Flashes of musical genius. I can't be the only one.

January 29, 2012 at 10:27 PM · Yesterday was my first day back at violin lessons since my recital in December. I'm sure this has happened to everyone at one point or another. I got to my lesson without having warmed up and my instructor and I just picked up where we left off last month. And wouldn't you know, everything I played was just brilliantly in tuned and I played everything to my own satisfaction. It was a momentary flash of musical genius. I played so well that the cello instructor came in from down the hall to compliment me on my playing because it sounded so good and so much more progress since the last time he saw me. I couldn't believe it, it was like someone else was playing and I was observing. It was like having an out of body type experience but with a violin. I had no control over playing so richly. I wasn't even trying or fighting it. I just played everything he told me. It was one of the best lessons I've ever had.

I wish I could harness these momentary flashes of musical successes. I don't even know how I did it or how to do it again. These flashes are so far and few inbetween. After these flashes pass, I revert to my usual playing.

I'm sure others have experienced these flashes before.

Replies (21)

January 30, 2012 at 06:52 AM · Well, in my case it wasn't musical genius, but during my last lesson I felt like a gap in the clouds opened up and Heaven shined on me for a moment while I played. It felt really good. My teacher looked happy as a lark. I tried to explain to him that it was a fluke and that I can't really do that well but he thought I was just being pessimistic. He was grinning from ear to ear and assigned me a bunch of new stuff to work on. Now I've got extra work to do because I'm really not convinced that I can play last week's assignment the way I want to.

January 30, 2012 at 07:59 AM · I avoid these sorts of situations with individual students as well as orchestras with this:

"Excellent! Now, do it again to make sure it wasn't an accident." :)

January 30, 2012 at 08:12 AM · Precious moments. They show you your own potential and create confidence in your abilities. Remembering such moments keeps you going when everything got stuck (another shared experience ;-). If it once was there, it will be there again. The most important thing you need: patience, you can not force it.

January 30, 2012 at 10:14 AM · I have this too, it is actually very great - it shows me what I will be capable of playing easily within a month or two. It is like having a look into the near future.

You can get very close to performing this great by doing this: Wait for a day you really feel like you want to play, right now. Then you start with exercising, but for at least one hour without playing any 'real music'. You should be focused on every detail of your playing. Shoulders, bow arm, bow hand, bow fingers, how you hold the violin, left arm, left elbow, etc etc.

Make sure you are very relaxed and got every detail right, even though you are oppressing your energy that wants you to stop practicing and wants you to just go ahead playing the hardest piece of music you can find. Only then you practice the music you wanted to play from the beginning on!

Sadly, sometimes when I get this great feeling, I just start playing without paying attention to do it right, I just waste my energy within a few minutes, then I am back to normal and I know I have wasted this oppertunity.

January 30, 2012 at 12:26 PM · Steven - I experience those 'flashes' also from time to time (not as frequently as I'd like). When they occur, it feels as if all the stars and planets align correctly, and the entire musical world (if you'd call it that) makes sense during those precious moments. It all comes together. And my favorite saying during those times is that I feel like the Viola Goddess of the Universe.

---Ann Marie

January 30, 2012 at 04:23 PM · Steven, this is actually a dirty trick perpetrated by the music gods. Just when you are as frustrated as can be and are thinking about bagging the whole dirty business, you get a day like that, and realize why you continue. It becomes addictive!

January 30, 2012 at 04:36 PM · I hope all of you don't mind my weighing in with a bit of psychology here. Let's assume there is such a thing as the "subconscious" (or whatever you want to call it).

Like it or not, the brain in each of us is wired to a degree of complexity that makes the most sophisticated computer look like a child's set of blocks. Even when we're doing something else or even sleeping, it is generally agreed that part of our mind is processing information and reactions in some way or other. That's why you can, for example, go to sleep worrying about something, and when you wake up, suddenly you have a solution that hadn't occured to you before.

What you're describing has happened to me, too, and probably to most people. I think that the cause is that just because you haven't been practicing something (or practicing at all) doesn't me your inner mind has stopped thinking about it or even doing its own "practicing" (at least as imagery-sense-exercises). So when you pick up the instrument again, unbeknownst to you, your brain has actually been working on it.

Of course, that explanation may be what my dad used to call "outhouse psychology" (the actual term he used wasn't "outhouse"), but that's what I think.



January 30, 2012 at 04:54 PM · Occasionally, I would do something especially well, such as vibrato, tone production, seamless bow changes, intonation, etc., or everything would become easy.... I even liked the noise that came out of my violin a couple times, but these experiences are nowhere close to musical genius. So, no, it doesn't happen to everyone.

January 30, 2012 at 06:20 PM · What you described Steven is very similar to something that I experienced nearly 20 years ago. I had only been playing some 8 months. I think I had read one of the Havas books and began to practice very slow bowing (no left hand). After 5 or 10 minutes of this slow repetitive practice the Bow seemed to feel very different, as though propelled by itself. Very soon I had much more control and skill than I ever had previously and by quite a margin. Everything went from seemingly great effort and difficulty to absolute ease. Just as you describe, as though someone else was playing or an outer body experience. I think you can rest easy, you haven't gone mad.

The experience was short lived. Try as I might, I was never able to repeat it. I got 'injured' and gave up.

I can't really explain what happened that day. I either hypnotized myself!!! or I happened to be playing with the absolute minimum amount of effort required to play the Violin well.

January 30, 2012 at 09:46 PM · Joyce, when I have those flashes, playing vibrato and everything gets easier then. Maybe this was a genius-flash that you had there.

Sander, your brain "practices" even when you are not playing the violin, that is correct. I find myself making progress by simply imaging that I play the violin. I can feel the strings with my left fingers and I can feel the bow. Just imagine a short piece you want to play and know very well, then close your eyes and you will be able to play it.

You might need to play the beginning from a recording, if you do not know how the first note sounds like (maybe it is easier if you have the absolute pitch).

Why do we get those flashes? I get them when I listened to a lot of classical music the hours before practicing. I get excited almost as much as when I am at a live concert of my favorite band, that should clarify that I get really happy and start singing the notes (singing the violin part) and so on.

When I am really excited, I take my violin and start practicing - just scales, for a few minutes until I can't take it any longer and only then I allow myself to play the 'real music'. But even the scales sound great already.

I think it is all just about the brain being able to concentrate, to fixate on the violin, removing every other thought just so you can do your job really well. If you do not believe me, please try and get really really excited about a piece (right now Bachs Double Concerto works well for me, as I learn it right now). Then try playing it.

January 30, 2012 at 11:46 PM · I almost always make improvements during my breaks from the violin. I agree with what Sandy wrote. Enjoy it! (Disclaimer: this only works if you put in the work before you take your break. Not so well if you never practice...)

January 31, 2012 at 04:35 PM · I agree with what Emily has said. Another thing I have found is that an intensive workshop results in a step up the ladder a short while later – btw, here I'm talking about folk music workshops; I've never been to a classical violin workshop.

However, my violin teacher gets the same result every few weeks when she asks me to prepare a concerto movement for a performance in front of her, as if I were on stage, followed by a detailed appraisal, not only from her but from me.

January 31, 2012 at 08:22 PM · This is a little trick I use with my students, too. They learn a piece up to the polishing stage, and then we put it away and play some other stuff and etudes. Then, a few weeks from their performance date, we get it back out and polish it up. They've had a mental break and a little stretching, and go at it with a fresh perspective. Works like a charm.

February 1, 2012 at 08:12 PM · The mind-body connection is a weird thing. The brain works in mysterious ways. Things happen that just don't make sense sometimes. At my last lesson with Mr T., we played a portion of the Bach double, 1st mov. I hadn't played this in months, but you wouldn't have known it. Played from memory for about 90% of it too, without any of the struggling I had encountered back when I was actively working on it. It's as if my brain spent the last few months processing it and perfecting it subconsciously.

But the rare moments of musical genius do happen, and I discovered my own personal secret for coaxing these little gems out of hiding: Help my son practice! It seems as though, whenever I help my son practice his violin, I get the urge to pick up my violin too. When he plays well, I play well. The times when he shows the most improvement are the times when the music seems to flow, as though our practice session had just prepared the way. I have a theory as to why this is: When things go well in practice, when we have a sense of musical accomplishment and satisfaction from a job well done, and we are not yet tired from our own practice session, we are more relaxed and the music is able to flow more freely from within.

The other day was such a day: My son showed signs of promise and proved that he indeed is learning something. He was correcting his intonation automatically, drawing his bow straight and smooth, and was quite pleased with himself (which doesn't happen too often). Afterward I picked up my violin, warmed up with a scale or two, and busted loose. And boy, did the dynamics and vibrato and tone sound exactly like what I imagined it should. Granted, without warming up properly first, I failed to hit a particular shift dead on, but I played the wrong note beautifully! :p)

February 2, 2012 at 10:47 AM · It happened to me too. These moments are the reason that I always record when I play. I only listen to it if I am happy with what I played though.

I Think it´s a good idea too always record.

February 2, 2012 at 12:13 PM · Emily -

What kind of a break from the violin? Maybe that's why it seems like my progress is intermittent ...:(

---Ann Marie

February 5, 2012 at 12:04 PM · Ann Marie, you do only make progress if you really want to put some effort into it, and you definately make progress if you enjoy playing. Therefore, if you feel exhausted or you are simply not in the mood, do not exercise. At least for me, this time would be wasted.

I exercised every single day for the last 2 weeks, but sometimes I do not feel like playing for a whole week - I try to listen to some favourite piece of violin music then, this helps to pick up the violin.

February 6, 2012 at 01:36 PM · That's not a bad idea. There are times I am so mentally exhausted I will play anyway, and I sound TERRIBLE. But I always thought anything more than a day or two away from the instrument would hurt progress also.

---Ann Marie

February 8, 2012 at 01:29 AM · For me the flashes are very brief and the genius very very slender (put in a few more very's for good measure) but I think that personally they happen after a break because I am EXPECTING to play badly. Therefore I let go of all my inhibitions about how it "should" sound and it just comes out.

February 9, 2012 at 10:59 AM · Ann Marie: It won't hurt your progress if you are just not in the mood for one week or so - as long as this does not happen too often.

Especially when you are exhausted just sleep instead of practicing. I can make progress when I am physically exhausted, but if my brain is tired every effort is wasted.

February 9, 2012 at 11:09 AM · I had one of those moments when I felt I played better than virtuoso. It was after a few martini's though.

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