When you confront a technical challenge in your music making, does a voice within you ever say, “Try harder”?
I get the impression that many rising musicians believe that trying harder will result in greater precision.
But I advocate a reverse strategy: withdrawing effort.
For example, consider what happens in a group rehearsal when a leader tells musicians to, “Try harder.” Don’t the musicians typically tense up?
I think so, because that instruction implies that the performers can’t handle the music, so they should just hunker down and push. Similarly, in solo practice, ‘trying harder’ is probably a futile move.
In contrast, when we practice deeply, we can trust ourselves and execute without forcing. Then, as we reduce effort, a magical thing happens: we connect spiritually with a composition and our creativity can soar.
An inspired group leader, therefore, will offer instructions such as, “Release your shoulders, lighten your touch, feel the pulse, trust your technique.” The opposite of trying harder.
Likewise, when we practice alone, we need to use strategies that ensure optimal ease.
The Effort Meter Concept
To help musicians minimize effort in their practice, I often recommend the use of an imaginary meter that measures effort on a scale from 0-10.
Zero represents inactivity; 10 signifies maximum effort. Our goal is to play or sing with the least possible effort, even when executing intricate music.
Our effort readings will fluctuate as we play or sing, of course, but our aim is to keep them predominantly in the green zone of the above sample meter with occasional forays into the yellow and orange zones.
We want to stay out of the red zone, because when our effort reading climbs toward 10, we’re approaching our edge, and breakdown could ensue.
Using an Effort Meter
To try out the effort meter in your practice, play or sing an excerpt, and then rate your level of mental and physical exertion. Next, consider what you could do to execute the passage such that the meter would be dialed down one or more notches.
If you’re playing an instrument, let’s say, could you apply less pressure with your hands, free up your shoulders, and feel ahead more vividly? If you’re singing, could you release tension in your throat and breathe more freely?
After deciding on some effort-reducing tactics, execute the passage again, and assign a new effort rating:
- If the reading dropped, you’re moving in a desirable direction – see if you can dial it down even further.
- If the reading stayed the same or increased, explore alternate strategies.
- If you can’t figure out how you might get your effort meter into the green zone, opt for simpler material and seek guidance from a teacher.
Less Effort = Better Music Making
Reducing effort is essential to both artistry and injury prevention.
For one thing, it liberates the mental bandwidth we need to be imaginative. At the same time, through easing muscle tension, we minimize strain and fatigue.
Keep in mind that reducing effort entails directing our music making with awareness as opposed to executing mindlessly.
See The Musician’s Way for ways to deepen your practice and promote ease in music making.
© 2009 Gerald Klickstein