On ‘Letting Go’ as a Musician
Part 1 – Letting Go of the Music

learn to notice the signal to set your music or instrument aside for awhile

© Joel Wyncott / Unsplash

Writers, artists and musicians all understand this dilemma – when do we “let go” of that article or book manuscript, painting or piece of music? Given half the chance, most of us would happily continue tinkering and refining ad infinitum, but there has to come a time when we must let go.

Amateur musicians are lucky, in many ways, because they can, if they so desire, continue to tinker with a piece or pieces of music for as long as they like. Professionals, on the other hand, know that there must come a point when the music is deemed “concert ready” – the time when it is put before an audience, or recording equipment, and held up for public scrutiny.

The processes involved in arriving at this point are not only the learning and upkeep of thousands of notes, but also a mixture of intelligent, highly focussed practicing and many hours of reflection and refinement. Many professionals (and serious amateurs too) use recording and video to self-critique, as well as working away from the piano using a variety of practices to really ‘get inside’ the music, know it intimately, and appreciate its myriad details and nuances.

Professional musicians. and more experienced amateurs, are able to judge when their music is “ready” – and I prefer to use the word “ready” rather than “finished”, for how can we ever say a piece is truly “finished”?

Art is never finished only abandoned.Leonardo da Vinci

It would be easy – and facile – to say that you know when to let go when you feel you can play the piece confidently, that it is technically and artistically secure. But for less confident/advanced musicians, recognising this point in their progress may not be so easy. A teacher or mentor can help by offering honest feedback.

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (arr. for 2 pianos and orchestra) (Herbie Hancock, piano; Lang Lang, piano; London Symphony Orchestra; John Axelrod, cond.)

Many of us have a goal in mind when we’re practising – be it a concert, an exam, competition, or an audition. When I was working towards my performance diplomas, and especially the second and third diplomas, when I had a much clearer understanding of the processes and timescales involved in bringing the repertoire up to performance-ready standard, I almost worked backwards from the performance date, knowing how long it would take to reach certain stages of refinement and readiness. This meant I could manage my practising efficiently, set and achieve realistic goals along the way, and, hopefully, prevent the music from “going stale” from too much practising, thus keeping something back for the day of the performance.

And this is the real issue. At what point does your music reach the fine line between readiness and staleness, and how do you know this?

boredom during music practice is a sign that it might be time to let go

© www.musical-u.com

I think the danger points are when silly mistakes start to creep in during practice. Familiarity with the music can make us sloppy and complacent; we may overlook details, because we know the music too well, and we may be less assiduous about correcting errors, saying to ourselves during practice, “Oh it’s ok, I can fix that tomorrow!” In fact, at this point, it is important to be super-vigilant in our practicing; it may also be a signal to set the music aside, if only for a few days, or perhaps weeks or even months.

Boredom is another sign that it might be time to let go. If each time you go to practice you inwardly sigh at having the same piece of music confront you on the music desk, and practicing it feels like a chore (even if it is music that you enjoy playing), it is time to let it go. Put the music away for awhile and turn your attention to other repertoire.

There is another aspect, which applies particularly to repertoire which is being made ready for performance, and that is the need to hold something back (or indeed let go of it!) for the concert.

British pianist Stephen Hough asserts that one needs to be “a perfectionist in the practice room” in order to be “a bohemian on stage“. Disciplined, meticulous, deep practice gives us the technical and artistic security and, more importantly, the confidence to let go in performance and maybe even take a risk. And it is in those moments of letting go that the real magic of performance happens – for audience and performer.

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  1. Thank you for writing and publishing these wonderfully well-written and most helpful articles, Ms. Wilson. About a year ago, you answered a question I had about stage deportment and how our young competing pianists are trained for national and international competitions. I find each of these articles to be very important and hope they are read by many who create and perform art in a variety of genres. These pieces will help me to better appreciate what I am seeing, hearing, and gleaning from performances from now forward. Thank you for being such a dedicated and forward- thinking teacher. I taught in the performing arts and so these mean a great deal to me, even though I have long since retired.

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