About performing, and letting the music speak

August 30, 2008 at 06:14 AM · I have a burning question about performing. I find that my best performances occur when I 'let the music speak through me.' When I am able to get myself into this mindset, a number of things take place, among them a great deal of focus and planning my playing several seconds ahead of when I'm playing. However, whether or not I can get into this mode seems to have no connection with any external influences. My question is, how do you get into this mode, where the all the aspects of your playing (technical, emotional etc.) coalesce together into laser focused playing?

Replies (34)

August 30, 2008 at 02:36 PM · Charles C wrote: "When I am able to get myself into this mindset.....focus and planning my playing several seconds ahead of when I'm playing. ..........My question is, how do you get into this mode,...?"

Fluency and graceful movement, amongst other good things, comes from the mental process you describe. I think that getting into this zone in a performance happens to those who have, during their practice, cultivated a habit of thinking ahead. The more one deliberately aims to think ahead while practicing, the more likely one will do the same in performance. I frequently bring this point up during teaching. The analogy I use is throwing a ball to another person. One necessarily pictures the ball traveling from his own hand to the catcher's hand just before the throw. We do this all the time in everyday life. If one does not picture himself sitting down in a chair before doing it, one might find oneself sitting on the floor!

August 30, 2008 at 05:08 PM · I'm not a subscriber to the zen logic of letting yourself go when you perform, and all the other "emotional artist" stuff that is so often portrayed on television.

I also don't believe in cooking my tomato sauce all day. I think it's best to capture the essence of the tomato quickly and with the help of some companion fresh ingredients.

Same thing with violin. Music is a series of skills and logic strung together by the performer. It is not the alignment of the stars in your horoscope making way to an enlightened performance. Nonsense.

An artist (of any kind) is a thinker. You must think before you do. Hopefully with enough practice all this thinking will eventually become second nature. This will free up your thinking so you can then focus on your phrasing and interpretation. Eventually that will become easier and more fluent - like a language. But thinking never ceases, especially on stage. If you are performing a concerto you cannot let yourself go and hope for the best. You must respond to the orchestra around you, the conditions of the room, the energy of the audience, and to your own personal state of mood.

The only "zone" I stive to get into is a zone of complete focus.

August 30, 2008 at 06:22 PM · I agree. When I was a kid I read a book that I don't remember the name of which was my first exposure to AT. It took that and similar thinking from another "body guy" and turned it into the message that all you need to do is have your body and mind in the right conditon/state, and all will be right with the world, music-wise. Pretty much exactly like the Zen archery thing, if you're read about that. It had me mind-numbed for a year. Had my teacher getting madder and madder for about the same amount of time.

A lot eventually becomes passive and doesn't take thought to do, that's obvious, but those things usually get to that point through thinking about them a lot! It's also very easy to trick yourself into thinking you sounded some way that you didn't. Most people could benefit from using a recorder a lot, I think. I'm amazed particularly by musicians in former times who got to their high level without a recorder; the first time they heard themselves recorded is the same recording you can listen to, often.

August 30, 2008 at 06:21 PM · It's very simple...audiation. This is the skill that allows us to 'think' in musical terms, overcoming whatever little technical requirements are required to get the sounds we want. Obviously, there has to be an automatic command of one's hands and fingers to execute this properly, but the 'channeling' concept is audiation. For more information on this, go to www.giml.org.

August 30, 2008 at 06:28 PM · I find I can play pieces by different composers easier than others.

Like with Mozart. His sonata in F major is one of the first "hard" pieces I learned. I found it much easier to play becuase it was almost like I composed it and I understood the technical aspects of it. And a concerto by Mozart was one of the first I started to learn and found it wasnt that difficult if I looked at it from the composers aspect.

I cant play Paganini at all! People say the Bach Partitas and Sonatas are the same level of Paganini caprices, but to me,NO WAY!! I cant play any Paganini. I can play the Bach pretty well for only playing it for 4 or so months. I just need to finish up partita 3.

The only pieces I get "lost in" is the solo Bach... It's very emotional and it seems almost personal. Like in other pieces I play, I'm always thinking about other things than just the song. But with the Bach I block everything out. And when I played Chaccone for the first time, It felt very accomplishing.

When I'm laying in bed at night, I find it difficult to sleep sometimes because I have melodies going through my head...

There are so many things you can do to change your playing.Not sure if this really answers your question, but thats what happens with me...

August 30, 2008 at 07:00 PM · The "Aldous Huxley School of Music" --huh?

I think that everything you want to do on the violin becomes effective as the result of practicing plenty and learning what YOU must do to get such-and-such a result.

Then, you may modify what you do in performance to create the "emotional" and technical effects you desire at the moment.

Wishing won't do it; working will!


August 30, 2008 at 10:26 PM · Marina Fragoulis wrote:

"I'm not a subscriber to the zen logic of letting yourself go when you perform, and all the other "emotional artist" stuff that is so often portrayed on television." and

"(Music) is not the alignment of the stars in your horoscope making way to an enlightened performance."

Perhaps I misunderstood Charles C's question, but I didn't get that he was writing about any of the things that you said in the above quotes. When I responded, I was using the word "zone" to refer to thinking! (Not "letting go", in the sense of a cessation of thinking.) My response was about the process of thinking ahead, though his question may have referred to other points that I didn't see, or didn't address.

August 31, 2008 at 09:24 AM · Thank you for your responses.

Oliver, thank you immensely. When you are playing, to what extent are you looking ahead? It is possible to do things in everyday life fairly mindlessly yet accurately. How much is it necessary (or not) to look ahead in order to play well?

Marina (and Jim), you may have misunderstood my question. I am not trying to 'let go' of anything, it is in fact the opposite, I am trying to get into a state where I am in a "zone of complete focus." I have recorded myself playing like this and it is indeed better...in particular my phrasing and sense of line is more consistent (particularly with Bach). Marina, how do you get focused while playing?

John, how do you consciously practice audiation? I think I understand what it is, but how do you concentrate on utilizing it?

Paul, thank you, I will consider that :).

Andrew, I fully understand the content of your comment. However, I cannot figure out at all how to get into this mental state! When it happens, I can backwards rationalize the cause and effect steps which got me there, but I can't recreate it. Thank you for your considerations, though.

August 31, 2008 at 04:10 PM · Oliver and Charles,

I may have misunderstood the question. The background on that is that it infuriates me when non-musicians assume that musical talent is divine inspiration. My husband is a visual artist who works dilligently on his painting - planning, sketching, revising, editing, and self-critique. People picture him as this incredibly emotional and turbulent artist that sits on the floor with his eyes closed until the artists' spirit enters him and guides his paint brush. This couldn't be further from the truth as he is the most logical, analytical person I know... along with most artists that I have met.

Music - same general misconception. I guess when someone says "get into the zone" it catapults me into thinking that others perceive what I do as something trivial. As if it's 50% me, 50% cosmic forces. In truth it is 150% work work work!

I don't think much about how to focus. That skill comes through experience. By gaining confidence. By being able to sit for long periods of time practicing a small group of notes. By going on stage enough times to be able to anticipate my nerves and control them. And most importantly, visualizing my performance and my success (wow, how zen is that lol!)

August 31, 2008 at 07:01 PM · 100% agree with Marina.

For me, when i feel "in the zone" or whatever you choose to call it, it's mainly having adequate warm up (1-2 hours), and understanding the acoustics of the space you're working in. And of course practicing enough so that the music seems easy, and then trying to achieve beyond perfect. Understand that this doesn't mean things become automatic. it means you are constantly listening to yourself, and being prepared to make micro-adjustments at every moment.

August 31, 2008 at 06:40 PM · If I know the music well enough to play from memory, and if I can detach from over-observing the physical aspects of playing, I can separate myself from the fellow making the music in order to listen critically to the sounds that fellow (me, actually) is making, and actually approximate the ideal that I'd like to hear emanating from the instrument. That is, I find myself able to make the piece sound like I wish to hear it, without conscious effort while playing. It's as though I'm two separate people; the player and the critical auditor.

While I can do this from time to time, I'm not sure I can explain it adequately. But when it's happening, it's rather pleasant.

August 31, 2008 at 05:31 PM · One key to having the total focus you want is in singing the music. I have found that singing the music to myself prevents extraneous and potentially distracting thoughts from taking away one's concentration. Because the one instrument we're all born with is our voice, regardless of whether we can use it like an opera singer does, we still have tremendous variety to shape the pitch, rhythm, volume, tone color, and emotion we wish to convey. If we can imagine our voice giving direction to the music we can create that with the bow and fingers. At the most fundamental level technique and musicality are wed. The techniques used in bow distribution or changing the speed and amplitude of vibrato or using portamenti all serve musical ends and the voice can help as the link that binds the technique and the music together. Above all, of course, is the ear, hearing and searching and listening for a desired sound,setting this process in motion.

August 31, 2008 at 07:37 PM · Interesting discussion - I've been mulling this one over in my head for a while already. Bob, your comment stuck out to me because I simultaneously very much agree and disagree with what you've written. Like you, being stuck dealing with the physical aspects of playing inhibits me, but I have just as much difficulty with the 'two separate people' - player and observer - you mentioned. For me, critical feedback from an outside 'objective' observer distracts. This observer judges what I do and how it sounds, and only sometimes does it serve to improve the actual playing I'm doing at the time.

The reason for this is simple: the observer is judging what I've already played, and therefore has no time to determine what's about to come. In a practice situation, this feedback is useful - onstage, it gets me nowhere. It comes just a little bit too late, and I find myself correcting at best.

For me, the moments when the internal real-time critic gets turned off (or better, is so busy doing everything else that it can't give me running commentary on my performance) are the most useful - where I'm hearing the orchestra along with my concerto part, or where I'm so busy with the music that I can't stop and think about what I just did. Playing quartets, for example, or practicing for variety rather than just absolute consistency.

I spent a long time trying to 'still my mind' - to let everything go and just to focus on one thing. It didn't help. Or maybe it did, but I wasn't going to find where I needed to be just by going along that road. It's been a combination of constructive thought (determining/acting/planning/playing offensively) and trust that's helped (and is helping) me to find a type of playing that projects.

August 31, 2008 at 11:37 PM · I am merely a piano player...

In a masterclass, I once heard Leon Fleischer say that he believed that a great performance needed to be a combination of objective and subjective (knowledge/preparation and feeling/inspiration) and that the performer had to 'adjust the carburetor' as needed. This has always stuck with me.

Another very great teacher of accompanying told me once that if I ever find myself being sublimely moved by my own performance, it's likely that I will be the only one experiencing it.

September 1, 2008 at 02:28 AM · Greetings,

Oliver, re your first post. Agree completely.Would go further and suggets that a greta deal of work in the practice room is the reverse eg. the player is thinking behind what they play ;)

I think the bottom line is listening. This sounds simple but it is the one thing that many players don`t really seem to get the hang of. In order to listen one can pay attention to something specific in the present moment. I often encourage my students to listen to the note behind the note or even the hiss of the bow hair on the string. Things we tend to tune out asutomatically.



September 2, 2008 at 12:09 AM · Greetings,

Jim, I agreed with all of your message but had a bit of a scare with this bit ;)

>when i feel "in the zone" or whatever you choose to call it, it's mainly having adequate warm up (1-2 hours),

I am not entirely sure that this lenth of time (presumably doing exercises, scales , difficult passages etc) is actually a warm up although I would be warm by the end. Actually I would be so warm I would be exhausted and probably wander off for a quick beer or something....

Just what works for me, but I think warm up is not a quesiton oftime but rather what one is warming up IE are you addressing blood flow to the hands(takes about 3 minutes of exercise away from the instrument or hot water) warming up the emotional/spiritual component or the analytical. Wrote a blog on what I mean a while back called `The warm up of death.` It@s not that interesitng but the comments by other memebers of this site are absolute gems,



September 2, 2008 at 12:38 AM · Buri,

Perhaps thinking behind is the process of evaluating while practicing. While thinking ahead to the next action, we are also thinking behind in order to evaluate what we just heard. Now I've got a headache from thinking about thinking.

September 2, 2008 at 01:37 AM · Greetings,

its like the Rocky movie. `Hit the one in he middle.`

Or not.



September 2, 2008 at 07:34 AM · Interesting thoughts by all. I'll just address a couple people.


When watching certain very high level performers (particularly Glenn Gould, but also including Heifetz and some others), you see the most extraordinary thing, which is that they seem to be observing their performance almost from out of body. Glenn Gould in particular does this hilarious thing where he just watches his fingers play and 'pulls the strings' to achieve the desired effect. That is really pure concentration, when he integrates past and future to create a perfect sound in the present. (Okay, the last clause was a little bit dotty...take it as you will).


Thank you for the suggestion. What do you do when you get bored of the specific thing you are listening to? I do listen to specific things while playing; the problem is that the moment I get bored of it (the exact color I am producing, the hiss across the strings, etc.) my attention drifts. I've been practicing keeping my attention very sharp, so I guess it is just something you practice?

September 2, 2008 at 12:02 PM · Charles,

One cannot fairly compare Glenn Gould to the average performer. Not only because of his technical brilliance and intuitive interpretations, but also because he was autistic. His way of "getting into the zone" would be completely different than most performers'.

September 2, 2008 at 01:08 PM · Hi,

The first path in my opinion to get into the zone Charles C is talking about is to realize that it is all about the music and never the player (us). The second path is to actually do this and give 100% each time one plays, whether a concert, an orchestra rehearsal, or a chamber music rehearsal, a lesson (for those that are students). The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

For me, and this is again a personal opinion, this embodies well the playing of James Ehnes. He really personifies for me all of this everytime I see/hear him play, and it is always a terrific experience.


September 2, 2008 at 02:02 PM · fantastic opinions above by all..something that can benefit students in other disciplines as well. for instance, i have asked my kids to read them to relate to their golf game where a deliberate action has to mix well with fluency and balance... so thank you all!

btw, i think the differences in opinions are simply results of looking from different angles. the more the readers are aware of what is out there, the better the chance to find approaches that are more fitting to their own unique requirement.

September 2, 2008 at 05:54 PM · buri,

i don't have a regimented warmup routine. in fact very far from it. all i'm trying to say is that i play better in the second hour of playing than during the first five minutes, whatever i choose to do. i probably practice scales and arpeggios least of anyone i know. sorry about giving you a scare.

During warmup i'm simply focused on having good tone production and getting fluid bow motion. it's about getting used to the sound of my instrument in the space i'm working in, building a bit of muscle memory - in the left hand all over the fingerboard, and in the right hand with finding balance points on the bow. and then finally becoming loose enough that i can produce different colors, vibratos, strokes, etc.

September 2, 2008 at 05:16 PM · "The first path in my opinion to get into the zone Charles C is talking about is to realize that it is all about the music and never the player (us). The second path is to actually do this and give 100% each time one plays, "

If it was really all about the music then we wouldn't get dressed up now would we? I don't know about anyone else out there but I'm a musician because I want to be and because I can bring something of myself to every performance. I like to think of it more like me and Brahms - together!

Give 100%??? Nice movie line but vague - what does that really mean? I'd ask for my money back if a teacher said that to me.

September 3, 2008 at 06:52 AM · What seems to be distracting you from rendering a perfect performance every time you play?

I think it might be important to identify them by listing all the things/thoughts that are distracting.

‘The Inner Game of Music’ suggests reducing the chatter of that little voice in our head, you know the doubts and the fears, by focusing on some of the stuff that has already been mentioned.

‘You Are Your Instrument’ has some very interesting suggestions such as the ‘six-fold memory’

1.Muscle Memory..

2.Imagistic Memory..


4.Auditory Memory..

5.Visual Memory..

6.Analitcal Memory.

As well as the history/style/character/structure/mood/etc,.. of the music this would be plenty to think about and would not allow any room for those ‘pesky interfering thoughts.’

September 3, 2008 at 10:21 AM · Hi,

there's a whole web-site dedicated to "achieving flow" or "getting into the zone". It will play the last part of Telemann's "Gulliver Suite" quite loudly, so take the necessary precautions before clicking here.

In January, I have attended one of Andreas' seminars and found the experience very worthwhile and informative.

Bye, Jürgen

September 3, 2008 at 11:51 AM · Hi,

Marina - giving a 100% means giving everything you have everytime you play. A lot of time I see people, especially students slouching in orchestra, being apathetic in a chamber music coaching. The more one does that, the harder it is to be in the mood to play when the situation demands. However, if one gives all that one can offer at any given moment, then getting into this zone is easier. It becomes the norm, and you develop a habit of being there rather than only having it as a special occasion. I know that my students wouldn't appreciate it if I gave less than my 100% in every single lesson, and when you teach 8 hours in a day, putting yourself in that mindset, whether demonstrating, explaining, trying to instantly solve problems with the students or listening makes it better for everyone. The same goes in chamber rehearsals or as I lead the orchestra from the concertmaster chair - that energy is infectious and people want to play because they see someone who is committed. However that energy comes from the focus on the music or the education if teaching.

What you are describing about your relationship with Brahms is coexisting with the composer. You are not putting yourself above the music, or using the music as a vehicule for yourself or about transforming the music into something it's not just because you feel like it. I like Charles C's comment on channeling the music. I think that is a good goal. Also, for many of my students (and myself), being focused on the music rather than oneself has something very soothing and liberating nerves-wise when you realize that is about much more about that than you. It is more an internal attitude than something external. We all sound different. That's the beauty. Everyone basically has his own sound. Now putting that at the service of the music above all is I think a very noble goal.

You do not have to agree with that, and if you took a lesson with me and felt unsatisfied, I would happily give you your money back!


September 3, 2008 at 11:56 AM · I chalk up catchy phrases like "give it your all" or "give 100% out there" and "let the music speak through you" as nonsense. None of these phrases give any particular information about what I should be doing as a performer. They do not give a strategy. They're fluff! What is 100% by the way? Have I achieved it by paying the conductor? By wearing my best shoes? By praying before hand? By having bought the best violin? By practicing? 100% what?

..."realize that it is all about the music and never the player (us)"

Of course it's not all about the player, but it has SOMETHING to do with us doesn't it? It wouldn't be happening if I wasn't actually moving my hands around would it? No phrase would happen unless I directed it would it?

A lady once waited back stage after a concert to meet Heifetz. She waited in line and when she finally had her chance she said to him "your violin sounded beautiful tonight." Heifetz picks up his violin, puts it near his ear and says "Really? I don't hear it saying anything."

September 3, 2008 at 05:09 PM · i think 100% simply means to give one's best. on that, many people have problem giving 100% or their best, for a variety of reasons. for the students, perhaps it is lack of technical abilities or musical understanding. for the pros, it can be issues with performance techniques: know how to play, do not know how to deliver.

September 3, 2008 at 10:35 PM · Greetings,

al, one reason both studnets and even some pros don`t give 100% is that from an early stage thye are brought up to belive that they can be a soloist with the result that orchstra practice in university is aoften apathetic and this carries ovver into the profession and dissatisfaction with one`s lot.

One way of being more specific about the term `give 100%` might be to ask if the conservertoire student (for example) has invested the same amount of diligent, slow and thoughful pracitce on a murderously difficult part as they might on a cocnerto (whihc they are never going t play in performance....).



September 4, 2008 at 12:43 PM · thanks buri for that perspective, i guess only violin veterans would have encountered/understood,,, that habits of holding back selectively may spread over and stall the engine...

but you raised an interesting point nevertheless. if we look around, i think it is accurate to say that we all pick and choose: give some less than 100% in order to reserve the 100% focus/energy/freshness to selected few. question is can we switch on and off just like that...?

i don't know about other people's kids, but i can attest with my observation on my own. any time we slack off some basic rules/forms/good habits for convenience or fun or whatever, the next day we need to spend more energy picking up the pieces. no good deed goes unpunished.

September 4, 2008 at 12:32 PM · About 'thinking ahead'...sounds a reasonable idea, but I also like to imagine knowing a piece so well that I am relieved of the need to think ahead, and can give full attention to the shape and colour of each note as I play it. I'm aiming for this (long way to go!) with Wieniawski's Romanze which seems to lend itself to this approach i.e. no huge surface difficulties.

Maybe there are two kinds of thinking - defensive / anxious, and constructive / directing. The student / amateur (e.g. me) is ruled by the former, the master rules the latter.

September 4, 2008 at 01:51 PM · I feel this is related to how the best conductors indicate ahead of time what the musician in the orchestra should be feeling or giving to the music a moment or two before the sound happens. One can see this in the conducting of Leonard Bernstein for example- his anticipatory movements and gestures helped the orchestra be prepared for what they should be feeling and conveying as each moment progressed throughout the music.

Also, I think, whether we realize it or not, we are listening to the sound as it is happening in addition to anticipating the next sound, more as confirmation of our musical intentions. In developing a solid technique wed to the musical demands, one does not have to think about how one is vibrating or shifting or drawing a straight bow, etc. and instead is listening for a sound that is ready to change and adapt to the mood of the music as the music unfolds.

One has a sort of repertoire (always expanding and growing in depth one hopes) of ways to create different sounds and moods and it is not unlike the gestures and gesticulations we've learned to make with our voice and our hands when we convey meaning and emotion in our speech. All the techniques we spend time learning on the violin are really in the service of communicating the music and, in performance, the process is one of anticipation and unfolding rather than reacting in the sense that one ends up "reacting" as the result of something unexpected or unanticipated, like a note off-pitch or ensemble faltering. For those of us who play in orchestras, haven't we been in situations where a conductor, for example, shifts gears to indicate to play softer or louder because something is too loud or too soft, or because there has been a tendency in rehearsal for a given passage to be too loud or soft and therefore a cautionary sign is given as a reminder? When such things happen, the steady and unfolding nature of musical communication is disrupted and both the performer's and the audience's attention is momentarily drawn away from the meaning and expression in the music.

You need to know what the music means to you so you have something to say about it. The technique should be solid enough to convey the meaning through your sound. Your brain anticipates the journey and the movements your body makes create the unfolding sound that the audience hears as music expressed intelligently and from the heart.

September 4, 2008 at 02:06 PM · Hi,

Buri - that is an excellent point. Oddly enough, I have always done that. I devote the same diligent work to any piece I play.

Al - I like that last point very much. My last teacher, Martin Beaver, the sensational first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet used to say that anytime we eased off on giving the most we could with the violin we would drop a step back.

Marina - I think that we are misunderstanding each other. I have been mentioning things about a mindset to have that opens the door to something broader.

BUT, teaching is also very technical too, in terms of setup, correct movements for a good mechanism taking into account the general as well as the individual and making it simple by understanding the role of active and reactive movements, lots of material to lay a solid foundation, or reconstruct it if needed, precise solutions on solving every technical problem instantly with instant results, good practice habits, developing the student's mind to make musical choices that are in the spirit of the work before them, choosing fingerings that work techinically and musically (I give actually quite a bit of freedom in this regard), learning how to listen and what to listen for. I have given routines for playing in public and handling nerves that are rational, concrete and step-by-step.

There is a challenge in developing an effecient technique and playing habits in students and making sure that there individuality and their own voice remains theirs.

And yet, the last mindset has been a cataclysm for many (at least those that chose to heed this advice) to fulfill a potential that I couldn't even predict they had. Hence my suggestions to pass it along.

As a member of juries on competitions, exams, etc., I have noticed that what the people listening receive is what the person playing is most focusing on. If it is technical perfection, then we perceive that. If it is showcasing their ego, we receive that. If it is fear, we receive that. If it is putting yourself at the total service of the music and giving it your all, then we receive that.

No, a teacher cannot give only that kind of advice - give it your all. You have to teach all of the above steps, and in essence help the student have a conception that is simple and effecient, and that will enable them to be solid. But, until one opens up to giving something broader then themselves (Buri wrote an awesome blog on this, this morning I think), then many obstacles cannot be transcended and the message sent in performance is never fully convincing.

In the end, what matters is to communicate what you want. It is a choice really, and if one is happy with it, then all the best to them!


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