Everyone who has ever played or watched tennis quickly learns how important the serve is. If you can’t get a serve in, you lose the point.

As a decidedly mediocre tennis hack, I’ve lost many a game because of an inability to get my serve in (though on the bright side, I will say that if you miss enough serves in a row and then actually get one in, you’ll often win the point simply because your opponent will be too surprised to react).

But here’s the tricky part about serving. Simply getting the serve in is not enough.

If you hit a safe, slow, easy, high-bouncing serve, you’re probably going to lose the point. If your opponent is any good, they’ll simply cream the ball for a winner. Point over.

So, not only do you have to get the ball in, but you have to get it in like you mean business. That, of course, is the challenge.

So what does this have to do with music?

Doing 200%

I recently sat in on a chamber music master class. The teacher was a well-known artist, and the kind of musician whom all the students not only had great respect for, but regarded with a healthy bit of fear as well, given his reputation for demanding a high standard of excellence.

Like most ensembles who might find themselves in such a situation, they played well, but safe. Notes in tune, good sound, solid ensemble, but largely unremarkable.

In other words, they got the ball in play, but that was it.

The teacher’s mission soon became clear – to get the students to loosen up and play freely. To play what was actually written in the score, clearly enough that there would be no doubt that they had studied and understood the composer’s intent.

The coach encouraged the group to “do 200%” – that if there’s a fortissimo, you do a real fortissimo. If there’s a hairpin, you do an honest-to-goodness hairpin. If you have a solo entrance, play it like you know it’s a real solo entrance.

But even with the coach’s permission (and pleading), nobody had the courage to go for 200%.

No surprise, of course, as doing 200% in front of a coach and other people is really scary!

Playing at 50% (or 60% or even 70%) of maximum is far more comfortable and likely to happen under pressure, because in order to “do more” or even approach 200%, one must be willing to momentarily sacrifice technical excellence to see what is possible. And we’ve been so well conditioned to shy away from mistakes of any kind, that few are willing to risk hitting the ball so hard that it goes outside the lines.

Yet making a concerted effort to move away from our “50% zone” in the safety of the practice room is what it takes to reach our potential and open up the doors to creative possibilities in the music that we would otherwise never discover.

Two problems

Here are a couple problems with spending too much time in the 50% zone, comfortable though it may be.

1. Finding your growth edges

One, we will never find out where our growth edges are in the 50% zone. Growth edges being those areas in our current technical abilities which if strengthened, are likely to make the greatest difference in the impactfulness of our playing.

Hanging out in the 50% zone is like spending all of your time working to get all your first serves in. Looks nice on paper, but it’s a recipe for losing lots of points, because in order to get your first serve in 100% of the time, you will have to hit the ball with less speed and at more conservative angles, making it easier for the other player to hit a winner on the return.

Consider that in 2011, the #1 men’s player in the world, Novak Djokovic, got 65% of his first serves in. And that the highest first serve percentage of all the men in the top 100 was only 71% (source).

Is this because they aren’t practicing their serves diligently enough? Nope, it’s just a sign that they appreciate the balance between getting the first serve in (playing the notes perfectly) and hitting it hard enough that the opponent isn’t going to absolutely pound the return (making compelling music that says something, and engenders an emotional reaction in others).

2. Comfortable becomes a habit

The other problem with spending too much time in the 50% zone, is that we get used to what it feels like to play comfortably. This becomes a habit, and it becomes increasingly unlikely that we will step out of our comfort zone when the pressure ratchets up.

Yes, of course we must play the notes with a high degree of technical accuracy, but we’re not going to become the compelling musicians and artists we can be by spending all of our time striving to make safe, dull, comfortable, 50% playing more consistent. We become the kind of artists we admire by constantly pushing the limits of the kind of playing our current technical abilities allow, always looking to realize what 200% sounds like.

Take action

Next time you’re in the practice room, take a piece you know well, and try hitting the ball so hard, that only 65% of your serves go in.

If you’re like most, you’ll have difficulty bringing yourself to do 200% your first time. It might take a few times to get up there.

But when you do get there, what do you hear? Something special? Something compelling, thrilling, and worth getting excited about?

If you did it right, and got close to 200%, you will also have heard some stuff that didn’t work out so perfectly. And that’s not a bad thing (for now, anyway)!

It means you really pushed to the edges of your ability and found your growth edges. This is how you figure out what specific technical issues needs the most work in order to take your playing to the next level. In other words, of all the things you could work on, these are likely the most high-value technical skills, tweaks, and adjustments you could spend your time practicing.

The one-sentence summary

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” ~Babe Ruth

photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach via photopin cc