Practicing: Engaging the Mind in the Music-Making

March 11, 2021, 2:42 PM · What are you thinking, as you play the violin? Probably many things at once, but you can enrich your thinking by taking the golden opportunity to become conscious of it.

your brain on music

Start with the simple mental exercise of pivoting between the two hands: allow your mind to dwell for a moment on the left hand. Then, switch over to the right hand and the bow arm. It's a way of juggling the brain cells, allowing them to concentrate separately on things like shifting, vibrating at the end of the shift, and keeping the bow from bouncing during the shift. You’ll never run out of opportunities to keep your mind active.

Here are a few areas of focus, for exercising your mind:

The Bow Arm Drives the Rhythm

Given the choice between thinking about the notes or the bow arm, the notes most often take precedence. The most pressing need gets the most attention. However, concentrating on the bow arm -- making it more focused and expressive -- may actually make it easier to play the notes.

  1. The bow will help define the notes, both in pitch and texture. A blurry bow movement makes for blurry attacks.
  2. A strongly-articulated rhythm will give you a little more time to play each note. Beautiful sounds and even rhythms require beats which are well-cushioned and proportional with other. Even an extremely fast passage can feel well-controlled, if the beats are even and rhythms are intentional.
  3. Just as singers must take into account their breathing, string players must listen for the phrasing of those they’re playing with. If your virtuosity gets the better of you, you may cut corners here and there, leaving your colleagues in the dust.

Flipping from Conscious to Unconscious Thoughts

Think about where the music has been and where it’s going.

Some musicians seem to live and breathe music, and naturally play with a richer tone when the notes go up and a lighter one when they go down. Their subconscious is rich and organic, as if music is their second language.

Other musicians must take a moment to think about phrasing, and make sure it happens. Developing conscious thoughts helps them keep the music in perspective and learn from experience. Even the most natural musicians devise musical and technical strategies, especially when called to explain it to others.

Planning Dynamics and Thinking Ahead

Dynamics can help in mapping the contours of the music and provide opportunities for exercising the mind. For example, here’s how to play your way from a simple and elegant piano to a powerful forte in eight bars: As music is take a more dramatic turn, focus on increasing bow speed and weight.

You can also allow slight changes in the tempo. Keeping the rhythms proportional, you can allow the beat to follow the pacing of the phrase, as it ebbs and flows. In reality, no two measures have the same metronome marking, especially in slower sections.

Reading and Absorbing Music – The Ultimate Thought Experiment

Setting up the right sequence of learning can prevent careless mishaps. On the flip side, hurried or thoughtless practice can allow mistakes to become enshrined in the muscle memory, making practicing tedious and frustrating.

Learning patience lays the ground work for getting the mind ready and for waiting for the right moment to play the notes, without falling into the trap of accumulating bad habits. Here are some pointers:

  1. Develop a waiting period in which the bow doesn’t move until the notes, fingerings, and rhythms have been processed in the mind.
  2. Look for the “red flag” that tells you you’re about to make a mistake. Of course, you may stop the music’s momentum when you slow down to prevent the mistake, but you’ll get it back when you repeat the passage.
  3. When practicing, avoid the urge to "joy ride" - that is to heedlessly ride the music without forethought. Of course, it feels so good to keep playing because it’s like driving fast a one-way street. These joy rides, however, always end up in a collision course. It takes a moment of thinking to know what’s coming next.

Certainly, speed and full play-throughs need to be included when you polish a passage, but it’s best to learn to enjoy fast tempos one or two measures at a time. You have to trust those measures will all come together as the last step of your practicing.


March 12, 2021 at 01:11 AM · This is all very helpful!

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