Monday, October 03, 2011

Achieving New Balance

The phrase "Achieve New Balance" is printed on the bottom of my relatively new sneakers, and though I step on that phrase multiple times daily, it has taken quite a while for its impact to reach my brain, fingers, and blog.

When I began playing violin 20 years ago (it will be 20 years this Thanksgiving), I worked like crazy to make up for the many years I spent away from the violin. It has taken me 20 years, but finally all those bowstrokes, scales, and shifts have made paved passageways between my brain, fingers, arms, hands, and ears that I can actually rely upon.

I remember distinctly the first time I felt "it," that moment when playing something the way I want to play something happens effortlessly. It happened to me at Juilliard, in a practice room (with my flute), playing the Handel A minor Sonata. All of a sudden the process of getting from one note to the next had meaning. I could make phrases go wherever my imagination wanted them to go, and I could articulate the way I wanted to articulate. My biggest problem from that point on was to figure out what I wanted to do with a phrase, not how to do it. I had been playing for about five years at the time.

I figured that it would take at least five years to get to that point on the fiddle, but, because all the physicality involved in playing the violin as opposed to playing the flute, I didn't really find "it" until last week; twenty years in. Perhaps it's my age, perhaps its the instrument, perhaps its the fact that I haven't worked with a teacher (as a student) for ten of those years (for better or for worse). Perhaps it's the lack of strife and tension in my life, or perhaps it's just time.

I attribute at least 50% of it to my new bow. Its particular weight and particular personality has allowed me to find balance on my violin. Through finding that balance between the parts of my playing anatomy, everything is so much easier, even if the music I'm playing is difficult. My bow can (figuratively, of course) draw a straight line and a perfect circle freehand, with its eyes closed. It makes it possible for me not to waste energy, and it lets my instrument give energy back to me.

Yesterday, when I read Tom Burritt's post about Evelyn Glennie on Drum Chatter, and saw this video:

I understood that what I was feeling was real.

I don't think that this feeling is really possible to teach. Sure, you can demonstrate "it," as long as "it" isn't too much a part of your musical anatomy (many really good players are too immersed in "it" to identify its components). A teacher can notice when "it" is missing, but, from my experience with teachers, they are just as likely to miss the mark as they are to hit it. They can correct hand and arm positions, and they can correct intonation. They can offer strategies to avoid physical tension, and encourage students to breathe. They can even get a student to feel "it" during the lesson, but ultimately it must be the student who finds "it" in his or her own personal/musical space, because "it" is internal and personal.

Some kids get the physical "it" right away, and then their hands and arms grow, and the balance changes. Everything changes when they become adolescents. Some kids keep "it," and some spend their entire musical lives trying to find "it" again.

From my first experience if "it," or "New Balance" on the flute, I realized that personal musical demands and the ability to execute those demands are almost always in an imbalance. When the musical demands exceed a person's technical ability, the answer is pretty straightforward. It's a time to gather tools to address the problem (scales, arpeggios, practicing with a metronome, practicing double stops). The process is usually straightforward.

When technical ability exceeds musical demands, however, it produces a period of stagnation and sometimes boredom. Sometimes this can last for years. Solving that problem is never straightforward.

On a micro-musical (i.e. daily) level these factors are in constant play, and that's why we always need to look for balance in our musical lives, and, because everything is in constant flux, it's always a new balance.

Time for me to practice!


Quodlibet said...

Elaine, thanks for this fascinating essay. I read it twice! It's so hard to articulate the feeling of "it," yet I'm sure that most perceptive musicians will know exactly what you mean.

For singers, "it" is often affected by factors outside our control, including weather, indoor climate (temperature, relative humidty, air currents), hormones (GRRRRR), etc. Vocally, I found "it" when I was about 40. Lost and found "it" several times since then. Need to practice more, and better!

Thanks for the inspiration. I love reading your essays.

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. For me, working on the Paganini Caprices will usually take care of any stagnation problems I encounter :) haha--there are some choice Ernst and Suaret etudes that bring me back down to earth too. I can't wait for the day I feel stagnated by the Devil's Trill.