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elise stanley

Shelling peas - practise and mental relaxation

September 8, 2010 at 1:30 PM

I've read (and listened) a lot about how important it is to be fully relaxed to play the violin.  At any sign of tension in limb, finger or body I stop and try to work thorugh the passage maintaining relaxation.

However, I've read less about mental relaxation - perhaps because it is simply a harder thing to explain or maybe its something that some players just have and others (yup me) have to get.  What I noticed is that when I practise I put as much emotion and passion into playing as if I was performing - and I do that whether its a concerto or a scale.  its as if its 'me against the music'. 

What I have been fooling with is trying to play as if I was washing the floor or shelling peas.  Basically, trying to take out all emotion (expression) and competetiveness (me against the music).  The result is bland - and the more bland it is, the easier it is to manage the tricky passages.  I've taken that a step further - if I find myself tensing - that is, getting prepared or nervous before any passage I now stop.  Go over it a few times and then try the shelling peas approach.

I think I can apply this to performance too - maybe there is a way of introducing the musicality and emotional expression while still playing the technical bits in the pea shelling mode?  I think there must be - I just watch any of the greats and it seems as if their minds are totally relaxed through those incredily difficult passeges, while somehow their expression flows into their playing without disturbing the pea shelling mentallity. 

It seems to work for me - but in this wonderful world of violin (or any instrument) nothing is novel so can anyone fill me in on the roots of this approach? 

BTW I love eating peas fresh from the pod!

From Eloise Garland
Posted on September 8, 2010 at 5:13 PM

 I think this is a really good way to approach practise!! I might try this now!! :D 

Thanks for sharing!

From di allen
Posted on September 8, 2010 at 6:38 PM

first, memorize the piece.  then practice by walking, ambling, strolling slowly around the room and play it.  i find that combining an automatic activity such as walking with the more difficult challenge of violin playing helps me.  also, any kind of meditation before or after, or even during short breaks in practice, is a good idea.

From Jefferson Dixon
Posted on September 8, 2010 at 11:49 PM

I think that's exactly how technical passages should be viewed. Maybe not without any expression, but with full relaxation. It's like how you see the masters make violin look so effortless and natural.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 9, 2010 at 5:46 AM

I agree with Jefferson, one of our goals during practice is to achieve more and more ease during each repeat: first you learn to play the notes, then play them with ease, then play with even more ease, and so on. It doesn't mean things will always get easier with practice; some technical stuff are going to be difficult for some of us no matter how hard you practice, but try to play difficult bits with ease is a skill we should consciously acquire during our routine practice.

In terms of emotions, for me there are productive and counter-productive ones. Emotions associated with musical expressions are absolutely crucial for making music and why we play the violin the first place. But frustration is one of many counter-productive emotions and need to be checked all the time.

Another big issue common to adults is associated with performance anxiety. Cool-headed practice may give us solid "performance" in our practice room or even in front of our teacher, but once on stage, we can be completely swallowed by emotion or fear and we'll do stuff we'd never imagined of doing. Anyone has a good solution for this problem, please share with us!

From Mathias B
Posted on September 9, 2010 at 7:05 AM

Try not to identify with your emotions by just observing them and getting aware of them. This will have at least two results: emotions will not automatically translate into muscular tension impeding your playing, and the intensity, complexity and flexibility of your emotions will surprisingly increase without hindering your playing. It is not your emotions but your ego bringing unneccessary muscular tension into your playing ("I want to acoustically express everything I feel"). Undue muscular tension is okay as long as you are aware of it (not trying to change anything, just observing, which will finally result in its release). It's a good thing to practice this in daily life, not only when playing violin and it will be helpful not only for playing the violin.

From Julian Stokes
Posted on September 9, 2010 at 7:05 AM

Before you can play with abandon you have to master the technique.

PS Due to a childhood trauma the only peas I will eat are uncooked, freshly shelled.

From Guy Devlin
Posted on September 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM

That is a fantastic idea. Relaxation is just so incredibly important to me when im practising. I find when im playing Bach - Giga (exam piece) and i start tensing or rushing because I'm nervous it reallys sounds scratchy and out of contol. Unfortunatly this is what happend on stage when i played infront of my entire school       0.o     but at least it wasnt in the exam :)

As a n00b at violin im still trying to get over the fact that pracise isn't a chor, but something that will help.

oh and the other important thing to me is just pretend your THE MASTER when playing. yeh put emotion in lol it's probly the same thing but it works :D

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 1:16 AM

Elise: the first thing that comes to my mind is a phrase of Milstein saying that if you think to much when you play or perform, you cannot play !!!

Yes,your mind must relax and you must focus on beauty and play the music and feel it as it comes and express yourself with freedom...

Such a lot of preparation before,so many years of thinking... before everything blows like a flower!!!

And this applies as well to composers...

From elise stanley
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 2:45 AM

So maybe the route to the violin is through zen meditation?  I'm just trying to get a 'one note at a time' mentality ....

From Fyoder Larue
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 10:26 AM

Transcend ego, become enlightened, and play effortlessly.  Would it be enough, I wonder, to be merely incipiently enlightened?  Everything by degrees.  Ego transcendence is a tall order, but Mathias is absolutely right with regard to anxiety in performance.  Though I imagine an alternative might be a confident ego.  Another tall order for many.

From al ku
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 11:37 AM

some people are born stage performers: they crave for the attention and play better in front of a crowd.  they may not be ready ready, but they have natural born instincts to deliver.

others, if not most, are not like that.

so a whole industry is there to help out the latter.  or self help.

what elise is doing is like opening each little door internally to see what it is inside.   the more she experiments, the more she understands herself and in the long run, to learn to detach herself when necessary or on command.   emotion or stress is an involuntary reaction to something.  i think pros are better at (or have more experiences in) voluntarily controlling or influencing those involuntary unknowns.  with time and good practice, elise will have more "tricks" in her bag and more reserve to fall back to when challenged.

a comedian cannot divulge how funny the line will be by laughing first:).  a good delivery has to be learned, for most people.

and yixi has touched on something of paramount practical importance: how do we know if our daily practices truly contribute to learning to perform on stage?   does "calm" practice truly help?

on route to the stage, do you feel calm?  when have you practiced that, to walk onto the stage feeling calm?  

sounds like most have not exhaustively practiced:)


From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 12:15 PM

al: you are right.  Some get really excited when they perform and are able to do and express things in such a way,that they cannot express it,or even do it again if they are not challenged by the public= Callas, Argerich are the two mucisians that come in mind first to me, or Ginette Neveu on the violin.

From elise stanley
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 4:55 PM

I feel as if I have that in me Marc.  But I have other layers on the onion that have to be peeled away first to let the performer out.  I had a revelation at music camp on this - on the nature of performance anxiety, at least as it pertains to me.  But I have to finish writing this grant before I can do it justice here!

From Dion Ackermann
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 6:05 PM

When I think about disguising the emotions, the story of Clark Gable being asked the secret of how he plays those wonderful love scenes where he plummets the depths of human emotion, he said: "Easy, I just think I am holding a juicy steak and I am about to eat it".  So peas could work, but for the Nutcracker I would substitute peanuts in the shell.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 10, 2010 at 6:13 PM

I have absolutely no doubt about this Elise, in your particular case. You like do dance,you are creative and your imagination as no limits...As a violinist in my younger years or pianist,  I was inspired a lot when playing in public. Of course,I was ready each time with lots of practice and  thinking before each event.Thanks to all my fantastic teachers...

When you do not to bother anymore with technical issues and that you really work on the score and interpretation,that is the moment when fun begins.... And you become eager to perform in public and all sort of very interesting things start happening,sometimes unexpected. You can feel the public with you, and the communication raises to another level after. I have sweet rememberances about this and hope one day to achieve the same with my compositions...

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