Category Archives: Strings

Long-term Short-term sign

The Life-long Process of Planning

Hello, everyone!

Here I am, post-recital, and on to the next pile of music. I was pretty pleased with how the performance went, and am grateful to Dr. Tim Burns, my piano collaborator on this program. It’s a real joy when you find someone, or many someone’s, to work together and share great music.

As I mentioned in my last post, this week’s topic is on planning. It is truly a life-long process! I have tried many systems over the years, as I’m sure you have. Just know that you will be changing as a musician and a person, so your planning skills and techniques will also need some tweaking.

So how do you start? Good question! Yes, there are a lot of apps out there that can help you stay organized, but sometimes just writing it down with pen and paper can give a person a lot of clarity. Old school, yes, but it works for me. Back in my commuting days from Colorado Springs to CSU, I had to resort to colored ink pens to help keep me on track. Green was my CSU color, blue for projects for myself, etc. I am a great procrastinator, so this was really helpful to me; if everything had been in one color I probably would have looked at the long list for the day/week and thrown my hands up in despair. And then got some coffee…

If you are student reading this, think about the work you have for school and your outside activities. If you find there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, have a long talk with yourself about what is important to you. I am constantly amazed at how busy high school students are; it may feel great that you are so busy, but is it really what you want to do with your time? Those of you who are actively thinking about pursuing a music degree need to have your practice time be your #1 focus. The competition in the professional world is fierce, so spending as much time as you can with your instrument (and knowing how to practice) will help you learn better and faster in college. You will also have better time management skills, which are critical for successful learning as an undergraduate.

So has my planning method changed over the years? Yes, indeed. It may seem like more writing, but I have a weekly/monthly to-do list in categories (one for me, one for CSU), and then I make a daily list. There is only so much my brain can remember. I try (really hard, mind you) not to add anything to the next week’s list until I’ve finished the last two weeks. Some weeks are better than others, as you might imagine. Again, it works for me.

Remember that all of this discussion is on short-term planning. What about long-range goals and how to get there? That’s the topic for the next post.

Until then,
Margaret Miller

Life is rarely straight-forward graphic of graphic

A Musical Life-Not Always a Straight Line!

Hello everyone,

I hope you have enjoyed a good holiday weekend. Save your energy, because it is a long road until Thanksgiving break. There is already a cold bug making its way through the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance at CSU, so do remember to take care of yourselves!

I mentioned in my last post about wearing a lot of hats as a musician and teacher. Allow me to give you some of my background and how I got to Colorado State University.

I grew up in the Detroit area, and started playing viola in fifth grade. I am forever grateful to my public school teachers and my private teacher for helping me set goals, work hard, and always learn. My undergraduate degree is from Indiana University; even though it is a huge music school, learned so much about practicing, hearing great performances, and making life-long friends. My private teacher was a violist in the Detroit Symphony, and that was my goal-to have the skills to audition and play in an orchestra. That is a blog post all by itself, but let me just say it was practicing 6-8 hours a day, and even when I felt I played well, I didn’t always get the job. I moved back to Detroit and did a lot of free-lancing and did get a job with a semi-professional orchestra of U.S. and Canadian players. One part of the job was establishing a violin/viola studio on the U.S. side, to complement a large program in Canada. I had done some teaching, and worked with Mimi Zweig at IU, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the patience to be a teacher. But, it was an opportunity, so I took the job. It was a lot of work, but I discovered that I really enjoyed it, helping students learn, and getting to know them.

I was there for three years, and then went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for my Master’s and a Certificate from the Chamber Music Institute. Chamber music had been a part of my life since high school, but as an undergraduate, I didn’t even think of that option for a career. (Hint-keep your options open!). I came to Colo. in 1985 to join the Da Vinci Quartet, in residence at the University of Denver and Colorado College. The quartet became a non-profit two years after I joined, which was a huge learning curve about non-profit work. I realized that I really needed to have non-musical skills as well as the musical ones! For a time I was in charge of the budget for the organization, and then took over the job of booking concerts. We played concerts in the U.S., competed in the Shostakovich International Quartet Competition in 1991 (the year that the Soviet Union dissolved), and recorded. And we rehearsed-sometimes as much as four hours a day. I also starting building a private studio.

In 2004 I was invited to teach at Colorado State University, and for eight years I was commuting from Colorado Springs once a week for several days; I am grateful to one of my colleagues who let me stay with her. Remember the hats I mentioned? All the work I did as a member of the Da Vinci Quartet served me well in managing my time, planning my teaching, and having the opportunities to travel and perform or present at conferences. I also realized that all arts students need those extra-musical skills I just mentioned-everything from writing a cover letter and putting together a resume, to finding collaborators for a project, to developing programs for underserved populations, and many more besides. That lead to planning what is now the LEAP Institute for the Arts (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Arts Advocacy, and the Public), for which I am the undergraduate coordinator. Plus, I am also the coordinator of CSU’s graduate quartet program, which brings in students from the U.S. and abroad. It’s been a rewarding experience to share my 18 years of quartet life with them.

So the hats: I am a teacher, a performer, an adviser, a coach, and member of several committees. If you’re wondering how I balance it all, you’d be right in thinking that it’s a challenge. Some days are better than others, and the beginning of the semester seems to bring some kind of problem that I had anticipated, and so didn’t plan for it. The most challenging part right now is keeping on top of my recital program, which is on Sept. 18.

Think about the hats you may be wearing as a musician after you graduate. Besides your love of music and performing, what else gets you excited? Is it teaching, either public or a private studio? Is it orchestral playing? Is it starting a non-profit or your own chamber group? The time to start thinking about this is now, not after you graduate.

Next time the topic will be planning, with some tips for how to create your own success map, sprinkled with some tales of my own.

See you all in a few weeks.

Margaret Miller

A CSU student watches the sun rise

Happy New (Academic) Year!

And Happy Solar Eclipse Day! I hope this first post finds you all well, and excited for the new year. I took a blog hiatus for a bit last spring, but I am resuming with a slightly different focus for this year. Even though there are a lot of very good blogs about careers in music and the arts, I want to give you my personal perspective and thoughts from articles and postings that I find particularly interesting.

This is a good time to take stock of your goals and your plans for the new year. I am guessing that readers of this blog are students, whether high school, in college, or beyond. If you’re in high school and thinking about studying music in college, fall is a perfect time to think about what kind of life you would like to have as a musician. Keep in mind it’s not always a straight line!  Look for schools that fit your needs: degree, faculty, performance opportunities, and facilities. Also, schedule a lesson with a faculty member – remember that this is someone you’ll be with for four years, so this is really important! Visit a campus, sit in on classes, talk with current students. It may seem like a lot of work, but you want to be sure your college of choice is a good fit.

Dawn with silhouette of student

Dawn of a new academic year at Colorado State University. Photo by CSU student Ben Thomas (@itsbentumnus on Instagram)

If you’re reading this as a current university student, think about where you are in your studies. Are you taking advantage of all of the opportunities available to you? I’m talking about non-musical as well as musical opportunities, such as working with your composer friends, being part of the event staff so you get experience in that realm, or other aspects of life as a musician. We have to wear a lot of hats as musicians (more about mine in the next post). Networking is important because you never know where a friendship or collaboration might lead in the future. And remember that talking with people is still important, especially in this age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.

I encourage all of you to make a list of your goals for the year-as a person, as a musician. Keep it handy so you can look at it on a regular basis and make changes as you need. My goal list is quite lengthy, as usual, so take small steps if yours feels overwhelming. You will find your own routine.

So, take charge! The semester is just getting started here at Colorado State, but I am very excited about this year.

Until next time,
Margaret Miller
Assistant Professor of Viola
Coordinator, Graduate Quartet Program
Undergraduate Coordinator, LEAP Institute for the Arts
School of Music, Theatre, and Dance

Angela Myles Beeching giving a lecture

Preparing for your Music Career in the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope that your holiday break was one of rest and good company. Classes are now underway, and it will be another busy semester of teaching, concerts, and auditions.

So much is written about resolutions for the new year, but we all know that sticking to them is a challenge.There was an excellent blog posting on Angela Myles Beeching’s website (she is pictured above) that has a great way to plan for 2017 by focusing on your accomplishments from last year, and how to better plan for this year. I went through all the items, and I discovered that I accomplished quite a bit in 2016. Check out her site, “The Professional Musician’s Roadmap,” and sign up for her weekly postings!

This semester there will be a shift in focus for this blog, along the lines of what Ms. Beeching does. Whether you are a high school student, undergraduate, graduate student, or professional, as musicians we always need to be looking ahead to what we would like our lives to be. Very few careers are a straight line, and a music career is no exception. It’s never too early to begin to plan for your musical life once you are a professional, so why not take half an hour to sit with a cup of coffee, tea or water, and write down how you see yourself as a professional musician. I’ll tell you my story in the next posting.

As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

Until next time,
Margaret Miller

Black and White tunnel pictured

That light at the end of the tunnel…

Is not necessarily an oncoming train, just the last two weeks of the semester. I hope that everyone was able to recharge over the Thanksgiving break, as juries and finals are coming up very soon.

My advice to you all? Take care of yourself first. I realize that there are projects to complete, finals and juries, plus recitals, orchestra concerts, etc., but you need to take care of yourself above all else. Stress levels are very high now, so be aware of your triggers, and what you can do to minimize the stress. Breathing is always a very good thing to do!

As for juries, play for as many colleagues as you can. Play for your roommates, play for other instrumentalists. Remember why you chose a life in music-because music said something to you, and you want to make sure you say something through your playing. Yes, there will always be details to work on, but save time in your practice sessions to perform.

Until next time,
Margaret Miller
Assistant Professor of Viola


Accuracy Is Everything In Practice

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” ~ Wyatt Earp

An interesting person to quote for today’s post, but very applicable to our lives as musicians because it relates to how we practice. How do we become accurate and consistent? It’s by practicing slower. Our brains and our muscles need time to process an activity, and time to build up speed and accuracy.

My recital is in a few weeks, and while my program feels secure, I still take one practice session a week to go through the repertoire at three quarters of my performance speed. There is always something that needs attention-a shift, a phrasing that can be clearer, an articulation that needs attention.

Now that everyone’s semester is in an established routine, take a moment to think about your practicing. Are you in a rut? Are you practicing carefully and being a mindful listener?

Until next time,
Margaret Miller
Professor of Viola

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. -Johw Dewey

Welcome Back!

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~ John Dewey

Happy Labor Day to you all! I hope that you have had a restful weekend. As I told my studio this past week, starting tomorrow, it is a long haul until fall break, meaning Thanksgiving. Remember to take care of yourself during this fall semester. Tension issues can creep in without us realizing it, so if something hurts, tell someone! There is no need to suffer in silence.

Now, about today’s quote. Whether you are a freshman in high school or college, or a graduate student, or a working professional, we are always learners. Take advantage of attending concerts, lectures, workshops, anything that interests you. You may discover a passion for something related to music that can be advantageous to your career. One never knows…

For me, being a life-long learner means learning new repertoire, reading about topics that interest me, such as funding in the arts and what it means to have a successful career in the arts. There are many creative people in the world doing amazing things, search out a topic that interests you!

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts for future postings.

Until next time,
Margaret Miller

Freshman pictured spelling out CSU

Welcome back, everyone!

I hope that you have all had a great summer; I’m sure you’ve returned to school with energy, enthusiasm, and possibly a little bit of anxiety. My summer involved coaching at the Lamont Academy, Just Chamber Music in Ft. Collins, and PlayWeek West at the University of Denver. I did enjoy some down time getting caught up on projects, gardening, and reading. Oh, yes, and starting to practice for my recital in Oct.

What are your goals for the fall semester? I’m sure that one of those is better time management. Speaking from my own experience, it’s a life-long process! We all change and have priorities that change as well. Number one on your list-and mine-is to take care of yourself. I find having a weekly and a daily list of items helps me plan my personal time, what I want to get done for my practicing, and what to plan for my students. Be thinking now of how you can best use your time so you can avoid as many all-nighters as possible!

Like last year, this posting will occur twice a month. I enjoy hearing from you, so if you have a topic that you would like to hear about, do let me know.

Until next time,
Margaret Miller
Assistant Professor of Viola; Coordinator, Graduate Quartet Program
School of Music, Theatre and Dance

End of the year, the start of summer!

This is finals week at CSU, the end of the semester, and the end of the academic year. I hope it was a good year for all of you!

At CSU, it was a busy year of teaching, performing, and planning for next year. I am very proud of the work that our students have done this year, from orchestra concerts to opera to chamber music and recitals. Both graduate quartets gave outstanding concerts, and I look forward to next year’s ensembles.

So what are your plans for the summer? Classes, summer festivals, time with family? Make sure that you take time for yourself this summer, as the fall will be here before we know it. I will be coaching for a two-week program in Ft. Collins called Just Chamber Music, teaching at the Lamont Academy at the University of Denver, coaching at PlayWeek West, and playing for the Summer Conducting Masters Seminar at CSU. Oh yes, and starting work on my recital in early Oct.

I am looking forward to welcoming new students to the viola studio this year, and helping them grow as musicians and people. I hope your summer is relaxing and productive! See you all in Aug.

Margaret Miller

Why we do what we do…

Why do we spend countless hours in a small practice room, chamber music rehearsal, or orchestra or opera rehearsal? Is it for the grade, the approval, the sense of understanding a technical/musical issue that has been bothering us for weeks?

All of that is part of the answer, but is it all of the answer?

Why did we choose to become musicians? I did because I loved to play the viola, although I didn’t always like to practice when I was younger. The variety of music that we get to perform is enormous, and it speaks to us in many different ways. All of the technical issues that are part of learning our craft can be frustrating, to be sure, but the bottom line is still creating the best music we can with the tools we have right now. We need to have a solid foundation on our instrument, yet we also need to think about the music that goes with that solid foundation. Practicing musically as well as technically helps us better understand the composers we play and then we can communicate that to our audiences.

Something to remember as the end of the semester draws closer. Remember that you love music and that you love to learn!

Until next time,
Margaret Miller