From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY ANDY WHITEHEAD
You can experience music on a deeper level, whether you’re a beginner playing for fun or an experienced professional. Doing so will more meaningfully affect you and your listeners. I suggest you try three things: narrow your musical interests, memorize your music deeply, and enhance your musical feelings.
1. Narrow Your Musical Interests
Limit yourself to experiencing the music that resonates with you the most. Of course, there are times, maybe for a certain performance, when we need to learn songs that we don’t feel very strongly about. But when you have the choice of what songs to practice, I suggest playing exclusively only the music that seriously strikes your heart.
To find such songs, take note of when you had a meaningful listening experience or performance. That’s a connection with music that you can repeat and allow to grow. Listen or play that song/piece or composer repeatedly. Absorb the message and intention of the piece. Then, try to write your own piece based off the ideas in that song.
Also, try to immerse yourself in other forms of art that have similar feelings or concepts. Find a movie or painting that has a similar mood to the piece you’ve been playing and listening to. Be true to yourself and persistent in following your interests. One favorite song or piece should lead to another, which should lead to another. At this rate, you’ll find your strong feelings transferring to new pieces, composers, and genres you didn’t previously have an interest in. Your overall emotional experience with music will be enriched.
2. Memorize Deeply
Memorize your pieces on a deeper level. This allows you to be more connected to the emotion of the music. One worn-out way to memorize a piece is called “associative chaining.” This is where you memorize the first section and the transition into the second. Then, from that second section you memorize the transition into the next, and so on. The biggest problem with this method is that if you draw a blank in the middle of a piece, to remember what comes next, you have to repeat a previous section or start from the beginning. Since this is definitely not ideal in a performance setting, it’s helpful to use additional strategies that will draw more details out of the music to use as references.
Try dividing a piece into different sections. Then, specifically describe what you are attempting to achieve from each section. Write on your sheet music detailed performance notes, such as the intended feel, dynamics, notes, articulations, phrasing, chord analysis, etc. The more details you take note of, the more points of reference you’ll have that will anchor you to each section. You’ll have more than just the order of notes to remember. The other benefit of this method is that your performance will be full of dynamics, expression, and other rich details. You’ll be playing better overall music. But, the first step is to write these details down. If you can’t put into words what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll simply be performing a vague idea of what you think you want.
For an example, let’s look at how you could define sections and describe the beginning of Gran Vals by Francisco Tárrega. You could break the piece into five main sections and label the sections accordingly: ABBCCDDA. These sections are clearly defined because they are in mostly different keys and are also repeated. In the first A section, you could write down performance notes in the sheet music such as: waltz, key of A major, presto, expressive, crescendo, repeated rhythm, and draw a circle around the ritard. These are just a few performance details to write in the music. You want to write notes in a way that makes sense to you. Customize these notes to describe exactly what you want to strive for in your performance.
Now that you have distinct sections defined and full of rich details, play those sections in order by first looking at the music. When you look at the music, be sure to incorporate your performance notes in your playing. Then, without looking at the music, play the sections in order again, while still retaining your performance notes in your playing.
Next, look at the music again, and this time play the sections in a random order. Let’s take Gran Vals as an example again. You could start by playing the last A section, followed by the B section, then the D section, and lastly the C section. This allows you to practice each section at least once. Again, still be mindful of incorporating your performance notes. Now, for your final challenge, without looking at the music, play the sections in a random order. Although, this will prove to be difficult, you’ll develop an equally strong connection with each section.
3. Enhance Your Musical Feelings
How can you sharpen your emotional senses to feel more from music? As previously described, I think the first step is to listen and practice a favorite piece extensively. But after this initial step, how do you focus on the feeling of a piece while struggling with new techniques and wrestling with anxious performance thoughts?
When you’re developing a new technique, understand that you won’t play it exactly like the composer or previous performers. Every player will draw from their unique experience and personality to form their interpretation of the same piece. Anyway, it’s more valuable to you and your listeners that you perform with your own voice rather than replicating someone else’s. You are capable of this, too. You can interpret the feeling and message of music as well as anybody. So, when you’re practicing a technique, naturally let your feelings be expressed in your execution.
It’s when you honestly express your feelings that you’re sure to move the listener, even during the more difficult technique passages. People will temporarily react to technique and an athletic way of playing music. But the most enduring effect on an audience will be when you experience what truly resonates with you and then transfer that experience to the audience. It’s ultimately more important to be touched by music than to be impressed with it.
Now, what if while you’re performing, your mind wanders away from the music’s feeling to negative thoughts? Such thoughts could include your lack of practice, excessive focus on technique, general thoughts about yourself, or worrying about the audience’s approval of you.
What you need to do is remind yourself of the bigger picture of what you are doing. Consider how privileged you are to listen, enjoy, and perform songs that deeply move you. On top of that, consider how fortunate your role is of interpreting this beauty for others to be touched by. Think about music as a gift that must be shared. You are enjoying and delivering this beautiful gift. But you have to be in love with the beauty of this act before the audience will be. Appreciating the positive impact music has on you and your listeners can help put into proportion how insignificant your fears and performance anxiety are. It helps you to see that performing music is ultimately about creation, not destruction—belief in beauty, not doubt in your ability. This bigger picture gives you a more valuable reason for playing music than just for yourself. Performance becomes the grounds for real change to first take place in yourself, and inevitably in your listeners.
If you maintain this kind of mindset in a performance, you will allow yourself to stay focused on the emotion and feeling of the music. And as you do this, you’ll open yourself up to receive the beauty that music has to offer you. As Andrés Segovia said, “the poetry of the music should resound in your heart.”