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 for the School of Music (when you have a moment check out their cool workshop archive with videos and handouts of past workshops).

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 this post, Jeff shares a few of the strategies he and his students have utilized to propel themselves from good to great. Take it away, Jeff!

Enter Jeff

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.

Want more Jeff?

Jeff in your inbox? Sign up for Jeff’s free newsletter all about “Fearless Performance”!

Jeff live in person? Attend his “Fearless Performance for Musicians” seminar at Indiana University in Bloomington!

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29 Responses

  1. This is really inspiring.
    When I see “Latest post from The Bulletproof Musician”, I know that it’ll be something good and useful.
    Thank you so much for all these articles.
    All the best!

    1. Thanks Fabio! Happy to hear you found it inspiring. …and yes, I love all of Noa’s writings too. I look forward to seeing “Latest Bulletproof post” too!

  2. It’s the inverse of what we always tell students which is, “Work smarter, not harder.” We spend 18 years training them that there is always some cute, clever shortcut they don’t know about that will enable them to do X. Sometimes it doesn’t apply, there is no shortcut, and smarter won’t do it. Sometimes you do just have to work harder.

    1. Yes Janis, it’s such an alchemy, eh?! I don’t think I slept too well my first few years at IU…up worrying about how else to get ALL the students to “get it. It’s all so simple! …and I’m simplifying things for them…I hope!” But my 2 big lessons were, 1. Simple is very different than easy…and I started sleeping a bit better when someone reminded me 2. the teacher can’t do the work. Sooooo hard to let go, and just keep trying to make it simpler/clearer/more inspired with each day, but I think I had a good day of doing that today! Whew! Ok, bring on tomorrow!! Thanks for doing the same!

      1. It’s like there are two classes of problems: the ones that can be solved by thinking of some clever approach, and the ones that just need sweat.

        Unfortunately, the problem of determining which class of problems a given problem falls into … is in the second class of problems. 🙂

      2. Thanks Jeff…as a high school musician who put down her flute for the better part of 10 years, I’ve picked it up again in the last 2. Relatively recently stumbled upon The Bulletproof Musician, and love it. I really appreciate your comment that “The teacher can’t do the work”…in the time I wasn’t playing my flute I taught piano lessons and had students that both excelled and those that didn’t. Sometimes it WAS me not explaining things (like why I wrote down their assignment in a notebook…forgot to tell one student that meant she was to practice those bits) and sometimes lack of progress was due to the student’s not working. I have been finding that my own slower-than-desired progress on my flute basically means I need more (and smarter) practice. Thanks for this post!

  3. Noa –
    Seconding what Fabio wrote, I know when I read your posts, Noa, I am going to find something useful that can be applied to many aspects of life. If I want to be a great writer and move beyond an average or good writer, then by all means I have to save those pigs too! Write consistently, self-edit, get honest feedback, and write better than I have ever done before. In other words, give my writing my body and soul! What Jeff wrote above can be applied to being great at most anything.


    1. Hi Monique,
      This is great to hear, since I see performance to be everywhere. I realized recently that fearless performance uses performance as the vehicle to look at all our fears, find understanding, and build trust in tools of fear-replacement. The bonus is that we become good at performing! But we get to dive deep into our personality when we look at our approaches to things, and our critiques. I say “Be great, get better, repeat…annnnd one day we die” 🙂

      The be great is kinda a “at least let yourself be as great as you can be today. Make your best better too….but in performance, just execute!”

      More often than we’ll ever know, we are already great! We just gotta let that out…like those children who are still as fearless as the day they were born. I’ve found there are children like this all around us…at all ages.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Monique!

  4. So glad you ran into Jeff Nelsen! As a horn player I’ve known about him for some time. He’s a great guy who has a lot of great things to say about fearless performance. Thanks for sharing space with him to get his ideas out there to others!

    1. Hi Julie,
      Thanks so much for your kind words and support. I hope to see you out west sometime. My wife is from Santa Barbara, and we visit there often. Steven Gross has me do classes sometimes too. I’ll try to advertise my visits better…maybe on my newsletter.
      Take care! Maybe see you at SB Symph Mahler 2?! They’ve invited me to play extra….wow wow can’t waaaaaiiiiiiit!

  5. This is my favorite post by far. Jeff’s story is great, and the comparison between good enough and great could never be more clearer.

    So maybe the primary force that keeps musicians from their potential is themselves?

    Thanks again for another great post!

  6. Hi Kyle,
    Ohhhhh yeah….no maybe on the self-barriers! …in my humble but fear-filled-and-fear-replaced opinion…and experiences…heh…

    I just saw Iron Man 3 last night, (twas a blast!!!) and the first words are, “We create our own demons.” It builds through the film, and I hope I didn’t just “spoiler” anything!! But also on my way into the film there was another poster for “After Earth” and it said in huge letters “DANGER IS REAL. FEAR IS A CHOICE.” (…yeah, I took a picture of the poster…) I am seeing these messages more and more, and I think there is real momentum of fear-understanding coming.

    I’m very excited about Noa and my growing relationship. We’re discussing doing some things together, so stay tuned! Send us suggestions too please!!

    All the best,

  7. Loved this post! I have a young cellist on a pig farm, and this post gives me hope that the two worlds will mix well for my son. Also, something I’ve noticed: cello lessons come mostly during the school year and pig litters come mostly during the summer. So it’s a good year-round combination.


    1. Hey Penelope!
      Yay you guys and your Wisconsin farm! Love your writing too! Holy diving in over and over!
      I always say my two sisters (also pro musicians) and I got the music in the house and the work ethic on the farm…good combination. Culture/interesting stuff and curiosity/drive…and farmers can/have to do so many things! I quit horn for 3 years too, and came back to it with a wider vision….writing about that nowwwww… 🙂

      I signed up for your beautiful blog…thank you!
      Enjoy your summer porcine littering!

  8. I’ve come up with stories to go along with pieces, but haven’t written any in my part! I’ll have to actually writing them. I’ve already found that I play the J. C. Bach/Casadesus viola concerto a lot better when the second movement isn’t just a slow movement, it’s Dobby’s funeral.

  9. Saved the Pigs story is really inspiring especially for
    those individuals who have their own passions but feels hopeless!
    In order to achieve what we want, we need to have a long patience
    and determination for us to be successful. Thanks Jeff! Merlin Moon

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