Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't sweat the small notes....

I attended a singer's singing lesson yesterday, and a particular phrase the teacher said stuck in my mind. I thought I'd make a note about it here, in order not to forget it. 

It's wisdom, and yet it's simple enough. 

During the course of the lesson the singer, whom I'll call B, was getting frazzled by a particular note in a phrase. The teacher, J, gave her a technical way of approaching it, and that helped immensely. She did more: she pointed out that a strong physical gesture at the time of the note being sung would help B to have a sense of pushing the note out to the listeners. 

And then when B was still feeling somewhat unconfident, the teacher said - 'Make friends with it!’ That is, (and these are my words) be comfortable with this particular bar in the music and don't let it become a kind of bugbear that jumps out and frightens you in advance each time you approach it. 

Almost every piece of music, even the simplest, has at least one spot where you have to work much harder in order to play or sing it as easily as the rest of the piece. I've found this over and over in learning pieces. Even recently, in playing a relatively simple Mozart accompaniment for a clarinettist, I found a bar where the left hand had to go running down an awkward phrase. It wasn't an ordinary scale, and it wasn't something that you'd come across normally: it was just one of those phrases that ran oddly across black and white notes. 

My left hand has never been as adept as my right, and as soon as it comes across anything tricky, it insists on hours of practice or else it won't play it at all. Well, I did practice this piece, made sure I knew what the fingering was and got it running smoothly without qualms. In fact, the left hand felt quite good about itself for being able to play it evenly and without hesitation. 

Some of the time. Each time I came back to the piece, up until the day of the performance, the left hand would find itself approaching that phrase and the tension would appear. It was like going into a dark bedroom and not being quite sure what might jump out and frighten you. 

I reassured the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase, and all it had to do was relax and play it. But as the singing teacher had pointed out, we get nervous about a difficult moment in a piece of music and it becomes our whole focus, and unsettles our brain. If the brain is unsettled, the fingers become unsettled, and before you know it, you've stumbled over the phrase, much to your annoyance. 

I've known what to do about this for a long time, so I was already doing my own form of J's 'Make friends with it'. I told the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase and that it was very clever for doing so, and would be exceptionally pleased with itself when it performed it without concern on the day, or even the next time we ran through the piece. And on the day of the performance it breezed up to the phrase, ran down it without blinking an eyelid, and carried on, congratulating itself for being so clever. 

At the end of the day, however, flubs in performance are essentially unimportant. I once saw a professional musician stop completely in the middle of Debussy's La Cathedrale Engloutie; I think she must have had a memory lapse. The audience stopped breathing for a moment, and then the pianist carried as if nothing had happened. I only remember it because I knew the piece quite well. Most of the audience will have long forgotten the incident. And I read somewhere recently that in a professional orchestra the musicians make, on average, seven mistakes a minute. (I don't know how anyone would have calculated this, but...) Do we notice? Probably not. 

I often say to other singers and musicians: just enjoy it. If we don't enjoy what we're singing or playing, then all our time is spent worrying about technique and correctness and, worst of all, perfection. Few musicians achieve perfection, and if they allow themselves to be upset by the odd wrong note or underperformed phrase, they'll only make things worse for the next difficult phrase. You just have to keep moving ahead in music, or else you destroy the whole thing. 

It concerns me when a child (or even an adult) comes off stage after a good performance in a competition or concert and immediately fusses about a wrong note or two. Why do it? The notes are long gone, and wrong ones can be fixed for next time. Focusing on them and not on the overall good performance undermines confidence in your ability. Better to say: I did well with that. Sure, some things might have gone better, but I enjoyed doing it, and the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

We can get too precious about performance, too concerned about perfection. Far better to be keen to show the audience how much you love the piece by performing it to the best of your ability. 

99.99% of them won't notice the errors anyway. 

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