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In Search of the Perfect Musical Performance

Learning from National Music Associations

Esther Lanting 


One of the privileges of this era is that we can enjoy listening to pristine, note-perfect recordings at home in our living rooms. Most of us probably hope that each of our performances will likewise be perfect. 


While it is a gift to hear such excellent recordings, it comes with a cost—the weighty impression that such perfection can be achieved each time we are called upon to perform. If we come to believe this false promise, we can spend our entire life being disappointed with our performances, playing our mistakes over and over in our mind, believing we’ve disappointed ourselves and our audience. This is a sure path to self-doubt. 


Dr. Paola Savvidou, assistant professor of piano pedagogy at the University of Missouri, in her 2015 winning article of the year for Music Teachers National Association, “In Search of the Perfect Musical Performance,” says, “Musicians of all ages and levels of ability, struggle with this very same self-imposed condition: paralyzing perfectionism.” She offers six ideas for reframing our performance goals from perfection to excellence: 


  1. It’s all there.

  2. “Don’t practice; perform the sound.”

  3. “See with your ears.”

  4. “Plunge into the unknown.”

  5. “Stay in the moment.”

  6. “Strive for excellence, not perfection.” 


Here’s what she means.


It’s All There

Music is already in our body. We have rhythm and flow in our everyday movements: we speak rhythmically and musically, and we feel harmonic tension and resolution in our gut. Over time, our experiences give us the emotional capacity to understand musical meaning. Dr. Savvidou, now at University of Michigan School of Music, says, “All we have to do is let the ego, or the ‘internal judge’ . . . go, and allow for the magical connection between sound, body and emotions to synergistically create music.” When we understand that music already exists in our body, we begin to open the door to self-trust and authenticity.


“Don’t practice; perform the sound”

All musicians assume the need for practice; not to practice would be unheard of. Once we have mastered a musical selection, what if instead of thinking of practice as something we do in the privacy of our home when no one is watching, we begin thinking of it as practice of performance and bring the same kind of energy and intent as we would if we were performing? Instead of carefully watching fingering, fighting the tempo, wondering about dynamics (all of which have already been mastered by this point), practice as though you were performing. Record yourself to create the pressure you might feel when performing in public. This could move us from focusing on the already practiced details to focusing on the energy and intent we have when performing.


“See with your ears”

To expand your musical awareness, work toward seeing not only with your eyes but also with your ears. In other words, maintain an open awareness to seeing what your ears are hearing. This is even more important when performing with other people. If there’s no sensitivity toward how the musicians around you are moving through a phrase, the piece will lack energy. We sometimes are so focused on ourselves, what others think of us, and playing the right notes that we forget to listen and connect our natural responses with other musicians and even the audience. To practice this concept, in your mind begin by performing for yourself, then for a teacher or friend, then for several people together, and finally for a friend who lives far away. Using this kind of mindfulness and imagination can help expand your mental awareness and physical interpretive gestures. 


“Plunge into the unknown”

The minute we walk out to perform we put enormous pressure on ourselves. Not only do we want to play the best we can, we also want to be authentic and confident. Dr. Savvidou calls this a double-edged sword. She says: 

On one hand we have the confidence that we’ve spent countless hours practicing, so we know the music; while on the other hand, each performance is different. This sense of the unknown can be terrifying, especially for the perfectionists among us who like to be in control. Diving right into the performance allows the body and intuition to take over. Thinking about the anxiety as excitement for sharing the music has allowed me to face the stage spotlight with a fresh perspective and a new set of eyes—or ears, should I say?


A study by Amy Cuddy, professor and researcher at the Harvard Business School, showed that “when you pretend to be powerful, you actually feel more powerful.”* Powerful is defined as feeling more optimistic and confident—essential qualities for a successful musical performance. She encourages doing two minutes of power poses (poses that expand the body by holding the arms out and the head up) just before performing. Holding such open and strong positions releases the hormones that promote a low-stress reaction and a higher level of confidence.


“Stay in the moment”

 

I have come to realize just how much, as a society, we tend to live in the future. Our mind is constantly preoccupied with to-do lists, daily commitments, plans and the next thing we need to accomplish. Such clutter is the enemy of musical performance. It’s normal for negative thoughts to attack the mind during a performance. We are taught to be self-critical. However, a performance is not the time and place for these thoughts. We are better served if the internal dialogue takes a rest for the duration of the performance. Re-directing our attention to the present moment, letting go of the past and the future, allows us to stay alert, open and engaged. Being in the moment facilitates a state of “flow.” 


In the above statement, Dr. Savvidou understands “flow” as “when the task at hand (managing our performance), our skills (the endless hours of practicing) and the level of anxiety, can be in balance with each other.” 


 “Strive for excellence, not perfection”

Focusing on performing without mistakes is like putting on a restraining jacket: our mental state is watchful and judgmental, and our body feels tense. The very thing that we are trying to control has seized control over us. We start to focus on all the wrong things (like, what do others think of my playing, how many wrong notes have I played, did I miscount?). Dr. Savvidou references Gerald Klickstein, who defines excellence as the composite result of seven habits: ease of physical performance; practicing with imagination and expression; practicing with focus so as not to develop habits of inaccuracy; performing with rhythmic vitality; creating a rich, full tone; staying focused; and bringing a positive attitude to the performance. 


She sums up her ideas this way: 

If we can focus on these 6 elements during the hours of practicing, we shift our attention toward the elements of music making that matter the most to our audience: rhythmic vitality, expression, communication and artistry. Mistakes will happen. We can choose whether we embrace them or allow them to take over.

 

We learn to trust our musical intuition by inviting open awareness and approaching each performance with enthusiasm. We remember that our musical self already exists. By embracing perfection as an illusion, we can get out of our own way and focus on communicating the music that we ourselves are experiencing in the moment.


*Cited:  Cuddy, Amy, “Your Body Language Shapes who you are,” TED video, 20:59, filmed June 2012, http:// www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_ body_language_shapes_ who_you_are. html 

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