Pulling Out the Stops

For me, the relationship between practicing and performing in music is like the relationship between movement exploration and all of its integrated components and function in Feldenkrais…it can sometimes be a tricky thing to find, craft, uncover, streamline, etc.

As a musician, I have often found myself exploring this relationship both at the outset of a performance project trying to plan ahead for a successful performance to use my time as efficiently and effectively as possible, and in retrospect, trying to pull components of processed based practice and discovery together into something that will represent me well in a performance. As a Feldenkrais practitioner I’ve often asked myself what components I could extract from Awareness Through Movement sequences to help someone find a more effective way to balance weight over feet while holding an instrument, or finding more connection to the center in the use of the arms; and retrospectively, after exploring a pattern of movement in Functional Integration and then finding some new options for movement and ease without a particular goal in mind, helping that person find a relevant functional connection in life.

I have been exploring both of these relationships with my violin students quite a bit in the last year. I am very much in favor of ongoing process-based practice with no particular goal except learning in mind, but I believe along side this, as musicians, and as practitioners/teachers, we have to be constantly extracting from this learning and bringing elements in to concrete functional fruition. I do strongly believe that focusing on the process and allowing for maximum experiential learning yields the safest, most valuable learning, so it’s also important to me that the product does not exceed the process in it’s importance…there is a fine balance.

As it is end of the semester recital time and college jury season, the product, the function, the performance is more in focus, and so my thinking has centered more recently on the performance/function/product side of things. For some students, the bridge to performance is a much simpler structure — maybe a basic set of pilings set in calm waters to reinforce it. For others, it seems like a feat of modern engineering, reinforced with suspension and steel and earthquake and hurricane tested to make the connection strong enough.

I have never had a particularly strong performance anxiety pattern, but building that bridge from practice (which could be endlessly exploratory on multiple tangents) had to be carefully constructed, and my practice for performance had to take on a new kind of focus. The difficulty for me was in “forcing” myself to play through the piece without stopping. The temptation to stop and perfect, stop and explore, stop and think, stop and analyze, was so strong. I sometimes devised strategies to make myself stop stopping, making rules about playing a passage multiple times in a row with no stops and going back to the beginning of the repeating sequence if I did stop. I thought that I had to program my muscle memory like a computer and that mistakes and stops would build into the piece if I didn’t un-program that instinct. I had multiple variations of this game, keeping the phrase going in my head with the metronome and jumping in and out with my playing, playing at a super slow speed thinking of every detail, but never breaking the thread of thought until the end.

This semester, though, with my stoppers, the advanced engineering-earthquake-proof-performance practicers, I thought, why not do the Feldenkrais thing and PULL OUT THE STOPS and explore the heck out of why they happen from an experiential standpoint. So my stoppers created stopping journals for the piece they were preparing to perform. They could “practice” the piece as they liked, exploring, discovering, experiencing in bits, deconstructing, abstracting, but once every day they had to “perform” the piece with the intention to play all the way through, as in a performance. Doing this for someone or recording it would be a bonus. BUT they did the performance as a study in stops, hesitations, do-overs, etc., so they kept a stop journal on the stand. They could stop without guilt as the impulse arose, but during the stop they had to write down the thought or feeling or whatever instantly came to mind.

With each of these students, we tried it out in a lesson first and discussed the results at the end…there was no talking during the stops, only writing the measure number and briefly notating the thought. The results were at first very interesting because of their variety among students–with some, whom I thought the issue was a kind of perfectionism, it was merely losing ones place; with others, specific technical issues came to the forefront that were not so obvious before; for others the stops were sometimes to breathe or blink or  relax. With each of these students, however, the results were revelatory. In most cases the student was unaware of what was making her stop, and in many cases I was also unaware of the particular circumstances. On average, the stopping started to fade by about half in the second play through simply from taking the time to discover the reason for themselves…if you know what you are doing, you can do what you want!

In the coming weeks, the results became more interesting. In many cases, the practicing itself seemed to become more productive, and these students also came to lessons with more individual observations about the piece they were playing and about themselves. What was especially curious for me was that their practice has remained process oriented, but the performance became a part of the process rather than just a product…this was especially nice to see with a long-time student who has struggled for most of her life with performance anxiety who showed the beginnings of ease and poise in her stage presence.

I won’t say the stopping journal is a fix-all, but it has been a valuable learning tool for all of us. If you are a stopper, give it a try and let me know what you discover, if anything!




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