Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tips on How to Tap into Your Musical Side While Performing!

By Dr. Naomi Seidman - Associate Professor of Flute, Penn State University

Naomi Seidman

I am listening to one of my online Pandora radio stations while I type this blog. I love the capability of music to color my perspective on the world when I listen with headphones. The mood of the music I select streaming through my headphones can make me bounce on my walk to work (which is incredibly useful when it is only 20 degrees outside!) Obviously I am not the only one who enjoys listening to music in this way. All you have to do to confirm this theory is to take a look out my office window and count the multitudes of students accompanying their walks with their own personal soundtracks on their wireless devices. As listening to music on headphones is so common, it’s surprising that it is often difficult to stress the importance of listening to my studio when they are putting the finishing touches on pieces they are getting ready to perform.  The common scenario that brings this topic up is after a student has played through their entire jury piece with piano. The performance may have gone technically well but the student does not seem satisfied with the performance. When I question the student on why they do not feel great about the performance, they usually dwell on minor technical issues. It is only after we examine the lack of musical elements that the student becomes aware of how important these elements are to feeling fulfilled about a performance. Whether you are getting ready for your end of the semester jury, college auditions, or All State audition, you have probably spent 99 percent of your practice time on learning the notes and rhythms, all the technical stuff, and only 1 percent on the musical side. 

Not to worry - you still have time to fix this! Luckily, there are some great ways to make you sound not only technically fabulous but also musical!! 

All performers struggle with the balance of execution and musicality. Some students are granted more musical talent than others, while others are better at technique. I remember my struggle to expose the musical side of my playing and how much more personal my playing became once I became more concerned with how my performances where making my audience feel, rather than whether or not I nailed a passage. Of course you want to find a balance between the technical and the musical - the music that really moves you (the stuff that you love to listen to) is a musical marriage between the two!

Here are ten tips that will help you to bring out your more musical side!!

1)    Sing through your phrases
Your inner voice is most exposed when you sing. In order to be more musical you must take a risk and expose it. For example, take the first phrase in the piece you are working on. Sing through the phrase, exaggerating the musical gestures you would like to bring out (add lyrics if you like). Does this experience make you aware of phrasing elements you were not including? Did you notice that you were chopping the first phrase up too much? After singing through the phrase a couple of times, play it on your flute. Notice any differences? Be sure to include the musical gestures from your singing in your flute playing!
2)    Dance to recordings of your piece
We all learn in different ways. Some of us are visual learners while others rely more on aural directions. A few of us are kinesthetic in our learning - what better way to explore this path than to dance to the piece you are working on.  I know you may feel silly at first, but it is very much worth the experiment. I bet you dance to music when you listen on your headphones!
3)    Supportive sound
How engaged are you physically when you are playing? A great way to test your physical engagement or support is to have a friend press against your left shoulder (pushing you backwards) while you play. If your friend can easily push you over while you are playing you need to engage more. Try the experiment again and this time, push back at your friend so you are meeting the resistance. Notice the difference in your tone! Now recreate this feeling when you are performing!
4)    Record yourself
If you love listening to music on your headphones, it’s time to start listening to your performances with headphones. Record yourself playing your prepared piece and then take the time to listen to it with headphones. Check and make sure your musicality is coming through. Most often I find that I have to exaggerate my musical gestures so much more than I originally thought (think stage makeup).
5)    Find colors and contrast
If you listened to yourself on your headphones and found that you did not sound as musical as you would like, it’s time to find parts of your piece where you could incorporate more colors and contrasts! Incorporating tone colors as well as dynamic contrasts frees up your interpretation ten-fold.
6)    Rubato if possible
Have you ever seen a person walking a dog where it clearly seems as if the dog is in control of the walk and not vice-versa. You want to be in control of your performance, and not the other way around. This type of control requires a lot of leading. In some pieces this leading requires rubato in order for the musical gestures to come alive.  A great piece for this type of rubato is the Charles Widor suite. However, in order for this type of rubato to come alive it must come from you, and your musical direction must be clear to your pianist in order for this to work.
7)    Memorize passages
My students often focus so much on this technique that they already have most of their jury pieces memorized by the second month of lessons. If this is also the case for you, take away the music when you practice. Keep the passages fresh and give yourself the freedom to explore what the musical passages are trying to say instead of reading the notes on the page (which you already know).
8)    Articulation
Good articulation is like good diction. I am sure you have heard many pop singers with bad diction and you end up singing the lyrics incorrectly for months before you realize it. If you are clear with your articulation you will leave no room for misinterpretations and your audience will be able to tune in 100 percent to your musical phrases!
9)    Find a story
I am sure you have heard this idea before, but not only should you find a story that you can tell in your performance, but try to make it a personal story. This is similar to actors who think of a specific moment that made them cry when they have to reproduce crying in a scene. If you are playing a movement of a work that is sad in tone then try and connect to that emotion with a personal story of your own while you play. Usually this works incredibly well.
10) Pick your musical idol and become them when you perform
I am sure you have a musical idol (if not 20) in your playlists. Pick one and become them when you play. This way you still have a little room to hide and yet you have the freedom of being this confident performer that you so admire while you perform.

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