The Musical Body: Cultivating Effortless Mastery
Some of us achieve the highest levels of mastery through incredible struggle, strain, angst, and pain.
Others of us achieve the highest levels of mastery seemingly without having to try hard at all.
These latter folks have achieved “effortless mastery” and - luckily for the rest of us - we can learn to achieve it, too.
In fact, there’s no real mystery to it at all.
Let’s think of this in terms of the “Old Way” of achieving mastery and the “New Way” of achieving mastery.
The Old Way of Achieving Mastery
You know you’re using the Old Way of achieving mastery if...
You feel a great deal of pressure related to performance.
You’re focused on how important the performance is, rather than simply enjoying yourself.
You worry about the consequences of not giving a perfect performance.
You’re worried your audience or peers may be negatively judging you.
You judge yourself negatively during and after a performance.
You think hard work should hurt.
You “practice until your fingers bleed.”
You find yourself pushing through the pain.
When you find yourself not achieving your goals you think you should push yourself harder and faster!
You think the fastest and best route to mastery is through listening to your harsh “inner critic.”
Your focus is entirely on the end point and you push yourself and push yourself until you get there.
Things go really well in the practice room, but go less well on stage.
When you fail it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, and you subsequently beat yourself up about it.
The Consequences of the Old Way
Many people achieve mastery through this way of being, and yet, because of the principles of the mind/body connection, when you have a harsh frame of mind your body gets tighter and you actually get in the way of your music-making!
A harsh frame of mind leads to stiffening in your body, which will actually make playing music more difficult.
So even though it might feel like the right way to practice, even though your colleagues and teachers might think and talk this way, even though this way of thinking may be so ingrained that it’s hard to see a way out of it, you have a choice! You can turn this around. Let’s see what a different approach looks like.
The New Way of Achieving Mastery
You know you’re using the New Way of achieving mastery if...
You feel at ease during practice and performance.
You practice in a way that helps your body, rather than hurts.
You feel calm, centered, energized, and focused during performances.
You practice intelligently and efficiently, rather than practicing “hard.”
You are more focused on enjoying music-making rather than solely on the goal of perfect performance.
You are able to give perfect performances without beating yourself up.
You transform anxiety into useful energy during your performances.
You have a poised and graceful stage presence.
You feel connected to your audience and your audience responds to your every nuance.
You find yourself learning and memorizing repertoire more easily than before.
Your playing becomes agile, powerful, and fluid, as opposed to stiff, tense, and effortful.
You find yourself “in the zone” more and more often.
When the mere thought of playing a passage is effortlessly translated through your body into sound.
It may seem impossible to you now that you could achieve the highest levels of mastery and excellence without pushing yourself to the limits because hard work should feel hard, right?
When you try to achieve mastery using the Old Way, what you have is a perfect recipe for repetitive strain injuries and burn-out.
On the other hand, when you try to achieve mastery using the New Way, you will be able to achieve even more than you ever thought you could because your body will be more relaxed, your mind will be more focused, and pain won't be distracting you from your goals.
How do we achieve effortless mastery? All we need is to consider the recipe.
There are two main ingredients in effortless mastery: the effortless part and the mastery part.
To achieve mastery we need the following ingredients:
Many years of daily practice
Learning a wide array of repertoire
Mastering scales and exercises
Good practice habits
Playing in many different ensembles
Learning music theory and history
Familiarity with high-stakes performance situations
Luckily, as an experienced musician, you already have all of these in place. You’re probably already 90% to effortless mastery!
The last 10% of achieving effortless mastery is made through effortlessness training. (Those last few percent are always the hardest, aren’t they?)
This is the part most people miss because it’s harder to recognize, it’s subtler, it’s outside the norms of our culture (think of the Protestant work ethic, etc.) which tells us to push harder all the time and it’s in our language: think “try hard” vs. “try easy.” However, there are simple and identifiable ways of going about effortlessness training.
To achieve effortlessness we need the following ingredients:
Recognize the role of your whole body in playing music, not just your arms and hands
Recognize the role of habits of tension in your body
Be able to let go of unnecessary tension in your body
Be able to recognize the critical moments of muscular tension in your pre-performance routine and during the performance itself
Be able to recognize how habits from other areas of your life affect your music-making and how habits from your music-making affect other areas of your life
Continually be improving how you use your body
Be able to quiet your “fight or flight” response
Be willing to let go of your “tunnel vision” while playing and expand your awareness to include the whole performance space, other performers, and the audience
Learn constructive ways of dealing with your “inner critic”
When you do these things you will move towards effortlessness as surely as mixing together and baking flour, eggs, sugar, butter, baking soda, and chocolate chips makes cookies. Just as surely as practicing every day makes you more and more familiar with your repertoire, you can practice effortlessness, too.
When you diligently practice these techniques you will notice, day by day and week by week, that your playing becomes easier, more powerful, more connected, more resonant, you can do things you previously weren’t able to, you feel more energized by practice than worn down, high-stakes performances become fun and easy, what seemed difficult and strenuous before will become like trivially easy, you’ll reconnect to the joy you felt playing music when you were younger, your body will feel much more comfortable, your pain will begin to melt away, your anxiety will diminish, and you will experience fearless confidence on stage.
There are two main ways of achieving mastery: the Old Way and the New Way.
The Old Way contributes to stress, anxiety, pain, and strain.
The New Way contributes to well-being, relaxation, and focus.
Both ways lead you to mastery - but which one would you rather take?