…to get better? …to play better in tune? …to improve the quality of your sound? …to find a more compelling and effective way of shaping a phrase?
I stumbled across an interesting YouTube video a while ago (which for the life of me I can no longer find, lost amidst a digital haystack of sneezing pandas, nyan cats, and gagnam style).
Anyhow, it was a clip of a respected guitarist talking about practicing, in which he suggested that the whole point of practicing is to make things easier.
But what might this actually entail?
Easier, as in automatic
On one hand, we are pretty good at asking ourselves questions that help guide our playing towards the ideal we have in our head. Questions like: Was that in tune? Was the sound too crunchy? Did we have a clear attack? Was our vibrato too wobbly?
But once we get the passage sounding like we want, might we too quick to call it a day and leave well enough alone? Just because we can nail a passage five or ten times in a row doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from asking ourselves a higher-level question. As in, how can I make nailing this passage physically easier and more effortless?
Do I have to lift my fingers off the string that high? Do I have to press down as hard? Do I have to scrunch up my shoulders to my ears? Do I have to press into my instrument quite so much? Do I have to blow as hard? Where am I more tense than necessary?
The problem with precision
Indeed, when we encounter something difficult that requires a high level of precision and fine motor control, our tendency is to tighten up and attempt to exert more control over the physical movements required for successful execution.
Unfortunately, doing so makes our movements more rigid and interrupts their coordination and automaticity, negatively affecting not just our technical accuracy and consistency, but the quality of our sound.
I still remember how tense I would get in the opening of Mozart’s 5th violin concerto, for instance. Technically speaking, it isn’t that difficult, but because it’s Mozart, and because I wanted it to have the most perfect, clean, pure, yet expressive sound, I’d struggle mightily even to get the first note to speak just right.
My shoulders would scrunch up, my arms would get tight, and there’d be an “oh crap – is it going to work? Is it?! IS IT?!” moment of hesitation right before the bow hit the string. It was as if I had been given a chance to diffuse a bomb and save the day – if I could thread the smallest needle in the world on the first try.
The result was playing that sounded tight and strained. It may be difficult to play Mozart well, but I don’t think it’s supposed to sound like such a monumental struggle.
Oh, and the kicker? We get even more tight and prone to micromanaging every little detail when we walk on stage and the pressure is on.
I’m not a biomechanist, but presumably this allows us to utilize a greater range of motion and keeps the opposing muscle groups from working against each other, enabling greater velocity, more fluid movement, reduced likelihood of injury, and better energy conservation.
So how do we make things easier?
Take a difficult passage that you can nail pretty consistently.
Play it through and rate your expenditure of effort from 1-10 with 10 being effortless, and 1 being exhausting effort.
Try it again, seeing if you can dial up the effortlessness and ease.
Don’t worry – it’s not going to sound perfect at first. There will be glitches. But for now, the primary objective is to maximize ease. Keep at it a few times.
Feel a difference? Hear a difference?
Once you get it up to 9+, start tweaking and polishing up the technical elements, while being sure to maintain as much of the ease and effortlessness as possible throughout the process.
For many, there’s a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling, a thrill, when you nail something really difficult and it feels easy. It may even take you by surprise and catch you off guard when you realize how much easier this passage can be when you trust your body to do what you hear.
But then again, you might find it difficult to trust yourself on a consistent basis. Playing with less tension and “letting go” can be scary, and goes against our natural inclinations at first. You may not feel like you are “in control,” even if letting go produces better and more consistent results.
If so, you may need to work on trusting yourself…which is actually kind of fun, and will be the subject of a future post.
The one-sentence summary
“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” ~Bruce Lee
(bonus points and a free copy of Metronome+ if you can explain how the picture relates to the topic of this post). UPDATE: That was too easy! I’ve run out of codes for Metronome+ this time around, but will hopefully be able to do something like this again in the future.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.