Category Archives: reflective practice journal

Taking the plunge…

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that for a long time now I have had a project in the back of my mind: a social project connected with the power of the arts to transform lives for the better. Having spent time in a hospital recently, a lot of things have become clearer to me: the power of human kindness, patience, compassion and above all, a little space to live your own life in.

I have been wondering, waiting and worrying, as I am wont to do, about the timing of such a project, the feasibility issues, the cost, the practical logistics, when I thought: ‘it might be now, or never’. So I took a chance, A risk, some might say. I took the plunge. I’m still not sure that it was the “right” thing to do, but perhaps I never will be, and anyway, I’m not sure that that is the important thing here.

The important thing is:

I did something. Not Nothing. And that means something.

I did it. Here goes. I said it.

 St Andrews Smiles Better Facebook Page – An experiment in positive thinking

“Don’t Ration Compassion” (a monk at Samye Ling Monastery, fieldwork, 2009)

This project is extremely close to my heart. So many people have touched my life in different ways, that I find it very hard not to say Thanks every time someone does something nice for me. So I want to pass it on. Play it forward. Form my own “Karma Army” like Danny Wallace. Help local businesses succeed and create employment opportunities. Play music to people to cheer them up. Do random acts of kindness and smile at people I don’t know. 


Thank you all for reading.



Jess xxxxxxxxxxx


With a little help from my friends… An open invitation!

An Open Invitation: ‘With a little help from my friends’





P1100298Dalai Lama

Thursday 29th August

St Andrews Church, Queen’s Terrace, St Andrews



Cello suites/Scottish Music/Surprise!!

Who, me?

Who, me?

You will need:



Your ears!

The plan:


The charities:

Heisenberg (Jill Craig)


Families First (St Andrews)

Sistema Scotland/In Harmony

Arts in Fife/Dundee

Drake Music Scotland

Music in Hospitals

Military Wives Choir (Gareth Malone)

Scottish Ensemble {insert group here}

Rokpa/Tibetan Children’s Villages/ICT

tibet screensaver

Brooklands College

Signpost International (Dundee)

Just Made/Gillian Gamble



Pragya (India)

RSPCA/RSPB/Big cat rescue

SUGGESTIONS WELCOME!! Answers on a post card to: Jess Long!

Reflections on’Reflections’: a year at RSAMD

Whilst going through all the material I have written this year for my ‘Reflective Practice Journal’, I found the following comments which were written just after I started the course in October:


This week (15.10.10)

-Trying out new ways of working, inspired by Lydia: recording lessons/sessions to remember what is said in the lesson as I often forget afterwards and find it hard to make adequate notes. Recording sessions also enables you to hear yourself as you sound to others and to hear when things go right or wrong and why – giving you a much better insight into how to solve the problem.

-My lessons with Jane so far have been very helpful but at the same time quite revealing about my playing, as I have not had regular lessons every week since leaving school 6 years ago, and the lessons I did have were usually very focussed on specific works so that I could perform them. This has meant that quite a few bad habits have crept into my playing without me noticing, so I unconsciously do things that detract from the music. Jane has been amazing in this respect: she noticed straight away the things that I’m doing out of habit and has been constantly reminding me (annoying but necessary) so that I’m starting to become conscious of them and can change them. Hopefully I can do this gradually so that I can eliminate most of the habitual stuff that has crept up on me over the years…

Learning points:

  • Learning how to join notes smoothly at the tip- listen carefully when you change bow at the tip (I couldn’t always hear when I got it right)
  • Lengthen the last note before the one you want to join it to
  • Eliminating bad habits that have crept in: bulging notes with the bow and with unnecessary vibrato, and uneven vibrato, on alternate notes
  • Think about bow distribution
  • Try and play up bows and down bows as if they were the same- it should theoretically sound the same either way round! Ie easy and free


These comments, although written less than a month after I started the course, encompass most of the main technical issues that I have been trying to work on in my playing throughout the year.

Nearly 7 months on, I find myself making a very similar list of areas that Jane and I have discussed in my lessons:

  • bow distribution – using the whole bow and less bow where necessary
  • focussing on an even vibrato on all notes in a phrase
  • changing notes smoothly
  • getting rid of old bad habits especially bulging unimportant notes
  • playing with more drive, energy, commitment and volume (where appropriate)

The other issues that have been discussed in this blog such as performance skills, controlling nerves, and improving posture with physio and Alexander Technique are all still relevant as well; I will continue to work on these after I finish my course.

In summary, keeping this reflective blog has helped my keep track of what I need to work on in my playing, helped me explore links with other arts ventures and organisations, and generally enriched my life as a musician, as well as allowing me to explore online world of blogging and its joys! Thanks for reading 🙂

Jess xxx

NB. I will keep blogging after I graduate, though I will probably change the name of the blog!



Documentation Project: preparing music for performance

Reflection on my Documentation Project Proposal

Hoffnungs cartoons: closer to reality than you might think!

I’ve been reading some of Sandy Hutchison’s¹ journal entries lately, and spurred on by the approaching deadline for all my Integrative Studies work (which is 13th May), I am trying to reflect on the process of taking a fresh, unlearnt piece and preparing it for the concert platform. This is the subject of my ‘Documentation Project’ described in the course literature as ‘a collection of materials derived from an aspect of your work this year’. I handed in a proposal for this before Christmas, so I can’t really remember what I said I was going to base it on exactly…

To refresh my memory, here’s the proposal I just dug out (if you can use that expression when searching through computer files!)


MMus Integrative Studies

Documentation Project Proposal 15.12.10

For my solo recital in May, I will be preparing Brahms Sonata in Eb Op. 120 No 1 for Viola and Piano. In order to prepare for this, I will have lessons on each movement of the piece with my teacher, have sessions with my pianist (Hester Dickson), and do private solo practice. I will also have some coaching from my teacher in my sessions with Hester, and perform some of the movements in performance classes. It is this variety of different preparation methods that I hope to document for my project, using sound recordings.

I will use the following to document the preparation process:

  • Recordings of my lessons on the piece
  • Recordings of sessions with Hester
  • Recordings of solo practice – eg successful practice and frustrations
  • Recordings of performance classes

Alongside these recordings which will be dated chronologically, I will write a brief commentary on the main issues raised by each recording or how each fits into my overall learning progression, and a broader reflection on my preparation process as shown by this material. Hopefully this will help me to identify and clarify the different ways in which I prepare a piece for performance, whether they are good or bad, and in the future use this to improve my preparation skills.


Aha, now I remember… I knew that it was focussed specifically on the Brahms but forgot the details.

Now, on reflection (if you’ll pardon the pun) and through experience of this year’s work, my focus in the proposal on one specific piece (ie Brahms Eb Sonata) was too narrow, as I now have decided that I want to document my approach to preparing pieces for performance as a whole, which means not homing in on one specific composer and using a variety of different pieces and performance situations (i.e.solo/chamber/orchestral). So through the terms I have been keeping photocopies of my viola scores and markings on them as they develop and my own experience as a player and performer has developed. It is this cumulative process of learning to ‘become better’ through preparation that I now wish to focus on.

The next step is for me to collect all the photocopies/pictures ²of pieces I have accumulated over the last 7 months, put them in some sort of coherent order and work out what each says about my approach to documenting my practice as a viola player.

Now, where did I put them all again?  😀

¹ The RSAMD’s Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow

² I find the easiest way to document something when I’m in a hurry is to take a photo of it; this works well with sheet music if the light is ok and you have the flash off

Term 3 happenings

This is more for myself so I can keep track of what’s going on in my diary!

Assessed Recitals

  • Big important end of course assessed recital of 50 mins with Hester: 20th May 5.10pm (examiners: Peter Lissauer, Louise Lansdown)
  • Chamber music Assessed Recital (public) – including Dvorak piano quartet, maybe Bowen viola quartet (with Dave, Christine and Gabi) – to be arranged

Academic Deadlines:

Community Music 1 Assessment (Journal ie this blog, self assessment form, placement notes, Written assignment, placement assessment) = Monday 9th May 12pm

Integrative Studies Assessment (RPJ and Documentation Project)= Friday 13th May (unlucky for some :))


Matthew Whiteside’s concerts x2:

  • Concert 1= Bar Bloc on 30th May
  • Concert 2=City Halls on 1st June

Opera with Tim Dean and RSAMD opera students: Hansel and Gretel by Humperdinck, RSAMD Athenaeum Theatre

  • Performance 1: Monday 27th June
  • Performance 2: Weds 29th June
  • Performance 3: Thurs 30th June

Heisenberg committments (St Andrews/stirling):

  • Messiah with Jill Craig (17th April)- Stirling (arrange transport)
  • Saturday 7th May Elgar Dream of Gerontius (with St Andrews Chorus)

Stringfest (Fri 10th June-Sun 12th June)

  • Principal viola in stringfest ensemble (concert date and time tbc)
  • Concert with Gongbo’s quartet – Mozart C major quintet for 2 violas (concert date and time tbc)

A guide to orchestral playing (part I)

At the moment I’m involved in the Academy’s Chamber Orchestra, which has involved a fair bit of rehearsing in the past few days. The concert is on 25th March at 1pm, in the Academy Concert Hall, if you’re interested and want to come along. The programme is:

Mahler – Adagietto for strings
Elgar – Introduction and Allegro for strings and string quartet
Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor (soloist: Duncan Strachan)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor (soloist: Hanna Choi)
Conductor: David Watkin
(The facebook event is here)

During rehearsals and whilst reflecting on the process of learning to be a better orchestral player, I came up with the idea of creating a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) ‘guide’ for musicians on how to play in an orchestra – for my first attempt, see below.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t want people (particularly musicians) to think I’m being obsessive or diva-esque – these are just comments from my own experience of playing in many different orchestras and ensembles and as such are not personal or directed at any individuals in particular)

Issues while rehearsing: (aka ways to annoy your fellow players!)

Turning pages: it’s really annoying when your desk partner turns a page either far too late or too early, ie turning the page before you’ve had time to read to the end of said page, including any rests that come right before the turn (this is an issue particularly when you are leading a section and you need to *actually count* them!) I know I have been guilty of this in the past – sorry….

Writing on music: sometimes, when you receive a part (eg from a hire library) it is so covered in pencil marks that you can’t actually read the music! Often hire libraries will try and remove as much as they can before they hire out the parts to another orchestra, but sometimes they don’t and it is a real pain to have to rub out everything the previous player has marked in. Also irritating is when players scrawl music with completely unnecessary marks (eg writing out the letter names above the stave!!) so that the music itself and printed tempo markings and bowings are completely obscured*

*This can also be quite funny, for example when players write their desk partners little messages on the music during a boring rehearsal, or encourage each other to play confidently (I’ve seen things like ‘you can do it!’ or ‘DON’T PANIC!!’ 😀 )

Sellenger's Round (cartoon is at the bottom left hand side)

“Sellenger’s Round” cartoon closeup – stingy!!

These pictures show a cartoon drawn by a player on the music – the piece is called ‘Sellenger’s Round’ and I suppose the thought of the pub after the rehearsal was uppermost in the doodler’s mind when imagining what Sellenger’s round would look like 😀

Counting rests out loud (very loudly and *at* your desk partner): no further comment needed… Just don’t…

Tuning (or playing) your instrument while the conductor is trying to say something important/people are rehearsing – there are times when this is necessary eg when your instrument goes out of tune in a hot room, but there are times when it isn’t!

There are also some guaranteed ways to make your colleagues in the orchestra laugh at you (again, I’m guilty of some of these):

Playing really loudly when it is marked pp or ppp and everybody else in the orchestra is quiet – I do this quite often, especially whilst sight reading, and it makes me cringe every time I do it!

Playing loudly during a G.P. (= General Pause) when the whole orchestra is silent. This is often called a “mars bar moment” by conductors – so-called as the person who spoils the silence gets an ironic ‘prize’ eg a mars bar; another version is that the person who is responsible should buy the other players a round in the pub afterwards…

Playing the wrong notes repeatedly when the conductor asks you to play the right notes (this often makes me giggle- sorry wind/brass players, I know transposing at sight can be hard! :P)

That’s all I can think of now… Goodnight!

Ho hum…

Well, this week has been quite mixed. It has been eventful, but also rather painful, as I seem to have developed a  very sore right shoulder/upper arm. This is not only unusual for me, as I very rarely get pain in my bowing arm, but very annoying, as I’m supposed to be performing in the viola challenge competition on Monday. I think it might be to do with my new, higher chinrest, which is making me use my bow arm in a slightly different way, meaning that I use different muscles… I had an Alexander technique lesson yesterday, and Isobel told me to rest the arm for at least a couple of days, as muscle injuries take about five days to start healing – does anyone know if this is right?

I also spoke to my teacher and postponed my lesson for this week, and Jane was very sympathetic about it and advised me not to worry about the competition.  The problem is, the piece is not only very difficult, it is also atonal and I’m only just beginning to make sense of it in musical terms, as I’ve either been too tired/stressed/painful to practice it. Part of me wants to play in the competition, and part of me just wants to give it a miss because it’s a silly piece anyway, and it’s just unnecessary stress, and I really don’t want to hurt myself any more than I have already.

Things I’ve done this week:

o   I’ve played in an exam – my flatmate Fiona is a third year vocal student at the academy and she wanted to perform Frank Bridge’s  beautiful ’Music When Soft Voices Die’ in her mid term recital. (Here is a youtube clip – I personally think our version was better!)

o   I’ve played in my first academy competition, the internal round of a quartet competition where the winner goes through to the external competition in London. In fact, we only played in front of Robert and another woman (no idea who she was) and it wasn’t public and felt more like an audition than a competition. However, I think we played our pieces (1st mvt of Ravel string quartet, 2nd mvt of Haydn op 64) the best we have ever played them so that’s great.

o   Decided that my assessment will be weighted 50% on a 50 minute chamber recital, not 25% on a new work (a collaboration with a composer) and 25% on the chamber recital. This means preparing an extra 20 mins of music, but now I’m working with an excellent group of masters students in my piano quartet this shouldn’t be a problem (we’re working on Dvorak piano quartet in D major at the moment)

I’ve also learnt a new piece of musical lingo- ‘toy toy toy’ is opera-speak for good luck (it’s bad luck to tell someone to break a leg in opera dressing rooms)!

Things I’ve missed or will miss:

  • My community music placement- my shoulder was just too painful and it was the same day as Fiona’s exam. It was Burns night so Alison and Liz did lots of Scottish songs eg Ally Bally, 3 Craws, Wee Willie Winkie and they played Scottish tunes on fiddle and flute.
  • My lesson with Jane (it was going to be tomorrow)
  • My session with Hester (ditto) – I need to go through the 3rd mvt of Brahms Eb with her

And of course I’ve missed my wonderful fiancé, Alex, who lives in Crail. I’ll see him this weekend though 🙂

Second Performance class with Hester- Academy open day: Brahms Sonata in Eb op 120 no. 2, 1st movement (Allegro Amabile)

This performance class showed me the importance of overcoming my nerves, as even though Hester and I performed exactly the same piece as before a couple of months ago in front of Peter and the strings students, I was more nervous and therefore was not as happy with how I played back in November. The problem with nerves that I find is that they’re almost completely random in how they strike- for example, when I played a concerto with orchestra last summer I was nervous but the exhilaration of the performance was such that I got over them very quickly, whereas during this small performance class which was effectively a showcase for new prospective students, I was pretty nervous throughout my performance for no good reason that I could work out. One thing may have been that I sat watching the 2 performances before mine and getting more nervous, whereas in a concert situation like the concerto, one just walks straight onto the platform without having to watch other performers (and subconsciously compare oneself to them, I guess!)

The devastating thing about nerves is that they can spoil a perfectly good, well prepared performance in all but the most self assured performer. I’m pretty sure that every famous performer you’ll see on the concert platform or on the TV has experienced them, and I know for a fact that so orchestral musicians seek help from their doctors for performance anxiety. Even Hester said she was nervous, and she has almost a lifetime of performance behind her, but she is now in her late eighties and when tired as she was then, she loses some of her co-ordination.

My nerves aren’t always as crippling, but here are some examples of the effects that my nerves can have:

  • Bow shake (when the bow wobbles when you draw it across the string)
  • Very tight and narrow vibrato
  • Sometimes, cold hands making it difficult to play
  • Dry mouth
  • Fixed expression on my face which I am self conscious of
  • Intonation problems and errors that I don’t usually make
  • A feeling of ‘I’ve got to get through this’ rather than concentrating on the music itself
  • Ultimately, frustration that I could have done better had I not been so nervous

The key thing, it seems, is not how to avoid becoming nervous in the first place, but how to control the nerves once you get them. But how? I guess it’s a mental thing, and you have to have a very strong inner voice telling you that you are going to be fine and play well. I know there are several books about this, such as ‘The inner game of music ‘ ( which I haven’t read- has anyone found these kind of books to be helpful?

Going back to the performance class itself, as it was an open day, there was no feedback from the audience, which would have been  nice to have. The only comments I got on my performance were from Robert himself. Famously noncommittal, he said to me afterwards, ‘That was very nice, thanks Jess.’

First performance class – Brahms Eb 1st movement with Hester

Overall, I was pretty pleased with how I played – a good thing was that I wasn’t too nervous when I started. Often nerves mean the start of my performance is rubbish then it slowly improves until I get rid of them- I wish I knew how to reliably control them! Hester commented afterwards that the start was lovely, as when I first played it with her she said I played it too slowly and it needed much more flow and momentum. A funny moment was when I announced the piece, saying ‘I’m going to play…’ and she whispered, ‘I hope you said “We’re going to play!”’

The main comments I had from Peter and the other masters students were:

  • It was a good performance but it was too self contained: it could have been more ‘open’ to the audience. I guess this means I was too self absorbed and not performing the piece to the audience enough. Does solving this mean exaggerating gestures, dynamics etc?
  • A greater contrast could have been made between the loud sections and the sotto voce sections, especially in the really huge bits
  • My vibrato needs to be more controlled as it accidentally emphasises unwanted notes (I am already aware of this and trying to work on it)
  • I made a comment about making more effort to phrase in Brahms’ ultra long lines, which some people agreed with and some said that they felt that I had achieved this
  • I felt I still need to have more dialogue and exchange with the piano, as it is after all a duo and not a solo with accompaniment. To do this, I will be looking more at the piano score so that I learn where I am in canon/duet with the piano and what it is playing throughout the movement.
  • Nice comments were made about my lovely tone and palette of colours – thank you!



Is there such a thing as negative or destructive practice?

By this I mean, is there such a thing as practice that, instead of improving an aspect of your playing or your ability to play a piece, it has the negative effects of decreasing your confidence, increasing frustration and the perceived effect of reversing improvement. I am sure we have all experienced this, on days where nothing seems to go right and we just can’t seem to do it, leaving us wondering whether we can actually play our instruments at all.

I had a day just like this a few days ago, and the frustration it caused was almost unbearable. I tried everything to dispell it – taking breaks, moving into a different room, listening to the piece instead, playing despite the feeling, but nothing worked. I got the feeling that I was actually harming my perception of my playing, so I stopped and decided to leave it for that day.

How much of a feeling like this is mental and how much is real? It’s hard to say for sure, as so much of playing music is a mental attitude and not in our physical playing. We had a seminar, given by Havilland Willshire, about differing attitudes to failure and motivation, and it turned out that those who viewed failure as just another learning experience were much more successful at overcoming obstacles than those who questioned their innate abilities as a result of failure. As musicians we are trained to judge other musicians’ performances quickly and sometimes harshly, but in order to survive in the professional world we need to be able to rely on ourselves for motivation, not what others think of us.

So I think that next time I experience frustration and feel I can’t play the viola, I’ll try and remember that failure is as important as success at building up the skills needed to be a musician (this may not help that much at the time, but in the long term it will hopefully make me better able to cope with the downs as well as the ups).