UD #46 Stopping and Starting: Building Fluidity In Your Playing
from Ukulele in the Dark
w/ Guido Heistek
“I have some pieces that I know quite well but I can’t seem to play them smoothly. Especially in front of an audience. How can I work on that?”
I want to share with you two approaches to practicing that I feel help with fluidity in playing. You can try one or both of these exercises. They work with any level of piece, from picking the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb to a sophisticated solo chord melody arrangement. Remember you’ll only find out if they work if you try them!
I can remember my teachers in music school telling me, “Guido, you got to relax!” Many players, including myself, have struggled with a build up of anxiety and over-excitement when they play. This usually gets worse when we perform for an audience. Here is a simple experiment and exercise that I do. It’s based on an exercise in How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live an Alexander Technique book by Missy Vineyard:
I take a piece that I know well. Before I play the piece, I pause and decide to wait a little longer than usual before I begin. In other words I decide not to play for the moment. This often has a wonderful effect on my anxious anticipation to play the piece.
Once I start playing I monitor myself for signs of anxiety and tension. Perhaps I notice I’m holding my breath. Or I may notice that I’m clenching my ukulele really tightly. Or I may notice that vague feeling of pending doom creeping up! If you’re anything like me, you are very familiar with the signature signs that you are experiencing anxiety. The moment I notice these signs, I stop playing. I decide not to play for a moment. I may become aware of the room around me or the feeling of the chair supporting me. I just sit there for a moment deciding not to play. I don’t TRY and rid myself of the anxiety or tension. I just decide not to play. Once I’ve done that for a while I proceed to play again. But the moment I notice my anxiety ramping up, I stop and repeat the same process: I may become aware of the sounds around me, or of the distance between me and the surrounding walls in the room. I decide to take a moment not to play my ukulele and then I proceed.
Now, if you’re anything like me this exercise seems absolutely maniacally insane. How could pausing while playing help with fluidity in my playing? Madness! Well, I’ve experienced that working in this way helps to dis-embed anxiety from my playing. And this in turn greatly improves fluidity. Give it a try! Let me know how it goes…
Also as one becomes more skilled at such techniques one becomes able to insert the necessary pauses within the flow of the music. I like the term “allowing the performance to breath.” And it can begin with a simple decision to stop when you need to. Because let’s face it, if you’re all amped up and anxious while you’re practicing, you’re teaching yourself to be amped up and anxious while you’re playing or performing. And I don’t think this is what you want to learn from your practice sessions.
Okay, here’s another very similar experiment and exercise that you can try.
LEADING WITH THE THOUGHT:
Again I take a piece that I know quite well. It’s best if I can play it without the music in front of me.
Before I play the piece, similar to before, I pause and decide not to play. I may become aware of the chair supporting me, or the floor supporting me. I may become aware of the sounds in my environment, maybe even the sound of my own breathing. I take a moment.
Before it begin playing I make sure that the first note of the song is clear in my mind. If it’s not, I may need to play it for myself to remind me. I consider this “priming the pump”. When it’s clear in my mind’s ear I allow my hands to move and play the first note or chord in the song. Then I allow the sound of the next note or chord to pop up in my mind and I let my fingers to play it. It takes some discipline to do this but I find it incredibly meditative and relaxing. The goal is to become honest with myself that each note I play on the instrument is first projected in my mind. Time and time again I catch myself bringing my finger to play a note without first conceiving of that note in my mind. When I notice this I simply pause, allow my musical intention to bubble up and then I allow my hand to move and play it. Spend some time working this way on a piece that you know quite well and let me know how it goes!
Here’s a short anecdote that is related to this week’s topic. I was teaching a class at Ruby’s Ukes Vancouver. It was our last class of the term and we were having our usual end of term student performance. Many of the students were performing songs that they were working on: “works in progress”. Eventually, I was asked to perform a song and I decided to play a song that for me was also a “work in progress”. I decided to play Body and Soul. I warned the students and said, “I may need to take a moment at some point, to allow this song to load up in my head. I’m not that familiar with it yet so there may be some unexpected spaces.” I proceeded to play the song, pausing when necessary when I felt a mental blank spot approaching, when I felt the sense of the pending danger of my anxiety rising up or when I lost track of what the next note was. In other words, I paused when I needed to. Or I paused when the music needed me to. When I finished playing, some students exclaimed, “Where were the pauses? We didn’t notice you stop!” One other student remarked, “I noticed you pause but it felt like it was part of the music.” This was very exciting and interesting feedback to receive. What I thought would be a simple show and tell of a work in progress turned out to be a very satisfactory and complete performance of the song. And the pauses that I felt a little self-conscious about turned out to be not only acceptable but pleasing and necessary. Very interesting!
Hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter. Sorry about the big gaps between newsletters. I’ll try to get them out more regularly in the following weeks and months. I leave you with a video of one of my heroes, Herb Ohta Sr. playing Stardust. So beautiful! So fluid!
All the best to you all,