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Archive for April, 2016

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: 27 days in a row

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27 days in a row – tips to help with music practice and productivity

Today I practised for the 27th day in a row. I’m not saying this to show off, or to make you feel bad that perhaps you haven’t, I want to show you how doable it has been, discuss some of the methods I have used and the explore the results.

A while back I admitted that I was working on a big project and I needed to get into musical shape. This has been my intention for a long time and after a fair amount of procrastination, I bit the bullet and got a gig booked in. This leap of faith was exactly what I needed and it has stoked the fire in my belly.

In this post I want to show you how to be more productive and perhaps motivate you to do something similar.

I guess this is the first tip for you guys:

Make it happen

Find a deadline and plan backwards from it. For me it was book a gig on saxophone and write completely original music. I have a date for this and in order for me to be on track I need to get in shape for it. Now, if you do it the other way round and think “right, I need to prepare for a gig on saxophone” then the chances are: you will never be ready and it will never be ‘good enough’. By working backwards I know that I’ve worked hard and I’m the best I can be at that point in time. It just feels better this way.

This idea of getting ready for an event still fills me with excitement and hope. Part of my escapist childhood was to watch the training montages in terrible 80′s action films and the nauseous feel good nature of these clips would often override the ridiculousness. Here are some excellent/awful examples:

Anyway, enough of Hollywood nonsense, here are some of the methods I’ve used to practice everyday:

Way of life

I tend to get sucked into the geekiness of new tech and I’m keen to use software to enhance my life rather than detract from productivity. This simple app is a really useful way to track progress of daily habits. It’s a modern version of the Seinfeld ‘don’t break the chain’ method which I stumbled upon a few years back. He used to write sketches everyday and keep track by placing a big red cross on a calendar. The act of placing the cross and seeing the unbroken run of productive days was incentive enough to keep going. I tried this with my calendar at home with yellow stickers until I ran out of yellow stickers and kept forgetting to buy more! An app on my phone works better for me.

Here you can see the three habits I’ve been tracking over the last 6 weeks. The practice has had a continuous run, exercising has been relatively consistent whereas the alcohol free days hasn’t been as successful!

Timing my sessions

I’ve been practicing everyday but I haven’t had time to dedicate huge chunks of my day. So how much time is good enough? Well, I consider 25 mins to be the minimum for where I want to be. It’s also a great amount of time to keep focus. I use the pomodoro technique and break my session up into small sections of no longer than 25 mins.

5 min warmup

I have been doing a 5 minute warmup which as mentioned in a previous post, is not only a warmup and entry into the real meat and potatoes of my session, but a meditation where I can ground myself. This has massively helped to gain focus for the main practice and also helped to switch my mind from the day to day tasks of working, vacuuming the carpets and dressing up as Iron Man for my kids.

Using a timer

I use a metronome which happens to have a built in practice timer. I set the metronome at 60bpm and the timer for 5 mins at first then 20 (unfortunately it only has settings for 20 or 30 mins intervals – 25 would be better). This not only forces me to work hard for that period but at the end I drop everything (even if I’m in the middle of an exercise) and this seems to help with motivation. I like knowing when I can stop! If I do longer than 25 mins then I usually do another 25 mins or occasionally 3 X 25 mins.


I have a series of targets when I practice and I’m lucky in that I know the best ways to achieve them. I rotate exercises to keep things fresh but work on these main issues. Lately they have been: tone, technique, intonation (particularly at the top)’ altissimo fingerings (I can never remember them all), patterns (a bit of a new venture for me and I’m testing some ideas), transcribing and learning tunes. Each day is different but I usually choose my task on the day depending on what I feel like working on (or which task I have neglected for too long).

Left wanting

I like to end my practice unfinished so when the timer goes off, I stop. I am left with a feeling of “I was into it, and I could have done more”. This motivating feeling then transfers to the next day. It’s a bit like writing a story and finishing the day mid sentence. It should spark creativity when you pick it back up rather than being left with writers block. Not a recommended method for sufferers of OCD but it works very well for me.

Log book

I document all my progress in an exercise book. I like the sense of achievement gained by filling a workbook with notes and accomplishments. I rarely read through it afterwards but the act of physically writing what I did in the session acts a short debrief. I can use this to ‘check in’ on a task, monitor progress or to make sure I’m not over developing one area of focus.

Keeping it alive

As most of my students know, I am really bad at keeping house plants. I planted bulbs and have been using the practice to remind me to take care of them in the hope that I will take care of the plant and it will remind me to practice!


The results

There you have it. My tips for keeping on top of practising. And the results? Well, I still consider myself to be in the early stages as I have about 3 months to go but here’s what I’ve noticed:

  1. I’ve improved - Who’d have thought it? Playing every day makes you better! I have definitely noticed things getting easier. I’ve seen improvements in tone and technique and my sluggish brain seems to be figuring things out a bit quicker
  2. It’s not as big a deal as I thought - I’ve managed to make time everyday and so far I haven’t run into too many obstacles. It’s been pretty straight forward dedicating at least 25 mins and I’ve enjoyed the consistency of it. I’ve certainly had bad sessions but it feels like that’s just part of it and I return the next day with a more mellow outlook on how the session will go. I haven’t been holding too many expectations; I’ve just been getting it done
  3. The guilt has gone - A lot of musicians face this problem. They feel this constant state of guilt that they are not dedicating time to their craft. By practising everyday I’ve realised that this feeling has all but gone and I feel lighter! Plus I haven’t had to throw yet another potted plant in the bin!
As always, if you have questions, comments or arguments then please post them here

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Results over Process

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Results over Process

The Information Age has unlocked so many possibilities and I, for one, love it! In the past year alone I’ve studied jazz, digital marketing, the human brain, fitness, NLP, basic coding, the history of Mesopotamia, countless hippyish self help techniques and home improvements. The 24/7, learn at your own pace method suits me down to the ground and I’m enjoying learning for the first time ever!

When it comes to teaching I get an added bonus because I can cement all this newly assimilated knowledge by explaining it to others. This is a simple trick I highly recommend by the way. Try to teach someone who has no idea what you’re talking about the intricacies of what you do. After you bore your victim to tears and pull your hair out with frustration, you’ll realise that you have a deeper knowledge of the subject. Plus you will have advanced your skills in communication and patience.

The issue I face day to day (and is the topic of this weeks rant) is the fascination with results. Results are tangible, results are black and white, results are sexy (?!)

Check out any online course and you will see something like this:

  • Lose weight, put on muscle and define your abs in only 3x 40 minute workouts per week
  • Billionaires don’t want you to see this: 3 step guide - add ££££ to your bank account whilst working part time at home
  • By the end of this course you’ll be able to bend steel bars, leap buildings in a single bound and learn Kryptionian secrets known only to the elite; or your money back! 

It’s marketing psychology and it works. It feels like value for money because you pay up and at the end you know what you’re going to get.

The problem with this is that people obsess about the results and not the process.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on the same quest for results as everyone else. I would love to have a bank account which puts me at ease rather than tightens my chest every month (here’s a sneaky projected personal goal – lets see if it comes true when I reread this blog in 12 months time). I would love to have a six pack and go toe to toe with Lex Luthor but for now I’m satisfied with the process. I know that I’m progressing at a decent rate and when I’m ready to put my underpants on over my trousers… I will – how to take an analogy way too far!

Before I return to my point properly, let’s talk about YouTube. I think there’s a reason why my YouTube channel has only had 7,910 views visitors (which in comparison to say Kayne West’s Vivo account at 2,386,296 is low). Despite the saturation of information both good and bad, YouTube is the perfect place for the quick fix. Two examples:

I wanted to tile my bathroom. Some chirpy DIY expert showed me exactly how to do it. Here’s the result (possibly prouder of this achievement than all my musical projects put together):

For a non-practical cluts like myself, it’s not half bad

Second example:

I had a gig and I had to learn the piano part to:

Whitney Houston’s “How will I know?”

Did I sit down and put myself through the pain of transcribing this deliriously happy bubblegum pop mess? No… I cheated and learnt it on YouTube in the car on the way to the gig.

The downside of YouTube is that it doesn’t really sell the process. I get a lot of students who work from Youtube videos and although they can play the piece, they haven’t learned the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ .

What are these random notes I’m playing? What beat does it come in on? How can I transfer the knowledge learnt to a different tune?”

People move from one video to the other building a massive repertoire of party pieces and at the end that’s all they have. They miss the other joys of music. It also makes my teaching hard when I look like the bad guy because I ask them what they are playing and they have no idea.

Sometimes the process is the most important factor. I often practice with long tones which I’ve discussed before. Yes, I have a goal in mind (improve my tone) but the process is so much more rewarding than the result. It’s taken me a long time to realise this.

Spring is here and lots of people are starting to work on their gardens. The end result is to tidy up their land from the barrage of the wind and rain of winter. The process however produces far more benefits: Fresh air, exercise, problem solving, designing, exploring, experiencing life, Vitamin D absorption!  

Result driven learning is an epidemic and it is often associated with money which in my honest opinion is a big mistake. Everyone wants the best education of course but they also want to see reports, progress, tracking, statistics, ROI!!!! I was recently asked how quickly I could get a complete beginner (aged 9) through Grade 1 piano and how much would it cost. I was flabbergasted. Well, it depends…is she willing to work?, does she show an interest in music?, do you have a piano at home?, do you want her to be a good musician or just tick the boxes needed for the exam?, do you want her to complete Grade 1 then give up because she hates it?! I started to think about the many shortcuts I could use until I eventually declined the money and refused to teach her (in fact it wasn’t necessarily the girl, it was the father I wasn’t willing to take on).

As you probably know, there are hoops we have to jump through in life and sometimes we learn things purely to pass exams. Achieving this recognised normality somehow qualifies us to move on to the next level and yet we really know very little.

I am always careful to avoid political statements but my opinion on schooling is that there is way too much testing. This massively interferes with the process of just ‘being’. Having the time to work things out yourself, enjoying your surroundings, socialising, exploring creativity and being present. This testing is used to pigeon hole students and decides whether or not the financial investment made is working. I pay the teacher X pounds per hour to get this result.

I am in a fortunate position where I can justify my own teaching through the experiences my students have. I am exclusively freelance so, on the whole, I do not have to conform to ‘the man’! I will freely admit that as a teacher I am massively unqualified in certain areas and I fully respect the profession as its a real tough one but I take my own stance and it seems to work. I get results and I document them but sometimes the result happens after say, the summer holiday when students practice or have time to reflect on the lessons. Sometimes the result happens 10 years later. Sometimes the intended result never happens but a new path is chosen and results in other areas appear.

It’s good to be challenged but its not always advantageous to keep up with everyone else and do what is expected of you. If you want to pass exams and feel good about yourself then go for it. There are plenty of people who enjoy this process.

It can open a few doors and be of use. Will it turn you into the person you wish to become? Possibly not.

My view is that we take on what we need, meet some of the result driven expectations that ‘normal’ society lays on us (so that we don’t stand out like complete weirdos) and enjoy the process.

To finish, I would like to offer this clip of an interview with the incredible saxophonist Branford Marsalis. He articulates this idea of feeling smug through results perfectly and he doesn’t mince his words!

As always, if you have questions, comments or arguments then please post them here

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Bringing the ‘A’ Game

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Bringing the ‘A’ Game

10 years ago I was on the road a lot. We were playing around 90 shows a year and I remember feeling like I was in another world. Playing so many events was odd because everyone in the audience always looked so beautiful and glamorous. It seemed like every time I went out I would see people dressed to the nines, with perfect hair and looking amazing. It started to alter my reality. Is this what people are really like?

Of course the answer is no, but perception can be a powerful thing. When we experience an event often enough we accept it as the norm and it can make it difficult to see the truth.

10 years on and I’m much more selective about the gigs I take and how much time I spend away from my family. I’m more grounded in some ways (really not in others!) and spending time with my wife makes me realise that life is real. When we go out (which is rare), her beautifying regimes can sometimes preempt the occasions by weeks – not that she needs it! On the day itself once I’ve showered and thrown a shirt on she’s just getting started.

On the flip side, I also see her with her makeup off day to day (she actually doesn’t wear it all that often), mucking out a stable in overalls and maybe I shouldn’t mention* witnessing child birth!

*I think Boo does subscribe to this blog, but she never reads them, so I should be safe!

Anyway, the point is, it’s real. 

I organised a gig last night and was lucky enough to sit and watch. All the players were on top form and its hard to imagine that they once struggled with scales, made embarrassing mistakes, tried in vain to read a C flat on the page. It’s also hard to know what they were thinking. Were they nervous? Did they enjoy the music? Was it working for them? Did they feel adequate?

Here’s a shot from last nights gig featuring Geoff Eales, Fred Baker, Ben Waghorn and Neil Bullock

They sounded amazing and although inspirational, it can be hard to motivate yourself because sometimes people are just sickeningly good! All that preparation and practice is the equivalent to my wife’s ‘going out’ rigmarole. They are showing their ‘A’ game and you have to remember that when you perform, you do it too.

A scene from a TV show has just popped into my head. It could be from the Cosby show. This guy was stressing out because he had been asked by his 8 year old cousin to teach her basketball. He was terrible at basketball and although he practiced, he couldn’t sink the ball through the hoop. When the time came for his cousin’s lesson he showed her how to throw the ball; it hit the hoop and bounced off. Looking down in shame he was about to apologise when she said: “Wow! You hit the hoop all the way up there! I could never do that”.

I think we all know that we are not always as good as someone else when we judge them on their ‘A’ game. You may be surprised though that you are an inspiration to others for doing what you do.

In this age of ‘look how perfect my life is on Facebook’ in can be hard to see through the sheen. Who wouldn’t want to show off their good side?! But underneath the facade is a real human being with real feelings and real aspirations trying to make themselves as good as they can be.

My advice would be to knuckle down, do the work and then absolutely kill it when you present your ‘A’ game!

Got any advice on how to raise your game? Any beauty tips?! Post them below:

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Mindfulness in Music Practice

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Mindfulness in Music Practice

I lost it a bit this week.  I wasn’t exactly ‘in the moment’ and the highlight of my scattiness was this:

I had 5 minutes to get ready and leave the house for a gig and I only noticed when I arrived that I had managed to put on two belts!

It’s pretty funny and I realise I’m opening myself up for teasing, but I wanted to put this out there as an example of absent mindedness.  People can often have automated actions and it’s only when we catch ourselves that we suddenly wake up.  Classic examples include putting the milk in the cupboard/cereal in the fridge, not realising someone is talking to you and perhaps the scariest of all: driving your car and not remembering the journey!

These moments are not necessarily a problem (unless you run someone over in the car!) but if you’re not in the moment then you are missing out.  I, for one, find the looping nature of my thoughts completely destructive and I catch myself as often as possible to focus on the present.  Who wants to be stuck in their own head all the time when life is passing by and offering such amazing gifts?

I realise I’m running the risk of a lot of followers clicking the ‘unsubscribe button’ here but this week I want to talk about meditation.

Meditation is something Ive been interested in for a long time and I’ve noticed that the most successful people in the world endorse it.   It’s a practice which, for me, gives me the greatest gift; it takes me out of my looping analytical thought patterns and makes me feel good.  I use it for completely selfish reasons…my own happiness. It’s benefits are much greater than this however and if you Google it, I’m sure you will discover these from someone far more qualified than me!

I think a lot of people are more aware of meditation these days and are perhaps more willing to explore it.  The problem for most is that they think it requires sitting in the lotus position, surrounded by incense sticks listening to Indian Ragas. Well… this is not me! If I tried to do this then my kids would walk in and say

“Dad, what are you doing? Can you make me a cheese sandwich please?” 

Like most, my time is limited so I’ve discovered that meditation can be something you can do for 50 minutes, 5 minutes or even just 5 seconds.  You can also combine it with other activities like mindfully mowing the lawn, vacuuming the house or in my case, playing a musical instrument.

This is my routine for mindful practice which not only clears my mind but sets up the rest of my practice session, increases my focus, decreases judgmental negative thoughts, improves technique, improves time feel, allows visualisation, gives a greater sense of achievement and makes me happy.

5 minutes of long tones (on saxophone) with a metronome – I set a timer on my phone and start a checklist in my mind of:

  • posture
  • breathing
  • embouchure
  • hand position
  • observation of comfort or discomfort
  • listening to the metronome and predicting the next click
  • opening my awareness up to other sounds around me

This 5 minute routine leads to my next area of focus. This changes from day to day but usually includes:

  • A tune
  • Technical/mechanical work
  • Transcribing
  • Reading/Etude (sometimes)
  • or I just continue with long tones (or mix it up with overtones)

I break these areas up into 25 minute mini sessions

I find though, with the first 5 minutes of mindful long tones I can easily continue with long tones for another 25 minutes straight without feeling bored or wanting to flick constantly between areas of focus.

To some, this may seem ridiculous; to play one note for 30 mins but there is so much going on with my checklist that the time passes and I feel much more engaged with the instrument.  Not only am I physically training my muscles (chest/stomach/mouth/throat) but I am ‘present’ and aware of every single nuance.  This, in my opinion, is the essence of learning an instrument:

  • train your body to physically play the instrument
  • train your mind to mentally play the music

If you are interested in this subject then I would highly recommend Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery and if you are in the UK then please have a look at a the Midlands School of Practical Philosophy run by a friend of mine.  I’ve attended this school weekly and also attended some of the weekend workshops; they are excellent.

Lastly, if you would to rib me for my two belts fail then leave a comment below!