On doing our real best

12:33 pm Music, Oud

Practicing, studying with a great teacher of our instrument, studying music in general (theory, ear training, analysis), and listening to a lot of good music all the time, are the sure ways to improve the music we make.

Studying, practicing, and listening are activities that bring tremendous benefits to us from the outside. In this essay I would like to explore factors from within and that are within our control at any given moment, that limit our performance abilities.

Here are a few questions that are valid at any stage in our development as musicians.

  1. Are we, at any given moment, playing the best music we can play?
  2. Are we using all the skills that we already have or just a small fraction of them?
  3. If not, how can we at any given moment produce the best music we can produce?

Answering these questions is important not just for the obvious reason of making the best music we can make. It is important because it is the how we define and refine our style, voice, and musical identity. Otherwise, we maybe practicing forever, only to become great imitators. You see, even the greatest grand masters evolve. Not just early on in their career, but throughout their career.

Here is an experiment.

Record yourself playing a piece you play well.

Listen to the recording a few times. Can you think of any things you can improve? Anything bothers you about it? Have you heard any of the problems that your teacher pointed out? Can you think of ways to improve the piece that are within reach (in other words need only a limited amount of practice to perfect)?

Now work on those improvements and record again.

Listen again a few times and find even more improvements.

After a few rounds, a few observations may be made:

  1. There is a lot that we hear when we listen to a recording that we don’t hear when we are actually playing.
  2. A lot of the comments from the teacher are actually things we can hear ourselves. (Solutions to some problems may be good question to ask the teacher in the next lesson).
  3. When we play, we hardly ever do our best. Things always improve after we record, listen, and fix problems.

Why does this happen? It is not because we can’t hear what we play when we play it (if you can hear a consistently out of tune note, or a clumsy transition in your recording, then you have the musicianship to hear it while you’re playing). It is because of the state that we are in when we play.

There are a few behavioral patterns that a lot of musicians fall into, even really good musicians, that undermine their creativity and ability to produce music that is organic and well balanced.

Essentially what is happening in our experiment is that we are observing how when we play we are not the same people we are when we listen: We are falling into a behavioral pattern that makes us not hear and/or react the same way as when we listen. We also don’t feel the same way.

Why? I guess everyone’s reasons are different but here are a few common themes.

  1. Listening not to what we’re playing but to what we want the thing to sound like.
  2. Listening only to specific details, usually the things which we don’t have but we’re trying to have in the piece, as opposed to the piece as music.
  3. No listening at all, letting our mind drift to other things.
  4. Compromising on some aspects until other aspects of the piece are OK. For example, students report that when they are working on a fast run, they don’t worry about the instrument being in tune until they have the run down. The compromises then become habits. Go quit a habit.

How can we change those patterns? I will try to attack this problem tomorrow.

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