Starting a piece of music is easy enough: you count it off (one, two, three, four!), or the conductor gives the cue, or you simply dive head first into the sound waters. It’s exciting because here you are—again (!)—and also, you’re not entirely sure how it’s going to go, which is what makes performing always relevant to your sense of who you are right now and what you’ll become. Once you’re up and running, a certain degree of auto-pilot takes over as you stay busy attending to the details of your part and dynamically interacting with the other musicians. The performance has its own kind of momentum that carries you along as you make your contribution to the fabric of its unfolding.
But eventually the music moves towards its ending, towards its final and furthermost point, and there are details at the end that require a different kind of focus. Sometimes while playing I notice myself fading in the final moments (seconds? notes?) of the music—as if I’ve already arrived at the finish line when in fact the line is still twenty yards out (one measure?). It’s not just me either. I notice another musician pulling up a fraction before the end has arrived, as if throwing in the towel: that’s good enough. And it is good enough—good enough for no one in the audience of thousands to notice, good enough for the conductor not to register the pre-emptive pull up, good enough for the sound engineer not to notice because we are already playing at a soft dynamic—yet at the same time not nearly good enough and evidence maybe of a brazen failure to care. What happened? What happened is that on a micro-level we took the shortcut and let our attention dissipate into the ether. We ruined what could have been an almost perfectly calibrated performance held aloft on its own energies.
Details at the end are interesting because they provide information about how you have maintained your focus and endured over the course of the music. Did you give your final note as much care as your first? Did you notice the shape of the actual ending point and consciously make it a deliberate stop, or was it a non-deliberate throwaway? (Do you even notice enough to care?) How a musician deals with details at the end is a superb way to assess their engagement with the music.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with how I attend to details at the end of a piece’s performance and trying to make my playing reflect that. As I play a gong roll crescendo that ends abruptly on a dynamic peak l’ll muffle the cymbal with my hands and just freeze for an extra five seconds to let that gesture sink in and be felt. (Once I froze for much longer. It seemed to help.) As I reach an almost inaudible soft dynamic on the marimba I’ll keep the groove intact rather than let it melt into a warble. In these and other ways I’m still trying to make conscious how I find ways to extend the horizon of my noticing just beyond the music’s ending point, as if that finish line has already passed but I’m still pushing. As in music, so too sometimes in sports. In a recent blog post called How does the ball know? Seth Godin talks about the importance of swinging through the ball in baseball or golf even though technically speaking, the ball doesn’t care what the bat or club does after it has made contact. “The follow through isn’t the goal” he says. “It’s the symptom that you did something right.”