People consider sports and music at opposite ends of the spectrum but they aren’t. The verb itself is the same. One plays football and plays basketball and plays piano and plays violin. In music, only singing and drumming have their own verbs and they are the oldest of all musical activities.
Both sports and music involve endless amounts of practice. The great players of either sports or music practice incessantly. The practice is basic and all consuming. It is vastly repetitive and frequently boring and it doesn’t feel like play at all; it feels more like work.
But after all the practice, being perfect in the basic skills is not enough to be a great player. The only thing that really counts is the playing, be it the game or the piece of music. The crowds don’t pay to see or hear the practice and they really don’t care if someone’s form is perfect or all the notes are right. Audiences love these activities because of the end result. Music and sports only come to life in play. That’s where the real excitement is.
This is a problem for many of us as adult students and as teachers. How do we move from practicing into play? When do we leave the overwhelming concern with what’s “right” for the play of the game. What’s the difference? What is the place of each in our musical lives?
A Paradigm of Learning
There is a useful four-tiered view of learning accomplishment that applies to learning to play the piano in general or any specific piece. The first tier is “unconscious-incompetence.” That’s when we begin our journey and know so little that we don’t even know what we don’t know. Next we move into “conscious-incompetence” where we understand that there is much we don’t know. After all the work of the beginning, it’s discouraging for adults to reach this realization. Adults can be overwhelmed by this discovery of incompetence. Children are used to being incompetent.
The next step is “conscious-competence.” We work hard, we get it more or less right, and teachers are fairly happy but picky non-the-less. The last phase is “unconscious-competence.” This is mastery. This is where the game is played. This is where it finally gets to be fun. This is what scares adults.
The key issue here is “unconscious.” Adults feel they play as well as they do because they keep track of every little thing. Now it’s time to stop all that control and learn to trust. It’s time to let go of all the thinking and move on to playing. It’s time to get into the game of music.
A Sports Example
John Madden, on ABC’s “Monday Night Football”, gave a great example from sports. He illustrated the way football players are taught to carry the football to prevent fumbles. There are four points of physical contact between the football player and the ball. They are the inside of the upper arm, the side of the chest, the lower arm and the hand cradling the end of the ball.
Failure at any of these points can create a costly fumble. As Madden talked, the camera showed the routines football players practice to keep hold of the ball as others try to knock it away. When he finished talking, Al Michaels, his co-announcer, said, “You mean these guys think about that as they run the ball upfield?” Madden replied, “Oh heavens no! They don’t have time to think about that. It has to be automatic.”
Adult students have to learn to let their learned skills become automatic in the same way. In the final analysis, all must learn to trust their hard won mastery.
Lessons from Fortunate Accidents
Student’s first encounter with automatic playing is usually unintentional. It’s usually in the privacy of their own home. They play while not paying attention at all. Suddenly, the mind returns to its task and discovers that things are going quite well, just before everything goes awry. It almost seems like the best way to play is with a mind that wanders. But that doesn’t work. Intentionally making the mind wander is almost impossible.
The question is not how to play with a wandering mind, but rather, how to play with a non-interfering, focused mind. While it’s necessary to learn the concepts of correct playing, it then becomes necessary for the concepts to be mastered so thoroughly that they become the sensations of playing. Ultimately, playing the piano is a sensorial act, not a conceptual one. As a conceptual act, piano playing always sounds sterile, even when all the notes are right, all the rhythms are right, and all the interpretation is “right.”
Most adults are to removed from their physical sensations that the first step is just to discover their presence. This is discussed in detail in “Practicing-Part 2“. A review might be helpful.
If Not the Notes – Then What?
Music is a flow of energy; it’s not a flow of right notes. It is the rise and fall of harmonic and melodic conflict and resolution. It is in the play of rhythms that become more and less active. This energy is part of the tension of structure and fluctuation of textures. The flow of the performance is achieved in the balance of this energy by shifting dynamics and tempo. The composers of each historical era approach this musical energy differently.
Music of the Baroque is a fairly even energy that can be relentless. The Classical era approaches musical energy with control and refinement. Beethoven can be abrupt, even “rude” in his contrasting energy. The rise and fall of the energy of the Romantic era reaches almost excessive proportions with Wagner and is answered by the light energy of the Impressionists. For modern composers, there is no consensus of energy; it can go every which way. A history of music and its culture could be built on the changes of musical energy.
Experiencing Western music is experiencing this flow of energy. Listeners can be swept away by it, but performers must control it in order to create it. The game of music is played on this edge of the energy between containment and chaos.
If we play from the mind, two negatives occur. First, we separate ourselves by perceiving ourselves as the subject and the music as the object. We are separate from the music at those moments when the mind takes over the musical processes.
Second, the conscious mind stops action and perceives events as a series of “snapshots.” It stops the flow, usually to evaluate or observe and does this even though the action continues. The result leaves the continuing action unattended.
Not only is the separation between subject and object detrimental to our music making, so too is our inattention as we withdraw to think of past moments
Only by flowing with our own processes of the sensations of touch and sound can we move with the flow of the music. Only then can we be one with the music without the magic of music disappearing. Only then are we playing the game of music.