At a recent lesson with me on a virtuosic piece by Liszt, Evan saw that he was creating unnecessary tension in his arms by holding his elbows out. As soon as he he let them relax, he began playing with tremendous freedom, and brilliant energy leapt out of the piano. “Wow!” I said. “That was incredible!” But when I asked how it felt to him to play with so much freedom, he said, “Weird!“ He felt like he “wasn’t doing anything”—that because he wasn’t putting out so much effort, he wasn’t really expressing himself.
Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the experience of letting go of so much tension, and during the following week he tried practicing with less effort.
He came into his next lesson both curious and a little confused. When he began playing, I saw that he had gone a little bit to the other extreme: He was making too much effort to play without effort! So his playing had less life instead of more.
I explained to Evan that I wasn’t trying to take away his natural energy—that in fact, I was trying to liberate it.
Then I asked him to go back to his old way of playing the piece, without trying to be effortless. And although he then played with more energy, it didn’t sound nearly as exciting as it had after his breakthrough the week before. Now he didn’t know what to do.
But I could tell that if he spent some time listening to the piece in detail, he would connect more deeply to the music, and it could really come alive.
I asked him to sing the left hand of a complex section of the piece while playing the right hand. It was great to see him take time to really listen to what was written on the page. He stopped a few times to get the right pitches, and his face often registered surprise—as though he was hearing things for the first time. After he went through the section this way a few times, I asked him to play it again with two hands and just notice what he was hearing.
I was amazed by what I heard—I didn’t know the piece could sound that beautiful. Every harmony and texture came through so brilliantly. The music was completely transformed. And Evan’s face list up in a huge smile.
I’m really looking forward to Evan’s next lesson, and to all of his future playing. This listening work has unlocked a treasure for him. And all of us who get to hear him will benefit.
There’s nothing like actually hearing the music we’ve been given. It takes time to listen deeply. But it is truly the shortcut to great music making. And we have that opportunity every time we practice!
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!