A Different Role

July 23, 2010

Recently I met with one of my former professors, a terrific mentor and now colleague.  Addressing him by his first name is a bit surreal after many years of sitting in his classroom.  The purpose of the meeting began rather selfishly:

  1. We both enjoy a good cup of coffee.
  2. I needed to retrieve my graded final paper in hopes of using it as a writing sample should I ever need to submit one.
  3. I am one of those academic types that actually enjoys research and I wanted to bounce around a few ideas.

Conversation led from one thing to another, from suggestions for expansion of that final research topic from a different perspective, to my family, my work at J.W. Pepper and the proverbial “so, now what?”

Does that question ever go away?  His answer of course was one that I and many of you already know — no, it does not.  No matter what the circumstance, our role simply changes.  After more than one cup of great coffee,  I came away with lots of other suggestions and advice as well!

That is the beautiful and lasting thing about teachers that have touched our lives — we never stop wanting their advice.   Perhaps we can all do more to take on the role of giving good counsel to others in the field of music.  I will start here with sharing this interesting article from the New York Times about openings at the nation’s major orchestras:

Need a Job? Help Wanted at the N.Y. Philharmonic

Directors' Toolbox

Audition Day: Turning the Tables

July 8, 2010
College Auditions

College Auditions

For the college bound, after months of careful research wading through hundreds of brochures and catalogs, numerous discussions with your private teacher, band or choral teacher, friends, the ever-helpful guidance counselor, and yes, your parents, the list of candidates will have been narrowed considerably.  Notice, I refer to the list of schools as the audition candidate.  That is not a mental trick to reduce the butterflies in your stomach on audition day, but if it helps, why not?

A healthy mindset on audition day is not “does the school like you?, ” but “do you like the school, the teachers, the programs offered, the environment?”   There are thousands of “good” music programs, both conservatory-oriented and liberal arts-based.  The faculty members will hear hundreds of students audition.  However, the number of schools you audition can be counted on one hand.

When choosing the “candidates” to pursue my master’s degree, I auditioned five schools (three live, two recorded).  Following the auditions at each, I knew immediately how to rank them.  Not as a reflection on the individual schools, teachers, or students — all were and continue to be fabulous — but with a feeling I got at each.  In the whirlwind of warming up, waiting, meeting students, campus tours, entrance exams, and exit interviews, it is often easy to overlook these basic questions:

  • Am I comfortable here?
  • How hard am I willing to work to succeed?
  • What are the challenges?
  • Are there opportunities to perform outside of the university setting?  (The networking begins here!)

Should you have extra time, visit your top choices again, preferably during a busy performance time.  Attend student and faculty performances.  Become aware of the guest performers that frequent both the campus and the surrounding area.  Do your homework, yet listen to your instincts, too, and you will find the right school for you.


The Making of a Musician: Starting Down the Path

June 3, 2010
  Student's Guide to College Music Programs

Student's Guide to College Music Programs

For many music students across the country the penultimate year of secondary education has or will quickly come to an end.  What next?  As upperclassmen, the search for the “right” university or conservatory is just beginning.  At times this process will seem long and can be more than a little stressful.  There are hundreds of college, university and conservatory brochures and letters of interest—not to mention phone calls from alumni and students, all of value, that will begin to appear in your mailbox, each laden with gentle persuasion.

Unfortunately, you cannot apply and audition at 100+ schools.  So, how do you choose?  Much of what happens next is dependent on your goals, prospective career interests, and detective abilities.  You’ll need more than a desire to live in the mountains or the coast to get you through! Do you wish to attend a school with a prominent athletic program? Is marching band important? Are you interested in music business?  Do you wish to become a music teacher or win an orchestral audition?  Take a look at each brochure and explore each institution’s individual website closely.  They will all likely sound great.  If you’re already studying with a private teacher, you are well on your way.  If not — find one!  This teacher will become one of your strongest allies and an unyielding source of information.  If you’re attending summer clinics, camps and festivals, talk with the other students and clinicians.  Soon you will find that certain names surface frequently in discussion.

If time allows and the school is within traveling distance, most professors are happy and willing to meet with potential students.  Take a trip to explore the campus, have a lesson with the teacher and converse with students who are enrolled in the program.  Many professors will arrange for their most forthcoming students to give you the grand tour and answer questions you might have about the studio.

Start the process now to allow time for discovery as you narrow your list of prostpective colleges.  Check back for a discussion on the college music audition and who is really auditioning.

Useful read:  The Student’s Guide to College Music Programs


Kudos to Teachers

May 28, 2010
Kudos to Teachers

Kudos to Teachers

As the school year winds to a close with commencement ceremonies and awards, it’s time to say thanks to music educators as well. While so many across the country deserve applause, I want to personally recognize a few I know are right in my own back yard here in North Carolina:

The much-loved Dr. Eileen McErlain frequents our Winston-Salem store and has earned a reputation for requesting obscure folk songs, often requiring some degree of research. She is also quite the joker and really brightens our day while she’s with us.  Under her direction, the Arts Based Elementary School choir The Zoomers (grades 1-5) earned a superior rating for the third consecutive year. This achievement earned the group the Gold Festival Cup during the National Federation of Music Clubs’ Junior Music Festival held at Wake Forest University.

Ms. Judith Booth, orchestra director at Northeast Middle School and Albemarle Road Middle School in Charlotte, was recently named the recipient of the North Carolina Symphony’s 2010 Maxine Swalin Outstanding Music Educator Award. A strong runner-up, and recipient of the Jackson Parkhurst Award, is Ms. Dena Byers at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham. Each year teachers are nominated by their colleagues through letters of recommendation. For more information about the awards, visit the North Carolina Symphony’s website:

Finally and certainly not least, Servant, the choir at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, entered and won the Harris Teeter Sing My Jingle contest. The group performed for and were selected as the winners by 300+ executives.  Harris Teeter, a prominent food store chain with locations as far north as Washington D.C. and throughout the southeastern states, presented the school with $15,000.  The commercial aired during the season finales of Glee and American Idol.  The students shared credit with the choir’s directors Mr. Joseph Hilliard, Ms. Pamela Wheeler, and Mr. Keven Spargo.

Way to go!  You’ve made us all in North Carolina proud!  If you know a teacher that deserves a round of applause, let us know and we’ll share them here.


Goal Setting: The Real Education

May 17, 2010
Set practice goals

Set practice goals

Do sleepless “cram study sessions” sound familiar?  Have you ever slept beneath a piano after the security staff had long since locked the practice rooms for the night?  If you can relate to these frantic college antics, then permit me to share with you some lessons learned.  By getting organized you can successfully survive all that the quest for musical achievement can throw at you.

Much of your success depends on setting goals:  short-term, mid-range, and long-term.  Goals give you purpose and clarity of direction from the moment your feet hit the floor in the morning. Once those goals are defined, then it is all about time management.  If you’ve ever frantically researched for a paper you just realized was on your syllabus — you have already taken note of this first point.  Every hour has a price, and in college there is literally no “free” time.  I personally am a huge fan of lists (and post-it notes).  Diagram each week one at a time and have your “to do” list on the same page.  Whether you diagram on your Blackberry, iPhone, laptop, or with pen and paper doesn’t matter, though electronic forms have their advantages.  Keep your calendar, commitments, and contacts in one place and be sure to back it up!

There is a book entitled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  It’s a great principle, but as a musician — we absolutely must sweat the details, and it’s all small stuff.  Every seed of excellence is contained in the details — but don’t forget the big picture, either.  Be sure to periodically reevaluate the goals you have set for yourself.  Know what you do well and what you need to improve upon.   Write it down.  Do it.

A terrific book is Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music.  Just as relevant to my previous post, “Surviving as the 1%,” Beyond Talent covers many aspects of getting organized, goal setting, practicing, and portfolio development.  Other great resources of interest include The Perfect Wrong Note and The Inner Game of Music.

Click here to view more resources for practice goal-setting.


Surviving as the 1%

May 5, 2010

It all began in August, as it does each year.  Music hopefuls descended upon the nation’s college campuses and conservatories with much to learn.  For those of you who are frantically trying to survive the final week(s) of spring semester with final papers, projects, performances, and yes, those dreaded juries — think about this.  Of the many high school graduates who once participated in chorus, band or orchestra, only 1% go on to pursue a music degree.  Half of those who sat with you in your freshman theory class will likely have changed majors by the end of the term.  Whether you have a major with a concentration in performance, education or other pursuits — 1% is an incredibly small number!

For underclassmen, I’ll share some of the best advice I received:  if you’re looking for ways to get ahead, be a volunteer, find a role model, and participate in professional organizations.  If you only learn in the classroom in college, you’re missing a valuable education.

For those of you who are completing your degree programs — the surviving 1% — be gentle with yourself.   Even the best plans are subject to random forces beyond your control (a flat tire making you late to an interview, family illness, etc).   Many random events will shape your life.  There is no substitution for being prepared when met with opportunity.  Keep your options open.  Your professional life may take some unexpected turns.  Your very best efforts may not yield the desired result.  A great joy in life is finding a job (and career) in which you can make a genuine difference.  The job you want may be very difficult to get (especially in orchestral auditions and higher education).  You may have to take “a job” of some kind, somewhere.  While it may not be perfect at first, if you’re fortunate, you can begin to shape the job you have into the job you always hoped to have.  In every step, make a difference, contribute, and pursue your dream.

For those of you completing final exams and juries, good luck!  To those job-searching, we at J.W. Pepper hope you do find your dream job.  We look forward to working with you wherever your dreams take you.


The Little-Known Voice in Jazz

April 15, 2010
Jazz Resources

Jazz Resources

Are you looking for interesting ways to keep your students interested in practicing over the summer?  With the school year drawing to a close and the heat of summer already upon some of us, we’ve all noticed our students becoming a little restless.

I suspect that high school and college horn students frequently live a life of musical schizophrenia.  Religiously studying and performing classical orchestral literature — while listening to or wishing to play in a jazz ensemble.  When one pictures  jazz ensemble instrumentation, saxophones, trombones, drum set, trumpets, and double bass easily come to mind.  An instrument rarely included in this list is the horn — an unfortunate oversight.  Too often high school horn players are excluded from their jazz ensembles, or worse, persuaded to participate on trumpet!  Utilizing the horn in the jazz medium is rare but was practiced as early as the 1940s with the inclusion of  the instrument in scores for Claude Thornhill and later trumpeter Miles Davis.  Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, John Graas, Tom Varner, Adam Unsworth are just a few on the growing list of noteworthy American horn players devoted to the genre.

Horn player, teacher and composer Lowell Shaw composed Fripperies (horn quartet) in order to teach his students at the University of Buffalo how to play in commercial styles including jazz, barbershop, and funk.  He has since increased the number of Fripperies to 40 and has also added Quipperies (horn quintet),  Tripperies (horn trio), and Just Desserts (solo horn with optional string bass).

For beginning players, the Essential Elements – Jazz series is a useful introduction to jazz notation.  In addition to horn, instrumentation also includes the less conventional  flute and tuba.  We’ll keep you posted as more jazz horn music becomes available in easy, intermediate, and advanced levels.  Maybe this is the summer your horn students spend some time playing jazz!