Cracked Notes? Squirrely Intonation? Solution May Be Ease-ier Than You Think

Minimal effort
brings maximal performance.
What a paradox!

(Why the haiku? TMQ)

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.

Take action

Musicians can train themselves to be more comfortable with playing effortlessly under pressure with a similar exercise. Here’s how:

  1. Select an excerpt or two that are relatively high in energy, and that you have a pretty good handle on.
  2. Set up an audio/video recorder, to tape yourself
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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  1. Maria says

    I love this post. Have you ever read Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner? It’s a whole approach and philosophy about playing that promotes this idea fully. It’s a great book that helps the musician to relalx and enjoy his or her playing!

    • says

      Hi Maria,

      I haven’t read Werner’s book, but someone else mentioned it to me a few years ago, and I hear it’s quite helpful. Sounds like I ought to check it out – thanks for the suggestion!

  2. says

    Great post Dr. Kageyama! I totally agree that excess muscle tension not only adds to squeaky notes and fatigue, it detracts from our ability to play faster and smoother. Kind of ironic, letting go in order to gain more control.

    @Maria, I have read Effortless Mastery and totally agree with you!

    • says

      Hi Tom,

      Sounds like I’ll have to check out the Werner book soon! Staying relaxed in performing arts makes good intuitive sense, but one of the more paradoxical things (to me at least) is how important staying loose seems to be even in tasks that also require great force, e.g. sprinting and martial arts. I know sprinters can lose a race when they tighten up, and I remember an old martial arts teacher emphasizing loose muscles and technique over brute force and excessive effort.

  3. Mary Titus says

    Hi, I wanted to let you know that I attended a Stanley Jordan masterclass and I mentioned your blog. He wrote it down so I hope he visits here soon. Just in case you have never heard of him, he is a jazz guitarist and a music therapy enthusiast.

  4. says

    Great read! Thank you for this article. As a musician, I believe in hard work as the road to success but wow you really made me see that even in having that mentality I’m likely guaranteeing an unnecessary and excessive amount of tension and force exertion. I guess the adage is true, “don’t work hard work smart” … Or something like that lol

  5. Ben says

    I think its important to mention that too little tension can be risky as well. Especially if you have an existing injury. If there isnt enough tension in the muscles to support the joints, then the load gets passed on to the connective tissue (ligamiments, tendons, etc). Also when you first attempt to use less muscle tension, the untrained nerves tends to activate a few random muscle fibers in a group resulting in unbalanced joint stress. This is why physical therapy tends to focus on rehabing the muscles around an injured joint through propioceptive stretchband and other constant tension excercises that lightly engage the entire muscle gradually increasing innervation and thus control of the joint.

    An example of this would be in cycling, where standing up to pedal on the hills (which engages all of the large muscle groups that support proper motion of the patella) can be less risky for existing knee injuries than riding on flat ground (which generally requires only a potentially unbalanced fraction of your quadriceps).

  6. cleo says

    Exactly, I totally agree with this post, because I found it to be true in my practice room, and let me explain to you why. Here’s how I practice in the room, because i’m convinced more than the half of the problems I encounter in the practice room is due to… to… bad listening to my body !
    Yes, that’s the only thing i’ve found, but let me explain why. Sometimes in my practice room, my intonation suddenly improved for less than three seconds, I frowned my eyebrowns because I was so surprised, then it came back to normal, I played badly (badlier, if one prefers), and I carried on playing.
    So I share something to you. First I should practice as the blogger of this site told us, this means, deliberate practice, and according to marshmallow challenge, this means, thanks to multiple experiences, which will lead me to get it more “right” in the end. I should do the extremes, what seems totally wrong…
    Then practice to reach a ideal sound, I practice with an idea of how we want it to sound, and I test, we do many little experiments, I look for the extremes.
    Thirdly, and that counts much, it is to listen to my body. The good news is we all have a sense of perception in body, and the other good news is that, everybody has the ability to learn again to listen to it. When we practice, the body (ears as well as the body itself, wrist,for example) send to us many signals, all of us perceive them, but some of us ignore it. Finding it out helped me.

    • cleo says

      That’s not the only thing. I found also what I call “the reversal of the beliefs” and I like doing the parallel with the problem of eating too much.

      When people eat too much, they say : “that’s not my fault, this is because of the body, if the body didn’t stockpile fat, My body wouldn’t be like that…”. They treat the body as ennemy, it’s “his” fault, they are totally right according to themselves, they totally focus on the outcome, like their body plumps out, what they only find to do then is finding the cause, they need to accuse : it’s the fault of the body, or even the fault of the food (well, it’s most of the time the fault of the food too). But, what they forget, is if they practised the “reversal of their beliefs”, they would find the cause.
      They treat their body as their ennemy, but what if their body was their friend ? In fact, reversing their beliefs (it’s the fault of the body), they found the key to their problems, they do not listen enough to their body, it’s just something that they have to learn to do again.

      Take action
      Next time you encounter a problem, and you accuse something at yours, in your playing, complaining it can never be changed, try to practice the reversal of your beliefs. For example,, “Oh my god, I can’t succeed in changing of string neatly with my bow ? It is the fault of my wrist ! It is blocked and there is nothing I can do about that !”
      reversal of the beliefs : “What if my wrist was my friend, and the problem is just that I do not listen to him enough ?”

      Quote of the day :
      “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Carl Jung

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