opportunity promise to bring me personal happiness? If the answer to neither of these questions was "yes", then I passed up the performance.  It was difficult to back out of commitments I had made at an earlier date, but I had to come to the realization that my situation had changed since agreeing to the gig.  I took comfort in backing out of these commitments, however, since I gave ample notice of my resignation and provided viable recommendations for accomplished replacement pianists.

It's never an easy thing to admit that your schedule is full and nothing else can be added to it, but I am thrilled with the decisions I made and know that I have learned a valuable lesson from this.  Honestly I hope to face this problem many more times over the course of my career.  It just means that I am active in my playing and being sought out because I'm doing a good job.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lessons Learned at Union

This fall, I had the privilege of beginning a new part time position at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee as staff pianist.  While my responsibilities only had me joining the music department 2 to 3 days per week, I have learned some valuable lessons by surviving this first semester in the position.

  • Organization is Key!  Because of my limited time on campus, I have to insure that I am completely organized in order to make the most of my time.  My calendar became permanently attached to my right arm....most of the time.  There was a period of approximately 2 weeks where I couldn't find my paper calendar and was relying exclusively on my iPhone.  Amazingly, I didn't miss any major appointments thanks to iCloud technology.   In addition to using an e-calendar, I also found email reminders imperative;  nothing is worse than having blocks of time wasted due to students not showing up without advance notice.  I am considering using a site like Music Teacher's Helper in the spring to provide additional assistance.
  • Commuting is not a dirty word!  Union is roughly 85 miles from my home, so I find myself doing a lot of driving.  Initially, I thought this was going to be a waste of time.  I found that this round-trip drive became some of my most productive time of the week.  The quiet time devoid of distractions allowed me to ponder issues,  review upcoming lectures, and brainstorm about research projects and upcoming events.  Additionally, it was a prime time to listen to repertoire that I was currently learning.  I'm actually finding myself missing that time on the road now that I am on break.  
  • Protect Practice Time!  A new position meant that I had to push myself to perform at my best in all situations.......from the weekly lesson to the concert hall.  Since I am not the only staff pianist at Union, I find that my colleagues push me to maintain a high level of excellence through their high standard of performance as well as their friendship.  With all the driving and playing, practice time became a hot commodity and one that I had to protect at all cost.  Though most of the music was not extremely difficult technically this semester, I wanted to make sure that I allowed ample time to shape pieces musically and continue to develop my personal skills as a soloist as well as collaborator.  Pianists who lose the drive to continue developing and excelling are the ones who fall into the background as "accompanists" rather than maintaining their position as an equal partner in performance.
Have I learned everything?  Certainly not.  That's part of the excitement and fun of my position at Union. This semester will include balancing several student degree recitals with other responsibilities;  these will bring a new set of challenges that I look forward to exploring and conquering.