by Madeline Bruser
When my daughter was younger I picked her up from school every day, and our walk home took us through Straus Park—a tiny, triangular patch of greenery and benches, wedged between two main avenues in our neighborhood in New York City. With its tall trees, brightly colored flowers, and graceful sculpture and fountain, the park is one of many small oases in the city where people stop to read the paper, eat lunch, or feed the pigeons. It soothes our spirits to be in this little green environment, even with traffic zooming nearby.
There are two main ways to walk from one end of the park to the other: in a straight line toward the fountain, or on a curved path that branches off to the right of the straight walkway, which takes a few extra seconds to travel. This curved path is shadier and has no benches on it. It feels more secluded and private, and I automatically slow down whenever I walk on it.
Early in my days of traveling this path I began to call it “The Scenic Route”—a reminder that in the middle of a hectic day, I can take time to relax and enjoy my surroundings. Those 15 seconds on the little curved path always have a magical effect on me.
I often think about the Scenic Route and how we can access such relaxation and emjoyment much more often than we usually think. One place to find it is in practicing our instrument.
Think for a moment about how you practice. Do you often plow through a piece in a driven state, focusing mainly on your destination—perhaps on getting the tempo up to “quarter note equals 144” on the metronome? Or do you notice the beauty of the sounds you’re making and let yourself revel in all of them?
Do you make a bee-line for a flawless performance, holding yourself strictly to playing all the right notes in perfectly shaped phrases? Or do you let yourself be more human and creative, taking time to experiment with different qualities of sound and different approaches to phrasing, pedaling, or dynamics?
Do you clench your muscles in an effort to mold the music to your will, or do you allow your body to relax a little and touch the keys with care and sensitivity?
We get caught in so many habits that take us off the Scenic Route in our practicing and prevent us from enjoying ourselves and discovering a wide range of musical possibilities.
But we always have a choice. We can watch for these habits and let go of them. We can take the Scenic Route and transform our practicing into a rich and deeply rewarding time.
Here are a few practice room characters that you may sometimes identify with, along with some suggestions for how to break away from them.
The Clarity Fiend
You’ve been trying for days to bring out all the voices in a dense section of a Bach fugue. It seems impossible to get two hands to delineate four voices. You try playing one voice louder than the others, but your hands feel tense and awkward. They won’t move comfortably. You try changing the fingering. You try pedaling more often, or not pedaling at all. You try focusing on an image the music reminds you of, or deliberately altering the tonal quality of certain notes. But although these approaches may have worked with similar passages in the past, nothing seems to work with this one. Each approach you try only brings more frustration
What if you let go of all your ideas, and just focus on an individual line, sing it, and really get clear on how it affects you? Let yourself fully enjoy its shape. Then try singing that line while playing other lines, and notice how subtle and full the texture is. Then switch to singing a different line, using the same approach. Try different combinations of lines in the same way—give yourself a tour of the inner workings of the passage, hearing it from many angles.
If you genuinely explore the passage this way, with your ears wide open, it will gradually reveal itself to you—because instead of viewing it as a nasty problem, you have brought genuine curiosity to it and taken time to get to know it thoroughly. You soon find that you hold a little treasure in your hands—a gift from the mind of J.S. Bach.
The Great Virtuoso
Here’s another famous character: You’re driving a Chopin ballade a hundred miles an hour, modeling yourself after a great virtuoso you admire. The ferocity feels exhilarating, until you realize you don’t sound like that virtuoso. And you feel tense and exhausted trying.
How about getting off the highway and slowing down to a leisurely pace for a while? In fact, why not park the car, get out, and take a walk? Let yourself breathe. Then get back into your vehicle and see what it’s like to sit down, peruse the score, and take a look at a phrase that catches your interest, before you take off again at full speed.
Begin slowly. Do you notice anything you didn’t see or hear before? How do your hands feel when you dip them into those big chords more gently than before? What kinds of sounds and sensations do you notice? Slowly string a series of chords together and see if they make sense in a new way. What does it feel like to hear one harmony on one beat and a different one on the next beat?
Make the choice to let speed come naturally, after you’ve let yourself go into the piece in more depth. Find out how you play when you follow your spontaneous interests instead of rushing yourself or trying to sound as you think you should.
The Mad Artist
And one more example: You’re practicing a piece you love. You love it to death. Your passion propels you into a frenzy in which you squeeze every note for all it’s worth, until your arms and shoulders start to get tense. You don’t care. You must express your passion at all costs!
Your coordination starts to suffer, and certain notes fall by the wayside. You begin to bear a striking resemblance to the mad artists you’ve heard about, tearing out your hair and cursing under your breath. Someone knocks on your door, and you practically scream at them.
Ah—the temperamental, Passionate Musician! Don’t we all identify with this one?
Passion makes our musical world go ‘round. But we need to be in command with passion—to feel it fully, but not to be so ruled by it that we lose our balance and get tied up in knots.
Let’s Try That Again
Start again, with more relaxed hands and arms. And then take a more spacious, receptive approach: Instead of squeezing out those achingly beautiful sounds, drink them in. You don’t have to devour them all at once.
Play one sound at a time, and savor it slowly. Notice that if you let it, it can fill your whole body. Then notice how the next one fills you with a different feeling or color. Settle down in your seat and notice what comes in when you’re less active and more receptive.
Giving Our Desires Space
Our strong desires—for clarity, virtuosity, or emotional intensity—are not a problem. In fact, they are the precious raw material that fuels our practicing. But our discipline as musicians is very much about taming, refining, and developing these desires—mastering them—so that they can fully serve our purpose in bringing out the depth of expressive power in the music we love.
When we give our intense energies more room to breathe, we discover what they can really do. We begin to really play when we practice.
So try taking the Scenic Route the next time you practice, and open yourself up to a wealth of unexpected joy.
I wish you much joy and success with making music.
P.S. I invite you to find your own special Scenic Route in your practicing by scheduling an in-person or Skype session with me.
Q & A of the Month
My cello teacher has started teaching me a whole new technical approach to the instrument, and I find it extremely challenging to change my way of playing. I know her ideas are good, but I feel very discouraged that suddenly a piece I’ve already finished, that I can already play, has to be completely redone. How can I stop feeling so discouraged?
You are not alone. Every musician who has been brave enough to make a big change in their physical approach to their instrument goes through a psychological change along with the physical one.
It’s great that you believe in your teacher’s ideas. You need real trust in a teacher to put yourself through a process that requires so much concentration and patience. But with the right teacher, this process is more than worth it. As long as the physical changes are integrated with deep musical awareness, the work takes you on a journey toward the development of your full musical potential.
Ask your teacher to introduce you to other students who have gone through a similar change. When we meet people who have taken the same journey we’re on, they can reassure us that everything we’re going through—the doubt, the impatience, the discouragement, the giving up of familiar ways of practicing—is normal. You can compare notes with them and find out that the stage you’re in now, in which certain movements feel new and awkward, is something that they went through too, and that it’s a necessary phase on the way to freedom and mastery.
Most of all, appreciate yourself for having the courage to take this very important step in your training. Many people settle for less and never find out how wonderfully they could really play. Have faith in your intelligence, that it took you to this teacher’s studio for a good reason. And know that it won’t be that long before a newer student of hers is coming to you and asking how you stuck with it and learned to play so well.
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