‘The living curve’ – training underlying principles is the art of great performance

Training underlying principles


Awareness has become a buzz word. Mindfulness is a serious subject of scientific study. Eastern philosophy has taught its application in life. Martial Artists train observation and response. And yet in the teaching of music why do I so often hear platitudes that miss this underlying principle of good practise?

Here are a couple that drive me crazy

‘Play it slowly first and then get faster’.

Well that’s a good and neccesary thing to do but unfortunately it becomes an end in itself. Students (adults and children alike) often consider their practise successful if they have observed these instructions to the letter. But playing slowly is a RESULT of learning to see and be aware. At an early stage it is not possible for the brain to control the fingers with any accuracy above a certain speed and the mind cannot process the feedback from the fingers or the sound in a way that allows useful progression. The instruction needs to be delivered in a way that gives the student the underlying principle of seeing and hearing and allowing space for an appropriate response. Without that principle, playing slowly is an empty technique.

‘Use a slow metronome setting that is incrementally increased as work progresses’

This is related to the first instruction and misses the point in the same way. It is far more important to recognise and be aware that when music hits a certain speed the brain begins to perceive and control the action in a different way. There is a switch of cognition which moves from an awareness of each note and the transitions between to an outline, a kind of contour line that the the fingers follow. Now awareness of this fact may spring from the mere act of following the instruction to incrementally increase speed but in my experience it is more usually the case that once again the act becomes an end in itself and useful insights from the practise are masked while the student dances to the superficial tune of the metronome’s swinging arm. To really benefit, the student has to understand and be aware of what is happening at the transition point where the mind has to think differently. This is more like a switch being flipped than the traditionally taught, slow incremental steps which are so often wasted effort.

There is a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice (One of my favourite poets of all time)

We jump from picture to picture and cannot follow
The living curve that is breathlessly the same.

At the beginning of learning we too often jump from position to position, chord shape to chord shape, note to note and then as we get faster we fail to notice the living curve of the music.

Training awareness will transform your practise whether you are a beginner or a professional. And you will find your attention increasingly drawn to the moments of transition, the seemingly dead space where so much happens.

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