When I was studying double bass in college, I had a book of bowing exercises by Fred Zimmerman. One etude had an incredibly fast metronome marking, and it seemed impossible to play that fast. My teacher Robbie Link told me that maybe playing with the metronome was creating a mental block: as I dialed in a tempo which I thought was too fast for me, I automatically assumed it would be too difficult to play.
“Turn off the metronome and try it.” So I did and I found that I was able to play the passage faster than ever before, because I didn’t have the metronome showing me my perceived tempo limit.
Now that I’m playing keyboard instead, I’m running into the same thing. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about my teacher telling me “Just relax! Look out the window and think about other stuff.” At first, I didn’t understand this advice. Now I’m starting to get it- if I run into a breaking point where I can’t get an exercise any faster, it’s helpful for me to:
1. Trust that my fingers know what to do. I’ve practiced this exercise many times before and I don’t have to micromanage the movement of my hands.
2. Blur my mind just a bit. Take the focus away from the small movements of the passage and just see and hear it as a ‘wipe’ across the keyboard. See the shape of the exercise in a more symbolic or ethereal way.*
3. Remember to relax and let my torso and arms be free, use the smallest amount of movement necessary to play the notes, and play with a legato feel.
*This is hard to describe, but I hope this story will help illustrate. I saw Jim Ketch today and he was told me about a gig with his friend Cecil Johnson on sax where a waiter dropped a plate of meatballs. Two of them rolled toward the bandstand and Cecil said “The one on the left is mine!”
Now the music could have been great, or maybe it was horrible. Maybe someone in the band forgot the form of a song or played some embarrassing wrong notes. Years later, none of that stuff mattered because the thing that Ketch remembered was Cecil’s great personality.
I think one of the most advanced ways to look at live music while you are performing it is thinking about it in abstract, like how you would remember the gig 2 years from now. Did you rock the house and play adventurously, and did the band have fun and laugh together? Or did you obsess over tiny mistakes here and there, driving away from the gig under a dark cloud of gloom?
If it’s possible to practice music on your own with a positive and abstract attitude, perhaps there won’t be any fear of wrong notes, opening up the possibility for the right ones to automatically appear.