The Importance of Writing Notes in Your Music

I was in Bloomington, Indiana in March to buy some of the best donuts in the world do some workshops, and while I was there, I had the opportunity to meet Jeff Nelsen – a Canadian pig-farmer-raised amateur magician french horn player, whose name has often come up in conversations with students and professional musicians alike.

We met over chinese food and talked about music, psychology, the falling prices of computer hard drives, and the various forces that conspire to keep us from becoming the musicians and artists we have the potential to be.

In the post below, Jeff shares a few of the strategies he and his students have utilized to propel themselves from good to great.


Save the Pigs!

by Jeff Nelsen

I watch very capable musicians obsess about the wrong things. Okay, maybe not the wrong things, but good things that, for them, are less important. Think for a moment about what your dream job might be. Now think about what you have to do to get that job.

Can you think of 5 things you could do right now, and consistently for the next 40 days, which would drastically improve your chances of being the person that others are tripping over themselves to hire? If you can’t think of 5 things, keep thinking! If you want employment in the arts, you must be creative. We all want another lesson or another great book to read about our pursuit of excellence. (Yes, blogs are different! Keep reading blogs!! Especially Noa’s.) But I am positive that you know 5 things right now that you could be doing better and more consistently that would create massive positive results toward your goals.

So much of what we need to do to reach our dreams is about discipline rather than information. We are drowning in information, most of which is great stuff. We can’t do it all, but we can do more than we’re doing now. I think most musicians in university and beyond know what to do…or, at least, have heard about what they should be doing!

This is where the great separate from the good. It is not about hearing the good idea; it’s about acting consistently on those ideas. Most people are good at what they do. Good is what gets you into university. Recently I coached a student on some excerpts, and he didn’t have marks on his part. I am someone who aggressively urges people to mark their parts. I use a red pen. If you are not collecting what you’ve learned in the practice room, you are being Einstein-Insane!

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” –Albert Einstein

I told this student that when I see someone playing excerpts for an audition off of a clean part, I thank him for training so lamely. I think, “Thank you for getting out of my way and letting me get the gig!” This student went, “ohhhhh, ouch! Okay, I get it now!” Fast-forward to the next lesson…no markings on his parts, again. After teaching at IU full-time for the past 7 years, I am still shocked when I see this but sadly no longer surprised.

If your next big success won’t come from the next lesson from your hero, what is it? It’s all you. You can do this. You can do this right now, with what you know right now.

We learn in two ways. First, we learn new things…higher, louder, faster! And second, we learn how to be better at doing what we already know how to do…consistency! Imagine if your next audience saw you only nail everything you already know how to do. You still miss the high notes, but you succeed at doing everything you know how to do. (Please make sure “telling a compelling version of this piece” is always one of your performance goals!  You already know how to do this!) If you perform this way, your performance should be received very well.

It’s All You

This is often the hardest thing to do. To be disciplined in our pursuit of excellence is THE thing that separates the good from the great. It’s because:

“Good enough is the enemy of great.”

I had a student a few years ago named Mike Lombardi. He came into his lesson and played the first movement of the Gliere horn concerto. It was good. Just good….like last week, and the week before. I asked him, “Mike, how are we going to get you to do the work you reeeeeally need to be doing? I know you’re working hard, but you need to work well too!” He gave me an eager, “I’ll-do-it-next-week-I-promise” look. Then he asked me if we could write it out clearly for him so he could really do it this week.  I showed him a chart I gave him a few weeks earlier. We laughed about how another new system might not be the magic solution…that the way to “great” for him might not be another magic solution, no matter how good I was at magic!

jeff nelsenI then told him this story from my childhood. I was working at home on the pig farm. I was about 14 years old. The pipes that carried drinking water to the 1,000 hogs in the barn had broken down. I was trying to loosen a connector with a pipe wrench, but I couldn’t do it. My six-foot-six-inch tall dad walked up to me while I was working on it. I was straining away as he watched. Finally, I looked up at him and admitted, “I can’t get it.” He looked down at me and calmly replied, “Okay, good try. Let’s go eat!”

I responded, “But what about the pigs?” He smiled and replied, “They’ll die. C’mon, let’s go. I’m hungry.” I immediately grabbed the pipe wrench, pulled and groaned away as hard as I could and triumphantly forced the pipe loose. I proudly looked up at my dad, who just looked down and said in a totally unimpressed manner, “uh huh…” and walked away.

Mike left his lesson, and another week passed. After arriving for his lesson the next week, he began to play his Gliere. It truly was HIS Gliere Concerto! He completely blew my mind both musically and technically. Things magically clicked for him. I could barely sit still. When he stopped, I gave him a standing ovation. I asked, “What happened, Mike!!? What changed this week!!?” He signaled for me to come look at his music.

I walked over to him and looked at his part. In huge capital letters at the top of his part, he had written, “SAVE THE PIGS!!”

I guess there was one more magic solution that would work for him…and for you.

It’s all you.


About Jeff Nelsen

jeff nelsen with pigOne of the many pig-farm-raised, Canadian, magician horn players in the world, Jeff Nelsen has thrilled audiences and inspired students for over twenty years. So far he’s enjoyed touring with Canadian Brass (8 years), teaching and mentoring at Indiana University (7 years so far…), giving a TEDx Talk about Fearless Performance, playing on Broadway (2 full show runs), soloing on 5 continents, and performing with dozens of orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago, and Boston Symphonies, and the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras. Jeff is also proud to be a magician member of “The Academy of the Magical Arts” at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California.

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Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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