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JUST PLAY!

January 22, 2015

Five Tips for Reducing Tension and Allowing the Music to Flow

Playing a musical instrument can be intimidating, nerve-racking, and stressful. There are so many notes, fingerings, and rhythms to get right, not to mention dynamics, articulation, and phrasing to express. Students try to get all these things right, impress their parents, do what their teachers say, AND pull off a beautiful performance with effortless flow! The following 5 tips will help reduce stress and tension in the lesson, create more non-judgmental awareness, and enable music to happen.

1. Jump Right In

I like for my students to jump right in and start experimenting. In the first lesson, I don't spend time lecturing them on the proper way to play the piano . . .

"Sit up straight. Oh, but not too stiff. Curve your fingers. Yes, but not that much, stay relaxed, but keep your fingertips firm. Feel the weight of your arm, but let it drop gently. Curve your fingers!"

I'm already confused, stressed, and there hasn't been any music yet! We don't describe the mechanics of riding a bike to a child, we let him get on and crash a few times. You don't explain to someone who's about to get on a trampoline how to bounce or do a flip, you just get on the trampoline and play.

One of the first things I do with a beginning student is to make all kinds of sounds and noises on the piano. I do it too, of course, using my whole hand to smash several keys down loudly, or using my fist to knock on the wood or any kind of sound or noise we can discover. I don't want my students to be intimidated or afraid of the piano. This is especially important for adult beginners, who tend to be intimidated, self-critical, and apprehensive about playing a musical instrument. Just play!

2. Welcome the Mistakes

I love mistakes. They are often funny, goofy, or just plain strange! Instead of tensing up, stressing out, and trying to play something perfect, why don't we just play? I know it's easier said than done, but one way to approach it is to welcome the mistakes.

Imagine you're practicing basketball free throws. Do you need someone to explain it?

"Hold the ball firmly but relax. With a burst of energy, thrust your arm from the elbow, but keep the shoulder loose. Don't miss!"

No! You just throw the ball a bunch of times and your body finds a way of doing it. Obviously I'm oversimplifying it, and I don't mean to imply you throw your hands on the keyboard a bunch of times and eventually a beautiful tune will emerge (although that has been known to happen!). But I am saying students will be less tense and more comfortable when they see mistakes as useful feedback.

"Honest mistakes are not only natural, they are immensely useful. Truthful and pure, full of specific information, they show us with immediate, elegant clarity where we are right now and what we need to do next." -- William Westney, The Perfect Wrong Note

3. Ask Questions

Too many instructions at once cause tension, stress, and a surplus of self-criticism. Asking questions can engage the student and give the lesson a sense of exploration instead of a teacher-dictated regime. Of course, if you ask something like "what key is this piece in?" and they don't know the answer, that can cause stress, too! That's why questions should be carefully crafted. Instead of telling a student he should play legato or asking him to define a slur, ask "how do you want it to sound?" And instead of a verbal answer, let him answer by playing it.

4. Improvise

I know this is a scary topic for some music teachers, but we all improvise every day. We improvise while doing things like cooking, cleaning, driving, and conversing. If you have lots of practice speaking a language, it's a lot easier to improvise a conversation. In music, some people get intimidated when they have to just "make something up" out of thin air, but that's not really how musical improvising works.

You should always start with something you know and give parameters:

Using only black keys, imitate the sound of wind chimes
Play some low notes like a elephant walking
With C, D, and E, copy my rhythm. . .

You can also play something you already know, or a passage out of a piece you're working on, but then vary an aspect of the music: articulation, register, pitches, rhythm, key, etc. The whole idea is to be comfortable playing things that are open ended and not specifically dictated by sheet music or a teacher. This gives the student confidence, initiative, and a sense of ownership.

5. Move

Pianists need to get off the bench, wind players need to step away from the music stand, and string players should put down the bow. From my experience with Dalcroze Eurhythmics training, I have discovered the importance of physical movement for musicians. 99% of the time, students automatically "fix" their own problems (whether their were aware of it or not) by getting up and moving.

Whenever I sense a student "trying" too hard or getting frustrated, I have them get up and move. Sometimes we just shake out the hands and arms, but a lot of times it's something to do with the music they're working on. I will sit at the piano and play the passage while they move to the music. Here are some examples of what the student might do:

Expand their arms out and back, sensing the push and pull of the music
Exaggerate the physical gesture that relates to the musical gesture
Pulse the beat or rhythmic pattern in some way
Shrink and grow with the dynamic changes in the music

It's amazing to observe the results when the student returns to the instrument. Usually, the physical movement allows the expression of the music to become integrated into the body, and their dynamics are expressive and organic! Their pulse is steady and natural! They are less tense and the music flows better!

The next time you sense things getting tense and stressful in a lesson, I encourage you to try these tips, have fun, and just play!

If you liked the ideas in this article, you may also like:

The Perfect Wrong Note - William Westney

The Unmaster Class - William Westney
The Inner Game of Music - Barry Green
Dalcroze Eurhythmics - http://dalcrozeusa.org/

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