David Zerkel’s Advice to Music Majors

David Zerkel, Professor of tuba/euphonium at the University of Georgia and current President of the International Tuba Euphonium Association, recently posted a fantastic “top ten” style note on facebook offering lots of excellent advice for music majors. With his permission, I have posted it below and would like to credit him as Tubahead’s first “guest blogger”.

Here are my notes from a chat to the brass students at UGA on Day 1. A top ten list of sorts… I hope they listened!

1. Take your classes seriously. Theory, Ear-training and Music History provide you with the tools to understand the language of music and your mastery of these subjects WILL help you play your instrument better. If you have had a math course beyond algebra, music theory should present no problems, as it is structured in a very systematic way. Ear-training will help you learn what you need to hear, whether you are playing your instrument or standing in front of a band. Music History will equip you with the tools to approach your interpretations from informed perspective and will give you the insight needed to play with style.

2. Listen to as much music as you can! Naxos online music library is a great resource, as is our incredibly complete music library. A hard, but not impossible, goal is to spend the same amount of hours listening that you spend practicing. Listening to music and familiarizing yourself with a broad spectrum of music is where your REAL musical education will take place.

3. Learn and know your scales and arpeggios, as they are the building blocks of western music. Realizing that virtually everything that you play is constructed with scales and arpeggios will make mastering your instrument exponentially easier.

4. Schedule your practice time as though it were a class and make yourself a tough attendance policy. Success in music, like anything else in life, is dependent upon disciplined and persistent effort. Hard work will trump talent any day of the week. The world is filled with incredibly talented people who never reached their potential because they were lazy. It is the observation of the brass faculty that the overall work ethic of the students in the school of music is quite lax compared to other places that we have been. Each of you has the power to reverse this condition that affects the culture of music here at UGA. It is really cool to not suck… daily practice will help you to appreciate your potential and your ability to improve.

5. Go to concerts! There is no substitution for listening to live music—every performance you hear provides you with the opportunity to learn something about your own performances. Whether you will teach or perform, you will spend the rest of your life evaluating performances and diagnosing the strengths and weaknesses of what you hear. You will develop this skill much more quickly if you are going to concerts.

6. Embrace what technology has to offer us in developing as musicians. Rhythm and Pitch are the two empirical truths in music— either they are right or they are wrong. Don’t look as your metronome and tuner as though they are nagging you that you are not good enough—learn to make chamber music with your Dr. Beat and to look at your tuner as the teller of truth. If you really want to use technology to improve your performance skills, purchase a digital recorder such as a Zoom 2 (or use Quicktime on your computer) to record your practice. This will help you to become your own teacher. The greatest period of growth that I have ever had as a developing musician happened when I was recording and evaluating my practice on a daily basis.

7. Be curious! Strive to know the repertoire for your instrument. Practice something everyday that is NOT part of your lesson assignment for the week. Read ahead in an etude book or check out some music from the library. This will help your sight-reading skills immeasurably. Strive to be a comprehensive musician, not just a jock on your horn!

8. Play with your peers! Form a chamber music group or play duets with a peer as much as you can. Chamber music empowers each of us to make musical decisions without the input of a director, which is a critical skill. Playing chamber music will also help grow your ears in a dramatic way.

9. Be serious about your pursuit of excellence. Set the bar high and work hard to be the best that you can be. Music is an extraordinarily competitive field—remember that there is always someone somewhere that is working harder than you are and someday you will meet them at the audition or the interview. You owe it to yourself to be the best musician that you can be. You will only be a great band director if you are first a great musician.

10. Know that every great musician in the world still considers himself or herself a student of music. Wynton Marsalis is a music student. Joe Alessi is a music student, as is Gail Williams, Steven Mead and Oystein Baadsvik . Make lifelong improvement and lifelong learning your goal. I am not as good as I think I am and neither are you. The older I get, the more I realize that I have only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to know. Use this blessing of an opportunity that you have as a full-time music student to your advantage. Your hard work will pay off in the end!

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3 Responses to David Zerkel’s Advice to Music Majors

  1. Jim Leff says:

    Great stuff! One quibble, though:

    ———
    Rhythm and Pitch are the two empirical truths in music— either they are right or they are wrong.
    ———

    While that’s obviously what these students, at this point in their development, needed to hear, it’s not actually true. And that sort of thinking can become a hindrance down the road.

    No two E-flats ever played have been exactly the same. Even with computer-generated tones, the best you can hope for is something like an A at 440.000000632473(etc.) Hz. If you look closely enough, every note’s unique. Same thing for time. There’s no right or wrong, just a spectrum of increasing imprecision as players deviate more and more from each other.

    Two string players in the BSO might play, respectively, A 440.01 and 440.02 and be deemed really in tune. Two college string players might play 440.3 and 440.4 and be considered pretty in tune. But nobody is ever 100% in tune (and, past a certain ridiculously fine point, reducing the gap becomes counterproductive, because notes would no longer combine interestingly; the beauty’s in the subliminal bits of irrational quirkiness!).

    The challenge for me when I was a student (or, rather, the first time I was a student!) was to keep narrowing the range of what I considered acceptably “in time” and “in tune”. Because if you try to play merely “in tune” (which, for most students, is just in tune enough not to have people say you’re out of tune!), there’s no margin for error, and so you’re always living in danger of going out. But if you shoot to always be really REALLY in tune (and in time), your worst moments, which might be unacceptable to you, will still get over ok. And your best moments will have a more profound “super locked-in” quality that can never be attained by musicians who think there’s a fixed line dividing “in time” from “out of tune” (and “in time” from “out of time”).

    I guess it was our mutual mentor Pilafian who laid the germ of this on me: in tune-ness is more like an infinite curve than a simple true/false question.

    Did any of that make sense?

  2. Jim Leff says:

    Sorry, one more note:

    If you’re working at a really subtle, fine level of tuning and timing, the cool thing is that a rich palette of tuning and timing options opens up to you. You can create effects in the listener by going a bit high or low, or pushing or pulling, while being well within the range of what’s acceptable. There are hundreds of different A-flats you can play and still be “in tune”, and each has a distinct personality and effect!

    That, for me, is the level where music gets really interesting. The North Indian singers (check out Pandit Pran Nath) really took this sort of perspective to the nth degree. His tuning is beyond in tune; where he places each note in pitch is profound and ridiculously expressive.

    But if pitch and time are either “right” or “wrong”, as adjudicated by little gizmos, well….I don’t see how musicians would ever get to that point, which requires such a different mindset!

    • John Manning says:

      Good point Jim. I think the dials and lights of tuners do more to teach us what sharper and flatter sounds like, and has less to do with learning to play in tune with others. It’s good to get your horn in the right “ball park”, but if you can’t play a scale in tune with yourself, it’s fairly useless.

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