How to Have a Breakthrough: Move Beyond the Advice of Others

May 1, 2019, 11:47 PM · When he was asked to speak at a graduation, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould understood how much there was to learn after finishing college. Music allows many viable interpretations, and individuals are as unique as their methods. Within these vast possibilities, there lies the opportunity to discover a musical truth you didn’t know existed. Partnered with the seeking of "better truths," or discovering ideas that fit your personality, is the possible rejection of what you already know or have been taught. Gould said near the beginning of his speech, "…if I could find one phrase that would sum up my wishes for you on this occasion, I think it would be devoted to convincing you of the futility of living too much by the advice of others."

Certainly many of Gould’s audience already had a firm musical philosophy rooted in their minds, fingers, bow arms, and attitudes. However, just as many had, if they were lucky, a vague suspicion that music could be full of revelations.


The nature of music is supremely logical, but oddly non-intuitive. (For instance, why do many of us play with too much leverage as we approach the tip, and why do thicker strings invite more raspy sounds? Intuitive thinking invites us to act on the first thought that comes to mind, while the non-intuitive approach takes into account numerous other factors.)

Gould said, "…but to articulate the reasons why this most unscientific, unsubstantial thing that we call music moves us as it does, and affects us as deeply as it can, is something that no one has ever achieved. And the more one thinks about the perfectly astonishing phenomenon that music is, the more one realizes how much of its operation is the product of the purely artificial construction of systematic thought. Don’t misunderstand me: when I say "artificial" I don’t mean something that is bad. I mean simply something that is not necessarily natural…"

Breaking Through the Wall of 'Learned Technique'

Here's an example to consider: My road to learning double stops was strewn with failures and dead ends. I tried the usual remedies: concentrating on the lower note; practicing the top note, then the bottom note. Then I tried desperate measures. I instinctively applied less pressure with the bow, doing everything I could to decrease the volume of the out-of-tune notes. In true palliative fashion, I relieved the pain without dealing with the cause of the condition. I wallowed for 25 years in the mire of the violinist’s version of the La Brea Tar Pits.

I needed a breakthrough. The strategies mentioned above worked only if my playing was strong and healthy. What good was it if I concentrated only on the top note, only to make new mistakes each time I played it again?

The methods I had tried had been handed down from generation to generation, but they couldn’t break through the wall I had erected. I needed courage to "go for it," to play the double stops with full bow, good rhythm, and confidence. Then, calmly and thoroughly, inspect the damage one error at a time. While music curses us with its insistence on in-the-moment execution, it supplies us with a surprisingly long reflection period. In double stops, each note requires full attention. I found when I started asking questions of myself, the answers flowed because no one knew my playing better than I did. Was my rhythm hesitant? Was my fourth finger not reaching far enough? Was I able to flip my thinking from upper note to lower note? Was I even thinking? Those intervals don’t happen by themselves.

My breakthrough was to face each mistake with analysis and determination. What surprised me was how much good there was in the double stops when I played with conviction and with no apologies. There were fewer mistakes to deal with. The element of confidence and sheer driving continuity was all part of the breakthrough.

Linking the Known to the Unknown.

The personal ways each of us identifies with our instruments are so valuable because of their uniqueness. Gould speaks about our "systems" as something upon which things can be changed or added. To be ready for new thoughts to pop up, it’s vital to cherish and accept how you play. Notwithstanding the mistakes, the undeveloped technique, and the blemished sound, it’s still a sum of your many parts, earned through many hours of practice.

A moment before you launch into fixing individual details, seize the moment to be incredibly positive with yourself. The mind functions by juggling highly analytic thoughts with supportive and confident thoughts. Into this healthy environment, breakthroughs can exist side-by-side with the system that you’re most familiar with.

Gould warns of the difficulty of absorbing too much information. "You must try to discover how high your tolerance is for the questions you ask of yourself. You must try to recognize that point beyond which the creative exploration-questions that extend your vision of your world-extends beyond the point of tolerance and paralyzes the imagination by confronting it with too much possibility, too much speculative opportunity.

To keep the practical issues of systematized thought and the speculative opportunities of the creative instinct in balance will be the most difficult and most important undertaking of your lives in music."


May 2, 2019 at 09:26 PM · Thank you for the advice, I struggle with all the above mentioned in double stops so I’ll try approaching with a more positive attitude!

May 6, 2019 at 07:17 PM · To be sure, a positive mental attitude is essential to that thing we call success. Gould is a consummate professional at the top of his chosen profession and he is trying to move beyond the known into the realm of the unknown. However, that can only be done when you are at the top of your skills, all acquired from others.

Yes, playing clean double-stops is an achievement that many have stumbled over and many more will stumble over or avoid. Getting past frustration and boredom is but the gateway to opening a whole new universe of thoughts ideas and skills.

Let's also keep in mind that Gould only plays in the studio, never in public. He has his own breakthroughs to pursue, I have mine, and you have yours.

May 6, 2019 at 07:30 PM · Your sentence about playing "with conviction and no apologies" really struck a chord with me! That is a great insight -- one I will try to incorporate into my own performances.

May 7, 2019 at 12:15 AM · Suzanne, I’m always working on my positive attitude, because my rhythm suffers if I don’t. Some of the greatest performers have said they suffer from stage fright, so even they work on their attitude. I find that anticipating what’s coming up in the music helps to keep my mind alert and confident.

May 7, 2019 at 02:03 AM · George, I like to guess what fresh insights would appeal to Gould. His sound in Bach reflected the deepest bass colors and the brightest treble sonorities. Every great soloist must be brave enough to play with his particular style, phrasing, and character. I consider this one type of breakthrough.

I think Gould’s decision to not play in public was an act of courage that flew in the face of the usual expectations placed on soloists. This gave him opportunities to speak through the music exactly as he wanted to. We have his wonderful recordings to hear how far his visions led him.

May 7, 2019 at 02:11 AM · @87, Easier said than done, but playing with conviction makes it much more fun to be a musician.

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