Five Ways to Turn the Music up to 11 (and Turn Anxiety Down a Notch)

Clarinetist James Campbell once remarked that if you really know the music well, you can’t be nervous.

There’s a lot of truth to this – but not necessarily in the way that it might seem at first glance. On the surface, it sounds like a statement about preparation. That if you’ve practiced the piece enough, you should be confident about your ability to play it.

Sure, that kind of preparation is essential, but I think that misses the deeper, more compelling observation.

I believe this is a statement about the psychological importance (never mind the artistic value) of going beyond the notes on the page. Getting to know the music well enough, that you are too busy shaping and creating and communicating and expressing so many of the tiny details and nuances of each phrase and gesture that you simply don’t have any time to worry and think about mistakes, imperfections, and the opinion of the audience, critics, or jury.

It’s like trying to track your 5-year-old’s meandering story about what happened to the class hamster during nap-time whilst simultaneously trying to set a time-trial record on Rainbow Road  in Mario Kart. It can’t be done. If you want to do either with any degree of success, you have to pick one to focus on.

So how exactly do we go beyond the notes?

Week ‘o cello master classes

I recently sat in on a series of master classes taught by Swedish cellist Frans Helmerson. There were many inspiring moments, as he helped young cellists go beyond the squiggles and dots on the page.

At the risk of looking like a total geek, I took notes and thought I’d share the overarching themes that even the non-celllists among us can probably incorporate into our practicing, playing, and teaching.

Theme #1: Simply feeling the music is not enough

One theme that came up repeatedly was that it’s not enough to simply feel the music. He explained that the inner feeling won’t necessarily come out of your body and automatically inject itself into the articulation, sound, phrasing, vibrato, and so on, with maximum effect.

Helmerson often asked the cellists to (a) describe the story, character, mood, or emotion in words, or philosophical terms – so as to encourage them to be more specific about their intentions. But he wouldn’t stop there – he would also ask them to (b) describe what they wanted to express in more practical terms. As in, what do you have to do with your body, arm, hand, fingers, to actually produce the kinds of sounds that will engender the desired response within the listener? Where is the grazioso? Which note? What part of that note is responsible for the grazioso character? Is it the way you release the end of the note with the last third of the bow? Or some combination of things?

He often noted how he could see in a musician’s face or body movements what they were trying to say – but that it wasn’t coming out in the sound.

Violinist Pamela Frank has made this point very eloquently herself, saying that while we absolutely want to have a clear idea of the emotions we are trying to convey – we also don’t want them to control us.

Theme #2: Expand your expressive toolbox via self-handicapping

To that end, Helmerson asked the musicians to do some intriguing experiments. For instance, to play without using any crescendos. The idea being, what if you couldn’t use a crescendo to express an increase in intensity? What else could you use? How else might you express the same character or emotion?

What if you couldn’t use vibrato to express the mood you wanted? What other devices might you utilize?

The point was that it might occasionally be helpful to tie one hand behind our back to hone other expressive tools and avoid becoming over-reliant on the same tool for everything. Like artfully crafted sentences, we can mix and match and substitute the different ingredients we have at our disposal for a more diverse palette.

Theme #3: Stay engaged by realizing that nothing ever stays the same

In a related vein, he emphasized that no notes or phrases are ever really exactly the same. For instance, our vibrato shouldn’t operate like an on/off switch. In order to really express what we want, one note might need three different vibratos. Another note might need three or four different bow speeds. Multiple points of contact. Different weights, changing rhythm, pulse, articulation, and so on. That even within a single note, there might be an awful lot to say, and an awful lot going on.

One of my favorite quotes from the week was his remark that “Vibrato should never be made by the hand; it should come from the ear.”

I was reminded of something I often hear teachers emphasize – that there is never a time when you can put musical expression on autopilot. Technique and mechanics yes, but the music, no. “Set it and forget it” might work for juicy rib roasts, but in music, there is always something to be said, something to be expressed – even in the rests and pauses.

Does this take some pretty serious planning? Most definitely, but he reminded us that the audience should never hear the seriousness of the work that went into making our playing appear natural, effortless, and spontaneous. 

Theme #4: Do more by doing less

Along those lines, he often emphasized the importance of being physically free.

He told a story about a tennis coach who asked him how tightly he thought professional tennis players gripped the racket on a scale from 1-10 (10 being a lot). Take a second to think about this – what number do you think the coach said? The answer is 3.

One particularly intriguing thought was his remark that “the bow is more talented than me.” That there were “so many wonderful possibilities and capabilities for expression” in the bow. He acknowledged that there are limitations we must honor and work around, but that we can also work with our instruments and look for ways to use their natural strengths and sweet spots to enhance our expression.

Theme #5: Clear our ears to think more creatively

Much of the standard repertoire has been around for so long that there are many established traditions with everything we play. In listening to the great recordings of yesteryear, we learn a lot, but the downside is that we end up riffing off of one version or another and over time get increasingly further away from what is actually printed in the score.

He suggested that sometimes we need to “clear our ears” and start over from the “baseline.” To play everything straight up, no rubato or expressiveness, or even dynamics, just to hear what’s actually written. And then to start making our own decisions and choices from there.

Putting it all together

Since words don’t really do this justice, here is a short clip of Helmerson teaching  a master class at Verbier where he shows many of these principles in action.

Here’s a terrific interview with Frans Helmerson via the Internet Cello Society, where he shares some deep thoughts on focus, technique, and more: Conversation with Frans Helmerson

photo credit: jeevs 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 I wasn’t practicing enough. And that if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually go away.

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 bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, 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.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you so, so much! Some of the advice my teacher gave me today was, essentially, the thesis of this article (as I understand it): that I need to go beyond notes, phrases, and nitpicky details so that I can enjoy music. The timing of this post was synchronistic and absolutely perfect for me.

  2. This blog makes me further appreciate my daughter’s (she is 12) violin teacher. She just finished the first movement of Mendelssohn, and I watched his process. First time through it’s technique, fingering and getting to know it. Second time through he delves further into the detail of the technique and starts to get demanding, shifts get practiced, intonation, bowing stuff…. you know. This is a hard bit, a bit tedious and exacting if you are 12. However he is already starting to ask for her interpretation, talking about harmonic structure, bow speed changes, vibrato speed changes, direction of the phrase. And yes, he analyses and explains to her how to get musical ideas across in detail. This is a relief as a previous teacher used to just demand that she play musically without ever explaining how the technique would achieve this.
    Then we get to the third time through the piece! By now a lot is known by heart (he has different methods for doing this) and she starts to have to risk take and play freely. At this stage he almost encourages her to go to her edge partly to enjoy playing the music as an act of communication, but also to test drive the piece, to find out whether it can bear her weight. The bits that don’t work go back to the drawing board and rather than get cross (except when he is ratty anyway) he figures out with her why it doesn’t work and finds another way of explaining or tweaking the technical issue.
    By now she is playing half-whole pages. He expects her to run through mistakes and play the whole. Then at the agreed on stopping place they go back and figure things out.

    All the time its a conversation between the art of the instrument and the art of the music and communicating the music…..

    She has also found doing Dr Noa’s course (she’s only done the first lesson) helps with this process as it gives her another way of practicing the performance which can be either the nerves around getting it right in her lesson, and the nerves in a performance.

    Interestingly she finds it easier to play to a large audience of strangers than she does to play to her teacher, which is when the inner critic really gets going and inhibits the whole process… Most frustrating!

    I think the ability to play freely is clearly related to the feeling of owning the whole process and not trying to please the teacher/audience/judges. The more the musician is able to own the musical language aswell as the technique the more confidence he/she can have in their own abilities to play and communicate feelings. Also knowing the music deeply and broadly and in detail seems to give her a strong enough ground so that even with nerves her intention can shine through.

    Recently I watched some other young musicians play at a competition and was struck by how they appeared to be feeling a lot (facial and physical movement) but how their sound didn’t correlate to what they were demonstrating. It was quite disconcerting, like getting two different messages simultaneously!

    Anyway thanks for the article!


  3. Great article, tons of great insights! It’s so easy to get cerebral about the process of playing music and try to automate, and disengage. Yet almost every point was a humbling reminder to continue to engage with the music no matter how difficult. I think that takes a certain kind of courage but I am inspired to challenge myself to settle for nothing less than practicing the art of bold self-expression.

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