Killing Your Consistency with Misplaced Emotions

by Mary Galime

Photo by FuYong Hua

Emotions inspire us to bring color and life to notes on a page. They inspire us to tackle the performance machine that is our instrument. However, emotions do not have anything to do with how we execute consistent daily performance. After the first two minutes of playing in your day, how many times have you smiled and said, “I feel great today” or slumped and said “I feel awful today?"  “I Feel” is a very personal statement that carries a lot of emotion with it. “I Feel” becomes a destructive sentence when it becomes your performance machine.

One of the best examples of this is found in our daily warm-up. A common warm up practice is  the “Feel Good” technique. It’s easy. Only play things that make you feel good to start the day off on a good foot. After that one may feel good, or feel awful 5 minutes later and then feel angry, depressed, nervous, etc. The control over your playing in this scenario is lost to the "Feelings Monster."

If we look at the performance aspect of our playing like the machine that it is, the approach would be a little different. There are no monsters, just machines. It’s science. The Machine is made up of your body and instrument. In order to ensure proper function for the day, a series of diagnostic tests will be performed before use. If any diagnostic test is failed, X will be used to resume proper function. Once diagnostic tests are completed and fixes performed, daily function can resume. That would be ultimate consistency. Even though half of this machine is an unpredictable body, consistency is still attainable if we take this approach to the machine.
The process is simple. Start with your daily warm up and ask yourself for each step, “what is the purpose for warming up, why am I doing this? The answers to these questions define the core parts of the machine that you depend on for consistency. The core elements to your playing become the subject for each diagnostic test. If you are not happy with the result of the test, how are you going to fix it and move on?

After asking myself these questions, I created my own diagnostic test for the core parts to my machine: Air/response, focus of sound, articulation, and mind. This is what my warm up looks like these days:

The Diagnostic: 5 – 15 minutes depending on success of all tests

1. Air/Response

Diagnostic: Mouthpiece buzzing in step-wise motion, testing air/response/ear coordination

 What is/isn’t working? Is the buzzing resonant, and pitch clear? If not, I need to address my coordination, immediacy of air, focus on my ear telling me where the next note is.

2. Focus (Sound)

 Diagnostic: Long tones using scales and intervals

What is/isn’t working? A spread tone usually means my tongue position is off or I’m allowing tension into my playing. Note-bending exercises tend to fix this for me.

3. Focus (Articulation)

Diagnostic: Double 8ve scales in 16th notes articulations     

What is/isn’t working Is there tension in any portion of that scale? Is the articulation clear in all ranges? If so, readdress the tonal focus of the note in the questionable range, and repeat. 

4. Focus (Mental)

Diagnostic: H.L. Clarke Studies – Etude 3 

What is/isn’t working? Can I get to the end without my mind wandering and with all of     the previous diagnostics working together? This takes me 2 or 3 tries sometime! 

Note that in each of these steps, I am not asking how I Feel, but What. When something does not pass the diagnostic, I go back and address the problem with a corrective exercise. Approaching your day this way will set you on a course to always diagnose problems as they arise as opposed to an emotional melt down over them. You’ll find consistency in your playing when you learn to take control over the machine, so as to leave room for the emotional response that makes your music unique. Your emotional response is a passenger in your “machine” but don’t forget you are always the driver – take the steps to put yourself in control! 

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