Internal Score

Matthew Smith, cellist extraordinaire, walking the walk down the street during Palaver's trip to New Haven, CT.

I often think about what makes the most compelling musical performance. Is it remarkable technical facility? Is it incredible attention to the score? Is it pristine intonation and imperceptible bow changes? Or is it letting go of ego and allowing one’s self to be truly vulnerable?

 The answer is obvious. A truly touching musical experience comes from letting go and giving one’s self fully to the music. However, how does one practice letting go when precision and adherence to detail are so crucial in making a performance inspiring and genuine?

 When I was about 14, I picked up a book by Madeline Bruser called The Art of Practicing. She addresses how musicians can practice feeling free and spontaneous when playing their instruments, instead of boxed in by fear and anxiety. At the time this incredible knowledge was wasted on me, since my idea of practicing was making up sappy, indulgent melodies on my cello…it’s true. However, as a young musician, not yet tainted by over-critical internal dialogue, I truly loved every minute that I was behind my instrument–I was already experiencing what Bruser was writing about. When I decided to pursue music professionally, I was so excited to get to dedicate every day to the thing that gave me so much joy and inspiration. Unfortunately, my joy become my biggest source of unhappiness. That exhilarating newness that had always accompanied my time with the cello had faded into something else. I finally picked up Bruser’s book again and knew that I had become one of those musicians who couldn’t be spontaneous because I was boxed in by fear.

 One of the leading roadblocks that keeps me and many of my colleagues from being expressive is our perfectionist tendencies. When practicing, we are trained to look for mistakes, and to expose and criticize the weakest parts of our playing. We become obsessed with refining and perfecting each musical passage while forgetting about the music itself. We forget that the most powerful musical experiences are not based in technical perfection.

 Of course, one cannot be expressive if the music has not been studied and practiced, but how one goes about practicing makes the biggest difference. Since the majority of our practicing involves physical repetition of passages, we are aware of physical injury as a possible hazard to look out for in the profession. However, what we often ignore is the toxic self-criticism that we subject ourselves to each day without the awareness of its long-term consequences. We often feel that we should feel bad about ourselves and tearing ourselves down is for the better and will pay off when it comes time for the performance. But it’s not true. If anything, we become more mentally, physically, and emotionally stuck. In The Art of Practicing, Bruser says that physical “tension and inefficient technique stem from mental and emotional attitudes toward ourselves and our practicing”. Overcoming inefficient playing habits both technically and emotionally require patience and kindness. Be kind to yourself. Be patient.

 Releasing one’s self during a performance is not easy. It is against human instinct to deliberately expose one’s vulnerability while in front of a crowd. However, that is the precise reason why it is so impactful and mesmerizing. In order to practice being vulnerable, Bruser suggests tuning into your heart. This means that, before even touching your instrument, you recall and reflect on the preciousness of life and the opportunity we have as musicians.  As we connect with each composer and her or her music, we also connect with and nourish ourselves.

 As a young musician, I find Bruser’s words to be incredibly insightful and practical. They are points that I try to ponder each day before practicing. Too often, the joy and excitement that ignited the passion in a young musician is extinguished by fear, toxic self-criticism and frustration. By reminding ourselves to consistently tune into our hearts, we can make sure to remain sensitive to ourselves and the beauty that is around us.

 –Matthew