I have found that driving a manual car is a lot like performing a concert. As I turn on the ignition and shift into first gear, my right foot presses lightly on the gas as my left foot eases from the clutch to start moving, otherwise I will stall. By the time I shift into second, I am going over 10 mph. I tend to give a little too much gas before shifting to third so that the engine makes angry noises. I love doing that! As I am entering the highway, I shift fairly quickly from 4th to 5th, and then finally to 6th, where I stay on I-70, going about 72 mph (maybe faster). My sunglasses are on, and I am happy to be on the road, present and listening to NPR. I may notice billboards but forget about them as soon as I pass.
On the other hand, I could start to worry about each step of this process. There are so many things that could go wrong. I could stall on a hill or have trouble merging. If I let these worries fester, I may hesitate to change lanes and stop driving confidently, losing my muse.
In flute playing, my muse is keeping hard work and enjoyment balanced, allowing me to cruise in sixth gear. This mindset leads to inspired phrasing, thoughtful teaching, and momentum in general. There are many things that can block my muse, including rejection, an injury, or stress. In these situations, I start to focus only on the hard work and forget to enjoy the experience.
To get my muse back, sometimes a quote helps. For example, I recently watched the PBS documentary The Opera House. Leontyne Price spoke about her love of singing, and how this is what makes the audience love the human experience. In other words, if you enjoy singing, it will come through in your performance. As soon as I heard this, I turned off the TV and began writing and practicing, feeling lucky that I have a life in the arts.
However, sometimes it may take more than a quote. One’s muse can be fickle. In high school I had it without realizing. I lost it in college because I focused so much on being a good student and working on my technique. I almost thought I should not enjoy practicing because it was such hard work. Luckily, I got out of that mindset.
How do musicians keep their muse present throughout the artistic process? What can they do in practice sessions? I have found the following questions and reminders helpful.
Is music in every step of learning a new etude, piece, or excerpt?
When I start learning a new piece of music, I listen to several recordings and take note of what I like and don’t like. I then think of the piece as I take a walk. There is something about forward motion that helps the direction of the phrases in my head. Then I start learning the piece in the practice room, playing at a tempo where I can read it without any mistakes. Even though the tempo is very slow, I challenge myself to connect the notes and keep long lines. I have had students who learn the notes and then consider how they will phrase it. This is a big mistake as simply learning the notes has nothing to do with musicianship.
If you can’t sing it, don’t play it that way.
I periodically sing in lessons and my practice sessions to figure out how I naturally feel the phrase. So many times, I have found that I am unable to play a passage because I am playing it in an unnatural way that is lacking Leontyne Price’s human element.
Practice for fun too.
Practicing is work, but sometimes that heavy feeling sneaks into our playing. Musicians are actors and must stay in character. Read through your favorite pieces or ask a friend to read duets with you. Remind yourself of why you liked music in the first place and experiment at bringing out different characters. I read through etudes and buy music for the sake of these reading sessions.
Get to know your playing.
Have you ever felt like a performance was expressive but you were disappointed by the recording? Record yourself on a regular basis to recognize your habits and shortcomings. It helps me to have outside accountability. Join Etude of the Week on Facebook or start Hilary Hahn’s #100daysofpractice regimen.
Sometimes you may feel overwhelmed by listening to these recordings. Where do you begin? I have found that focusing on one element at a time is helpful. The first time, I just listen. The second time I may focus on rhythm. Is all good or am I compressing? I record it again until I have completely fixed the rhythm and save that track as evidence that I was productive. I move on to intonation, direction of the phrase, dynamics, and character, again saving the track with that element fixed as well as the previous elements.
Where is the clash of characters?
Avoid at all costs playing a piece as one static character. This is a symptom of a fading muse. More extreme characters, creating clashes, can be very useful (as long as they are in the score). For example, in the Mozart G Major Concerto, the first theme is someone majestic and royal, walking down a red carpet. The secondary theme is a bit of a drama queen. In a minor key at first, it changes character and lightens up as it goes along.
Where exactly are you going? Where is your next musical climax? I remember as a college student watching my friend perform the Brahms Violin Concerto. He made every single note go somewhere. Not once was he a deer in headlights. It was beautiful. That night I went home and was overwhelmed by how stagnant my phrases were. I started playing through the notes and catching myself if I did not have a musical destination.
Flute players tend to overanalyze and be very hard on themselves. This can be bad for your playing and prevent you from reaching your full potential. Finding the right balance should be your main objective. If you think you may be losing your muse, try getting in your car and driving to a performance in the hopes that it will tag along.