I can’t remember if I’ve told this story here before or not, but the first time I played for Dr. Suzuki, he remarked that when his eyes were closed, I sounded great. But when he opened his eyes…I didn’t sound so great.
Indeed, although I hear I was a pretty rambunctious and chatty little kid, apparently, that part of me disappeared and turned into that guy from Ferris Bueller when I had a violin in my hands. LINK
Of course, audition and screening tapes were audio-only back in those days, so it didn’t matter if I looked like Droopy Dog in those kinds of performances. But now that video is a thing, does that mean we have to worry about how we look in our screening videos, video performances, and livestreams too?
Like, how much do our facial expressions or body movements, and the visual aspect of our performance really matter? Does this have a measurable impact on the listener’s experience? Or are musicians’ ears finely-tuned enough to make accurate judgments about a performance without being overly influenced by the physical movements of the performer?
The third movement of the E minor Shostakovich piano trio begins with the pianist playing a series of whole note chords, all by their lonesome, before the violin finally comes in at the end of bar eight.
The tricky thing, is that each of those whole notes is held for quite a long period of time. Like anywhere from 4 to 6 seconds per note or longer, depending on what tempo the group chooses to take. Which is a lot of time for your mind to play tricks on you and make you wonder exactly where to place that next note.
Or at least, that’s what I remember the pianist I played this with one summer stressing about before a performance…
In any case, that’s the first thing that came to mind when I was talking with a pianist recently who noted that the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel once said something to the effect that “When you play fast, you should think slow, and when you play slow, you should think fast.”
In essence, that when you have a lot of fast notes, it helps to think about the longer arc of the phrase, and when playing long notes, it helps to fill them in by thinking in terms of smaller subdivisions or pulses. And not for metronomic precision of course, but to facilitate playing in a more musically compelling way.
Indeed, this is something that is evident in Leon Fleisher’s teaching as well (who studied with Schnabel). You can hear him speak to this a bit in this master class from 2015 (starting at about 50:50 through about 1:05:00).
Countless other musicians have spoken about the value of subdividing too – but does it actually work? Like, if we have long notes or rests to deal with, and there’s no conductor or other player to cue us in or keep us from distorting time without realizing it, is there any research supporting the use of subdividing as an effective tool for maintaining more accurate time and rhythm?
As I think about all of the things I remember learning from my teachers over the years, it’s funny the things our brain chooses to remember – years, or even decades later.
I’m sure there have been countless moments over the years that were incredibly profound and valuable. But which have since been lost in some hidden corner of my brain or overwritten by some obscure Mario Kart shortcut that seemed vitally important at the time.
Yet I have a particularly vivid memory of a lesson when I was 12, where my teacher asked me to conduct the piece I was working on, while singing out loud.
Of course, I was so self-conscious about singing in front of my teacher, and trying so hard to conduct “correctly,” that the exercise didn’t really have the intended result. But I do remember that the idea behind this was for me to find a way to be more expressive – but in rhythm.
Similarly, violinist Catherine Cho noted in her podcast episode, that there was a time when she used to practice walking in different tempo markings, as a way of embodying or internalizing the pulse more deeply.
Likewise, horn player Julie Landsman (whose podcast episode also explores rhythm) encourages students to tap one’s foot to help feel the rhythm of a passage more in your body, rather than it remaining some abstract mental concept1.
And though I didn’t have a ton of exposure to eurhythmics/Dalcroze as a kid, I do remember taking part in a class or two at some point or another.
The common theme in all of these is a link between movement and timing/rhythm.
So…is this really a thing? Like, is there something about moving our bodies that helps us perceive time or rhythm more accurately?
Stressed and Having Difficulty Getting Out of a Negative Thought Spiral? Here’s How Mother Nature May Be Able to Help
Have you ever found yourself stuck in a negative loop of repetitive thoughts? Like when you mess something up in rehearsal, and start reliving the moment in your head on the drive home. Where it’s like your brain tries to figure out how bad it was (or wasn’t). Which leads to an attempt to interpret the ambiguous look the conductor gave you. And the body language and facial expressions of colleagues around you. As well as the brief interaction you had with a colleague after rehearsal, and what their seeming compliment about your playing really meant. Which leads you to start wondering if you’ll ever be asked to play with the orchestra again. And what people will think if you lose this gig. And so on and so on, inevitably ending up with you living in a van down by the river.
There are plenty of times when reflecting on the past, or planning for the future can be a good thing. But times like the scenario above, where we get stuck in our heads, thinking and rethinking a situation, analyzing and overanalyzing it to death? Yeah, that’s a whole other thing.
This sort of brooding, negative, spiraling thinking pattern is called rumination. It’s kind of like our mind’s version of doomscrolling, but using just the thoughts and images in our own heads, no phone necessary.
Indeed, with all of the uncertainty and change we experienced in 2020 (and whatever lies ahead in 2021), it can be easy to get lost in our own thoughts, and stuck in an endless list of what if’s or should have’s. Which makes us feel pretty crappy, and even more stressed out. Which in turn can set off a negative feedback loop, where the more we ruminate, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel the more we tend to ruminate.
This is not an especially enjoyable headspace to hang out in, of course, and can also make it harder to get stuff done. Never mind get into that zone, whether it’s practicing, reading a book, taking a class, or getting in your TRX workout, where we lose track of time, and for a brief moment, totally forget about whatever it was in our life that was stressing us out.
Of course, like trying to escape from quicksand, interrupting the rumination cycle can be easier said than done.
So what are we to do? Are there any proven ways to get ourselves into a better headspace on cue?
Einstein once said “Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow.”
This quote seems particularly fitting as we look forward to a 2021 that we hope will look very different from the year we just said goodbye to.
I mean, sure, we learned a ton in 2020 – but a lot of it was stuff that went way beyond what most of us ever expected to have to learn. Like how to optimize our audio for music lessons. What a pulse oximeter is. Or how quickly the dirty dishes pile up when everyone in the house stays home all day every day.
I don’t think anyone has any idea what exactly 2021 will look like, but hopefully, there will be opportunities to rehearse with our quartet-mates in a cramped practice room, eat subpar cafeteria food in a noisy and overcrowded dining hall, and perform for live audiences amid the distracting rustling of program notes, crunching of candy wrappers, and ringing of cell phones hiding at the very bottom of purses and hard-to-reach coat pockets.
All things that we probably complained about in 2019, but would take back in a heartbeat in 2021.
Of course, I think we learned a lot of things in 2020 that are intriguing and potentially transformative as well. For instance, from the various guests who have shared their wisdom with us on the podcast.
It may still be difficult to find the motivation to practice consistently with any sort of urgency and intensity for a little while yet, but as we embark on whatever journey may be in store for us as 2021 unfolds, I thought I’d share some ideas and strategies that will hopefully make your daily practice a little more satisfying. And make for more engaged performances too, when it becomes possible to rejoin our friends and colleagues, and make music for live audiences once again.