Playing our real best (part 3)

2:40 pm Music

We’ve talked about the problem. We also talked about the behavioral patterns, habits, and feelings at play that are related to the problem, and now we talk a little about trying to deal with the problem.

First, a cautionary note. Many aspects of this subject are unique to each of us. Like I said earlier these are issues that I dealt with in my own experience as well as ones I encountered with students and colleagues.

So we’ve discussed three types of behaviors causing and or connected with the problem.

The first type was playing mindlessly, focusing on a small (usually technically challenging) part of the piece, or hearing the voices of different critics during the music making process. I lumped those together into one category because I am of the view that they can all be used to improve the music making process. I am also of the view that they are very similar in a few respects. Perhaps if we start from the similarities we can develop strategies for dealing with them.

For one thing, they all relieve us from a large part of responsibility of being a musician. In the case of playing mindlessly, we are simply denying that anything beyond mechanical motion is required for playing music. In the case of hearing the voices of critics, we are trying to use the judgments of others to override our own. In the case of focusing on a small (usually technically challenging aspect of the piece), well that takes us back to the mechanical motion conviction of mindlessness.

OK. So what are we going to do about it? Well. Let’s do an experiment:

Have a pen and notebook ready, we’re going to start a journal. Now we’re going to choose an excerpt to practice, it should be about 8 measures long or 30 seconds long in duration in performance tempo.Choose an excerpt you’re working on, that you know fairly well. (In other words, not a brand new piece that you haven’t yet played ever.) Make sure the room is quiet when you’re practicing.

The first thing we’re going to do is record ourselves playing the excerpt. Don’t take too much time doing this, just turn on the recording and play the excerpt. Then stop the recording. Don’t listen to what you’ve just recorded, for now.

Now let’s set a metronome to about quarter the tempo that the piece needs to be played in (yes that’s sadly slow). Let’s play the excerpt focusing on staying with the metronome. Play the excerpt a few times in a row, at least 10 times. Now stop and write down your observations about the excerpt such as how you’re going to play certain notes, what expressions, dynamics, difficulties (at quarter the tempo, there shouldn’t be many).

Now, set the metronome to a faster tempo, perhaps half the performance tempo and play the excerpt again a few times back to back implementing the comments that you wrote down and perhaps noticing other changes that need to be made.

Now let’s set the tempo to the performance tempo, do the process again.

Now let’s record the final excerpt.

Listen to both recording, the before and after. Any difference?

I have a theory about why that works. By slowing the piece down to a deadly slow tempo, we reduced the rate of the information that the brain has to process thus giving it more time to process it. The task became that much easier. We didn’t need any distractions to absolve us of the responsibility of dealing with the music because the task became that much easier and more manageable. Here is another tip. Make it your goal to make your excerpt a sort of a Taj Mahal. Of course, you may take advice from your critics voices on things like what color a certain wall needs to be or what fruit tree goes where in the garden. But ultimately, it is your perfect building.

Do this process regularly. With every new excerpt you’re working on. With old pieces too. Slow them down and play them repeatedly until you hear the sound of their architecture.

More to come..

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