Musicians are often regarded as being a pretty hard-working lot – a reputation that I’d say is probably well-deserved. We often start at a very young age, spend lots of alone time practicing while others are out doing more enjoyable things, and are pretty good about putting in our hours on a consistent basis. Hmm…now that I think of it, how is it that we can practice every single day, without fail, for years on end, but we can’t stick with a simple diet or exercise program beyond a few months?
Anyhow, to get back to my original train of thought, we spend tens of thousands of hours working really hard to reach ever higher levels of excellence. To play with greater accuracy and consistency, to develop a more compelling sound, greater control and dynamic range, expressivity and clarity of intent. All that good stuff.
But how much time do we spend trying to make playing easier? Working to see just how little effort we can expend?
Pick up the ball
I recently heard about an exercise that Alexander Technique teachers use to increase our awareness about muscle tension and effort. The exercise involves lifting a ball off a table. Sounds simple enough, but each time you reach out, grab the ball, and pick it up, you must use half as much effort as you used the previous time. Eventually, there comes a point where the ball keeps slipping through the fingers and there isn’t enough force being used to pick up the ball successfully.
At this point, one can then begin adding some of the effort back in, one smidgen at a time, until you reach the minimum amount of tension and force required to successfully lift the ball off the table. When you get to this point, and compare it with your first attempt, you realize just how much excess tension you were using.
(FYI, you can do a similar thing with playing your instrument.)
The problem with too much muscle tension
What’s the big deal? Well, I suppose it’s not like this is going to bring the world to an end (or even bring the NY Phil to a halt), but tension contributes to subpar technical execution (cracked notes, poor sound, and intonation for instance), fatigue, aches/pains, and overuse injuries. If there is anything to be gained by playing with more muscle tension and effort than is absolutely necessary, I can’t think of it.
Of even greater concern is the fact that under pressure we have a natural tendency to tighten up, thanks to the fight or flight (or freeze) response. So what may have been an unhelpful, but manageable level of tension in the practice room quickly escalates into a major problem. We start clenching, muscling through passages, and trying to produce sound through great effort because we don’t feel comfortable letting go and trusting our body to do what we’ve trained it to do in the practice room.
Why? Because we don’t generally spend much time practicing specifically for ease.
Run fast, but take it easy
John Douillard, author of Body, Mind, and Sport and former director of player development for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, suggests an intriguing exercise for increasing effortlessness in runners. He recommends having athletes run a race, where the winner is the first person to cross the finish line with the lowest heart rate and breath rate. For those who think in terms of equations, this translates as: finish time + heart rate + (breath rate x 3), where the lowest overall score wins.
Musicians can train themselves to be more comfortable with playing effortlessly under pressure with a similar exercise. Here’s how:
- Select an excerpt or two that are relatively high in energy, and that you have a pretty good handle on.
- Set up an audio/video recorder, to tape yourself
- Play through an excerpt or section of a piece as if it were a real performance, that is to say, resolve to demonstrate some of your absolute best playing, but at the same time, play with as much ease and effortlessness as possible.
- Evaluate yourself from 1-10 on the quality of your playing, and from 1-10 on the degree of effortlessness that you achieved. Aim for consistent 9’s on both.
Orchestra rehearsal can also be a great time to practice this. Not so you can slack off and be lazy, but so you can find a way to stay on top of things, blend with the section, and remain an integral member of the ensemble whilst avoiding an excess buildup of tension as the hours pass by.
The one-sentence summary
“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.“ ~Bruce Lee