Practice Beyond the Need

Speed limit signBreaking the Speed Limit

I was playing as fast as I could, and being an engineer, I figured that was about 8 notes per second.  In fact, since I was so nervous, I was actually playing faster than that.  In a sense, I was breaking my own speed limit, and it was only a matter of measures before I got caught.  My fingers would a miss a note, which would probably cause some other notes to be wrong.  I was on a crash course!  Of course, I applied my earlier lessons in stress control and slowed down so I was back at my speed limit again.  I finished the performance all right, but it was a race against myself to the finish and I still nearly lost.

Safety Factor?

Though backing down to my speed limit solved the immediate crisis, it’s an unwise strategy.  As an engineer, I design things so that they’re stronger than we anticipate it will ever need to be.  We call that a safety factor.  If there is no safety factor, then anything unanticipated moves the design from barely being able to handle it to not being able to handle it.  That’s when bridges fail, shuttles fall from the sky, and you feel like your performance “crashed and burned.”

In my story above, I had prepared for being nervous and to play at a high speed.  What I hadn’t anticipated was that my excitement and self-confidence caused me to play even faster, breaking my speed limit.  There are always things that we can’t anticipate.

Consider aircraft design:  Every component is tested against the specifications enough times to statistically predict its performance is adequate.  Each assembly is similarly tested to make sure the components work together as predicted.  Each system is tested to make sure all the assemblies work.  Finally, the entire aircraft is test-piloted to make sure all the systems work together under ordinary and even emergency maneuvers.   Even with all that testing, designers know that they can’t anticipate everything.  And so, airplanes have a safety factor too.  When the unexpected occurs, the safety factor is there to protect us.

If you’re using 100% of your capacity, then there’s no room for anything to go wrong.  When it does, it will lead what we engineers call “catastrophic failure”, that is, it breaks.  You probably won’t break physically, but the flow of your music might, and to me, it always feels like my performance was a catastrophe.  To prepare for the unforseen, plan to perform at only 80% – 90% of your capacity.

What Is Your Capacity?

There are several sets of musical variables.  The ones that are based on sound itself, pitch, timbre, loudness, and time can be measured electronically.  For these, it would be interesting to determine the boundaries of your capacity.  How high a pitch can you play or sing softly?  What’s the loudest you can perform a passage?  If you go faster, does the loudness decrease?  If you play faster, does the accuracy of the pitch or the quality of the tone change?

Beyond the physics of music, there’s the emotional language it conveys.  This can probably be measured only by the emotional response of others.  Even so, statistical surveys can tell us rather precisely what people are feeling.  In a less precise way, interviews with the audience can tell us which passages connected well and which ones were left wanting.  Even with these crude measuring sticks, we can estimate our capacity for the language of music.  Does your range of musical interpretation convey only basic emotions, or can you convey blends, shifts, and subtleties?

The Need

The music needs expression.  The composer – and tradition – gives us clues for how to express the piece.  Objective measures, like beats per minute, are strong clues.  Words, such as “Minuet” or “lively” in the title or body of the piece are weaker clues.  Regardless, the performer interprets the piece and forms a set of musical requirements.  The Wikipedia article on “Aspect of Music” gives several lists of factors to consider in the interpretation, including: pitch, duration, intensity (loudness) and timbre.  To this I would add the relationships and transitions between notes.  Sliding into a note conveys a very different feeling than precisely attacking it.

To achieve these musical requirements, the performer develops a set of technical requirements: how hard a key must be struck, how quickly it is attacked and released, or how fast to move in creating vibrato.  Given these requirements, how much of your capacity are you using to meet them?  It may be that we can never have enough technique to explore the full range of human emotion.  However, it’s important for your performance success to only use the portion you can sustain every time.  To put it differently, don’t plan to perform perfectly or your best ever.  Instead, plan to perform as well as you consistently perform.  If that means restraining your emotion some, use that as a motivation to improve your technique.  Do you think your audience would prefer a restrained performance that is played smoothly, or one in which the performer misses a lot of notes and plays unevenly?

It’s also possible to find a variation on the emotion that fits within your capacity.  For instance, high energy is obviously expressed through speed, but it can be more subtly expressed in a slower, “stately” manner.  It can also be expressed through loudness, but sometimes a whisper speaks louder than a shout.  To get a sense of what variations are authentic, ask yourself, “What mood or feeling is this passage intended to portray?”  When you have a few descriptive words of your own, look them up in a thesaurus to find synonyms.  One of these words may describe an emotion that requires less technique to achieve.  It may even convey an insightful interpretation.

Practicing Beyond the Need

Practically speaking, what does practicing beyond the need look like?  Consider practicing with physical impediments.  Perhaps you can attach weights to your fingers or empty some of your air into a balloon before sounding your instrument or singing.  If you can be successful in these circumstances, then the real circumstances will seem easy.  You will have created a safety factor.

Since speed is a factor, try a pace that is faster than you expect to perform at.  Also, try it slower, since speed sometimes covers irregularities in rhythm and fingering.  Try combinations, like rushed, then slow, or slow and then rushed.  Though you might never perform this way, it stretches your musical sense, so that if you need some part of this range, it’s ready.

Pitch is another musical variable and depending on the style, you may need to hit it exactly or only be approximate.  To be sure you’re ready for any of these requirements, you can practice transposing higher and lower.  For instruments whose pitch you control, you can also practice sliding into and doing trills around the proper pitch.  This will give you the ability to ornament notes.  It may also help you get the exact pitch, because you’ll be focusing on it instead of just passing through it too quickly to really hear.

To practice a wider emotional range than you’ll need, you’ll probably have to throw tradition aside.  Can you play the piece in a “schmaltzy”, romantic, or crooning fashion?  Can you make it robotic, stately, or plaintive?  Can you turn it into a march or a dance?  Can you play it in a major or minor key?  Though you’re probably never perform it this way, your capability with these extremes will make the subtler needs of the piece easy.

In the world of classical organ music, the famous piece “Litanies”, by Jehan Alain was composed on a train.  It’s driving rhythm is an important part of the piece’s performance (Litanies).  Developing the ability to play it “robotically” – beyond musical needs of “Litanies” – will make it easier to interpret the piece authentically.  It may also lead to insights for new interpretations.


Avoid playing at the edge of your capabilities, where a sudden distraction or a missed page turn will cause a cascade of failures until your performance falls apart.  Instead, play with a technical safety factor, so you can handle the problems you didn’t expect.  To keep your music authentic, yet within your capabilities, consider different interpretations.  Finally, work continuously to improve your emotional and technical range so that you can fully express whatever is on the page.

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