Applying principles of ease to playing music

After seeing the principles of ease with more clarity I started exploring how they apply to playing music.

Here is what I found:

Playing music is a skill that we all have to some extent.  We can all make sounds (sing, whistle) or make a rhythm and even if it is just tapping to a tune in the radio.  But it is a skill we need to practice to make this inherent ability for sound and rhythm into something more sophisticated.

During our practice there are some things that seem to stand in the way of getting better effortlessly.

Give up the idea of how it should sound
Instead acknowledge how you do sound.  In order to get better at playing music, no matter what level of music making you have, it is important to acknowledge where you are at.  It is easy to be at ones own level of musicianship.  It becomes hard, frustrating or shameful if we carry a belief that we should be better than we are. Have a vision or clear intention of where you want to get – this is what motivates us naturally – but don’t get tricked into thinking that this is where you should already be.

Love your mistakes
In my classical training as a violinist all the focus in the teaching was on avoiding mistakes and fulfilling the teachers demand to produce a certain sound or play in a certain way.  When I failed at doing so it would often make me feel inadequate and not good enough as a musician.  Mistakes were seen as something to be avoided at all costs.  And my entire practise effort was focused around not making mistakes.  Thinking about it today it seems ridiculous.

How do we get good at something? 

By making lots of mistakes and learning from them.  But if we spend all our focus on not making mistakes it stands in the way of learning big time!  Listen to your mistakes, be present to them and learn.  This is how children learn in their first years (walking, talking, standing…).  Kids use mistakes as a way to navigate towards what they want.  When they are small they don’t have the concept yet of being a failure or not good at something.  Imagine a toddler falling over when learning how to walk and then thinking: “I am such a failure for not being able to walk!”  It seems funny.  But we often do the equivalent to ourselves when practising music.  A mistake simply shows you your current limitation.

Have a clear intention of what you want
Instead of focusing your attention on not making mistakes focus it on what you want, the music you want to play, the sound you want to make.   Be clear in the intention during your playing.  Avoid trying to get better.  That is only effort.  Your intention is enough to make it happen.  Let the music play itself.  If you practise in this way there is no way to not get better.  And you get better minus the stress of trying to avoid mistakes.

Inspiration vs Comparison
Get inspired by other musicians but don’t compare yourself.  Often what inspires us to get better at playing music is listening to good musicians play.  It is great to get inspired this way.  But it becomes a trap when you start comparing your own playing to that of the masters who inspired you.  It comes back to the first point I made.  Don’t get trapped into thinking you should sound a certain way or you should have a certain level of skill when this is not where you are at.  Always start from your current level not your imagined dream level.

Practise makes permanent not perfect
This means that when we practise we want to make sure we are practising the right thing.  For years I was practising not to make mistakes.  I created a habit of stopping every time I made a mistake and repeat the phrase again and again until I mastered it.  What I didn’t know was that instead of practising music I practised stopping and starting all over again.  So every time I came to the “tricky” place in a piece I would tense up because I knew that I had practised it over and over and I hoped that I would manage to play it this time.  In a way I made that “tricky place” in the piece into a permanent problem.  Today when I practise I have my focus on the whole piece of music and what I want to play.   I keep my intention clear and let the mistakes happen until they have informed me enough that I acquired the skills necessary to play the piece.   It is much more fun to practise this way and learning happens much quicker!

And a final note about talent and skill
We can all learn to express ourselves be it through music, writing, movement or otherwise.  If we dare to be authentic in our expression that means we acknowledge the level of skill we have and dare to express ourselves honestly with what we have the world will always be a richer place than if we hadn’t expressed ourselves.   One quote that inspired me in my learning as a musician is this:

Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.  Henry Van Dyke

I would love to hear how you get on!  :-)


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