violinist practicingHave you ever been confounded by a thorny passage that wouldn’t come together?

You know, the sort of material where even after days of working on the music, you notice no real improvement.

Probably every musician encounters such problem spots from time to time.

But these sorts of predicaments don’t have to be frustrating.

Assuming that musical dilemmas aren’t far beyond our abilities, if we deal with them cleverly, they can lead us to new heights of creativity and competence.

Still, to transform a musical quandary into a triumph, we require adept problem solving skills.

“Assuming that musical dilemmas aren’t far beyond our abilities, if we deal with them cleverly, they can lead us to new heights of creativity and competence.”

Thinking About Problems

To become agile problem-solvers, we have to approach problems with a curious mindset and an arsenal of problem-solving strategies.

By being curious, problems fascinate us, and our positive mindset fires our imagination. Then, with numerous problem-busting maneuvers on hand, we can trust in our resources and deconstruct problems confidently.

We should also remember that creative problem solving depends on creative thinking. That is, problems in our everyday lives might have single remedies (say, why a stalled car won’t start), but musical and technical troubles often have many possible solutions.

So, when we take on musical problems in practice, we have to think in divergent ways and explore trouble spots from multiple angles. How can we do that? The most straightforward way is for us to ask questions that highlight various features of a passage.

A string player trying to clean up a left-hand shift might first ask not about the left hand but the right: “What’s my bow arm doing before, during and after the shift?” After investigating the bowing, the musician might wonder, “What other left-hand fingerings might be possible?” And so on.

On top of being clever questioners, we also benefit from building awareness of the problem-solving process.

The Problem-Solving Process

As shown in Chapter 3 of The Musician’s Way, problem solving involves three basic steps:

1. Recognize when a problem exists
2. Isolate and define the problem
3. Apply problem-solving tactics

1. Recognize a Problem

Problem recognition hinges on our perceptual skills. yet we all know that our perceptions aren’t always pristine.

To keep problems from eluding us, I advise musicians to evaluate their playing or singing using specific benchmarks.

The Habits of Excellence defined in Chapter 2 of The Musician’s Way make for solid starting points. Self-recording helps, too.

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The Musician's Way book cover2. Isolate and Define the Problem

Next, I suggest that musicians pinpoint the sticky elements of a passage and clarify its inner workings.

For example, a singer might determine that an intonation problem arises because of the register of a phrase combined with the complexity of pronouncing a word.

A pianist or guitarist might identify that a fast run feels difficult due to one three-note lick; she might then define the issue as arising from a convoluted fingering choice that needs changing.

3. Apply Problem-Solving Tactics

With a problem isolated and defined, we can then employ tactics that enable us to master its troublesome ingredients.

Such tactics include slowing the tempo, varying rhythms, omitting and then reinserting pitches, revising fingerings, and, in some cases, editing the music. Pages 54-70 of The Musician’s Way scrutinize problem-solving and present seven crucial tactics illustrated with dozens of music examples.

After we iron out the difficulties, we accurately repeat the passage several times and then merge it back into the greater context, repeating larger phrases and sections.

In the end, the process of tackling problems extends our abilities and enables us to grow our artistry day after day.

Related posts
6 Ways for Musicians to Minimize Tension
Divergent Thinking in Practice
Glorious Details
The Meaning in Mistakes

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © E. Kuliyev, Licensed from Shutterstock