Practicing Away from Home

Summer is here, and with it often comes travel.

Have you ever found yourself without a music stand handy, but wanting to practice?

Never fear — just about anything can be used as a makeshift music stand! A few examples:

A filing cabinet with a magnet

The frame of a mirror in a hotel room (don’t worry, I used a practice mute!)

A child’s easel.

What makeshift solutions have you used for practicing in a pinch?

What I learned from off-duty dancers

Have you ever seen a trained dancer out and about in everyday life? Walking down the street, standing in line at a coffee shop, and so on? If you did, you’d probably suspect right away that they were a dancer, because of – you guessed it – their excellent posture.

The amazing Misty Copeland and her enviable posture.

Owing to their rigorous training in the studio, dancers maintain that trained upright posture even as they go about their daily routine. This is not the same as intentional, artistic gesture, but is a kind of backdrop, a baseline that they carry with them always, as a result of persistent effort in rehearsal.

What if we applied this to violin playing? That is, that every time I picked up the violin, I strove to have as a baseline the most beautiful tone, the clearest intonation? It might very well become a habit…a baseline to draw from, so that in moments of performance, this baseline would be second nature, and one’s attention would be free to focus on higher-order musical and expressive concerns.

So I’m striving to learn from a dancer to maintain my musical discipline, even when I’m not performing.

In Praise of Anxiety

While playing in a recording session with my pianist this summer (more details on that soon!), I had a startling revelation: I wasn’t nervous, and I didn’t like it!

Sound strange?

The truth is, as I’m sure many performers would agree, that I’m used to a certain amount of adrenaline when I perform. I have come to expect that familiar “butterflies-in-my-stomach” feeling, and I know that it’s there to give me that extra bit of energy that will make my performance more exciting – through an increase in mental focus, perhaps a little faster tempo, scintillating vibrato, and a sense of urgency that aren’t always easy to conjure in rehearsal.

However, on that day in the recording studio, my old reliable frenemy, adrenaline, just didn’t show up.

Maybe it was the lack of an audience (other than the recording engineer in the next room), or maybe it was the knowledge that if something didn’t go to my liking, I could re-do it as many times as necessary, time permitting, but it just wasn’t the same as a live performance.

It felt kind of like being prepared to jump off a 3-meter diving board, only to arrive and find out it’s 1 meter high. The pressure was off, and it felt somewhat humdrum and quotidian.

Fortunately, I had a few tricks in reserve to help bring the edgy feeling back. However, it was startling to find that instead of trying to minimize or control the feeling of anxiety, which is usually the case, I found myself beckoning it!

The next time you feel the internal flutter of those butterflies before going onstage, remember to thank them for being there to help you go above and beyond the everyday.



The Ecology of Mistakes

I recall receiving admonishment as a child when crafting or baking, not to “throw out my mistakes.” That misshapen cookie was still edible; that cutaway construction paper scrap could be found useful in another project.

The other day while practicing, I was attempting a thorny passage up to tempo for the first time in a new piece. My fingers, seemingly having a mind of their own, followed a new finger pattern that I had not yet tried. When I got to the end of the passage, I was astonished at how well it had worked and how natural that “new” pattern felt. My “mistake” actually ended up being a better choice after all, and I decided to change my fingering to the new pattern.

Not all mistakes are as useful as the one described above. Most of the time, a mistake is not something that we wish to repeat. That being said, it can still provide worthwhile information, by highlighting an area of weakness that needs more practice, for example, or reminding us of where we need to focus our attention.

In either case, taking apart and considering our mistakes certainly helps make them less frustrating and makes practicing more creative and enjoyable.

“If They Only Knew!”: a funny thing about competitions, and how to deal

A young student, wise far beyond her years, said something to me recently that summed up, in a simple way, one of the hardest things about competitions.

We were discussing a competition in which she had won first place, and a friend of hers had won fourth.

She and the friend shared an accompanist, so they had been hearing each other’s progress over the course of several rehearsals before the big day.

My young student noticed how much improvement her friend had made between the first rehearsal and the competition day. She expressed regret that the judges were unaware of that fact.

“I wish that they could hear [the other student]’s recording of the first rehearsal, and see how far [that student] has come,” she expressed.

I nodded in agreement, and her mother and I exchanged rueful smiles, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much IT.”

I agreed with her that because the judges had no way of knowing the history of every student, they had to make their decision solely based on what they heard that day.

If the competition were tomorrow, the results might be different.

It follows, then, that the only recourse we have to this conundrum is to increase our consistency in performing — that is, our Repeatable Good Performance.

For ideas about increasing your aptitude for Repeatable Good Performance, check out this post:

Performing While Introverted: How Introverts Can Leverage their Strengths

audrey and book

Following on the heels of recent research by Susan Cain (author of “Quiet”) and others, the qualities and strengths inherent to introverts are being increasingly recognized and celebrated. Leaders in a wide range of fields, including business, politics, and the arts, often self-identify as introverts. This may seem surprising, given the stereotype of public figures as extroverts — outgoing personalities who typically crave the spotlight and thrive on social interaction.

Indeed, the parent of one of my students expressed shock when I admitted that I identify as an introvert — “But, you are a performer!” was her surprised reaction to what she saw as a contradiction.

The fact is, some of the very qualities that classify individuals as introverted, are also qualities that enhance their ability to perform well in public.

1. Introverts work well independently. This is extremely beneficial in the practice room, where a strong internal drive and conscientiousness are indispensable. The ability to work independently is also helpful during the long, isolated and sometimes lonely hours of practice that are required of a good performer.

2. At the same time, introverts can also work well in groups, because of their good listening skills and ability to compromise. Sometimes, more-outspoken extroverts are less likely to give equal time to other group members; it is the introverts who ensure everyone feels they have a chance to be heard.

3. They make excellent public speakers and presenters, owing to that same conscientiousness — they come thoroughly prepared!

4. Introverts are often subtle communicators, noticing the smallest details and making thoughtful connections that may go unnoticed by others. This can translate to a great range of expression and subtlety in performance. In addition, their love of quiet reflection paves the way for deep and meaningful interpretations.

If you are an introverted sort, I hope that you’ll be encouraged to appreciate these qualities and others that can enhance your performances and above all, to share your abilities.

TBT: Ravel Sonata

In the spirit of the longstanding tradition of “Throwback Thursday,” I’m posting a video that Louise and I recorded live back in February – it’s the Ravel Sonata, which we performed at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. It was kindly recorded by a staff member of the church.

This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music — the first movement has a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of “Ma mère l’Oye.” The second movement is a wonderful French take on the blues form; and the third is a riveting perpetual motion. I hope that you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed playing it!

Talent is Overrated, Part 2

My quest to uncover the meaning and question the validity of talent continues!

I’ve been reading an excellent book by a two-time Olympic table tennis champion, BBC commentator and journalist, Matthew Syed. The book is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

Here are a few key points from the book:

  • Physical skills such as reaction time, which would be seemingly transferable if inborn, in fact do not transfer to other areas. For example, the author explains that his lightning-quick reaction impulses in table tennis do not carry over when he plays “regular” tennis.
  • Physical equipment such as “amazing hands” in tennis are not, in fact, inborn, but rather are the result of amazing coordination between the brain and the nervous system, created and honed through hours of intense practice.
  • Expert performers step outside of their comfort zones continually, in order to make progress. Even given their extraordinary ability, they constantly attempt new challenges that are just outside their ranges. I.e., expert skaters fall more often than average skaters do.
  • Child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.

Notwithstanding the amazing benefits of deliberate practice, Syed cautions against the so-called “Tiger Moms” (and dads). He writes, “It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision [author’s emphasis] to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.”

Sports scientist Peter Keen concurs, “Starting kids off too young carries high risk…The only circumstances in which very early development seems to work is where the children themselves are motivated to clock up the hours, rather than doing so because of parents or a coach. The key is to be sensitive to the way the child is thinking and feeling, encouraging training without exerting undue pressure.”

The findings shared in this book are exciting, hopeful news for anyone who has ever considered attempting a new activity, but was afraid that they “didn’t have the talent for it!” As it turns out, a strong desire to learn, coupled with good practice, may outweigh the importance of talent after all.