“I almost never listen to music for my own enjoyment…”
This is a quote from a music teacher posting in a forum for music teachers. There was a consensus among the hundreds of posters that they were just too burnt out from playing, singing and teaching all day, more music was just too much after a long day.
This is one of the saddest things I’ve heard. To me, music is life, spirit and emotion – all one and the same. When the very people who are passing on this gift are burnt out and cannot even enjoy it, it is a problem. But I think it may be solvable.
Music is unlike other jobs like, accounting or working on a factory line. It’s something that most of us would do even if we weren’t paid to.
I have a student who is still very young, but who has been studying with me for about 6 years now. She started with me learning to play piano using my Musicolor Method™ before I even had a name for it. Within about a year, we moved to singing and playing pop and Broadway show songs. About two years ago, she added guitar. What impresses me so much about her is her pure love of music which then leads to an absolute focus and commitment to the music.
A few years ago, at a recital, she performed two songs. She used a lyric sheet for the first song, even though I said no sheet music on stage. Somehow she snuck it up there and before I noticed it, she was performing. With the lyric sheet in front of her, and her nerves going, she held back and played it “safe.” You could hear it was “good” but something was missing. After that song, I rushed up and pulled her music away despite her protests. I told her, “You don’t need it!”
For a few seconds, she looked quite upset and angry at me, but then she smiled and composed herself. She started the second song, and although it was a little rocky at first soon she deepened her connection with the song and there was a moment of pure spirit. She forgot about the audience, the lights and her nerves and the song just poured out. It was pure magic and you could feel it. The audience was on their feet applauding like mad.
The Magical Connection
This connection to spirit and emotion is a very difficult thing to teach and I’ve rarely heard it discussed in education programs. Even on the popular talent shows like American Idol and The Voice, you only hear whispers of it. The coaches and judges all know it when they hear it, as do we, the audience, but how do we get it? That magical connection?
To me, this connection is pure unbridled passion and joy. It happens when there is a complete commitment to the performance. You can see and feel it in all kinds of human endeavors from sports to music to theater to public speaking.
How To Connect To Spirit
I want to share a few ideas I’ve used to help teach this connection to spirit.
Focus outward – Connection happens by losing all self-consciousness and focusing only on the content
Choose wisely – The music that you choose must move you – then you can explore why it does. The music needs to resonate deeply with the performer.
Make the piece your own – play it faster, slower, all staccato, all legato, in a different style – reggae, rock, jazz, etc. Then bring it back to the way you now think it should sound. It will have changed and deepened into your own.
Use the power of story – even if the music has no programmed story or lyrics, you can use the power of visualization to create a storyline that you can then set and tell through your performance. This has been a wonderful way to bring instrumental pieces to life for my young students.
The Run On Sentence – If the music has lyrics, try writing out the lyrics over and over as one long run-on sentence without punctuation. This is an old actor’s trick that I used quite a lot in my days in off-Broadway theater. When you do this, you start to break the habitual patterns and phrasings of what you heard before. It becomes fluid and molds itself to your emotional state in that moment. When you return to singing and playing the song, it will be a very different experience. It’s like running water over the stones of your emotional states.
Repetition exercise – I learned this in the acting classes taught by Phil Gushee, who was a student of Sanford Meisner. He taught a simple basic technique called the repetition exercise. The basic premise is two actors sit across from each other and one of them says something. The other actor must then repeat the phrase, colored only by their own emotion. They go back and forth until they feel the impulse to say something else.
This can be something like:
“It’s late! Yeah you should have been home hours ago!” and then we’re off with a completely connected improvised scene.
You can apply this to music by having the performer play a phrase or the whole piece over and over while the teacher/coach randomly calls out different emotions: happy, jaunty, silly, depressed, shy, etc. I did this with a young boy playing a ragtime piece on piano and we turned it into the funniest circus music. It got to the point where we were just laughing so hard. This definitely lightened the mood when the recital came and we had this inner secret of the circus clown version to help calm our nerves!
You can make yourself some index cards listing emotional states that you can pick at random. Send them home with the student to have his or her family pick out the cards. Talk about a fun practice session!
Get Back In The Game
Here’s a quick playlist of the human spirit. All of these “performances” contain the key ingredients of complete focus, full commitment, passionate ownership and abandonment of any sense of self-consciousness. So when you need a jolt of spirit or you’re feeling like you need some rejuvenation, try this playlist of committed passion and connectedness.
A brief Spirit-giving playlist
- Janis Joplin singing Ball and Chain at Monterrey Pop Festival
- Yo Yo Ma playing cello – Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger soundtrack
- Michael Jordan playing basketball in the crucial moments
- Carlos Vives singing Fruta Fresca
- James Dean in East Of Eden – I cry every time
- Whitney Houston singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl 1991
- Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront
- Pat Metheny’s guitar synth solo in Are You Going With Me?
- Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech
- Eddie Van Halen playing guitar like this
- This kid singing and playing Titanium
- Pavarotti singing anything but especially this
I’d love to hear your comments and any other ideas you may have on teaching this very subtle skill. By the way, I go deep into seven key “soft skills” in the Musicolor Method™ online training which is opening for another class in July. You can register for the wait-list here.
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song? – Rainier Maria Rilke