Developing a Technique to Improve Your Talent

In the United States, there has been a strong push to reform our general education in recent years, with federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top capturing headlines as innovative ways to improve the worst-performing schools in our country.  On the other extreme are teachers like me who are working primarily with students one on one in intensive hour-long lessons on a weekly basis to achieve the pinnacle of possibility.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the question of talent: is it innate, or can one learn it?  Many of my teachers have made statements such as “anyone can be taught how to play the cello, but there are some things that are innate and cannot be taught,” “That’s god-given talent” and so on.  I have had the pleasure to work closely with many students over the past 13 years of my professional career in the Chiara Quartet.  Some were beginners, some very advanced, some were considered prodigies, others were considered untalented by their teachers or their peers.  In many hours of lessons with these students, I have found both cases that support and contradict this conventional wisdom.

After years of work as a teacher and an observer of my own improvement in areas such as music, chess, soccer, programming and writing, I have come to believe that there is a process by which all human beings are capable of speeding up the learning process to approximate what we think of as “talent.”  In short: you can improve your talent.  Lately, I have begun to actively implement these ideas in my own teaching with very interesting results.  Before I continue, I should state the caveat that this is not a scientific paper, and all results are anecdotal.  There are many resources available that address the question of how we learn, should you wish to examine the field further.  I will only be speaking of my own experience as a teacher and as a learner.  In addition, I am going to speak from the perspective of assuming some basic motivation is in place for the student, such that the student is at least attempting to improve already, and has no active animosity to learning the task.  Developing a love for music is a separate but equally important part of improving, and I may blog about that in the future, as there are some ways to help that along, but it is one of the great challenges of education that I still find to be an unsolved mystery.

Often, students will approach me with questions similar to these:

– How do I play more in tune?
– Am I making a good sound?
– Do you think I should focus on technique or music?
– What should my bow arm look like?

Although these are all wonderful questions indicating a true desire to improve, they are not the right questions.  It is like asking whether you should use a fork or a spoon to eat a cheeseburger.  Either could work, but for your long-term health, you should be eating something else.  Not to mention it’s just weird to eat a cheeseburger with a utensil, but never mind.

When one is truly aware of what is happening in the sound, the way your instrument is responding to your technique, what your body feels like while playing, and the musical content of the piece, magic and genius emerges.  One of the first questions my students think of when I describe this true goal of practicing and performing, inevitably the (rather sarcastic) question pops into their heads: “So how can one achieve this mythical state of musical nirvana?”

If you’re beginning to catch on, you should be thinking that the question is not the right question to ask.  By asking about a nirvana, we introduce two assumptions that are part of the core in American education that make it harder to learn music successfully:

1. progressing towards a known goal (achieving a state of nirvana we do not currently occupy)
2. judgement of good versus bad (the idea that nirvana is good)

On the surface, it would appear that these are harmless at worst and helpful at best.  From an external viewpoint, this is certainly true.  Musicians who practice with a goal and a clear sense of what sounds good almost always sound better than those who haven’t practiced as much or practice listlessly.  What I have learned from my teaching is that discerning the difference between a good and a bad thing is not the same as instant feedback judgment (“That was a bad note”), and improving is not the same as keeping a goal in mind.  Rather, the best measure of success in practicing is whether we can solve a new problem without re-introducing an old one.

Put simply: we do not practice to get better, we practice to notice more.

With this in mind, it is clear that the essential question students should ask is this:

– Am I able to notice more of what is actually happening this time than I did the last time I played this?

Students with a stubborn habit that refuses to solve itself almost always suffer a deficiency in attention while playing.  In fact, this is a very ancient truth, understood by practitioners of meditation1 and a recently rediscovered truth in the field of psychology2.  In meditation, what we need to learn is called mindfulness.  In modern psychology, it is called fluid intelligence.  Whatever you call it, you need to develop this to be a musician.

As an example, I recently worked with a student who has always struggled with his bow grip.  Early on in our time working together, I put him through the technical wringer as I do with all of my students, re-tooling his approach to breathing, sound production, left hand acrobatics with scales/arpeggios and friends, but somehow the bow grip just wouldn’t relax.  A collapsed bow thumb, rigid fingers and a stiff upper arm were all symptoms of a larger issue that had eluded a solution for 10 years.

Something needed to be done.

So, we took a step back and I began to work with the student on breathing.  As it turns out, this student breathed almost exclusively into the chest cavity, and never filled his lungs fully.  After learning how to breathe down with the diaphragm, we then tried to make changes to the bow grip again.  This time, with a focus on breathing, there was some improvement.  Next, I directed the student’s attention to two points on either side of his spine in the lower back.  Again, there was some improvement, but it was still not enough.  Finally, I asked the student to stop thinking and just listen to the sound.  At this point, there was a dramatic shift in the sound.  Resonance boomed throughout the room and shook the floor, the student’s bow grip looked completely fluid and natural, and a broad grin splashed across the student’s face.  The grin may have been a natural reaction to the ridiculous little dance of joy I did, but it was genuine.

There are several elements of developing attention span that I regularly use with success that you can use in your own work:

1. Breathing awareness and control
2. Alternative focus points
3. Memory work
4. Non-judgmental mistake awareness
5. Total mental visualization
6. Complete release

I will expound upon each of these techniques in a separate blog post, so stay tuned!  Here is a quick definition of each:

Breathing awareness and control

This is the process by which we learn first to notice the breath, then to notice it while playing, and finally to learn how to control the breath.  This control allows you to choose to breathe deeply, to coordinate it with important gestures in the music, or to open up the amount of breathing so that more oxygen is available.

Alternative focus points

This is a simple method of choosing places to direct your attention.  For most students, I ask them to listen with one ear or the other, or to listen to the sound from different points in the room.  This can also be a body awareness process of noticing a point in the body you normally ignore while playing (i.e. not the hands).

Memory work

This includes both memorizing the notes you will play, but also developing a good short-term memory for what happens while you are playing a passage so that you can quickly identify both things to improve and notice when you have made improvement.

Total mental visualization

This technique is an advanced technique, and requires a synthesis of most of the other awareness tools.  In essence, it is the visualization of not just the sound you wish to make, but the exact shape of your body in relation to the instrument, the fingerings you will use, the bowings, the part of the bow, and anything else that would actually happen were you to be playing.  For non-string players, substitute your unique technical issues (pedaling for pianists, for instance).  Using this technique to practice normally without the instrument is one of the most exhausting ways to practice, but the payoff is faster and more permanent than any other practice method I have tried.

Non-judgmental mistake awareness

This is a process by which you notice what you do while playing without judging them as “good” or “bad.”  All too often, in the effort to “improve” we unconsciously ignore or try to forget the mistakes we make because it feels bad, and over-emphasize things we are doing well.  By treating everything we do as simply an alternative way of playing, and re-creating accidental mistakes intentionally, we gain peace with our inner critic and develop real control over the instrument and the music-making.

Complete release

This last technique involves developing the ability to let go of everything and re-direct all of your energy directly into listening.  It also involves taking your energy and removing a single point of focus so that you are aware of everything holistically.

Before I leave you for today, I will give you musicians a challenge: can you play a C major scale 5 times, as slow as you can comfortably play the scale with one note per bow, and each time notice something new?  It can be your breath, the way part of the body feels, the way the sound interacts with the back of the instrument, the quality of resonance when the notes are in tune, the straightness of the bow – the choice of what to notice is yours.  After you have taken the challenge, play something that you have been struggling with, and then report on the experience in the comments below.  Note: these are all examples.  If you play a non-stringed instrument, you should choose something to notice that is relevant to your instrument’s technique.

Looking forward to hearing from you!  Stay tuned for the first post on breathing awareness and control to be posted 1 week after this post.

This entry was originally published at Gregory Beaver’s blog Lot 49

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4 Responses to Developing a Technique to Improve Your Talent

  1. Illana says:

    This is a wonderful article! I have been working with my students on breathing . I have them sing the passage, and then we talk about where and why we would breathe in a certain place. Then we try to do the same concept on the cello or piano . It has produced some very interesting results.

  2. Thanks Illana! I just published the 3rd installment on breathing on my blog, it will show up here in about a week or so. I’ll be very interested to hear your take on the things I explore in that one.

    What kind of results have you seen with your work on singing/breathing/piano?

  3. peter says:

    I tried that exercise with the C scale you suggested before I performed the Haydn C major concerto (fittingly enough) the other night.

    When I strove to notice something new each time I played the scale, I became much more aware of what my body was doing and I was noticing a lot of things that could be improved on the scale alone, never mind my solo I was supposed to play in a few minutes! haha

    Although it wasn’t the most encouraging exercise (it made me, yet again realize that I have so much to learn), I felt that it really helped me become more in touch with my body and the instrument and because of that, it helped a bit to channel my nervous, typically performance hampering, energy into a productive type of energy. Often when I’m nervous and caught up in the music, I forget to mentally tune in to the basic physical aspects of playing and then am frustrated when I don’t sound good.

    My performance went very well, and I owe much of that success to this blog, so thank you very much and I look forward to reading your other installments!

  4. I’ve been using the alternative focus points with my students this past week and it is helping them in so many ways. Apart from expanding their awareness of sound and the body, it is a great way for them to stay focused while performing. They often think they know the piece so well that they can day dream while playing it but now they have so many things to try to notice while playing that they are unlikely to wonder about such things as will there be brownies after the recital.

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