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How to get better? is a question I think about when I’m playing music and something doesn’t go as I had planned or assumed it would. An errant note, a momentary lapse of concentration, a dropped stick, a shaker that goes flying out of my hand (yes, it happened once), noticing my timekeeping dragging, or the most fascinating—a perceptual thing where suddenly the beat isn’t where I assumed it was, where I hear the rhythm as if someone took away its downbeat and now I’m momentarily unable to get my timing bearings. In all these situations my first thought—after I’ve recovered and realized that no one else noticed anything—is how I can get better. Thinking about how to improve one’s performance is the first step to figuring out how to do it, and the key is to unpack the elements of whatever didn’t go as planned.

Here’s an example: it turns out that a half-hit marimba note (a G) is the far edge of a triad that happens in the middle of a passage of triads—C minor, A-flat major, G minor—that goes by in a blur. This blur has been carrying me on its own momentum as the music goes along, and my hands can easily play these triads in sequence. But my hands have been getting by not by thinking of the triads as chords per se, but as shapes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; when I’m playing a keyboard, it’s always shapes before chords for me. (This is probably because I first learned to play by ear.) Knowing the chords as shapes allows my hands to breeze through them at speed without my needing to think much about the passing moment. It just kind of happens, over and over again and almost always perfectly—except when something goes wrong, like half-hitting one note (that G). This happens occasionally because a micro-hesitation has inserted itself into what I thought was my hands’ seamless knowing. Knowing the chords as shapes serves me well 98 percent of the time, but this intuitive sensing isn’t infallible: two percent of the time my hands are confused. One night I look down at my hands traversing the chords and think: What is all this? Suddenly the chord shapes look truly odd. (How do musicians remember music at an instrument, and what is this remembering based upon?)

The next step to improvement is to slow down the passage and practice it so that its blur becomes a series of discreet frames—like an animated flip book, examined one page at a time. As I slowed down the passage I reminded myself that in addition to being shapes, triads are chords. It was an awkward moment because my hands care only about the flow-feel of the notes, and here I was trying to talk to them analytically. Just watch when you go from the C minor to the A-flat major because you’re moving the G up a semitone but keeping the C and E-flat…I practiced the passage slower and then slower still, while superimposing some conscious knowing onto my flow-happy, shape-focused hands—Heads up guys, that’s all I’m saying. At one point I practiced the passage so slow that it was no longer a passage, no longer a shape. Now my hands’ chatter was finally muted and the triads became like a notated musical example stretched out on a page before me, with the half-hit errant G note circled in red pen and an arrow pointing to its neighbors. The passage was never that difficult, but somewhere along the way of playing it over and over, I lost sight of what it is. Now when I arrive at the moment in performance, my hands get through it with a new, deliberate carefulness. It brings to mind driving on a straight road and realizing that as it curves up ahead you’ll feel a gentle centrifugal force on the car if you maintain your current speed. You know from experience that’s pointless drive fast and then have to break before the curve in the road, so you pace yourself and the drive is smoother.

I also think about how to get better when I’m recording my own music, which usually depends on improvising to get the ball rolling. Afterwards I make note of what is working and what isn’t, trying to remember very general principles that seem to be reliably producing results that I like. (If the results are good, reverse-engineer the processes that lead you to them.) Some examples of these principles:

Begin with a theme and return to it later, and again at the end. 

Start low, then move higher. 

Leave as much space as sound made. 

Focus on the resonant tail ends of the sounds (which keeps you thinking about leaving space). 

Do more free rhythm stuff. 

I don’t look at these principles, but instead try to remember and implement them at my next session. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do this unconsciously. In the meantime, I keep the learning feedback loop animated by continuously re-aiming my attention at techniques that are proving their power.

Nowhere in my notes though, do I mention expressivity as something I want to improve because it’s difficult to evaluate one’s own expressivity, let alone improve it. Expression seems dependent on other general performance principles firing on all cylinders. A principle like start low, then move higher is useful because it’s a constraint I can remember, implement, and push against to try to make something happen—to make something expressive. Like this blog post’s narrow theme, what’s worked best is devising conditions under which I try to make something happen, to make something a little better than it turned out the last time I tried.

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