Do We Have to Suck All the Joy Out of Music in Order to Become Great?

When I started violin lessons as a kid, my mom began learning violin alongside me. Even as a 4-yr old kid, I could tell she wasn’t very good, but I still remember how much I enjoyed playing duets together.

I also remember how much fun the experience of playing with a pianist always was. Even playing Twinkle Twinkle as a group with the older kids doing some variation in the back row was a real treat.

You know that feeling? Where you feel lifted up somehow on the inside? It’s difficult to describe in words, but I think we’ve all experienced it…just not that often.

Why do we have such few experiences like this? Is this part of the natural progression of going from beginner to advanced to elite performer? Why does it even matter anyway?

Flow states

In his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi remarks upon music education, observing that “…too much emphasis is placed on how they perform, and too little on what they experience.”

Noting the example of pianist Lorin Hollander, who used to “get lost in ecstasy” when playing alone, but would “quake in sheer terror” when playing in front of teachers, he explains that “Parents who push their children to excel at the violin are generally not interested in whether the children are actually enjoying the playing; they want the child to perform well enough to attract attention, to win prizes, and to end up on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Parental expectations for musical behavior often create great stress, and sometimes a complete breakdown.”

This doesn’t describe every parent, teacher, or adult figure in a child’s musical development, of course.

And sure, it is essential to develop a discerning ear and strong technical foundation (which makes playing more fun).

But is it naive and idealistic to think that we can become great and still remember how to experience joy in the creation of sound and music?

Finding a balance

There are a couple reasons why I believe it’s worth our while to find a balance.

1) Flow and peak performance

Flow, or being in “the zone” is state of complete engagement and optimal experience, when we are completely immersed in the present moment. Associated with a higher level of performance, we often feel a sense of being completely in control, yet without actively controlling things. Here is how a dancer describes it:

“A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to effect something of grace and beauty.”

One of the hallmarks of an optimal experience is that the activity itself is the reward. Where the experience of playing, dancing, shooting, hitting, writing, speaking, or heck, even scrubbing the bathtub is an end in itself.

If we want to be able to achieve flow states, we have to – at least in that moment – let go of our preoccupation with secondary outcomes like impressing/disappointing others, winning/losing, and so on.

In other words, to maximize performance, we have to get better at enjoying the activity for it’s own sake.

2) Motivation

We’ve all heard of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Where you engage in an activity for its own sake as opposed to doing so in hopes of gaining some sort of external reward like a prize or attention.

Intuitively, we would think that intrinsic motivation would lead to better outcomes and results. But is this really the case?

Yep. Totally.

Across a range of studies in sports, intrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to better concentration, effort, sportsmanship, persistence, performance – and less anxiety. (Here’s a good primer on motivation in sport).

The interesting thing is when you look a little closer at how some psychologists have described intrinsic motivation, it starts to seem a little familiar.

One type of intrinsic motivation is the desire for knowledge – as in, working on a piece because it’s fun to learn new pieces. Another type of intrinsic motivation is the pleasure derived from getting better, overcoming technical challenges, and playing better than you did yesterday. And a third type is the satisfaction or thrill of the act of playing itself, and the process of making music.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow?

Take action

At the end of the day, it seems that geeking out about the experience of creating and making music, and being able to actually enjoy the act of playing and performing could be just as important a factor in becoming a great player as all the other nitty gritty details we obsess about.

To that end, how do you balance skill development and joy cultivation in your teaching? In your own practicing?

Do you have any favorite exercises or strategies that focus specifically on enhancing the experience and enjoyment of playing as Csikszentmihalyi describes above, so that students can ultimately reach a higher level of playing and performing?

I’d be curious to hear some ideas – share below in the comments!

photo credit: loungerie via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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37 Responses

  1. One of my students was doing good consistent work, but seemed to approach it like taking medicine – not really enthusiastically, but because Mom said. It didn’t help that posture was a challenge for him and we were talking about the same things week after week. This went on for some time, to the point where I was wondering if he was going to stick with it.

    At some point I decided to focus more on the joy of music with my students, because that’s the foundation of the desire to learn the nit picky details of it all. So at his next few lessons, I made a point of noticing when there was a particular song that he was kind of getting into, maybe even swaying a little to the beat, and I pointed it out and said that what I liked about how he played that song was that it looked like he was really enjoying himself and getting into the music.

    I think that little bit of positive reinforcement helped him a lot, because ever since then he’s been a lot more intrinsically motivated and seems to enjoy most all his songs. Some kids don’t realize that having fun is one of the goals of music, especially early on when they don’t know many songs yet and are working a lot on the basic technical skills. Plus it’s often framed by adults as one more task they must do before they can go play. But after all it is called PLAYING music. Let’s play!

  2. I play a game with my Suzuki violin and cello daughters where they choose a particular feeling with which to play a song and then the rest of us try and guess the feeling. They love the game and we are all learning to really express ourselves more through our playing.

  3. Excellent article, great insights. I think back on my musical training in piano and violin, always striving to be better and please my parents, teachers and whoever might be my audience. Nerves always attacked me and how can the experience be joyful when feeling so nervous. I remember I always loved singing and was seldom nervous whether it was a solo or group number. It was truly an enjoyable experience. Then I decided to study voice in college and as I attempted to make all the technical things happen I lost the joy and the nerves invaded that musical expression also. When I began working on Sing with Freedom and became free in my singing the joy returned and the nerves fled.

    As a teacher I know that technique is absolutely necessary for good playing, but making lessons and practicing joyful and free is a very difficult balance.

  4. Noa, some of my favorite part of your blog are when you write little tidbits about what you were thinking and feeling as a little boy playing the violin. As a mom with little boys I always wish I could see more of what they see. The part where you write about you knowing your mom was not good at violin but you liked playing with her anyway. That’s so sweet.


  5. I am so happy to hear others talk about the joy of playing and how important it is to sustain our love of music at all levels. As a teacher I have always held the goal that our lessons must have an element of enjoyment. Whether we laugh at ourselves if we make a mistake or we are so critical of the way we played that last line because we just can’t seem to remember the G#, I try to have all students leave the studo with a smile and postive reinforcement.
    Ultimately, we will look back on our music experiences as either fun or stressful, and hopefully a little of both. If we grow technically as a player it will add to our future enjoyment but if we grow to love playing it will change our lives.
    Even young players can tell me the favorite part of their piece and the mature can tell me how they feel when they play their favorite passages. They may grow to be able to ace playing perfectly but I am pretty sure that most will not, so to have gained a love of music that will be passed down to future generations is so much more important. At the end of the day I think that many teachers will agree that this is our greatest goal and it should be remembered at each and every lesson, every week, by all teachers. What a wonderful gift, the gift of music.

  6. I play several instruments as a student.

    On some of them (recorder and cornetto), I until recently would say to people that I don’t work them, but play them. Even if that involved repeating the same phrase over and over to get it right, the pleasure of playing overwhelmed the sense of “working”. I made terrific progress on these instruments. I realized recently that I had to be honest and say that, yes, this progresses didn’t come from magic but from work : I worked on them, and very lengthly, but enjoyed it so that I didn’t have to think about it.

    On harpsichord on the other hand, I’ve had bad experiences with my former teacher, and even though the new one is terrific, I must admit that I say to myself that I’ll for one hour *work* the harpsichord, not that I’ll have fun with it and *play* music. Although I theorically play better, I make very small progresses and the pleasure to play, though real, is far less evident.
    The difference with my two wind instrument is also that I could attend orchestra, consorts and improvisation group with them, and even a few small concerts, but nothing of the sort with the keyboard.
    I realize my harpsichord practice is by comparison very alone and sad. I will have to think about ways to put pleasure of playing in the center of my practice of this particular instrument, even if it will always be by nature less flexible (I have always a small flute in my bag, can’t do it with a keyboard…).
    Maybe asking recorder teachers to let me play figured bass with their younger students…
    Other ideas welcome !

  7. Playing along with my students (either just a bass line on the cello or playing the accompaniment on the piano) seems to enhance the musical experience for them. Also, having them “perform” for me — that is, play through an entire movement or piece — makes it less about a lot of picky details and more about the music.

  8. For me, I’ve never experienced “flow” while performing. Not once. The times I’ve gotten there have been while learning languages, and while composing.

    There is a point where, if you really do everything in your power to cram a language into your head, someone will come up and you will have a short conversation with them, and later on you won’t be able to recall what language it was in — the meaning went straight in. That sensation is probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience, and almost always with language learning. My head is optimized for that I think, so that particular type of flow feels amazing for me.

    Musically, I never got anything like that until I got other people’s sheet music off my piano. I will still occasionally buy some just because I hear something I like (I’m seriously into the Britten harp suite at the moment and would like to see if it works on a piano), but I’ve got to just be honest with myself and admit that my head is not in that universe anymore. I’ve bought all sorts of things that were “good for me” to have, the WTC, a Billy Joel collection, some Liszt … I opened none of it.

    Musical flow for me is when I sit down to arrange a piece of music (a Haendel intro as a swung rag for example), and for whatever reason, the arrangement just pours out of me, and less than an hour later, I’m sitting there looking at sheet music on Musescore and every single note naturally follows from the previous and is right where I want it, and I wouldn’t change one tiny little thing. It doesn’t happen often; most of my music I sweat out one note at a time, for months. But every now and then, either a piece will just fall out of my head or 32 bars of one will fall out, or something similar. Those experiences are amazing — the ones where I feel like a real musician.

    I remember when I was little and begging my parents for piano lessons. The reason I loved THAT instrument was that all the notes were right there, like keys on a typewriter, and you could hit them in any order you wanted. They were all just there, waiting to be played. 40 years after I fell in love with a piano for that reason, I finally figured out how to actually approach the thing that way, like a big musical typewriter where you could write anything you wanted, your own ideas. We don’t call people good authors because they can sit down at a typewriter and regurgitate Jane Austen without typos or errors of memory, do we? Then why the hell do we treat musical instruments like that, especially the one that seems heaven-sent for writing down one’s on ideas?

    Anyhow, that’s musical flow for me. It’s just for me, it requires privacy, I do not have other people around when I enter that state, and it never happened for me until I got other people’s sheet music the hell out of my life, and started making my own. Even then, it’s a fleeting thing.

  9. Continuing (mostly because I can’t ever shut up) …

    A HUGE thing for me would have been being encouraged to actually plink things out by ear and come up with ideas on my own. This is absolutely verboten in classical music lessons, an even teachers who claim to value the currently trendy improvising simply will not do it. Either they can’t or they fear looking less than perfect in front of their students. But they absolutely will not assign a student the task of figuring out the melody line to a favorite song on the piano and then coming up with a left hand for it. They will not allow the lessons to go in a direction that means that they won’t know exactly what’s going to happen and whether to tell a kid that something is “right” or “wrong.”

    Then when they become teenagers after a lifetime of that programming, someone like Isaac Stern in your experience will rant at them for focusing too much on right and wrong! What the hell do we expect these kids to do after over a decade of that sort of instruction?

    Classical music teachers can’t (certainly in my case) even recognize when a student might lean that way. I never had the world’s best technique as a kid. I was good, and I’ve gotten better since learning what practice actually means. But what I could do and learn faster than anyone else I’ve ever known, including prodigies, was learn the circle of fifths, learn key signatures, figure out time signatures, rhythm, and timing (each note was half the value of another, except when there was a dot, which was 1.5 — what’s so hard?), transpose things, learn what chords resolved into other chords, understand harmonic progressions, invert chords, understand before my teacher had finished speaking, “Oh right, this is a diminished here,” and never once miss a flat or sharp while reading.

    I picked that stuff up like water … but it meant nothing in that world. That was not a valued skill or even recognized as a skill. Understanding the music meant nothing, nor did being able to mess with it — transposing, turning things into waltzes, etc. In a way, I’m reminded of a TV feature I once saw on RuPaul, where they were talking to his old high school drama teacher, who said that the kid could do an absolutely flawless imitation of Diana Ross and finished by saying, “But as a theater teacher in high school … what do you do with that?” He had no idea how to direct that sort of ability because it was just off the reservation entirely of what one is permitted to excel at.

    It bugs me when I think about it, obviously. I had this ability that meant nothing in a musical world that was so focused on immaculate recitation that I had to find out on my own at 44 that it actually counted for something. It still staggers the shit out of me when I encounter, which has happened enough times for me to notice, a “prodigy” on some instrument (and I have to say that violinist kids are notorious for this) who don’t even know what key signature they’re in! That really shows you what’s valued in that world: understanding the music? Eh, who cares about that junk? Can you recite without error?

    Teachers: encourage your students to mess around on their instruments, figure out the melodies of songs they like and accompany or ornament them. Just a little pop song is fine — ask them to roll it around in their minds for a week like an earworm and try playing it in different time signatures, different keys, different styles. At least try to recognize when a kid might benefit from this sort of thing. Yes, you need technique — the more you can DO on an instrument, the more you can SAY on it. But don’t chain them to the dots so thoroughly. Pianos are perfect for that — work out the melody, then add a left hand. Single-note instruments are perfect in different ways, because messing around on them is a bit like humming to yourself, and you don’t have to worry so much about what chord you’re in; you can let the ear work that out on its own. (I can barely scrape around in my viola, and even I can improv on it, and decently.)

    And if you can’t do this yourself … learn how. The only way you can get away from right-note-wrong-note is to get the damn sheet music off the desk or stand. If you or your students are rendered mute on a device they have worked to master for a decade simply by taking their sheet music away, something somewhere has gone badly wrong.

      1. It does come up in jazz … But for someone like me, classical is my love and my vernacular. It’s how classical music was created, after all. EVERY great composer was an improviser and could clearly work things out by ear. I’m not willing to relinquish 800 years of my favorite music because the last century of teachers have put a velvet rope in my way. In a world where neither Chopin, Bach, Liszt, nor Beethoven would have been allowed to enter a classical competition, something has to change.

        I’d rather reclaim classical than just give up on it and go elsewhere. I simply love it too much.

        1. I was raised by parents who both got degrees in music, and had very solid backgrounds in classical music. I was not encouraged to sound out songs, but somehow picked that up very early (and now play jazz saxophone – coincidence? 🙂 I once suggested to another classical pianist that we should improvise songs in the style of the classical composers – he said it was impossible! He had 70 major pieces memorized, and could play them flawlessly, but was scared to death of trying to make music that sounded classical, but was not written out note for note. I still think it could be done. Done well? That’s another question…

        2. Jazz is not the only one !

          Improvisation (called diminution) is very important in ancient (renaissance and baroque) music. Playing ancient music instead of classical should allow for this freedom of decorating the written music (I really can’t talk of classical music teaching, I don’t know it).
          Is it part of the fun that you can be happy to play the song right, then happy to have mastered (and played in good time) some diminutions in extra ? Yes, for some. But for others it can simply be a source of stress to be asked to improvise.
          I’ve seen that it requires a great effort from the teacher to push students to improvise on the sheet they have before their eyes, even after months of course about this particular (and very intuitive) type of improvisation : the majority don’t WANT to fly freely above it, to abandon the security of it.
          The difference between the “if it isn’t written it’s not good” students and the students who can’t stop themselves from diminishing everywhere once they’ve mastered the trick is striking.
          That’s not an excuse for not proposing it, for sure…

          @Jon Olson : of course it can be done ! I have in mind one or two young french singers whose classical background could be headr in their songs : the text being very rude, it was very comical to hear a very serious and polite guy singing “I want to crash your face in little pieces and eat them for breakfast” while accompagnying himself with an Alberti bass, or Bach-styled arpeggios.

          The opposite (old music played modernly) is also fun : the group “Bond” (a string quartett, really : made two records with classical music that sound very actual and danceful !

    1. “A HUGE thing for me would have been being encouraged to actually plink things out by ear and come up with ideas on my own. This is absolutely verboten in classical music lessons, an even teachers who claim to value the currently trendy improvising simply will not do it. Either they can’t or they fear looking less than perfect in front of their students. But they absolutely will not assign a student the task of figuring out the melody line to a favorite song on the piano and then coming up with a left hand for it. They will not allow the lessons to go in a direction that means that they won’t know exactly what’s going to happen and whether to tell a kid that something is “right” or “wrong.” ”
      Suzuki teachers do this. And this: “Teachers: encourage your students to mess around on their instruments, figure out the melodies of songs they like and accompany or ornament them. Just a little pop song is fine – ask them to roll it around in their minds for a week like an earworm and try playing it in different time signatures, different keys, different styles.” Especially those of us who play rock music and know how to improvise, figure out accompaniments, and transpose by ear. I just had a 6-year-old figure out Jingle Bells with Alberti bass chords totally by ear.

  10. An intriguing topic. Brings to mind a current mid-teens student who is very musical, but family can only afford occasional lessons (2 a month at best, sometimes less). I’ve had to let go of spending lots of time on some theoretical and technical elements, and have decided to do a type of literature (classical guitar, early 19th c.) that he very much enjoys. Am doing my best to sneak in bits and pieces of the theory (VERY basic) and technique, but with focus on music he will put heart and soul into. Have had to let go of my frustration in knowing what he could do and what progress would be possible in a weekly schedule. Above all, I don’t want to squash the dedication and enjoyment of what he can do, and (for now) let the chips fall where they may regarding his future work. (Tough, because if he chanced to decide on some work on guitar in college, his instructors will surely wonder what kind of teacher would leave out this or that in his preparation!)

    1. I think that’s a large part of the problem, as teachers we are concerned about what other teachers will think of us, but the other teachers don’t have the knowledge of why we make the choices we do with our students.

      1. Nikki -I agree 100%. Obviously each student is unique, and whether they are exceptional or not. I think it’s paramount that we nurture the enjoyment of the experience. If they’re meant for advanced study and “great things,” it will come from inside and create its own incentive for deeper work. Along a similar line: this isn’t an excuse for “talking down” to a student. In a recent PBS special on Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim (who was very close to him from his younger years) commented that Hammerstein analyzed his work in a very direct, adult way, and never blew him off or talked down to him. Interesting.

  11. I’m so happy I found this blog. I am in my late 40’s and just started piano lesson January 2013. I started with my children (10 & 9 years old). I started because I’ve always wanted to play but never had the courage or time to play. it was 3 years of planting the seed in my head to play before the seed sprouted and i made a comittment to the instrument early this year. We had our second recital today and I froze. I was a nervous wreck, barely able to start and messing up to the point where I had to stop and start over. I had the loudest cheer because I finished the piece — but it was such an agonizing experience. I tell myself that it’s part of the process, having performance anxiety and that I need to overcome it. Thank you for your blog and I will keep playing, practicing and finding that flow that is described here.

  12. As a public school teacher I see a definite connection between Csikszentmihalyi’s quote and Suzuki’s criticism of the education system: “what is happening in primary schools is that set curriculum is adhered to at any cost without regard to the human equation.” Although Suzuki’s method can be seen as one that created a successful classroom method for teaching music the heart of the philosophy is still the individual student. I have not read Csikszentmihalvi yet (I feel very motivated to now) and I believe both conclude with a similar idea: the educational process, no matter the content of material, needs to be individually geared towards each student. At this point would be the euphoric sense of freedom and success in the individual.

  13. I have been playing guitar for about 20 years now and the majority of that time has been spent on playing and learning jazz/improvising. I have only started classical music in the last year; I love learning anything new and interesting to my ear and, over the process have found some really cool classical pieces that, when I was a “jazz snob”, would never have considered. Having said that, I am glad that I learned about jazz first before classical. The main reason for this is because I don’t need to follow dots in order to play something.
    I have met many classically trained musicians that, if the music is not written out in front of them, they are not able to play it! If you were to tell me “this is in D (or any other key)” or “F mixolydian”,etc. I could improvise without a problem. I think that is great!
    Of course over the years I have had to learn all types of scales, chords, and different ways to melodically manipulate them in order to sound good at it. It takes a long time – like anything worth learning – and, a lot of practice. I read once that John Coltrane would practice something as basic as a C major scale for up to 8 hours! In order to make any improvised music sound good you have to put the work in….
    My classical guitar teacher once commented to me that as a jazz player I am constantly analyzing what I am reading/playing harmonically (it’s true). On the other hand he said that most classical guitarists just learn to read the notes, learn the positions of where to play a specific phrase and that’s it! They don’t harmonically analyze because, for the most part they were not taught that way.
    When I sit down to play a specific classical piece, like an etude, once I have played and memorized it, I then begin to hear other melodic and harmonic possibilities for it. It may even lead me to create entirely new compositions. This to me is “being in the zone” and something I try to achieve every time I play. However, I do know the difference between playing and practicing. I try to do both every day. Since I am left handed, I am more “right brained’ – which is more creative and I lean more that way. I find that spending all my time reading notes on a page will drive me up a wall and, I can only do it for little chunks of time. Still, it’s a skill that is needed as a musician so, I have to do it. I try to memorize everything I learn however. If left alone I could probably improvise all day!
    When I am on a gig hopefully the only things I am thinking about are:
    1.How much fun it is to play with people I like playing with
    2.Creating interesting musical statements (this can only happen when the group as a unit is all on the same page)
    3.Providing a good musical experience for the people who are listening.
    4.How lucky I am to be able to play music
    5.Getting inside the tunes and making something happen
    The last one can ONLY happen when I have memorized and internalized all I can about a specific tune and chord progression.
    I think it is important to be in the zone anytime you pick up an instrument; it doesn’t happen all the time but, when it does, it’s like you are not even “playing” ,the music is just coming out.
    Being a music therapy major I have recently learned about how “flow states” and improvising can be very beneficial for certain populations and, as a guitar teacher in addition to teaching my students how to read and learn the fundamentals, I also try to get them to just “play” and not think about it. I think it’s very important to have that balance.
    Good article!

    1. “They don’t harmonically analyze because, for the most part they were not taught that way. When I sit down to play a specific classical piece, like an etude, once I have played and memorized it, I then begin to hear other melodic and harmonic possibilities for it. It may even lead me to create entirely new compositions.”

      Yes! This was the Invisible Skill for me. I still can’t fathom how people can stand to just play music by rote without diving into the grammar. That’s a whole `nother layer of beauty. The notes are like the shadows on the cave wall — the harmonic structure is what’s throwing the shadows.

      1. I would like to hear some of your music, Janis. You have a dynamic mind! I have been teaching violin for some 25 years and, the more I teach the less I know. Kids are amazing. I have a 5 year old boy with chromesthesia. What a gift. He plays in all 15 major keys, knows the cycle of 5 th s and eats up everything I give him. (I have him on piano right now.). He does not read much music because I am trying to “keep it off the page”. I don’t have much time to write here, but I sure enjoy your thoughts.

    2. “They don’t harmonically analyze because, for the most part they were not taught that way. When I sit down to play a specific classical piece, like an etude, once I have played and memorized it, I then begin to hear other melodic and harmonic possibilities for it. It may even lead me to create entirely new compositions.”

      I love that bit too. That sounds like a really cool thing to be able to do…

      I think this comes more naturally when we’re little. I remember improvising pieces and making up things – and on several occasions actually improvising in performances when I experienced memory slips – but over time neglected that skill to the point where it took a whole semester to free myself up to be able to add little unwritten ornamentations in Baroque music.

      1. This is easier than it may sound. It can be as simple as:
        Changing the picking pattern (for example: I took the picking pattern of Villa-Lobos’ “Etude No.1 in E minor” and applied it to Leo Brouwer’s “Estudio Sencillos VI”).
        changing the meter
        changing the rhythm
        changing the tonality
        inverting it: take the piece you are working on and play it backwards!
        changing the tempo.

        Really the possibilities are endless; you just have to try it; you may be surprised what you come up with.

  14. My students come up with a mood or character for each phrase / section of the piece. We talk about how actors, if they are good, are not “pretending” to be a character … they actually “being” the character.

    While a few students take to this like a duck to water, most encounter some significant barriers to let go of, the first time they try doing this. I will ask them what’s in the way, and let them look for themselves what’s stopping them.

    The most frequent barrier is worrying that they will make mistakes once they abandon themselves to the character. My response to this is, “Absolutely. Yes, you will! Your technique will get screwed up temporarily when you “go for it.” Now, you have my complete permission and forgiveness for any mistakes you are about to make. Can you give yourself the same permission? Okay, go for it!!”

    Sometimes they also have to recognize other barriers … for example, being “authoritative” when you’re an 11-year-old kid (this behavior is not encouraged in the average classroom!), being tender and emotive if you’re a middle school boy, etc. Dorothy Delay told her Asian students, “You have to stop being a good Asian [girl]!”

    The first time they try it, I ask them how it went for them. I give them a chance to reflect on the experience, then try it again … try to go further with it, talk about a way to connect more deeply to the character.

    At the end of this process, I let them know, “You’ll have to keep working until your technique is no longer an obstacle for you. This will take awhile. This is what technique is for … so that you can express the music with nothing in the way. So, go home and practice being in character, and work on the technique until it’s not in your way any more.”

    Playing from the heart frees the students up to experience the thing they fell in love with about when they said “yes” to playing piano, violin, etc. If they’re not at the heart of the musical expression, the only thing to focus on IS technical perfection (or imperfection).

    This is simply a displacement of the real role of music … which, I tell them, is to move your listener, to give them a transcendent experience. I let them know this is their job, and that it’s a big responsibility. It is their job to leave their audience touched deeply … and to do this, they themselves must also be touched.

    This is, for me, where the flow is … being at the source. That is what it means to be an artist.

  15. I like taking a piece and doing sections in slow motion. So you can feel and appreciate every nuance and transition. Then when you do it at tempo you feel that
    “zone” because you have a sense of every detail that goes into your sound. You feel really connected and balanced.

  16. I have always loved the book Flow, and I’m so glad you wrote about it in this post. I’ve always felt (and told my students) that practicing has to be a mix between (1) focusing hard on physical things to make better and fix, and (2) just letting go and making music – i.e. flow. Thank you as always for your wonderful, inspiring posts!

  17. I’m a college age musician who started playing violin when I was 4 1/2 years old. Initially I looked at practicing as a chore and honestly dreaded the dedication. I switched to Viola halfway through high school. Now I practice 5-6 hours a day, some things that keep me motivated are: making realistic goals to achieve realistic achievement, practicing smaller sections of pieces that need work so time practicing is efficient, and lastly making the music fun. Looking at every piece as a new experience and new learning tool really helps, the more difficult the piece (yes the more frustrating it is to put in the work on), the more rewarding it is to perform. Personally I like really virtuosic pieces because it’s a chance for me to show my technical skills and usually entertains the audience. Thinking about from an entertainment perspective has kept me going all these years.

  18. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday.
    It will always be exciting to read through articles from other writers and use something
    from other sites.

  19. Idea:
    I list details, all the details I can notice during my practice. and I write them on papers I put on the wall. All these elements can at any time, can be the answer to my puzzle 🙂 Thanks for the inspiring idea now 🙂

  20. I almost got 3 degrees in college: music performance, music education, and psychology. Practicing 4-6 hours a day prevented me from being able to get my other studies in so I dropped music and continued on with psychology junior year. I am very spiritual and have those moments in prayer and also have those moments when Gods gift is flowing through me while i improvise on piano and sax. Not when I read music, only when I improvise. I have no problem playing in front of people anymore either. Was nervous as a kid though. Now I am applying all my jazz and classical knowledge to guitar. I am only a week into it and been doing research on things and this site popped up. I like it and all your comments. Have a merry Christmas everyone!

  21. I’ve been finding this to be particularly true right now. I’m an electronic studio musician, so my performance abilities are a bit sub-par at the moment, but I’ve been making music for the better part of ten years. When I started, I would spend hours upon hours on one song, often finishing composing in one day. I’m going through a really hard time right now in that I’ve become so lost in all the technicalities of making music electronically that I’m strongly tempted to give up composing. I’ve been trying for so long to please, to make music that others like, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get it right. I start working on compositions and instantly start hating my own songs, because what I like to do is completely different than what about 95% of the people I know would think is enjoyable. When I started, people seemed to love my music and I had a great fanbase as a teenager. Now that I’ve grown and developed my own style, which I consider to be a more sophisticated and progressive approach to music, it seems like nobody cares. Nobody seems to care how much effort I’ve put into my songs. I constantly feel like they’re not good enough, no matter how much I’ve improved in even the past year alone. I’ve gone from composing thirty to fifty songs a year to maybe three or four, and even my most recent pieces are ones that I constantly listen to and think “I could’ve fixed that… I could have sung that part better… No one would like this… But I haven’t even shown anyone my music as of late, not even family. How can I know if people like my music if I don’t even share it? And if they don’t like it, then doesn’t that just mean that it’s not their style? If it’s not good enough for them, then doesn’t ten years of experience mean that maybe I actually know enough for it to be good enough for myself? Maybe it doesn’t matter what they think. Maybe it’s more about what I, myself, think. With the last song I made, I followed some counsel my wife gave me – to make the song the way I wanted to. I did, and instead of taking on the serious, professional tone that I think others would want to hear, it took on a rather cheezy sound. Nonetheless, I loved it. I loved working on it. I loved the unprofessional sound. Making it more professional sure made it sound cooler, but it just lost ALL of its soul. The scary thing for me right now is actually deciding to make what I like, ‘cuz I’m terrified that others won’t like it. But maybe… just maybe, that’s exactly what I need to do. Infected Mushroom’s newest album, Converting Vegetarians II, WAY defies even my own norms for what I think sounds good, but they’re a majorly popular band that decided to defy the norm. They didn’t even master the album, as is the norm to do, and it was a deliberate, artistic decision… it was truly unique to them. They talked about the album, and they seemed to get a huge kick out of all the experimentation they did – it was music without rules as to what actually sounds good or not. Funnily enough, it works beautifully and makes for a hilarious, serious, unique, and thoughtful listening experience. And all that came from just doing what they liked and enjoyed doing. Maybe a question I can ask myself at each step of making a composing a song is “Do I actually like this?” If the answer’s no, then that means I need to change a few things, and that’s okay.

    1. Hi Gavin,

      I think you might enjoy reading Seth Godin’s books (or watching the many videos out there of him speaking, like this one). He reminds us that if nobody dislikes or criticizes or fails to “get” what we do, it’s probably a sign that we’re not doing anything meaningful or inspiring or provocative or distinctive or personal enough, so nobody is really going to love it and rave about it either…

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