Monday, November 9, 2015

A Calm Mind and a Quiet Hand

No, you haven't stumbled onto Deepak Chopra's blog by mistake! This is still the Music Salon, home of the acerbic quip and sardonic metaphor. But as I was doing my technique the other day I found my mind wandering as it sometimes does (bad mind, bad!) and I had a thought that might be helpful to guitarists and maybe even other musicians.

Good playing isn't that difficult really, but it sure seems so when you are learning! Guitar students are so often plagued by misunderstanding, physical difficulties and neurosis that sometimes the best thing you can do as a teacher is just be positive and affirmative. I think that the best guitar teacher I worked with did just that with a minimum of commentary.

So what do I mean by "a calm mind and a quiet hand?" I guess I should define both of those things so you know what I am talking about. Let's start with the easy one: a quiet hand. If you watch some great guitar players to see what you can learn, it is amazing how little you see--with classical players at least. They tend not to do wild, arm-swinging power chords while leaping in the air like Pete Townshend of The Who:

Quite the opposite:

The ideal is minimum movement. The right hand is particularly difficult to see what is going on, because if your technique is really good, nearly all the movement of the fingers is concealed by the hand. Here is a good example:

And that's Manuel Barrueco ripping through some particularly virtuoso passage!

The problem students have is that they are impatient and obsessive (often), which means that they are always trying too hard, working too hard, playing too hard and struggling. If you are struggling then you have to stop and start again. The way to approach everything is very, very, very slowly and gently until you have the physical movements under control. From there on it is just a question of gaining surety and speeding things up. But always under control! A quiet hand gets the job done quietly.

Roughly the same principles apply to "a calm mind." If you are mentally agitated, nervous, neurotic and terrified about making a mistake, then you will not be able to play at your best. Obviously! Unfortunately, all too many music students exhibit all these mental qualities! What brings this about are some of the same things that cause technical problems: impatience and trying too hard.

This is understandable because the discipline of classical music is pretty stringent. You read things like professional guitarists saying you need to be able to play all your repertoire through perfectly ten times in a row before venturing it in public. And you are sitting there thinking, "I don't think I have ever played anything perfectly in my life! Not even once!" Dude, I hear ya! Making this demand on yourself in these stark terms is what makes you neurotic. You are basically creating a situation too difficult to cope with. So don't do it.

Here is what you should think: make everything easy. Relax, not just your body, but your mind. You do that by not making impossible demands, but easy ones. Learn a very easy piece and practice it very slowly. Suddenly accuracy is possible. The word "perfection" is so dangerous to music students because they associate it with everything they don't feel capable of doing. But the word "accuracy" may not have the same psychological traps. Be accurate, don't even try to be perfect and pretty soon, you will be just where you want to be.

Recording is one of those things that can lead to neurosis because, at least until you get used to it, it seems to exaggerate every tiny flaw in your playing. I used to avoid recording myself until I had to for this very reason. But then I came to terms with it, got used to it, and it has become a very useful tool.

In general beware of all advice that seems to be too "psychological" because worrying about being neurotic is what makes you neurotic--for example. Just have a calm mind and don't do anything or allow anything to happen that will disturb your calm. If you have to practice slowly to remain calm, then do it.

I'm pretty sure that if you asked two of those gentlemen whose photos are above, not Pete Townshend, but the other guys, John Williams and Manuel Barrueco, they would say the same thing.

UPDATE: I just recalled one of those misunderstandings that students tend to have. It relates to causality. When you are starting out, you see one of these great masters play and you think, "wow, he's so calm--it must be because he is such a master" i.e. he is calm because he plays perfectly. But the causality is quite the opposite: he plays so well because he is calm, not the other way around!


Anonymous said...

The two most over-rated bands in rock history: The Who and U2.

Bryan Townsend said...

U2 absolutely. The Who, I'm not so sure. There is at least one pretty good song.

Christine Lacroix said...

Anonymous said....U2 is over-rated. Try listening to this played on cello:
I don't know U2 since I'm not a rock fan but I like this cover.

As a teacher I found it interesting to read your suggestions for guitar students Bryan. Not so different to the issues my students have with public speaking and speaking English as a foreign language. Being pre-occupied with accuracy inhibits fluency and what you call 'neurosis', that inner voice sabotaging every effort, putting nerves on edge, de-motivating. Martin E.P. Seligman has done amazing research on 'explanatory style'... what people say to themselves about their experiences and it's impact on their lives.His work has been useful in helping me to help my students.

And Bryan weren't The Who a band we listened to in our teens? You're really convincing me that it's true we are more indulgent and more open to music we hear when we're........I'm sorry I'm going to say it.....YOUNG!

Bryan Townsend said...

Lots of us say U2 is over-rated! I will have a listen to 2Cellos when I get a chance. Is there anything they don't do?

Mostly I think talking to yourself is probably a bad idea. But my position on all modern psychology is that I'm agin it!

When we were in our teens we were more indulgent and open to nearly everything: The Who, wacky tabaccy, exciting psychedelics, free and spontaneous noodling, heavy metal, moral confusion and socialism!

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes but some of those things we were so open too remain favorites. I won't mention any group names of course.
Don't dismiss Seligman too quickly! We all explain events to ourselves. It's called having an intellect. Why would you be against ALL modern psychology? Seems pretty drastic. Like people who don't like one piece of classical music and say they don't like all classical music. I've notice people do that. The very same people who are exclusive about which pop and rock groups and performers they like, and probably only like a small fraction of whats available in those genres, will listen to one thing they don't like in classical music and hate it all. Go figure!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Christine,

Yes, of course we explain events to ourselves, but I much prefer not using that metaphor. Instead what we do is think about things.

Hey, somebody has to be out there on the fringe, rejecting all modern psychology and I guess it's me. The explanation is probably to involved to put into a comment, though. I will say that I solved the problem of neuroses by simply ceasing to believe in neuroses. Amazing how well that works. Contemplate the possibility that modern psychology, all modern social sciences, in fact, are very likely barking up the wrong tree.

Oh sure. One basic truth of human nature is that when we can get away with it we really like to be lazy. Hear one piece of classical music, dislike it and reject all classical music? Sure, happens all the time. With all musical genres, in fact.

But my rejection of modern psychology and related fields actually came out of doing extensive reading in them. I have read a wide variety of writings by Freud, Jung, Karen Horney and other more recent ones. But I stopped reading all that stuff about twenty or so years ago.

Christine Lacroix said...

I don't have a high opinion of Jung, Freud and company. I need some sort of attempt at least at proof and not religion sounding blah blah blah. In one of Seligman's books he says something to the effect that no one has ever been able to prove that Freudian psychoanalysis heals, cures or treats anything at all apart from the analyst's financial problems! Seligman's an academic and does research, does the research again, and then other people do it all over again. That kind of result tends to be more convincing, to me at least!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I am starting to like this Seligman fellow.

Christine Lacroix said...

Seligman is hard not to like once you become familiar with his work. I like the fact that he started the Positive Psychology movement which basically means trying to understand what truly happy and successful people are doing right instead of focussing only on pathology. Good idea no? Are you basing your comment only on what I wrote about him? Your message came in under the title A Calm Mind and a Quiet Hand just as I was watching Stjepan Hauser perform Haydn Cello Concerto in C. He gets so excited he looks like he's going to jump out of his skin! By the way why do the first and third movements of these concertos always have many more views than the second movement? Same true for Vivaldi concerto for 2 violins. Strange!

Christine Lacroix said...

Here's Camille again playing Tchaikovsky as part of the talent competition. Remember it's a competition for children so don't be too harsh!

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't really have time to read psychology. But from what you say, Seligman seems to have the right kind of approach.

I think you forgot to paste a link?

Christine Lacroix said...

Here's the link: