Tag: Confidence

Lack of self confidence affecting playing

J.M’s lesson on 6/18/21

Return to live lessons:

Having students back in the house is a wonderful change. What a difference it makes being able to sit physically next to the other person in the same  shared space. So much is conveyed by me to the other person through subtle  gestures that accompany my words, subtle tones of voice that  mimic physical actions and techniques. In general, just more quality interaction  between two people.*

J.M is an adult student of fine ability who has lately been feeling stymied and uninspired. As we talked it through, I realized that certain chronic issues were affecting how she presently felt, including undervaluation of herself and her ability, and the not always appropriate criteria by which to measure her progress. She all too easily finds specific reasons why not to believe in her true capacity. She is also dead set against playing in front of anybody else.**

In contrast, it is striking how good she feels about herself when she feels that she has excelled (“I got to the front row of the Zumba class this week!”).

At today’s lesson she said that it had been less than a year since she played the Debussy prelude “Ondine”, but when she looked at the music this week she has no remembrance of the notes or how it sounded. I decided to  xisprove this. I asked her try to play it. Don’t worry about the whole piece. Just try the first few measures. I’m just a friend spending time with you. Don’t put me in the role of a teacher.  There is no test to pass or  expectations to live up to.

She had no difficulty playing the piece. Her body remembered where to go as her ear readily remembered the sounds of the work.

I noticed how, when encountering the fast sally of very fast notes, she tried to play the notes as fast as possible with the result that there was a visually obvious sudden increase in muscular tension causing her physical  mechanism to seize up and making unpredictably scattering the sounds,  ehich  came out blatant sounding and uneven.

I steadied her course. You are in charge: you can say “I will play no note, in a slow or fast passage, before I’m good and ready to play it”. Every finger is  free of the others and can play its note how it wants to have that note sound.

When there was a sudden jump in pitch, or to a very different chord in the same range, she again strived to do it as fast as possible, almost guaranteeing that a mistake would happen.

As a friend and not a teacher, I found myself saying to her numerous times “slow down, there’s no rush. Speed is not an issue for you, it will come back naturally.”

A couple of times I offered her technique advice. About arpeggios and the changes in octaves it contained. If it were downward pitches in the right hand I suggested that first she let the finger leading the way into the next octave, stop and float around for a while, then trust it will have no trouble getting to its designated note. I recommended practicing in the abstract  first, to rotate her torso and arms slowly and steadily to the left.

We added ‘space’ between her fingers so they all felt like they were mutually floating apart from each other. This caused a great decrease in tension while playing the notes, with the result that her articulation was clear and timely.

We got through the entire prelude. Her success was in contradiction to the worry she expressed beforehand.

Self confidence affects all players in one way or another. So of teaching is getting to know the individual student, to discover in what situations this lack of confidence takes up residence, and to find specific actions that can alleviate it for that person.   I discuss this is in many of the blog entries.

She is a wonderful Debussy player and I look forward to her bringing back Ondine (one of my own favorite preludes).

* An aside: Zoom sucks, not only because of its distortion of piano sound, and the infernally omnipresent delay so we can’t count out loud together or  play together. I was hoping zoom would rise to occasion of the pandemic  and make changes and improvements. Maybe they have, but I don’t see it in the context of music lessons. I do however admire my students, especially the younger ones, who have succeeded in creating the feeling that we are in the same space, that who are fully present as complete people within their screen manifestations.

** I said that playing for people helps you hear what you are doing.   It’s also the luck of the draw. You may play terribly or wonderfully on a given day. If you play the same piece for different people on a number of  occasions, the odds will eventually be in your favor. You will playas well or better than you wanted to. What my therapist used to call a ‘corrective  emotional experience’. One that would color future experiences in a  different way.

The first time play just for your husband. If, as you have said, you consider him somewhat difficult as a person, just tell him ahead of time exactly how you want him to react during and after playing for him, to try to maintain a look of interest.

A few days later, play again, this time just for a friend.

Repeat the experience in a series. Gradually include more people.  Maybe do it once or twice at my house for people we would choose to invite.

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A new rule for Irving about sight reading

Irving* plays at an advanced technical level, but has significant difficulty sight reading at an intermediate level.  We practice sight reading at every lesson.

There is a predictable sequence of events when something goes amiss as he is sight reading:

1) He comes to a stop.

2) He gets frustrated and angry (but not angry at anything in particular).

3) He voices his frustration long and loud, expressing an existential angst about what is happening to the flow of the music.

4) As quickly as possible he tries to figure out what went wrong, as if it counted (I.E. made up for things) just how fast he could make the correction.

5) He resumes playing the piece from exactly the same location where he left off.

This is not a very fruitful pattern of behavior for him, in fact it seems to me to guarantee the likelihood of making more mistakes.

A week ago, at his previous lesson, we agreed that for step 3 (voicing his frustration in a long string of words), he could substitute just a single word, “Darn.”  I suggested that he say the word with an affected, theatrical accent.  No matter what the problem – rhythm, hand coordination, notes, etc., the response had to be always the same and always said with the same accent.

At today’s lesson I wanted to go further and try to modify the entire cycle.  I thought the best way to do this was in “real time” – i.e. as each step was happening.

To create the right circumstances to make this modification, I suggested that instead of reading a solo work we sight read four-hand works together.

With much good humor and mutual supportiveness, we agreed to a new rule which would (except for making a mistake in the first place) would replace all five steps:

It’s fine to make mistakes, but don’t allow yourself to pause. Keep the flow of the piece going in your head and try to re-synchronize with your four-hand partner.

This means having to deny yourself the negative pleasure of an emotional reaction to making the mistake.  The latter takes too much time and makes it more difficult to jump ahead and try to re-synchronize with his partner.

Whether you stop because of a rhythm issue, a pitch issue, or just simply that the spot is too difficult to sight read, part of you has to keep advancing in the time of the piece.  No matter how many beats, or measures, or even lines, pass by with only the other person continuing to play, try, and if necessary try again, to re-synchronize.

I stressed that the ability to do this is separate from, and has no relation to either whether the mistake happens or whether he tries to make a correction if there is a mistake.

At first it was very hard for him to follow this rule.  But gradually he got better at it.  A new habit was being born.  He began to use his ear and his musical intuition to locate a place in the score that meant to sound together with what I might be playing at that moment.

The reason we had to agree beforehand to this rule, was that if a teacher ignored him and kept playing on when he had to stop, it would characterize the teacher has being mean, intolerant, and unbending, and other not nice things.

Thus we have taken the first steps to incorporating into the definition of sight reading: never stopping the pulse.  And if playing with another, don’t expect the other person to be a nice guy and adapt to him.**  Rather, mimic the more professional situation where sight reading with others depends on continuing on ahead regardless of what happens, and depending on the ability to re-synchronize.

*Irving, by the way, is my default pseudonym for any of my students, male or female. 

** Adapting to the other person is something so easy for me to do by default because of my professional experience over decades as an accompanist. 

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