“Play what it is, not what it isn’t,” is something Martin Katz said to me in a lesson. This, along with many other intuitive insights of his, transformed my playing dramatically.
We all bring our past along with us to rehearsals, lessons, coachings, and performances. That may be unavoidable. However, we can overcome many things that block our progress.
This particular lesson included the song “Du Bist Die Ruh,” by Franz Schubert. Although it is only 2 pages, it is not easy for singers or pianists. Both performers must be very quiet. After all, the poem is about peace and love. Also, when you sing the 2nd page (yes, you, even if your are a pianist!), you will find some spots where you might run out of breath unless everything goes perfectly.
The singer’s part must be addressed by the pianist, of course. Getting the 2nd page to be in sync is a big challenge, due to the singer’s potential need to change her/his breathing plan because of the demands of quiet singing, the ascending line with a diminuendo, and the fermata (also on a quiet note!). And some words begin with a vowel, making the pianist’s task of “catching” the singer more difficult.
I felt intimidated by the song, afraid that some of the notes wouldn’t sound or that I would be out of sync with the initial vowels. To compensate, I was bending over the keys (way over). Martin said, “You look like Rachmaninoff playing for the very last time! It’s a two-page song!!!” He was right. And then he said, “Play what it is, not what it isn’t.”
Soon I was able to let go of “Don’t play too loud!” “Careful!” “You’ll be late!” and other panic-based, unhelpful messages to myself.
What a difference! No one had ever suggested a positive way to approach music to me before. My experience with previous teachers had been to hear only criticism, with no positive approach to follow. (I heard what was wrong every time, not what was going well. And the emphasis on what went wrong made practicing an exercise in backtracking ~ clicking “undo,” if you will.) Beginning with the day of my lesson with Martin, the song has been no problem. (This also applies to a lot of other music!)
Recently I have been working on this idea with a student who was an adult beginner just a few years ago. She has made impressive progress during that time, but still gets in her own way occasionally. Adult beginners tend to have a lot of angst about playing. They feel they’re behind, have to learn as an adult what kids learned without thinking, that printed music is hard to read, and the list goes on from there.
My approach is to ask my student questions. The answers that follow give me an idea about how she is thinking. Usually, she needs to be more specific. Also, last week I found that a general panic was still lurking just beneath its former up-front status, resulting in a lack of focus. The panic is about the huge potential for playing wrong notes. So then the tension escalates, wrong notes occur more and more often as the piece proceeds (reinforcing the fear, giving it validity), and focusing on the playing at today’s level is almost impossible.
Letting go of past fears is not easy. But when the piece has been well-practiced, it is time to focus on how it IS played, not on all the things that were difficult up to that point. (Has positive practicing replaced the fear, or only made it lurk beneath the surface?)
David Thomas, principal clarinetist with the Columbus Symphony, recently posted the following two Tweets:
“If you are trying to play perfectly you block yourself with effort. Strive without effort.”
“No-one ever died from playing a wrong note. I hope.”
Thanks, David! (Tweets reprinted with David’s permission.)
“Play what it is, not what it isn’t.”
Suggestions welcome! How do you handle your fear about learning and performing music? How do you work with your students to help them minimize their fears?