woman playing viola soulfully“Music is indivisible. The dualism of feeling and thinking must be resolved to a state of unity in which one thinks with the heart and feels with the brain”
–George Szell, conductor
(George Szell: A Life in Musicp. 212)

Have you ever heard a note-perfect performance that was emotionally sterile or, on the flipside, a passionate one that was unbearably sloppy?

I’ve found that such performances occur often among music students, and I think I know why.

I also know what to do about it.

The Source of the Problem

When we make music, we do so with our whole selves, melding body, mind, and spirit.

Aspiring musicians who divorce thinking from feeling, severing technical control from soulful expression, will inevitably fall short.

For instance, when some students start working on unfamiliar compositions, they first mechanically “get the notes” and defer expression, thereby ingraining artless habits. Others run roughshod through new pieces, intoxicated with emotion but making a mess of intonation, rhythm, and everything else.

In either case, unwanted habits imprint, and students will be burdened to renovate what they’ve learned, typically with limited success. Simply put, the primary source of sterile or ragged performance is sterile or ragged practice.

“The primary source of sterile or ragged performance is sterile or ragged practice.”

Merging Emotion with Precision

As I’ve written in The Musician’s Way, we need to bring both romance and exactness to everything we play or sing.

To absorb a new composition, for example, I recommend that we first get an overview of the musical landscape. Next, proceeding deliberately in sections, we map an interpretation, map the technique, and then execute our map (see: Learning New Material).The Musician's Way book cover

In that way, every technical action serves the higher purpose of artistic expression and each interpretive feeling is supported by a technical plan.

Ultimately, by learning our material deeply and increasing tempos gradually, we attain soulful control and can deliver inspired, precise performances.

“Every technical action serves the higher purpose of artistic expression and each interpretive feeling is supported by a technical plan.”

The Feeling of Soulful Control

Here’s how I sum up the feeling of soulful control on page 187 of The Musician’s Way:

     “Elite musicians have refined their craft to where they mostly let go in concerts; they function almost entirely in artistic dimensions. Even so, when veteran artists are engrossed in performing without any intrusion from nerves, they still preserve filaments of awareness that connect everything they do. If difficulties pop up, the filaments expand into high-bandwidth channels to bring pitches into tune or an ensemble back into step.

     “Uninitiated performers often presume that they can achieve comparable freedom by merely emoting on stage and foregoing awareness. They’re mistaken. To perform fluently, you must emote and control simultaneously. You have to be able to give yourself over to the emotion of the music while you also lead the music, directing your execution and the emotional flow.

     “Adept musicians practice such that they can oversee all aspects of performing with the slightest effort. Hence, they execute easily on stage, and their emotions have free rein. For you to become that well versed, you have to acquire the skills needed to prepare for concerts and to direct yourself under pressure. Then you’ll have infinite ways to transform the zing of performing into art.”

Of course, it takes time and effort to build up comprehensive musical ability. And it’s up to each musician to apply in personal ways the concepts and practice techniques that I document in The Musician’s Way.

But what an amazing journey it is.

Related posts
The beauty in basics
Glorious details
Mastery and mystery
Performance-oriented practice
The power of specific goals

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © N. Sutcliffe, licensed from Shutterstock