by Madeline Bruser
“Fast and loud.” These are the words that many musicians associate with a dazzling instrumental technique. A professionally oriented performer often thinks, “If I could just play this étude as fast and loud as it’s supposed to be played, I’ll feel like a virtuoso.” An amateur may think, “I just want to play the Allegro at full speed, with flashy fingers and big, crashing chords. Then I will sound like a professional.” And both the professional and the amateur practice energetically toward their goals.
It’s great to be able to play fast and loud when it’s appropriate. And it’s great to be motivated to stretch your technical capacities. But we must also develop the technique for playing slow and soft, to create subtle and sensuous musical effects. Playing long tones on a flute, or drawing the bow slowly across the strings of a violin to extend a note, also takes great skill. And how do pianists create the illusion of sustained sounds and of legato when every note we play on our instrument actually decays immediately? All of these essential aspects of technique require tremendous training and practice.
It’s also important to realize that there’s a big difference between “fast and loud” playing and truly brilliant, virtuoso playing. Do you remember a performance that knocked you out, not because the pianist’s fingers moved faster than you could see them, but because the spectacular range of sounds and colors that those fingers brought out of the instrument made you feel something you’d never felt before? The performance wasn’t just all flash and dash and dripping rhinestones. It felt more like real diamonds and pure gold were being given to you. Something from the heart of the person, and from their deep connection to the music, connected you with your own powerful human heart. In such a performance, the word “technique” is elevated to something beyond athletic prowess to become genuine mastery and artistry. This is great technique, and it’s something you can get close to, even if your current level of development limits the level of difficulty you are ready to work with in a piece.
Great technique happens when the line between technique and musicianship becomes blurred. It happens when the whole person, the person with a heart and mind and ears and sensitivity and raw visceral power, comes together in each move she makes. It happens when the person in the practice room brings a complete commitment to what she is doing and doesn’t settle for less than a beautiful and personally fulfilling result
If this description seems daunting to you, that’s great. Because in feeling the power in these words, you are already contacting the power in your heart and mind, which you can bring into your practicing to transform your entire experience. If you bring such inspiration and humility into playing a single musical phrase, the awakened energy in your body will automatically begin to flow naturally into your instrument, allowing more music to come through. Your humility has brought you a higher level of receptivity to the music, which has invited its secrets to reveal themselves.
An Essential Shift of Focus
Technique is a huge subject, and we definitely need a solid working knowledge of the specific body mechanics involved in playing our particular instrument in order to to master it. Many years of dedicated practice go into acquiring the physical coordination involved in playing difficult pieces, and we need strong guidance from an expert teacher. But even if we have a long way to go in developing our coordination, we can advance our technique quite a lot just by changing our focus: Instead of going for speed, we can go for awareness. Keen awareness, of the infinite beauty and complexity contained in the technical and musical details of a piece, is the key to unlocking its power and your own.
Resisting the Culture of Speed
We live in a fast and loud culture. It may be exciting sometimes, but after a certain point, speed and loudness numb your senses. Musicians can’t afford this numbness. Our whole job is to open our senses, our whole being, to the music we are studying and performing. Instead of numbing our senses, we need to open them as much as we can. We need to hear, feel, and communicate as fully as possible. And we need to develop a technique that is fully at our service for doing that.
How can you develop this kind of technique? You can begin by slowing down enough for your awareness to open. Enough for you to hear and feel more deeply than you may usually allow yourself to.
If you’re in the habit of racing and pushing and forcing your body to do things that aren’t really comfortable, it can be hard to pull the reins on yourself and break that habit. Speed and clenched muscles can seduce us sometimes—we might think that all of our intense exertion means we’re doing great work and getting closer to our goals. But the rewards of pulling the reins on ourselves—of making the mental effort it takes to slow down the speed ship we are on and to turn it in a new direction—are more than worth it. When we take charge of ourselves in this way, we begin to discover whole new territories in ourselves and in the music we play.
The Fear That Stands in Our Way
Often what stands in the way of our slowing down and paying attention to how we feel in our own bodies is fear of what we will find in these new territories. “If I really get off the fast track and notice how I am feeling inside, it will be endless. It will bring up all kinds of issues I haven’t been aware of. I won’t be able to handle it.” Or simply, “I don’t have time to slow down. If I go that slow, I won’t be able to accomplish all the things I want to. I’ll never get the piece up to speed.”
There’s a lot of intelligence in this kind of fear. Because when you actually do slow down, it’s very disorienting. There’s no way to know what you’ll find when you take a lot of time to hear and feel everything so fully. And you can’t know how long it will take you to acquire the speed you want, or even if you will acquire that speed. But if you don’t take the time to really take in all of the details, you’re missing the musical treasure that lies under the surface of your experience.
So I encourage you to find a good guide. A teacher you can trust. Even the right book can help you to stick with it and to explore the unknown territory inside of your own body and mind and in the music you love. This is what it means to grow as a musician and artist.
Steps on the Journey
Here are a few suggestions to help you switch your focus from speed to awareness:
1. Notice if you are afraid of never getting the music up to the speed you want. Sit with that fear for a minute or more. Just notice what it feels like in your body. The energy of the fear might start to grow bigger for awhile or to dissolve a little. Accept it as it is. If you think you don’t have time for this either, think a little more deeply. In order to rise above fear, we have to look squarely at it—to not be afraid of fear itself. Fear is energy that changes and is workable.
2. Mentally scan your body from the soles of your feet to the top of your head. Notice how each part of your body feels, and if certain parts feel more tense than others. You can let tension dissolve somewhat just by noticing it’s there.
3. Sit or stand comfortably upright and notice your breath as it goes in and out, for about two minutes. When your mind wanders from that, gently bring it back. Notice if your body gradually relaxes.
4. Take a moment to appreciate your motivation to practice. Notice if extending that appreciation to yourself helps your body relax further.
5. Choose a musical phrase or passage that you find somewhat difficult to play. When you put your hand on your instrument notice how it feels. Contact, skin, temperature. You are alive and you are touching your instrument. Or you are opening your mouth and making a musical sound with your voice from your own throat and body. Just focus on that concrete, physical act. Appreciate that you have this instrument. It allows you to connect to yourself, to the music, and to others.
6. Then play one sound and notice what happens in your body in response to hearing that sound. Really take time to focus on that. Many musicians are surprised how much they feel when they really put their attention on how a single sound affects them.
7. Play the phrase or passage extremely slowly, maintaining your awareness of the visceral effect of every sound and of the sensations of touch and movement in your playing mechanism and whole body.
8. When you notice discomfort or tension, either physical or mental, be curious about it. Where is it coming from? What part of your playing mechanism or of your whole body is feeling it? Are you feeling it in more than one place in your body? If you feel tension in your forearm, for instance, notice if you also feel any tension in your torso or legs. If you slow down further, is the tension still there? Can you consciously let that part of your body relax?
9. Do you feel like you need help with exactly how you are using your body? If so, what kind of help would you seek, and where do you think you could find it?
10. Notice if any thoughts come up that get in the way of maintaining your curiosity, such as, “It will take too much time for me to figure this out.” Or, “Why rock the boat? It’s good enough already. It’s fine.” Or, there’s just something missing in me. I’m just not that talented, and I have to live with it.” Or, “It will take too long to find the help that might be out there.” Or, “It will be too expensive.” All of these thoughts are limiting your possibilities. There is always a way to find more help and to acquire more ease, skill, and comfort in playing your instrument. You can start with finding a teacher who offers an initial consultation, perhaps for free. Ask people you know for recommendations, or check out the teachers in the margin of this e-zine. Getting an assessment from an expert can make all the difference. Don’t have the money? First find the teacher, then see if there’s any way to work out some kind of exchange or special arrangement. Or ask if they can recommend a teacher who has trained with them and can teach you a similar approach.
Are You Kidding?
You may be wondering if all these steps are necessary every time you practice. If you’re not used to being very aware of how you feel in your own body while practicing, you may need to consciously take these steps every day for a while. But eventually, the awareness you gain will become more of a habit, and you will find yourself automatically practicing with more awareness and ease. It’s very individual, and you have to try it and see what happens.
OK. Your ship is beginning to slow down and turn around now, and you are discovering new things—about technique, about yourself, about your instrument. Be prepared for more surprises. You are already opening yourself up to a world of new possibilities. It might be scary at times, but to my mind, it beats sitting around in your comfortable cocoon of habits, pretending that deep down inside you don’t want to find out how beautifully you can really play. And if you stick with it, you’ll also have a much better chance at fast and loud, because your body will open up more and more from all this attention you are giving it.
Bon Voyage! And if any questions come up for you in this amazing journey, I’d be delighted to hear from you.
I wish you much joy and success.
P.S. There are only five spots left for performing participants in our summer program, which is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get out of the fast lane and open everything up in your practicing and performing. If you’re ready for an amazing transformative experience, check it out.
Q & A of the Month
I noticed that you title your summer program Mindfulness, Confidence, and Performance. What’s the connection between those things?
It’s the combination of the intensive week of practicing these various techniques. both with and without your instrument, and the synergy of doing it with a community of other musicians who are all in the same boat that really makes it all work. There’s nothing like it.
If you have any more questions, please feel free to contact me again.