One of the best musical lessons I ever learned was during a collaborative piano masterclass with Martin Katz at the University of Michigan. I was playing a Beethoven sonata and at one point he stopped us and asked the pianist if she liked how I had played a certain phrase. The pianist said no, and Mr. Katz then asked, “But how did you play the lead-in to her entrance?” The pianist then played the phrase differently, which completely altered how I played the subsequent phrase.
“What will come next will be determined in large measure by how we are now.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, Where You Go, There You Are
This sort of attention is crucial to being a great musician. It has to do with being able to listen and respond, but also understanding and attention to one’s own role in the present moment.
It is also a difficult skill to practise. We can ask ourselves, “Is it in tune? Is the rhythm good?” and these are fairly straightforward questions, even if the execution may be difficult.
But this skill of listening and responding must be practised with another musician(s).
The practice of mindfulness can help, however, for it trains our minds to be aware.
Why not try 20 minutes of mindful ensemble practice? I suggest the following for a string quartet:
Choose a movement to work on, one that you are comfortable playing.
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Record your playing.
The upper 3 voices focus on the cello line. This focus will be similar to the focus on the breath during mindful meditation - you will find your mind wander to all kinds of things, but keep bringing it back to the cello line.
The cellist focuses on something physical - the breath, or the feeling of the feet against the floor. But just one focus for the whole 20 minutes.
There should be no speaking during the 20 minutes (clarify repeats before you start the timer!). Assuming your piece lasts less than 20 minutes, continue to cycle through it, each time reminding yourselves to refocus your attention.
At the end of the 20 minutes, listen to the recording and see what you notice!
Feel free to leave comments!
I had my first ever Baroque violin lesson recently. This was tremendously exciting for me, as I’ve wanted for years to do it. It was also terribly irritating, as I noticed pretty quickly that what everyone had told me about Baroque violin being a different instrument was pretty much true, and that my years of modern violin training were going to hinder almost much as they helped.
I also realized that I was going to have to come up with new ways of practicing. My intensely analytical style of tearing things apart was pretty much going to get in the way of actually playing music. In my lesson, I was absolutely terrified of “getting it wrong” and consequently paralyzed and unable to produce the sound I envisioned in my head.
So I toddled off home and decided to try the very sound (pun intended) advice of my teacher: trust your singing voice.
So the next day, I recorded myself playing some Monteverdi, and then listened back. I sounded like a truck.
Then I recorded myself singing, listened to it, and then recorded myself playing it back. Hm, a lot less like a truck. More like an SUV. I resisted the urge to analyze and repeated the process several times, until my Monteverdi had scaled down to a Volkswagon Beetle. Still not the lithe unicorn of my dreams, but I left it alone, figuring that overcooking the piece would be just as bad.
So the new challenge to you mindful practicers out there: find the part of yourself that gives musical inspiration. Feed that. Don’t try analyzing and changing. Listen and respond instead
I am an Irish-American violinist living in Cambridge, UK. I perform with the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, and many other top groups, and am also the Business Developer for Encore Music and am on the Makers Academy course for programming.