With so many choices to make when you practice, like when to vibrate or when to concentrate on string changes, a checklist is a good way to bring a sense of order and efficiency. However, since music is layered with musical and technical considerations, it’s better to be flexible and not stuck in one line of thinking. Switching gears, like knowing when to shift your concentration from the left hand to the right, helps you learn how to think on your feet. Even rhythm, which is mathematical and logical, is contingent on the moment at hand. My favorite part of being a musician is bending the “rules” to create a more meaningful musical phrase with the right tempo.
Yet minds have a predilection for staying fixed. This point was brought home by a student who came to me after a few years of study, and things did not fit together in his playing. There was too much pressure between the hair and the strings, and bow changes made the scratchy sound even worse. Sudden bow movements and unexpected rhythmic spurts compounded the distorted sound. Yet he was determined to remember what his teachers had told him, hanging on to that information like a lifeline. In fact, each mistake and scratch triggered him to think of what he should have done to prevent them from happening in the first place. He was stuck in an old perspective, something that was familiar to him. While it sounded logical, it was sinking him further into a vicious cycle.
Hearing and Seeing Things in a New Light
Pianist Glenn Gould expressed to a graduating class the idea of fundamental changes in a musician’s belief system. His unique ability as a pianist and writer reflected his desire to remain true to his spirit. He withdrew from the concert stage and pursued intensely personal interpretations of Bach and Schoenberg. Here is his speech:
Changing the perception of an aspect of your playing can lighten the load of your technique. For instance, the effectiveness of using a metronome as compared to hearing the beat in your ear can have a significant influence on your rhythm. While metronomes are an amazing invention and need to be used, they don’t replicate the ebb and flow of music. Phrases, dynamics, and climaxes make music flow spontaneously. The kind of beats that are needed change on a dime, ever so slightly.
If you’re used to a strict metronomic beat, you may be caught off guard when the pace slows down or speeds up a little. That’s when the beat is better off in your head rather than being stuck in a metronome. How do you change your perspective and move the tempo inwards? The first thing to do is to notice the successful times when the music and the rhythm seem to flow through the ears, mind, and fingers. When that happens, gently count in your head. Counting the beats gives you more stability and makes you a better subdivider. Knowing how a quarter note “wraps around” eighth or sixteenth notes means you won’t rush the faster notes.
Gently Folding in New Ideas
Anyone who has ever played fast notes too fast or slow notes too slowly knows that playing with others makes you listen and be ever vigilant about where the beat is. That’s hard to do if you’re stuck in a metronome mind-set. What a difference there is between hearing the hollow tap-tap of the metronome vacuum and experiencing the depth of live music played by you and your colleagues. You notice that harmonies make you hold a note just a little longer, and you feel more resolved to move the sixteenth notes a little faster. Hearing rhythms this way can motivate you to think more musically. It will even help you follow a metronome better because there are more notes and rhythms ringing in your ear.
Changing from the mechanical mode to the musical one opens the door to greater possibilities. Dynamics, gently changing rhythms, and articulations will appear more colorful and defined. But such a change can face resistance. Old habits die hard. New thoughts and observations will be heard and gradually digested, but it may take some time. An old perspective, even if it’s no longer effective, will try to share the stage with a new one.
Thoughts and Feelings Sum Up Music
If you feel that thinking and playing don’t mix easily, you would be right. They reside in parts of the brain that are both compatible and incompatible. When you discover a new idea in your playing that negates an old one, you go through the cycle of reminding yourself and then forgetting the idea. Like the interdependence of the left and right hands, thinking and feeling eventually find a way to co-exist. A good way to absorb a new perspective is to not let go of the old one, nor force it out, until it seems less necessary. When you have a breakthrough moment, it will course through your musical system in its own time, and even integrate some of your earlier beliefs.
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