by Robert Rawlins, Ph.D.
Robert Rawlins is assistant professor and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He is the author of A Simple and Direct Guide to Jazz Improvisation (Hal Leonard, 1995), Intermediate Serial Duets for Two Flutes (Southern Music, 1990), and has published many articles on various aspects of music theory and performance, including his regular contributions to the Bell.
One night Dizzy Gillespie walked into a jam session where the band was working on a new tune with a difficult chord structure. He asked the piano player to call out the chords while he played, and in minutes Dizzy had memorized the entire harmonic sequence and was improvising fluently on it.
A few minutes later, Charlie Parker walked in. The piano player again started to call out the harmonies, but Parker asked him not to. Listening intently, Parker worked through a chorus or two of the tune, and soon he too was jamming on it without difficulty.
Though both musicians shared similar styles and both were highly accomplished on their instruments, they approached their music in different ways. Gillespie preferred to consciously memorize the sequence of chords and think about them as he played. Parker took a spontaneous approach, relying on his ear and natural instincts.
While this incident specifically concerns jazz improvisation, it demonstrates contrasting ways of learning music that apply to many areas.
For example, which is the best way to teach instrumental tone—to describe specific muscle placement or simply have the student strive for a desired sound using whatever means seem most natural? Should music be memorized by first learning the form, key areas, cadences, and so forth, or should the student simply repeat a piece until the sound of it is permanently established in the ear? Is it better to learn the intervallic structure and theory behind various scales and arpeggios or simply practice them until they lie comfortably under the fingers?
The answer is both. True, to some extent, individual temperaments will play a role. Some people are more comfortable with analytical approaches and theoretical explanations. Others prefer a more direct approach to the music. But optimum learning is more likely to take place when both approaches are utilized.
Having said that, it seems that the natural or intuitive part of musical learning is often given short shrift. Students, particularly more advanced ones, sometimes try too hard and overanalyze their playing without realizing it.
Imagine the conscientious student having these thoughts during a practice session: “Okay, breathe deep, use the diaphragm, and support the air column. Now open your throat. Hold your head up, relax the jaw, and keep the lips firm. Gently curve the fingers, but don’t use too much pressure.” And so forth.
These are all wonderful suggestions, in themselves, but this kind of incessant self-nagging is bound to have negative consequences. The human body is a highly complex mechanism and regularly performs many intricate skills on its own. Tedious minute-by-minute instructions given by the conscious mind can easily turn into distractions, inhibiting rather than promoting optimum performance.
Paradoxically, with improved opportunities for formal music instruction and advances in instrumental pedagogy, the danger of this kind of calculated approach to musical performance is more prevalent today than in the past.
Yes, to a large extent there is a “correct” way to play a musical instrument as opposed to an “incorrect” approach. But too much attention to particulars can drive both student and teacher crazy. As one exasperated piano teacher exclaimed after a student had stopped during a piece a half-dozen times to ask which fingering to use: “I don’t care! Use anything! It doesn’t matter—just play!”
The most important factor in any endeavor is to have a clearly defined goal. For the musician, this goal will be in the form of an aural image. The student must clearly hear the sound that is desired and then allow the body to reproduce that sound through the instrument. It’s the objective, not the means of achieving it, that is the object of concentration.
The following suggestions are intended to help the student stay focused on the real goal of musical performance—to form an aural image of the sound and reproduce it as accurately as possible. The analytical side has its place, but once a student knows the correct way to play, it’s time to stop thinking about mechanics and concentrate on making music. These tips might help:
Concentrate on sound. The one primary area of focus that should always receive a performer’s full attention is the sound that is desired. This should not be taken for granted. It may take years to develop a clear and accurate aural image of the precise tone quality that an instrumentalist seeks. It is one thing to have a vague notion of what a good clarinet tone is, but quite another to have that sound so ingrained in your head that you can truly imagine it coming out of your own instrument.
Listen to recordings and attend live performances. Beyond this, a student must literally practice hearing tone quality. Before playing a single note, the desired sound of that note must resonate in the inner ear. With attentive listening and a conscious desire to grasp and retain the sound, this can be achieved.
Practice sightsinging. Once an integral part of every instrumentalist’s early training, this valuable skill, sadly, is often neglected today. Of course, we don’t learn how to sightsing so that we can sing; we learn to do it so we can hear music in our ear before we play it. If you can’t aurally conceive of the pitches associated with the notes on the page, then how are you going to form a clear aural image of the sound you’re trying to get? You can’t have tone without pitch.
What the student must avoid is simply pressing the key and depending on the instrument itself to create the note. Sure, the note might be the correct one, and it might even be reasonably in tune if the instrument is well made and the embouchure well formed. But if the pitch of the note that is going to come out is a mystery to the player until it is sounded, the same will be true of tone, attack, release, rhythm, and so forth.
Don’t try too hard. Or, more precisely, learn the correct way to try hard. We should, of course, strive to put everything we have into every performance and practice session, but ironically, students sometimes perform at their worst when they are trying their hardest. This often occurs at lessons. Students say things like “I could play this perfectly at home. I don’t know what happened! I just fall apart at lessons.” Every teacher has experienced this.
The problem is that we sometimes get in our own way. Our natural self might be quite capable of performing a given task, but then the conscious mind comes along and ruins everything by interfering. We tell ourselves things like “don’t miss it this time” or “this has to go right or I’m in big trouble.” The best way to try hard is to completely dismiss such thoughts. Think only of the music, and trust in your natural abilities.
Transcend the moment. It’s a good thing brain surgeons don’t have to operate on stage before an audience. And I wonder how Einstein would have fared with his theory of relativity if he’d had to work in a tuxedo before a spotlight with a crowd of people watching every calculation he made.
Sure, these are comical scenarios, but they underscore the difficulties of the performing musician. Not only do musicians perform an extremely difficult skill, but they have to do it under difficult circumstances and pull it off with grace and panache. There is only one way to perform well before an audience, and that is to transcend the moment and concentrate on the music.
I’m not saying to ignore the audience. Many performers are at their best before a large crowd of people. But that is because they include them in their absorption in the music. They are taken with the collective attention that all are devoting to the aesthetic experience. But without a doubt, the focus is on the music, no matter how many may be sharing in the experience.
Go easy on the verbal instructions. Giving instructions to yourself while playing is generally not a good idea. How can you concentrate on the music if you’re thinking about a teacher’s instructions to “use less lip pressure”? Still, there are times when corrections and changes do need to be made. Shouldn’t you then be thinking about those instructions when you practice? Shouldn’t you constantly remind yourself?
There is a way out of this dilemma, and that is to translate verbal commands into aural images. If a teacher tells a student to use a certain lip pressure, it’s obviously because something was wrong with the sound. Most likely, the teacher heard a pinched sound and knew from experience that too much lip pressure can cause such a problem.
The job for the student is to find the improved sound that results from less lip pressure and to hold that as an aural image. Instead of thinking of the feeling in the lip, be on guard for the sound that results from too much pressure and focus on the improved sound that results from less pressure.
Remember the good moments. All performers have moments, sometimes entire days, when everything feels just right. This could involve tone, technique, sight-reading or even expression and interpretation. We don’t want to waste these learning opportunities, but we don’t want to ruin them either. Trying to analyze what is going right could very well cause everything to go wrong.
The way to learn from such opportunities is to remember the feeling and sound of the moment. Focus on the total sensation that you are experiencing. Don’t think about what the muscles are doing, and don’t try to describe the sensation. Just absorb the feeling. If you can truly remember what it felt like to get the sound you’ve been seeking, your muscles will find a way to reproduce that sound in the future.
Seldom do students’ difficulties stem from not knowing how to play their instruments. Fine music teachers are readily accessible, and there are many good instruction books on the market. But good education is only half of the equation.
It’s one thing to know how a musical instrument should be played and quite another to actually do it. Learning the mechanics is definitely the first step. The next is to internalize this knowledge and let the inner self take charge.
In truth, the best way to become the performer you want to be is simply to allow yourself to do so.