Control: Why It’s Out of Your Hands

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Life, especially in these hectic days, has become a search for control.

controlWe look for more control over our calendar and our working days. There is an explosion of books, blogs and courses about productivity, all aimed at helping us bring more order to order lives.

We meditate, exercise and diet to gain control over our minds and bodies.

All the while, we know that control, at least the way we imagine it, is an illusion. We are powerless over many of the circumstances which affect us.

Given that understanding, why do we persist in thinking that we can dominate or control our music-making? Or from another perspective, why are we so reluctant to accept the fact that, as in every other part of our lives, some of the circumstances around our playing and performance are beyond our power to control?

I’d like to suggest an alternative to the quest for control, or perhaps just an alternate definition.

What if true control were to be found in resilience instead of in perfection? If, instead of seeking to play the music exactly the way we have practiced it, we aim to play the music the way the moment dictates?

Music is a creation of the moment. A live performance happens once and is vanished, except in the memories of the hearers and performers, as soon as it is over.

All we can do in any “performance moment” is to “go with the flow.” We prepare in our practice, and we prepare for the distractions likely to assail us from outside and inside in performance. But in the moment, any attempt to control ourselves or the situation is worse than useless. It can actually sabotage our playing.

You may have experienced this phenomenon. If you have ever felt things “slipping away from you” while you were playing, you know what I mean. The more you try to gain a figurative foothold while you continue to play, the more your adrenalin surges, your focus frays and your fingers fail. Trying to control things, at least in that way, doesn’t work.

What if we perceived, and practiced, control not as something you exert over your music, but as something you allow in your music?

This is where resilience comes in.

Resilience or Control?

Taipei 101 in Taiwan is among the world’s tallest buildings and was constructed to withstand the area’s severe weather and frequent earthquakes. Housed between the 87th and 92nd floors is a giant 728 ton damper, a pendulum that acts as a counterweight when the building begins to sway. It lessens the motion of the building, thereby minimizing any structural damage. That’s resilience.

What constitutes a musician’s resilience?

First, build security with a strong technical foundation. This is your key to playing past a difficulty. When your technique is secure, you have the physical flexibility to give yourself options. A missed note, a wrong finger won’t stop you in your tracks.

Next, practice relaxation and focus in your playing. When things start to go awry in a performance, the worst thing you can do is to tighten up and “try harder.”  If you allow yourself to mentally step back and focus your attention on the musical flow rather than the performance flaw, you will be able to get back on track quickly.

How do I know this will work for you?

Because you do it every day in your practice at home.

At home, when you aren’t self-conscious and nervous, little mistakes don’t cause a meltdown. You play past them in the moment and go back to woodshed them later. Spend some of your practice time preparing yourself to do the same thing when the pressure is on. We know the mistakes will happen; like the earthquake-proof buildings, the key is in preparing to survive them.

And lastly, equip yourself mentally for the inevitable. Things happen. When you play, you will experience distractions, nerves, errors and discomfort, any of which may be minor or severe. Accept it. You can’t control those things; you can only control your reaction to them.

When you can accept the inevitable differences from perfection as the elements that bring the vitality to a live musical performance, you are well on your way to true control.

The Willow Tree

When I began studying karate, I fell in love with a saying of Confucius that my instructor was fond of quoting: “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”

A quote from the German physician, philosopher and musician Albert Schweitzer goes a step further:

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it; and so in great calamities, it sometimes happens that light and frivolous spirits recover their elasticity and presence of mind sooner than those of a loftier character.”

Resilience.

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