The moment when you sense your sound is not what you want, or you are running out of air, or your technique feels shaky – What do you do?
In these moments, many musicians experience a stress response. Any one of these is a perceived threat to the performance, or at least we think it is. What we really need in these moments is the ability to adjust breathing, embouchure, tongue, fingers, arms or any movement needed to play. Instead, the stress response leaves us feeling helpless to get the performance moving in the direction we envision.
Muscular gripping in the body is one of the natural consequences of any stress response. Some people stiffen their neck, others their legs or constrict breathing, and still others press too hard on keys or find themselves gripping the instrument for dear life. You can’t squeeze sound out of the flute, it is not like making lemonade. In fact, squeezing causes movement limitation throughout the body.
The good news is, you can learn to respond to stressful performing moments in a different way, a way that benefits your performance and gets you back on track. One powerful shift you can make is to adjust the quality of contact you have with your instrument. This includes using less effort to close the keys or press the string or simply allowing the instrument to balance in the hands.
When the hands grip the instrument or fingers press too hard, this physical effort resonates through the body. Experience it now by touching the pads of your pointer finger and thumb together. First, notice what just enough contact feels like. Next, gradually increase the pressure between the two fingers. Notice how the increase i pressure creates tension that resonates up your arm, through your torso and maybe even into your legs. Muscles are gripping, which means they can’t be moving fluidly in a coordinated way. In my own playing, I have identified two reasons that I grip and press:
- Low notes that are slow to response and have a weak sound.
- Technical passages that I perceive as difficult.
In fact, pressing a key excessively hard only delays the response, because the body’s flexibility is minimized due to the excessive effort.
How to unlearn squeezing and gripping…
To make a shift in your habitual response to performing stress, refine the movements you use to play the notes. Body Mapping is a great tool for this very purpose!
Here is the process I used…
Play a section of the music that feels challenging and answer the following questions:
- Is my finger pressure too much, too little or just right? (Every finger can be different)
- Does the instrument feel balanced in my hands or am I gripping for dear life?
You need to find just the right amount of finger pressure for your instrument. Play again, this time notice the quality of contact your fingers make with each key. Maybe there is a finger that slams too hard. Use this process to uncover just the right amount of pressure on the keys to execute the passage. Almost magically, the right amount of finger pressure informs all of the other movements, revealing a stronger sound and responsive articulation. Voila!
If notice that you are using excessive pressure to balance the instrument in your hands. You can use the same process to uncover a balanced way to support the instrument.
Continue to Cultivate Good Contact with Keys & Instrument…
- Apply slow practice in warm-ups to become sensitive to the quality of contact fingers make with each key or balance of the instrument in your hands. Scales and tone studies are a great place to begin to apply this.
- Apply slow practice in challenging passages. Isolate chunks of the passage using the technique described above to find just the right pressure or balance of the instrument.
Sometimes it is helpful to identify the particular movements needed to play the notes, which in my case includes tongue, embouchure, air speed/volume, and finger movement. With the specific movements in mind as you play you can observe movements that might be hindering your playing. For example, shoulders that ride up when the going gets tough.
The bottom line is you can’t squeeze sound out of your instrument. As you practice, find just the right movements along with just the right effort level for the music. When you are in tune with playing at this level, you will find that you can respond with poise to whatever comes your way in a performance.