This article includes a video.
My mother-in-law gave us a book one Christmas that I have often brought into piano lessons to show my students. The book is titled Monet: Waterlilies, and in it are many fold-out reproductions of these extraordinary paintings. What is most special about this particular book is that several pages show a close-up of a detail from one of the paintings. Each time you zoom in on one of these details, you experience the shock of how gorgeous, vibrant, and powerful it is. Every juxtaposition of color, every texture, is completely brilliant and astonishing.
The reason I show this book to my students is that we, as musicians, have exactly this opportunity when we practice—to zoom in on details and revel in their beauty. And it is only when we revel in that beauty ourselves that we can reveal it to others in performance.
The Challenge of Listening
The best piece of musical advice I ever heard was from guitarist Oscar Ghiglia in a master class. He told the student, “You have to listen to every note with your whole heart.”
This is easier said than done. We often get overwhelmed by the innumerable notes on a page of music and gloss over many of them instead of appreciating them to the fullest. We also often get caught in our concepts about the lines and textures we see on the page and about what shapes or colors they might imply. If we don’t listen really closely, from moment to moment with our whole heart, we can end up with a somewhat superficial performance.
Loving a piece of music is a lot like loving another person. No matter how strong our love may be, we tend to filter what we hear through our habitual ideas about what the other person—in this case, a composer—means to say. As we know from our personal relationships, we often think someone means one thing, when, in fact, he or she intends something quite different. It may only be after much confusion, arguing, and inquisitive conversation, that we finally discover what they have been trying to tell us.
Fortunately, when we feel at odds with a piece of music we’re living with, we can easily go back and re-examine the details of what we thought we heard. We may still experience great frustration with a musical phrase—we may even feel like giving up at times. But the answer often lies in just taking a fresh start and listening to it more closely. If we can manage to look past our frustration and focus intently on the exact sensory reality that is in front of us, with an open heart and mind, the true message in the music may reveal itself to us, and we can create a genuine performance.
The Magic of Slowing Down
To zoom in on the details, we need to slow down. We need to give ourselves time to take them in. This is much easier with music than with another person, because notes on a page will just sit there while we take all the time we need to absorb them, whereas another person might talk or yell faster than we can handle it.
But these notes have more power than we do. If we get frustrated or confused as we grapple with the complexity of a great piece of music, we can’t blame the music for the problems we’re having with it. We have to admit that it’s our own limitations that are preventing us from being in synch with it. We know we’re in the presence of genius, and we have no choice but to humbly find our way toward comprehending it.
At the same time, however, when we connect deeply to the power in a single sound or phrase, we exercise and develop the power of our own talent.
Intimacy with the Musical Fabric
A great performance is great through and through. The weave of the fabric itself—the horizontal lines and vertical sounds that work together to make it a piece—has complete integrity. Every fiber is alive with meaning.
But in our passion for music, we often rush into a beautiful phrase or passage without noticing many of the amazing details that make up this musical fabric. We may hear the seductive melody but not respond fully to all the harmonies that go with it. If we’re playing in an ensemble, we may hear our own part but not deeply feel all the changes from consonance to dissonance and back, as our own sounds blend with those of others. When this incomplete hearing happens, we disconnect from both the music and our own gift. We don’t come face to face with our full potential to meet the mind of greatness.
Fast Food Music
This tendency to disconnect from our own talent was strikingly obvious to me one day when I was coaching a string quartet. These four gifted musicians had learned a Brahms quartet in a week. As professional performers, they were used to working this fast, and they managed to negotiate all the notes at quite a clip. But the music rushed by without any sense of them hearing each other. Only when I asked them to listen to one sound at a time and really aim to be in tune with each other did they play in harmony and reveal some of the beauty that Brahms had created. Whereas their rushed performance of the entire movement had left me completely unmoved, each of those moments of true harmony was literally music to my ears, really nourishing me.
Choosing to Feast
It’s so tempting to rush through practicing or rehearsing when you have so many notes to handle. And you may have a deadline you’re working toward. Nevertheless, you can always choose to see a piece of music as a feast for your ears. The performance will go by quickly; you can use your practice time to savor every sound.
As often as you can, take the time to fill yourself up with the beauty and power of every sound. Open to it, drink it in, and notice how it feeds your system. Just as if you were standing close to a painting by Monet, notice all the juxtapositions of one harmonic color next to another. Allow yourself to be less active and more receptive.
The Hard Part
It sounds sumptuous, this feast—and it is. But as we turn our attention to each sound we discover not only the beauty and meaning in the music but also our difficulty in fully opening to it. As with the string quartet I coached, we too have to make an effort to take in all of the sounds we’re producing.
Cellist Vivien Mackie wrote of this effort in her wonderful book, Just Play Naturally. At 21, after winning many prizes, she went to take ten lessons with Pablo Casals. After she played for him for the first time, he said, “You do not know what you are doing.” They proceeded to work, and with each note she played he said either “Flat,” or “Sharp.” She had not realized that she had been playing out of tune.
Three months later, Mackie was still working with Casals, and she had covered only three lines of the Haydn Concerto. She wondered if she’d ever get anywhere at that pace. But she stayed on, and a year later she was zipping through the repertoire, because her ears had opened up enormously.
She stayed for three years altogether and brought her transformed playing and her well-earned wisdom home to England, where she has continued to help other musicians discover their true potential.
The Courage to Meet Your Own Greatness
Vivien Mackie was an uncommonly open and aware young musician who recognized the value in what Casals offered her, even though many other musicians had already praised her highly. She made the brave choice of setting aside her professional success for a time and pursuing the fulfillment of her deepest musical potential.
In the video below, gifted pianist Phoebe Pan also courageously steps beyond her familiar way of playing and makes an effort to go deeper. Although it’s challenging for her to open her ears on a new level, her effort brings her greater expressive freedom.
I find it interesting that when Phoebe describes herself as being “in a box,” her body is moving a lot as she plays, seemingly expressing the kind of freedom she wants to have. Yet when she listens more and moves less, she obtains a more genuine freedom—an inner musical freedom that comes from giving herself time to more fully hear the sounds she is making. The “box” she was in before was made out of her habitual over-activity. When she learns to balance being active with being more receptive, she achieves the kind of musical freedom she wants.
Preparing to Share Your Gift
We get very involved with the athletics of practicing our instruments—the complex activity of using our bodies to produce sounds. We need to remember that our greatest gift as musicians is the gift for hearing and appreciating those sounds. If we can fully unwrap this immense and magical gift, we can then truly share it with others.
Each time you stretch your hearing beyond its habitual level, you are making more room inside yourself for the power of musical genius to flow through you. If you practice doing this when you are alone, you will be much more ready to let it happen in performance.
I wish you much joy and success with making music.
P.S. If you’d like to learn more about how to develop greater expressive freedom through listening, read my book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. Also, if you’d like to know how I could help you connect more to your own gift, you’re welcome to come for a free consultation.