This was probably the single most frequent comment I received from almost every teacher or artist I ever played for.
In hindsight, it’s pretty embarassing. It means that I (a) hadn’t taken the time to really look at the score and develop any ideas, (b) hadn’t taken the time to make any decisions, and (c) was a big ‘ol wimp.
To be fair, under pressure, we tend to err on the side of caution. We play safe, even tentatively, so as to avoid making any mistakes, or calling attention to ourselves.
But the result is not the solid, secure, respectable technical playing we hope for. What we end up with is boring, unremarkable, and forgettable playing that inspires nobody, least of all ourselves.
Of course, none of us enjoy making mistakes or being wrong, especially in a public setting. But great artists are willing to take this chance and jump off the cliff time and time again.
How can we train ourselves to stop being such scaredy-cats?
Learning to trust ourselves
The mental part is actually pretty straightforward. We just have to prove to ourselves over time that we can trust ourselves to let go and that the world will not end if we do.
Start by taking a piece of music, or an excerpt that is pretty high energy. Something like the opening of the Brahms violin concerto, or the Dvorak cello concerto.
Press record on your recording device, and then go for broke. Do too much. Really turn your energy, focus, and emotional intensity up to 10, even if it’s a lyrical passage. That doesn’t mean forcing your sound, pressing more, doing weird and outrageous things, or distorting what’s in the score. It just means intensifying whatever it is that your intention for that section is.
Listen back to the recording. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being you really played freely like you meant it, what was your score? Could you have done more? More intensity? More extra something special on the high note? No safe, generic, middle-of-the-road, uncommitted, or vanilla playing allowed.
Recommit to really going for it, and keep playing that phrase or section until you can get consistent 9’s or 10’s.
The importance of going too far
Generally, we are best off increasing our courage by taking baby steps. But in this case, you want to do the opposite. You want to go too far, such that your teacher or coach would tell you to tone it down a bit. Far easier to go too far and take a bit off, than to keep creeping closer and closer but never quite getting there.
Remember too that your ears will deceive you. Meaning, because you already know what to expect, you’re going to be more likely to hear it even when it’s really subtle. Play for a stranger though, and they will be hard pressed to notice what you are trying to say.
I went to a chamber music workshop in Israel hosted by Isaac Stern a number of years ago, and one of the main messages we left with was the importance of taking our ideas and making our intentions ultra clear; or “hitting the listener over the head with a 2×4” as one of them put it. Not because the audience is so dense, but because a lot gets lost in the distance between us and them, and we need to be extraordinarily clear if we want them to really hear and be convinced by what it is that we are trying to say.
And yes, this is as draining and exhausting as it sounds. Playing like you mean it is a lot of work. If performing feels too easy, you’re probably still holding back.
But it sounds worse!
At first, you may indeed find that when you play at the edges of your ability, you sound worse. What’s happening is that you are being made aware of where your weak areas are. That’s because playing safe and “vanilla” is easy; playing out like you really mean it takes more highly developed technique.
This might mean going back to the drawing board and ironing out some technical details, but when you get those figured out, you won’t be able to go back to playing easy, safe, and boring. You simply won’t see the point. And besides, it’s not nearly as fun.
The one-sentence summary
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” ~Helen Keller