Have you ever attempted to gain control of your car while it was skidding on an ice- or snow-covered street? Sliding to the right, instinct tells you to slam on the brakes and turn to the left. As a result you continue to slide to the right. The brakes don’t slow the car as you yank the wheel in desperation. You bang your foot down harder as you skid off the road or into another car. After surviving this awful experience, you may have learned that you can gain control of a skidding car by letting the wheel go in the direction of the slide and by letting go of the brake until the car straightens out. Doesn’t this sound rather backward?
Have you ever had a key fail to unlock a door? In frustration do you find yourself trying to force it with brute strength? just when you finally get it open you smirk at the gentle, effortless twist that allows the cylinder to line up and let go of its grip- Riding a bicycle over a bumpy road or riding bareback on a horse, you have the choice of resisting the rough ride by tensing your body and gritting your teeth, or you can let go of your control and allow the bumps to be absorbed by your flexible muscles, guiding your bike or horse with less effort and more responsiveness. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to win an argument by insisting you are right and forcing your way? But when you let go of your position and explore where you can find agreement, you may gain more than you originally demanded.
All too often we arrive at the same frustrating conclusion: when we truly want to gain control, we may be more successful by letting go of our control. Our greatest accomplishments are often achieved with the least effort. If we can put our trust into what really works and is most effective, we may take different directions which seem less controlling, humble, ego-directed and less attached to a result.
For years I had heard how musicians used W. Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis to help achieve increased levels of concentration in learning and performing. However, my first experience with the Inner Game was only seven years ago when my brother and I took up skiing. Jerry, born with cerebral palsy, doesn’t have full control of the left side of his body He likes to learn through his own experience and teach himself when possible. By contrast, I like to be told the “right way to do it 3) and paid for traditional “how-to” lessons with a respected professional, But Jerry was the one skiing fearlessly and effortlessly, and I was the one paralyzed by instructions. Jerry told me I would understand his success if I read the Inner Game of Skiing. That is when I realized it was more effective to stop trying to control my skiing (or music) and let go to a different kind of learning.
The Inner Game when applied to music is about overcoming distractions that stand between us being at our best in listening, learning, practicing, teaching or performing. Distractions take the form of an inner voice attempting to control our actions and keep our attention away from the music. These diversions can be overcome by letting go to different aspects of the music.
Gaining Control by Letting Go to the Sights and Imagery in the Music
At the New England Conservatory of Music I visited a career class that helps graduating musicians find work. The class includes coaching for interviews and auditions, My session was centered around a practice audition. Young professionals taking these examinations are usually preoccupied with a need to please the judges and attached to & 4 winning the position instead of letting go to something in the music displaying their natural ability to perform.
The room was prepared with four students posing as a jury (pens in hand) just a few feet away from a nervous auditioning vocalist, What a distraction! Yet how can this seemingly hostile atmosphere be transformed into something musical? John was singing “Greensleeves.” We visually transformed the room (like they do in opera or theater rehearsals), inventing props with the available furniture and observers. The four judges represented a flowing stream. Behind the ‘ury (stream) the classmates represented a hillside with green trees. The lights on the ceiling became the clouds, and the walls became the blue sky. John sang to the water, the peaceful countryside and beautiful sky. John had us convinced with his soft, unfocused eyes that he was bonded to another pastoral world of beauty He sang with conviction, tenderness and grace.
Orchestral auditions can be approached in a similar way. Instead of playing to a blank screen for a competition, imagine playing your part on stage surrounded by other orchestral musicians. Rather than playing your excerpt like it was a solo competition piece, play it as it would sound in the orchestra. Hear the entire orchestra as you play your part, feeling the comfort of blending with your imaginary colleagues; accompanying, soloing, playing rhythm, harmony, counter melody. When you play this way, the jury also senses the orchestra’s presence, hearing you in touch with the real music. This sets you apart from the others who are attempting to impress a jury with how fast and clearly they articulate their notes but never really connect with the music as it naturally sounds.
Gaining Control by Letting Go to the Sounds in the Music
Jan, a double bassist from New York, was playing a long melody by Shostakovich. She was struggling to gain control of her vibrato. She said it felt stiff and sounded too fast, In an attempt-to gain control she forced her hand to vibrate-faster, slower; wider, more narrow. This seemed to help, but she was only partially satisfied. The first finger was still weak, the second sounded good, the third fair, the fourth bad. Instead of trying harder at the same exercise, I asked Jan to play the phrase without any vibrato. No problem. Then I asked her to let her left hand choose only four notes for vibrato and that she should not decide which notes by figuring it out in advance. Her left hand will make the decision to vibrate based on what she bears. This sound will determine the speed, width and choice of notes for vibrato. She played beautifully, her hand responding sensitively to the direction from- the sound. The power of the sound of the music controlled her fingers better than her own strength could. The other notes in the phrase didn’t need any vibrato at all.
Gaining Control by Letting Go to Feelings
In Perth, Australia, Edith had to perform a Mozart sonata on a strange piano without warming up. Neither her fingers nor the piano would respond to her instructions. Her playing was tentative and inaccurate, lacking good rhythm and expression. She was asked to repeat the Mozart, but while she was playing to verbally talk about this grand piano as if she were trying to sell it to me. In order to do this she would play along while describing the tone quality of the instrument the speed of its response, etc.
She began playing and said: “Well, you hear the tone- is rather mellow while these chords feel rich. The pedal works very efficiently and the action feels quick.” As Edith is playing and ( selling’4′ in order to talk about the piano, she must “‘feel” the response of the instrument, Her attention to the touch allowed her performance to become more accurate, spontaneous and musical. She was delighted with the piano and excited about the music. She felt she gained the control she was unable to find in the beginning by just letting go to the touch of the instrument.
Gaining Control by Letting Go to the Meaning of Music
In April 1987 1 visited the Queensland Conservatory of Music in Brisbane, Australia, and heard a gifted female pianist perform the Debussy prelude, “Fireworks.” Ellen was a very attractive, well-dressed woman who looked like she had just come from her hair stylist. Her elegant personality and well-kept-physical appearance was a clear statement to all that she had her musical act under. control. However, she played the Debussy with a stifling, methodical approach, clearly showing she was frustrated with her performance. When asked how she felt, she replied, “I have trouble remembering all the right notes and feel I don’t have enough physical strength to play this piece. I was worrying about playing poorly in front of all these people and things just got totally out of control!
We decided to imitate and improvise our own version of the prelude, something Ellen had never done either by herself or in public. She played the rumbling figure representing the muse, and then at the most unpredictable times would explode with loud chords while shouting “BANG!” At first she went for the chords more concerned that she played the right notes, and her fireworks came off as a big dud.
After realizing this version wasn’t anything like fireworks, she anticipated what needed to happen, Ellen gradually lost her identity and became transformed into a mischievous kid with a secret up her sleeve. Her hair had come slightly disarranged. Her posture tightened like a snake ready to strike, She let go of worrying about hitting the right chords and became unpredictably explosive. Her improvised performance was electrifying!
Returning to Debussy’s rhythm and notes, Ellen played with a new sense of letting go to the true meaning of the fireworks in the music. She acknowledged that the Debussy really needed to be played “out of control” in order to be authentic.
Gaining Control by Letting Go of Preconceptions
Also in Brisbane, Jack was playing a Haydn cello concerto and was disturbed by playing on stage in a large hall when he was used to the comfortable sound of a small practice room. The piano accompaniment sounded so different that, he could not concentrate on the music. His scale passages were out of tune, and his rhythm suffered. He felt the balances were all wrong, especially different from the way he had practiced. Jack agreed to explore playing without any preconceived balances. His accompanist was instructed to change the volume, tempo and style every two measures. Jack was only to play his part and follow the lead of the accompanist.
The first two measures began as rehearsed, then the piano took off faster and Jack had to follow. The B theme was half tempo and very romantic. Then the volume increased and the tempo quickened. Jack was getting so good at responding to the changes, he seemed like a champion bull rider who could not be thrown. His performance was sensational!
We all learned that letting go to that unpredictable balance and tempo change was by far more effective than having everything the way it was planned in the practice room. Jack returned to a more traditional framework of interpretation and played with a new sense of spontaneity and aliveness that delighted everyone.
Gaining Control by Letting Go of Critical Corrections
Jesus Lopez-Cobos, music director of the Cincinnati. Symphony Orchestra, brings a new sense of excitement and musicality to the stage that captures the attention of musicians and audiences alike. His unique instructions to his players seem to inspire a new quality of ensemble precision, pitch awareness and cooperation from his musicians.
Lopez-Cobos completed formal music studies after he received a doctorate in philosophy Perhaps this contributes to his effective communication with the musicians. He seldom tells the musicians that something is right or wrong. He frequently asks musicians with a polite Spanish accent to “take attention” to the phrase, ensemble, pitch, balance or rhythm. The natural response to this “I take attention” cue is to listen or notice something and then voluntarily do something about it.
In a way, Lopez-Cobos is not criticizing, judging or controlling his players, but instead is just asking them to pay attention to what is going on and to make their own adjustments. The difference brought about by this kind of relationship has created a dramatic shift in the participation of the entire ensemble: judgments tend to block awareness of what is really going on in the music. Attention cures the problems.
Gaining Control by Letting Go of Mistakes
When practicing, our neurological system and brain function much like a computer that stores information and brings it back when it is signaled. It doesn’t make sense to program a computer with 90 -percent bad information. If we call on this poorly programmed computer to .perform, -then we can -expect only a 1.0 percent chance of satisfaction. Is practicing really programming mistakes?
Let me speak for myself and describe how I used to practice. For months, I would hammer away at a piece on my double bass hoping the week before the performance I would play the way I like. But in the months of practice, 1 had been playing out of tune, correcting bowings, struggling with string crossings, following fingerings, forgetting dynamics and neglecting the expression until I got everything in place just days before the performance. Then I prayed a lot for a miracle and hoped to only draw on my last three days of practice under the most stressful conditions of the concert. There is another way.
If one expects the body to remember everything it has ever experienced, then why not play only what you want to repeat during a performance? Sound idealistic? At a slower tempo, almost anything is possible. One doesn’t have to practice wrong notes, and yet, one can still maintain the dynamics and character. It is also possible to learn notes and work out fingerings away from the instrument.
Here is an example. Say you have six weeks to study a piece. Spend two weeks studying the music away from your instrument (voice). Get a recording if possible, and sit in front of your music until you can sing it in your mind or -aloud by memory. Don’t touch your instruments until you know exactly the sound you would like. There is still time to explore different interpretations. Then when the sound of your music is indelibly clear, check your mental image with your actual performance and allow adjustments to be made. You may find you didn’t have to practice mistakes at all!
If you spend 90 percent of the time playing what you want to retain, then you have reversed the cycle and can expect to -be at your best 90 percent of the time on stage. Respect your body, brain and muscle memory like a precious white silk sheet-that you don’t want to get dirty Notice how easy it is to memorize this music because of your advance practicing.
Gaining Control by Letting Go of Your Inner Game Techniques
At a five-day workshop in Los Angeles, I heard a lovely harpist who was very dedicated to the, Inner Game of Music. After having read the book several times, she was eager to play using her new Inner Game techniques, However, her performance was not satisfying because her techniques backfired. Kate was very attached to sounding good and equally attached to her inner Game techniques. Trying to use the right technique became a new distraction disconnecting her from the music.
What we need to become attached to is the music – the sounds, the feelings, images and style. If we learn music in an ideal state of concentration, without practicing mistakes, we can have it all. Inner Game techniques will work if used to connect you to the music I but not to success. Even after the technique connects you to the music, it is good to let go of it even further and enjoy the beauty and exhilaration of losing yourself, your ego, personality, and to dissolve into the true essence of the music.
Yehudi Menuhin gave me the most meaningful lesson I have ever learned about control. He said, “Our best control is when we are least aware of it,” This subtle, less conscious control out-maneuvers and out-performs the best of instructions. Why not let go to it and enjoy being free?