I woke up Saturday morning after dreaming I had discovered a whole new place at the south end of Manhattan, where people lived on quiet streets near a wide, curved beach that looked out on a vast expanse of water, no land in sight. It was spacious and peaceful, and yet right here as part of our chaotic city.
I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this place before. I had a sense of caution as a city dweller—I didn’t know how safe it was to be walking around on the empty streets I found there. Nevertheless, I was so happy to find that this open space was right here in New York, where I live. When I woke up from this dream I felt deeply rested and refreshed, completely positive about the days ahead of me.
We do dream about places like that. And we seek them out for our vacations. Some people even live in such places. We all need the inspiration and refreshment of wide open space and clear air, peace and quiet.
The dream carried the message that such a place is actually accessible in my own mind and heart every day—I just have to remember that I carry it within me, and that I can always find ways to let go of tension, worry, and stress. In the middle of chaos, I can stop for a minute, take a deep breath or two, and let my mind and body relax.
OK. It’s true that sometimes it can take a while to relax in this way. Life is definitely very challenging at times. But we can still make it a practice to recognize when we feel tense, sympathize with ourselves for how difficult that is, and take time to breathe. In tough situations, we might need to take a walk, or talk to a friend or therapist who gives us additional sympathy and understanding, or fresh insight into our situation, in order to attain some peace of mind. And if our problem runs deep, we might even need to do some specific healing work.
But in any case, we have a fundamental ability to relax our mind and to open up to a fresh perception of our experience. And we may also realize that this kind of openness and freshness are the source of creativity and of high quality work.
What This Means for Musicians
So in our work as musicians, how can we relax and open up more often? How can we feel a fresh sense of inspiration when we’re tense and frustrated during practicing a piece and are a million miles away from the moment when we first fell in love with it?
Let’s look at some of what’s standing in our way.
The Speed Trap
I recently worked with an ensemble to help them bring more vitality to their playing. Although the piece was marked Molto allegro, I had them relax the tempo a little and focus on the interplay between notes and rests, so they could feel the lightness and playfulness of the music more. Then I helped them use basic principles of rhythmic organization in one section to make the music move forward with more energy. Within a short time, their playing really started to perk up.
But the violinist, who was new to my teaching, commented that it was getting too slow. I explained to him that we were engaging in a process—that when we let go of our concepts and look at a piece of music from different angles, we can discover things we couldn’t hear before. We have to dismantle it so that it can then come together with its full, living energy.
As I continued to work with the group, their playing became more and more energized. Then we ran out of time. I wished I had been able to help the violinist appreciate the transformation he had accomplished in the session more. But the other players, and everyone observing them work, really appreciated how the music had come to life.
Gaining Admission to the World of Your Own Hidden Abilities
The many rests that Beethoven had written in that playful section of music were an opportunity for the ensemble members to let themselves breathe, and to breathe life into the piece. But as often happens when musicians are caught up in their ideas of how a piece should go, they needed a new perspective in order to take advantage of that opportunity to lighten up and play with more joy and vitality.
It takes training, and a willingness to look beyond our habits, to find the magic that lies within the music that’s in front of us. But it’s always there, waiting for us to discover it. And finding our way to it is what the Art of Practicing is about.
I encourage you to look further into this approach. Here are some suggestions for how to go about this.
1. Read The Art of Practicing—or if you’ve already read it, try reading parts of it again. Then spend some time not practicing in your usual way, but instead, just experiment with one of the practical—yet magical— techniques described in the book. Chapter 11 in particular delves into the whole amazing subject of rhythmic organization, which is what I was helping the ensemble work with in the story I related above.
2. Try practicing a frustrating section much slower than you feel like practicing it—in fact, twice as slow is often a good idea. And use that slowness as an opportunity to notice how the sounds are affecting you. And how your body is feeling. If you notice tension somewhere in your body, breathe into that place and see if you can release some of the tension.
3. Seek guidance from a teacher who is trained in the Art of Practicing. This simply makes sense—you can get only so much from a book! You need someone who has experience with the approach to actually watch and hear you play, to help you recognize what habits are standing in your way, and to show you how to get past these habits and attain a more musical result with less effort.
And if you study online, you can learn this approach from just about anywhere in the world!
The teachers on the faculty of the Art of Practicing Institute have all had significant training in teaching this approach.
4. If you really want to grow and make it fun, join our wonderful, supportive community of open minded musicians by coming to our summer program this July, or by participating in our Live Online Workshops.
Are you willing to make your dream come true?
Beyond these four suggestions, the first and most important thing is to ask yourself if you really believe you can make music the way you want to. And if you’re willing to try. The goal may look distant—maybe even impossible to reach. But many musicians have already gone further than they thought possible by learning this approach. So you too can reach a new place of free musical expression.
Feel free to contact me, or any of our faculty members, if you’d like to know more about how the Art of Practicing might help you make the music you long to make. Whoever you are, we’re here to serve you, and it’s the uniqueness of every individual musician that makes the work interesting and exciting for us.
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!
P.S. Deep down, what is your real desire as a musician? What do you dream of when you let yourself get truly inspired about possibilities for yourself, even if they seem impossible? If you’d like to have a conversation about those possibilities and how you could make them realities, please let me know. I’d be delighted to talk to you.
Q & A of the Month
You’ve written a lot about how important it is to have a supportive community of musicians. I do have a couple of musician friends who encourage me and don’t judge me. Is there more to it than that?
It’s wonderful that you have a couple of friends like that. That kind of acceptance and warmth is so necessary for us as artists and human beings.
It can be even more wonderful to have a whole community of musician friends who are willing to be vulnerable along with you in going through a powerful new learning process in which everyone grows and changes, becoming more of who they really want to be as artists and people. This is what happens in our community at the Art of Practicing Institute—at the summer program and in the live online workshops. We feel we’re in a culture of genuineness—that we have a safe place where we can really open up, let go of habits that aren’t serving us, and take brave steps forward into unfamiliar territory.
Feeling safe and welcome like this cultivates trust in yourself. It helps you relax and let go of your familiar approaches to practicing and performing, so you can discover happier and more exciting ways of being a musician. Then you start believing more in your musical future.
So first you need the community to support you in your learning process. And then you need them to celebrate with you, each step of the way, as your playing opens up more, and as you begin to feel more free and confident in making music.
Many people come into this community having had painful experiences among other musicians, sometimes including their teachers. They’re looking for something different—for an approach that doesn’t focus primarily on getting results, like learning a lot of repertoire or winning a competition, but that provides an authentic process and leads to real breakthroughs. People find out they can play better than they realized.
It’s both exciting and calming to freely explore music with other people as we do. We’re all learning together, and it’s very creative and personal. It’s similar to traveling with friends—you’re going to this wonderful new place and sharing new experiences with like-minded people.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be pretty challenging to try a new approach to practicing and performing, or even to working out a single passage in a piece of music. But as you start to get the hang of it, it becomes fun, and extremely interesting.
When you go to a foreign country, you need to learn at least some of the language. But the main thing you learn is that the people in that new place are human beings just like you. So you discover new ways of doing things, but at the same time, you experience a wonderful sense of shared humanness that is very uplifting. It warms your heart. It strengthens your belief in humanity and your trust in your ability to feel at home in the world.
We each need different things to feel at home. For me personally, and for the musicians in our community, the particular culture that has developed from sharing this magical yet practical process of working with music with open-minded musicians is glorious. We feel so lucky.