(This article was first published in Performing Beyond Fear e-zine in March 2013.)
By his third lesson with me, Michael, a gifted young pianist, had already begun to get familiar with the new physical approach I was teaching him. His hands were no longer tense, and he had freed up his wrists, arms, and shoulders a lot also. But when he finished playing his Bach prelude, he said he wasn’t satisfied with how his hands felt—he wanted his movements to feel more fluid. I knew that for his hands to move more fluidly, he needed to start focusing less on technique and more on the music. He had accomplished the first step—of acquiring basic, efficient coordination—and he was ready to refine his coordination by opening up more to the beauty and flow of the music. I also knew that by tuning in more to the sounds he was making, he would play with more sensitivity and expressiveness.
To help Michael relate more strongly to the music, I suggested that he sing the left hand part of the opening phrase while playing the right hand part. If you’ve ever tried doing this, you know it takes some effort; it requires you to fully hear two musical lines at the same time. But Michael has a well-developed ear, and he did it remarkably well. Next, I asked him to repeat the same process, but to pay close attention to each harmonic interval he played, and to notice how it affected him inside. He went more slowly this time, taking time to focus intently on each harmony. Finally, I asked him to just play the phrase with both hands and notice how it sounded. The music became vibrantly beautiful, and his face lit up in a dazzling smile. “It’s music!” he exclaimed in delight. I asked him if he could explain what he meant, but he was at a loss for words. “That’s all I can say. It’s music!” His joy and excitement touched me. It was as though he had just run into a long lost friend.
What Michael experienced at that moment was something that had only occasionally happened to him in the past. As he described it later, “I didn’t intellectualize about what I was playing. I just heard it. I felt it.” He got out of his head and in touch with his hearing on a deep level. For all the years and countless hours he had spent practicing, he had an unusual experience in that moment of the real, visceral power of making music. He had indeed run into a long lost friend.
Our Birthright as Musicians
All of us, as musicians, are born with a special ability to respond to sound. Our love for music is more intense than other people’s—so intense that we feel compelled to become intimate with music by producing the sound with our instrument and our own body. Yet, like Michael, in the innumerable hours we spend mastering our instrument and learning repertoire, we often lose our intense connection with music and start running on automatic pilot. We get caught up in trying to meet performance deadlines, or in pushing ourselves to play pieces at full tempo. Or we mindlessly run through a piece, thinking it sounds just fine and ignoring the fact that we actually feel no great joy in the act. And sometimes, as Michael later said about a lot of his previous practicing, we try to imitate what we’ve heard on recordings, forgetting that we can think and listen for ourselves—that we can make a genuine, personal connection to the music we’re playing and really release our vital, creative energies.
In short, although we work so hard practicing our instruments, we often don’t receive the tremendous nourishment that music can provide. And it’s often because we don’t take time to deeply drink in the sounds we’re producing. We put out more than we take in. In doing so, we neglect our needs as artists and as human beings—our need to engage fully with music and to truly express ourselves. As a result, quality suffers—the quality of our playing, and the quality of our musical lives.
To add insult to injury, we often assume that the reason we don’t feel satisfied with how we’re playing is that we’re still not working hard enough. Or that we’re not talented enough. Or both.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
How Practicing Really Works
Of all people, we musicians need to reclaim our birthright to enjoy music, as we’re making it. We need to enjoy it to the fullest extent possible. Of course, we need to work to develop technical ease, but if we want to have something truly wonderful to give to an audience, we also need to focus much more than we usually do on enjoying the miraculous reality of musical sounds
Michael’s hands did move much more fluidly when his ears were more engaged with the music he was playing. But more importantly, the sound he produced was vibrantly alive—it was infused with his personal energy. And even more important than both of these results, Michael learned a core lesson about being a true musician: he learned how to have such joyous experiences more often. He met the power of his own mind—the amazing power of paying full attention to music as he was making it.
Michael told me later that although he had had moments of vividly hearing music while practicing slowly in the past, he had never realized that slowness was a key to this experience. After that lesson, he deliberately practiced more slowly, and had repeated experiences of this intense connection with music. But then he often found himself reverting to his habit of playing fast, and stopped enjoying the music. “It’s a weird impetus to play fast,” he said. “It’s much more personal the other way.”
So How Do You Learn to Play Fast?
The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds. In other words, practicing is as much about training our ears as it is about training our muscles.
The Surprising Ability of Your Own Mind
In last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space, I described the simple technique of mindfulness-awareness meditation, which allows your mind to slow down and settle into a natural clarity and receptiveness. Doing this technique for even a few minutes can help tremendously in clearing mental and emotional space for experiencing the pure joy of genuinely making music.
At the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program, and in our ongoing live online workshops, we do this kind of meditation regularly, in addition to other highly efficient practices to increase natural receptiveness and creativity for making music. I invite you to join us!
Musician, Heal Thyself
I also invite you to take a moment now to think about your relationship with music and with your instrument. Remember the first time you felt the desire to make music, and ask yourself how that desire has played out in your musical life. The next time you’re about to practice, stop for a minute. Look at your instrument (or if you’re a singer, visualize it), and reflect on how miraculous it is.
Who made it? How? What is it made of? Where did those materials come from? How many years of evolution went into the instrument that you are fortunate to possess right now?
Think further: Who wrote the music you’re about to play? When did they live? What did they go through to learn to write such music? How many years has it survived, with its meaning still intact?
And further: How do all the parts of your body contribute to the sound you produce with your instrument? How long has it taken you to learn to make those sounds as well as you can now? How many millennia of human evolution are behind the physical and mental capacities you were born with to make music?
Take at least a minute to reflect on all of these things.
Now. Pause for a moment. Listen to the silence. Feel the energy in your body as you’re about to make the first sound. Open your heart to the music, Then make that first sound.
How did you like it?
Can you imagine continuing to practice with this kind of connection to the music?
I hope that this simple exercise will help you discover that it really isn’t so hard to get back in touch with who you are as a musician, and with the amazing opportunity you have to practice your instrument. Enjoy it, while you can. As often and as fully as you can. You and your audience will benefit.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. If you’re ready to open up your playing on a new level and to find out how to become more of the musician you’re meant to be, I invite you to contact me with any questions you might have about the summer program, the live online workshops, or individual sessions in the Art of Practicing and Performing. I’ll be happy to help you decide if one of these options is right for you.
Q&A of the Month
I have trouble solving technical problems when I’m playing romantic music. I get so wrapped up in it emotionally that I typically don’t even realize my hands are tense till my teacher points it out. How can I practice romantic music and be more aware of my body at the same time?
This is a great question, one which many musicians grapple with. Passion for romantic music is a great strength to have, but we also need to develop command of our passionate energy so that it doesn’t sweep us away into destructive habits. I think a lot of practice-related injuries develop from this particular issue.
Working with passionate energy is very challenging. It’s also one of the most important disciplines for a musician. We’re in love with music, and we have to continually expand our ability to relate to it with understanding and receptivity, rather than overwhelming it with our emotional intensity. It’s very much like loving another person.
Once we understand this fundamental issue, we can relax with our intensity and appreciate it as a good thing, yet also continually remind ourselves to pay closer attention to musical and technical details—because that’s where success and fulfillment lie. One surprisingly helpful thing is to begin every practice session with two minutes of just sitting still and noticing your breathing, as described in last month’s article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space. It clears your mind and slows down the nervous system so you can relate to the music from a less stressed place.
Sometimes playing a passage twice as slowly as you want to can reveal amazing things in the music and in your technical approach. Even if you think this will be boring, applying your attention to what you’re doing can bring incredible awareness and joy, expanding the musical result.
It’s also essential to find out if your technical approach is completely efficient. If you have any questions at all about whether or not your coordination is totally natural, seek out the most expert advice you can find. Some teachers are known for this. And if you consult a technique expert, be sure to ask lots of questions and to trust your own experience with the techniques they show you.
You can’t really separate technique from music, and an interesting thing can happen if you forget about the music for a moment and deliberately focus on the mechanics of producing the sound: Very often, more music actually comes through, because your body moves more freely when you lighten up your approach.
On the other hand, playing extremely slowly and noticing how each sound affects you inside can work a profound change in your practicing. It can help you work less hard, because you become more receptive and less active. This listening technique is described in Chapter 10 of my book, The Art of Practicing.
The best advice might be to try practicing everything more slowly for a week or more. Just give your body and mind a chance to operate with more physical comfort. Then, when you go back to playing faster, try to make comfort your top priority, and really focus on that. Whenever you realize that you’re less than completely comfortable, slow down and try to notice exactly where the discomfort is. See if you can let go of the tension in that part of your body. In this way you can take care of your body, just as you take care of the instrument you play. Remember that your body is an instrument—a precious one.
You’re welcome to set up a free consultation with me, in person or online, to get my feedback on your technical issues and to talk about next steps that are right for you.