I have been spending a lot of time with pupils lately helping them improve the precision of their playing. A number have been producing generally “muddy” sounding music – imprecise movements from one note to the next, inaccurate timing, uneven sound due to irregular blowing and other issues. A number of them are improving these areas, but more importantly, they are developing the skill to identify and resolve such issues themselves. This post is a bit of a discussion about a key aspect of this.
There are many musicians who have developed poor habits of playing over a number of years. They have maybe not been corrected early enough (if ever) and so regularly play some things imprecisely, detracting from their performances. In New South Wales, I have always been surprised at how many players produce crossing sounds and can’t detect them when they are pointed out. When you do something for a long time, you become oblivious to the lack of precision in going about it. In fact, you no longer hear that it is not right. This is sometimes called a scotoma, for those who know that term.
“A problem well-stated is half-solved”
In business, I often hear a quote from Charles Kettering, an inventor and early head of research for General Motors, who said “A problem well-stated is half-solved”. It’s like that in playing music – a problem clearly heard is already half fixed. When you can clearly hear your faults, you are a long way towards fixing them already.
I have been working with a number of students lately helping them hear when they play something that is muddy or unclear and understanding exactly what is going wrong. Once they get the idea of this with one or two things, they seem to be able to use that skill to detect things I haven’t told them about. This is a major step towards self-improvement. (It’s also something I have a knack for helping with).
I am always critical of my playing. This doesn’t mean I am always saying I play badly, because, actually, I don’t play badly. But I am always alert for minor flaws. If I am in a street march in a massed band, and I miss a grace note, does it matter? It does to me. I will note it and mark it for potential work later. I don’t let myself off the hook for any blemish in my playing no matter where it occurs. This constant vigilance, together with the listening skills to HEAR when things are not right, is dynamite when it comes to self improvement.
So, my overall guidance is to learn to listen critically to your playing – listen for minor details – try to understand what is not right, i.e. what is causing it. Then commit yourself to working on it until it is right. This is a strong path to great performance.