Early in the process of learning new music, I generally experience the following stages:
1. Sheer excitement - characterized by wild sight-reading with little to no regard for mistakes
2. Childlike optimism - characterized by a bizarre joy for drilling technique and fundamentals, accompanied by frequent positive visualizations of future performances
3. Reality strike - characterized by the identification of true trouble passages, occasionally leading to angry practice
This concept of angry practice is something I have been focusing on in my latest adventure into new repertoire study, and today was my first instance of its ugly head rearing in a practice session. I chose the image of super-angry "El Toro" above in part because he is, indeed, super-angry, but also in part because angry practice became a clear tendency of mine on the baseball (softball) diamond.
To this day, my dad will reference the softball version of angry-practicer Cayla whenever I describe coming up against failure. I spent a good deal of my youth softball days as a pitcher, and I would feel the anger boil almost every time I just couldn't get the sinker to sink or the change-up to change up. Or the strike to be a strike. I would stand on the mound and set my jaw (my muscles clench a little just thinking about it). I would breathe like a bull about to skewer a toreador, and I would snap the ball in my glove.
Snap, snap, snap. That's what we do as musicians in the same situation.
Cracking the articulated A every time? MASH THAT VENT KEY!
Uneven sixteenth notes? TAP YOUR FOOT REALLY HARD! AND SLAM YOUR FINGERS!
Under-supported interval slurs? PLAY THEM REALLY LOUDLY!
Unsurprisingly, these overly-physical, emotionally-driven are not always conducive to good learning. More often than not, the extra drive (my polite way of saying blind anger) drives up the tempo and dynamic of our practice sessions, making it even less likely that we succeed.
Contrary to the advice you may expect, however, I am not about to tell you to calm down. Firstly, rarely are emotional states truly in our control. Secondly, being angry means that you care, and that is wonderful. Thirdly, emotion drives our expression far more than flawless technique. This guy may have some expressive issues -
- but, you know what, so does this guy:
So what do you do?
Angry practice is not good, but anger is not bad. Rather than rattle off a string of unsupported advice, I would rather simply reflect on how I am currently dealing with this trend in my own practice.
For me, the answer to this contradiction lies in the fact that the anger is energy, and we all need energy in some facet of our playing. Focus the fundamental raw energy of the anger on the things in your own personal playing that need an extra kick - for some that is grounded connection with the chair or floor, for others it is embouchure engagement. For us all it is probably airspeed and motion through the phrase or between note changes.
I tried this today in one particularly troublesome measure of Bozza's Recit, Sicilienne, and Rondo that I am planning to perform in July. After spending the standard five minutes letting my angry energy reveal itself in the blunt force trauma to my fingertips as I wildly slapped at an E to F-sharp connection, I stepped back (literally, took a little walk) and contemplated where I could better use that energy. In this case, I needed a more successful voicing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the change in atmosphere of my practice session after.
Success! My angry practicing had become energetic focus.
Now... on to the task of replicating this experience.
What ways have you found to redirect or defuse angry practicing?
Really, I'm curious. Comment away!
After my most recent writing haitus, I struggled over choosing which topic would relaunch my blogging. Many things come to mind (and will be passed to yours in due time) - I have stream of consciousness ramblings and vague outlines on teaching, focus and mindfulness, research, social media presence, and so on and so forth. I decided to blog on "powering up" because it has benefitted me very concretely in the past two weeks.
It all started here, with my summer foray into documentaries and TED Talks:
In case you don't have 20 minutes to watch a TED Talk (which I think you should set aside at least once a week), the organization summarizes it for you:
"Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see
Wait a minute. So you CAN actually fake it 'til you make it?
The concept is quite simple, actually. Holding your body in a wider, more expansive, "high power" pose sends the message to your brain that you are, in fact, high power. Biologically, the claim is that testosterone levels rise and cortisol ones fall, thus increasing your subconscious expectation of success and your natural propensity for risk-taking (or bravery-requiring) behaviors. Additionally, you send the the nonverbal message that you are strong and confident, despite how you may feel in actuality.
I was intrigued enough to try this a little over a week ago, immediately before performing the Mozart Concerto with the lovely Henry Cheng and IU Ad-Hoc Orchestra, to whom I am continually thankful. Despite my immense self-consciousness, I stood backstage for a solid minute like this:
No, I was not wearing that costume.
I was amazed at how well it worked! I felt physically stronger, my weight was more even distributed between my feet, my legs and hips were more grounded, my inhalations flowed deeper into my abdomen, my shoulders fell back and down naturally. As much as I was ever going to in that moment, I felt pretty Wonder Woman-y.
Now, I am not advocating imagining yourself as a superhero as a method for technical improvement. Ultimately, if you can be as collected, self-assured, and in the moment as possible while performing, you are more likely to replicate how you present the music in a stress-free environment. And superheros, at least according to my observations, cope with stress exceptionally well.
Amy Cuddy (afore-referenced TED Talker and Harvard business professor) presents this as applicable in job interviews and presentations. I vote for performance settings such as recitals or auditions. The opportunities are quite wide ranging, though. Give it a shot, and I would love to know what you experience.
Power up and go be super!
If you're a student, this tends to be the time of goal-setting and returning to fundamentals. (Stay tuned for a burnout post, coming shortly.) As I finish up another academic year, I find myself entering summer with just that approach.
Get in the practice room! Play scales! Make reeds!
After all, these are the building blocks... aren't they? Why, then, do we feel so frustrated with the inevitable plateaus of learning? We have been taught for years that relevant short-term goals and focused work will lead to our long-term goals. Diligent major scales and long tones win auditions.
I was (relatively) happily sweating away at the gym last week when the great flaw of this was literally right in front of my face. With the elliptical machine as my weapon of choice, this spring I set a semester goal of going from total gym avoidance to breaking five miles in 45 minutes, and I had been clocking in around 47 minutes for weeks. I had also been doing what I had been trained to do with long-term goals, trusting the fundamentals - focusing on breathing, smooth body motion, even pacing. For weeks I would enter the last mile and a half with an extra burst of energy, and for weeks I would fail.
I don't know what inspired me on Wednesday, but I decided to start focusing earlier than the last mile and a half. What if I started paying attention to the middle step? Specifically, I wanted to hit three miles at 27 minutes and four at 36. Unsurprisingly, it worked. With almost no extra physical effort, I shaved a solid three minutes off my average five mile time simply by gearing my efforts to the "middle-term" goals.
This got me thinking. What if I can do so much more in music than I think, simply by shifting focus? What if I can play a magical Mozart Concerto if I just bother to set my sights on something in the abyss between a B-flat major scale and a moving, stylized, engaging performance?
Essentially, I realized I needed this guy:
Remember him? He's the guy in Mario Kart who picked you up when you drove off the road. He also measured your mid-race progress. Lap four at just under 38 seconds. Not getting the turbo boost to lead off in first (B-flat major scale) or standing on the top of the podium at the end (from your Mozart Concerto, of course).
What is your "lap four" goal? Really, though, leave it in the comments field below.
This is the goal that falls by the wayside. We do the work of the short-term goals with our eyes on the long and forget to have a means to measure the gulf in between. Most times it is very clear how to set a short-term goal for a week - what was I assigned in my lesson? It is also very clear how to set a long-term goal for a year - what is on my recital/jury/audition? The middle steps are much more elusive, though.
What do you personally want to see, hear, and feel in yourself as a musician in a month? What about two or three? Can you make these specific, independent goals and state them without referencing your short- or long-term goals? By this, I mean that a "lap four" goal is not just to play your scales more in tune or your concerto under tempo. It's trickier than it sounds to set this kind of milestone, and I will leave you with that charge.
Ready? Set. ...
I find it fitting to inaugurate this blog with a brief introduction on my views of performance. Firstly, because performing is at the center of our musical lives, and secondly, because I am just shy of four hours away from my first doctoral recital. For the first reason, this post should be a novel. For the second, it is embarrassingly short and unorganized.
Performance is the culmination of so many aspects of musicianship, each of which will inevitably make its way back to this blog. Programming, practice, rehearsal, marketing, anxiety, physical health, stage presence, logistics... the list seems endless at times. What I wish to impress today is the undeniable need for performance.
As students, public performances are daunting. They represent evaluation, criticism, and potential for failure. Not passing a barrier jury can mean a delay (or termination) of your studies. Presenting an ill-prepared recital can mean the same, plus the added humiliation and blow to self-confidence. We are too frequently transplanted from a place of sharing human experience to one of judging technical achievement, and we are scared to perform.
Without performance, however, music is denied its intent. Delicately shaped melodies that fall not on deaf ears, but rather on none at all, have no impact. Emotion finds no person to affect. All of your work exists only for you, and the timeless suites, sonatas, and concerti die in the practice room as etudes. The tree falls in the woods, and it does not make a sound.
"Music fills the infinite between two souls."
So go find another soul and fill the infinite. You may miss a few notes, send a few errant squeaks and squawks into the world, but nothing exists in a vacuum.
Be brave and go perform.