Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. – Rumi
So here you are… You’ve taken down your instrument, you’re playing and it feels good. You have a regular music practice going, and a developing relationship with your instrument. Now someone enters the room. How does this change things for you? Do you wish that person would go away so you can continue your private musicmaking? Or do you welcome the opportunity to share your music? I think what usually stops us is the idea that we will be judged in a negative way. Once we get to the point of accepting what ever music comes out of us, this will matter less and less. It’s taken a while, but I’ve come to understand that when someone wants to hear my music, it’s an opportunity for us to connect.
When I play for you and ask you to receive, it’s like a conversation. A satisfying conversation consists of a person’s honest expression, received by an attentive listener. There is something so gratifying just to be heard. When I play something, I don’t need to be praised to the skies – in fact I would prefer that my music be simply received. If it touches you, of course that would please me. Really all I ask is for you to witness my authentic expression.
If the listener wants to join the conversation in a more active way by picking up an instrument, we can each express and listen – and connect in that way. But something even more extraordinary happens when two or more people play together. Something new is born that never existed before. The synergy that is created between two people takes on a life of its own, informing the players as they go, so that often they are quite literally “out of their minds” as they play. By this I mean they leave behind their everyday linear thinking – “oh, he just played that phrase, so now I should respond with this” – and they enter a free-flow zone of non-thinking. Those who have experienced this state report that they’re no longer in control, that the music seems to play itself. Of course, this can also happen when playing alone. But it seems like the energy of an audience, a single listener, or a co-player provides a favorable environment for it to happen.
If I’m making this sound like a holy state that is difficult to achieve, let that idea go right now. All it takes is a willingness to play – and I mean play in the sense of children playing. Have you ever seen two people play Heart and Soul piano duet, full of fun and love and have it turn into an unexpectedly creative tour de force? Or not – the point is you never know until you try. And you don’t have to study for years to pick up a tambourine or a pair of claves and accompany someone in an attentive musical way.
So the next time you’re feeling empty or frightened – take down a musical instrument. Invite someone along with you. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Do you ever get into a rut with your practicing? I know at times I have gotten so focused on learning one piece, that it’s all I worked on, day after day. It seemed like I was pushing uphill and would never learn it. Finally, in frustration I would leave it alone for a few days – or even a week. When I tried again it was always much easier to play – probably because I wasn’t trying so hard.
Perhaps there’s a better way. When I mix up my practice into different activities, I notice that practice time becomes a lot more interesting and fun. There are lots of different possibilities for segmenting practice sessions. Here’s one way to do it. During each session spend some time playing music to sharpen your “chops”, some time on written music, and some time on your own music. Let’s see how this might look in an actual practice session.
1. Sharpen your “chops”: You can develop your technical skills by playing scales, arpeggios, or riffs; or choose a challenging phrase from a piece of music you are working on. But be careful – a lot of times we rush through these exercises just to get them over with. There is more value in playing one scale with love and imagination than trying to cram in all twelve of them with tension. It’s also fun to work on your ear training by singing a short phrase and then playing it on the piano, or playing simple songs by ear. Even a few minutes a day will make a big difference by the end of a year.
2. Play written music: Reading notes may or may not be your strong point, but most everyone can benefit from spending some time on this activity. Decide on your purpose in reading a piece. Is it to become more fluent in note-reading? Or to learn and memorize the piece? You might want to read favorite pieces as a warm-up. Reading lots of different styles of music will not only keep you interested, but will broaden your musical knowledge and make reading easier.
3. Spend time on your own music: Can you imagine children in an art class never being allowed to create original artwork? Then why wouldn’t you want to create sound combinations of your own on the piano? You don’t have to pursue jazz improvisation, although that’s one possibility. Simple exploration of the keyboard can be a liberating experience – and can even enhance the quality of your playing in general. Especially for those who play a lot of complex music, this is one time when there truly are no wrong notes!
There are lots of other ways to diversify practice sessions, if we expand the idea of what defines a practice session. What about listening to music? Playing along with a recorded accompaniment? Checking out YouTube performances? Inventing your own games and exercises? You’re only limited by your imagination when it comes to crafting an optimum practice session.
So mix it up and create practice sessions that make you never want to leave the piano!
I believe everyone has a signature song that lives deep in their hearts. This music carries each person’s essence and this music is aching to be expressed. How do we find and play the music of our hearts?
In order to get in touch with this deep music, we have to be in touch with our hearts. This means that when we hear music that stirs and excites us, music that seems to say “Yes! I love this!” we need to pay attention to those feelings. Perhaps the music is a little over our heads, but an easier version of the score can usually be found. The important thing is to recognize that an essential chord has been struck within us and to follow through by playing this life-giving music. By continually responding to our heart’s requests, our heart will lead us to what it needs, facilitating our musical growth.
Another way to get in touch with the music of our hearts is to engage in the time- honored practice of improvisation. It has been said that there are only three ways for new music to be born: through deliberate craft, by accident, or by improvisation. When we improvise – that is, play with sounds – we open up a channel through which our unique music can eventually emerge. If we stay open and are patient, we will recognize it when we hear it. It is a great joy to welcome one’s newborn music into the world.
I don’t think we have to wait until we’ve “earned the right” to play this special music. This is a practice for everyone, no matter what age, from the youngest beginner to the most seasoned, experienced player. It is not only a perfect complement to structured study; it is our birthright.
When we play the music of our hearts we are being true to ourselves. We are setting an example to ourselves of how to be in the world. Imagine a world in which people are not only clear about who they are – but also clear and honest in their expressions. Just consider the implications! Music really can change the world.
So let’s play the music that is calling us – the music that we love. I have an idea that when all of us are singing and playing our hearts out, it creates a tapestry of sound that all works together in a miraculous way. I want to be a part of that and I invite you all to join me. Let’s play the music of our hearts.
At a pre-performance lesson, 12-year-old Tim played through his piece from start to finish, then shook his head. “No, that wasn’t good. Let me try again.” The piece was Fur Elise and he had invested a lot of time and effort into learning it. As his teacher, I wanted to go over a few points with him, but instead I agreed to listen again.
This time the piece flowed and Tim played with a confidence that had been missing before. As he played the final chord, he looked up grinning. “I did it!”
“Congratulations!” I said. “How did you do it?”
“I just imagined there were a million Julies in the room, all supporting me and cheering me on.”
It was a startling vision. The room crowded with a million me’s. Did he come up with this idea all on his own?
“One of my teachers told me about it,” Tim said. “You see, when the audience is with me, I go up – up – up” – he sat taller and raised his hands over his head. “But when they’re not with me I just go down.” He slumped in his seat. Tim performs on stage in theater productions so he’s quite tuned in to audience response.
It was brilliant. No matter what mood the audience was in, Tim found a way to always have the support he needed to give the best performance he could.
As a teacher I spend plenty of time guiding my students through the nitty-gritty details of learning a piece. I also have my bag of tricks to help them enjoy playing expressively. This experience with Tim has made me aware of another element in the mix –the support and encouragement that we give to each other.
Most students receive encouraging comments, smiles, and hugs from parents, friends, and relatives. Adult students also need encouragement, and if it isn’t forthcoming they can create their own support group by letting friends know what they need.
When students receive support like this regularly, their confidence grows. They’re able to accomplish their goals, play the music they want to play. Many students love to try on the role of teacher by showing siblings and friends how to play a song on the piano. They will mimic the kindness and patience they have received from their own teacher. The loving energy of support gets passed on down the line.
At some point though we all need to learn how to support ourselves. Others will not always approve of us or be there at the exact moment we need them. This is why this visualization is so valuable. Through the power of imagination we can transform the support we’ve received and multiply it by a million. Our belief in ourselves rises up and suddenly it’s happening. We are playing the way we always knew we could.
We all have innovative solutions like Tim’s just waiting inside us. The next time you come up with one why don’t you spread the word so we can all benefit from your brilliance?
On a TED program percussionist Evelyn Glennie talked about her first college-level snare drum lesson. A professor told her to take the drum home for a week – without sticks, without music and without a structured assignment. All she was to do was get to know the instrument –tap it, beat it, drum her fingers on it, explore every inch of the instrument and every nuance of sound she could make on it. She said it was one of the most valuable activities she’d ever done.
How often do we take time out to really get to know our instrument on its own terms – without the musical score coming between us? And without an outside goal that a teacher or we have imposed on us– a goal that affects our relationship with that instrument.
Don’t get me wrong, goals can be good things and reading music is a valuable skill. But summer is stretching out before us – an ideal time to get to know our instrument in a way we never have before. Small children explore the piano and any other instrument they can get their hands on in this way. They touch every inch of it and listen to every sound without judgment. They invent new ways of making sounds.
Evelyn Glennie was fascinated by music as a child. Because she is deaf, she learned to listen through her fingers and through her whole body. Through her intense listening, she can distinguish the differences between notes a half-step apart and she can play unbelievably complex marimba pieces.
Music students who want to expand their skills while relaxing their minds might spend time exploring their instruments this summer. See how many different ways you can make sounds – the sound of thunder, of rain, of snow. How about a rushing river, trees in the wind, a person breathing? Get into the guts of the piano and pluck the strings, gently knock on the wood and listen to the layers of sound. Listen with your fingers, take your shoes off and place the bottoms of your feet against the body of the piano to perceive the sounds. Break all the rules; thoroughly get to know this instrument we all take for granted.
Then, come September, let’s see how your playing has changed. Will it have more colors, more depth, more dynamic range? Will your playing be different when you’re reading from a music score? You can only answer these questions after spending a summer adventuring with your new friend and really, really listening.
Here’s the link to Evelyn Glennie on TED: www.ted.com/