“The mind always has to anticipate the physical action that is to be taken and then to send the command for its execution.”
–Ivan Galamian, violin teacher (The Musician’s Way, p. 48)
Of all the skills required to perform music, one of the most vital ones is also the least apparent: the ability to sense musical gestures before executing them.
That is, to play or sing a phrase fluently, we have to ‘hear’ it in our minds and perceive the sensations of executing it. Then, if our conception is true, our sound will resonate with spirit and precision.
I call this process ‘feeling ahead.’ But we could also label it ‘directing’ as well as hearing, thinking, and sensing ahead. Terms aside, because this process runs under the hood, I find that it receives scant attention from music students.
As a result, hordes of young performers count on muscle memory, which fates them to fickle control and performance anxiety.
“Technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument,” said pianist Bill Evans. In other words, to perform authentically, we have to generate musical ideas within and then be able to play or sing them as we imagine.
We can reliably execute on stage only that which we fully sense in sound and action.
Musicians with mature practice habits and well-developed techniques achieve this unity of conception and execution such that they can perform with minimal effort – a light mental touch is all that’s required for them to maintain control and sculpt expressive phrases.
In contrast, when students mindlessly repeat passages in practice, they embed a type of rote execution that isn’t directed by their inner ear or their sense of themselves. So, although they may seem to display flashes of facility in the practice room, their control becomes tenuous on stage.
Test Your Feeling Sense
Do you consistently feel ahead as you play or sing? Here’s a way to evaluate your habits:
Part I – Execute as usual
• Select an easy, familiar excerpt that’s 2-4 phrases in length.
• Play or sing the excerpt as you ordinarily would and observe your level of ease and security.
Part II – Image, then execute
• Review your interpretive and technical ideas for the excerpt; explore new angles, notating dynamics, articulations, fingerings, and such as appropriate.
• Isolate the first phrase, and, at a moderate tempo, mentally image executing it – singers might mouth words; instrumentalists could move their fingers in the air as they vocalize. Image a couple of times, vividly feeling upcoming note groups.
• Play or sing the phrase at a moderate tempo, feeling each note group ahead of executing it; use the least possible effort and trust in your execution.
• Image then execute each subsequent phrase. Following that, execute the entire excerpt, feeling ahead as you do.
Part III – Compare
• Compare your experiences executing the complete excerpt in Part I and Part II
• If they felt nearly identical, well done – you’ve established habits of feeling ahead.
• If your ability to execute and feel ahead improved in Part II, that probably indicates that your practice habits would benefit from some refining.
Strategies for feeling ahead, practicing deeply, and achieving easeful execution take center stage in The Musician’s Way, especially in Part I, “Artful Practice.”
© 2010 Gerald Klickstein