The Mastery Trait

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Mastery in performance

What is “mastery?”

Scenario 1
The team is about to lose. Time is running out and in a last desperate attempt to win, the quarterback throws the ball down the field. The receiver barely catches the ball; he is clutching it behind his back. He must hold on to the ball and get across the goal line. He hugs the ball to the back of his legs and leaps. Touchdown. Team wins. Sportscasters replay that “impossible” catch over and over. How did he manage to hold on to the ball?

Scenario 2
World class cellist falls off platform during Beethoven Triple concerto. Not only is unhurt but keeps on playing while he retakes his seat. Video goes viral.

How did each of these players manage to not merely survive, but turn a challenging performance situation into a win? What makes them able to perform “in the clutch” when so many others would fall apart? That’s the mastery trait.

The mastery trait can best be understood as a total commitment to a goal, in the face of whatever obstacles present themselves. In the context of a musical performance, it means keeping the musical vision, the continuity and character of the piece, as the sole objective, even if you play wrong notes, wrong fingering, your technique isn’t working right or an audience member sneezes. That commitment to the music itself allows you, even requires you, to play past mistakes, to ignore flaws and to make the music happen no matter what you have to do.

It’s that “pulling victory from the jaws of defeat” sense of purpose that disregards the “rules” in service of the greater good. After all, what does it matter to the audience if your fingering was flawless, if you had to start and stop in your performance?

So why practice and sweat over all those details if they aren’t going to matter in performance? The truth is that they do matter. That kind of correct preparation instills the habits that will lead predictably to the best possible performance. When we drill a passage with a specific fingering and carefully crafted expression, we are putting the foundation in place that we will rely on when we play.

But in a performance situation when the moment is what matters, it isn’t the “how” we do it that is most important; it is “what” we do.  Our focus is forward-looking, on what comes next. Compare that to our practice focus, much of which is backward-looking: what went wrong and how to fix it.

In practice, we concentrate on errors: correcting them, eliminating them, preventing them. We find and drill the best fingering, craft an expressive plan for the piece, and do numerous repetitions to instill dependability and habit.

In performance, it is time to rely on the work we have done in our practice and play the music. And the masters of the craft do exactly that, putting all of their practice in service of the music itself.  It’s not an abandoning of everything they have worked on. It’s simply not confusing method with results. Let me explain.

The ultimate result desired in any musical performance is an effective communication of the composer’s intention that moves and inspires a listener. That’s a rather dry way to say that it’s the big picture that matters. After the final note of a piece is played, it’s the overall impression that stays with an audience, not the misplayed note or the wrong fingering or the pedal noise. The actual music is greater than the sum of those little parts, and it can survive the loss of one or two of them.

And how we manage to play the music is, in the moment of performance, much less important than we would like to think. What the audience hears is what counts; not what fingering we have used.

So the first part of the mastery trait is keeping the goal, the music itself, in front of us. A veteran musician will invent a fingering on the fly, or correct wrong pedals as they continue to play. Playing past the mistakes and playing your way out of difficulties is an essential part of the skill.

Mastery in performance requires not confusing method with results. – Anne Sullivan, Harpmastery Click To Tweet

So is having trust in your preparation. When you have practiced correctly AND prepared for performance – two distinctly different ways to practice – then you can let go of concern for the technical details and focus solely on making music. You hear the result you want in your head and that drives your playing. You let go of the details, knowing that you have practiced them thoroughly, and you immerse yourself in the language of the music you are playing. (Notice too, how this could create a profound reduction in performance anxiety.)

The mastery trait also requires a “just do it” mentality, the courage to play past the “rules,” play in spite of how we usually play it. We need the courage to believe that nothing we have done previously is as important as making that musical moment. Surely good technique, solid fingering, correct notes are desirable, if not essential, to playing well. But in the moment of performance, playing with whatever finger will work after you’ve missed the starting note of a run is better than trying to figure out which finger you should be using. This “just play it” attitude can be difficult to develop when we work so hard to perfect things in our practice, but it’s critical to making the “big plays” and coming out with a performance that will make you proud.

The final attribute of the mastery trait is simply experience. The more you play and perform, the more you will train your mind to follow what’s really important and let go of the details. The more your practice correctly, the more solid will be your technical foundation in general and your foundation of knowledge for any single piece that you perform. And over time, you will learn to trust yourself and feel free to make the big plays, to go for the win.

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  • Diane Renee Macdonell

    Thank you.

    Reply

  • Sami

    This is an important and valuable lesson. I saw a great example of it the other day when I went to hear a local symphony perform. Two of the musicians were having their turns performing the main melody part. Each of them had an obvious “off” moment of some passage that caused a struggle of slightly “wrong notes”. But they played right through it. There was absolutely no disruption in the flow, even when one of them shook his head in obvious frustration at himself. It didn’t detract from the overall picture of the performance. And it’s quite possible that hardly anyone even noticed these minor mistakes. I happened to be paying attention to it because this is a skill I’m trying to learn: To keep going through a performance. It was very refreshing to see these professionals being in that situation and to know that it happens even to the best. It also gave me a deeper appreciation of their skill and talent. And it made me even more amazed about the fact that the rest of the hour long peperformance sounded so perfect!

    Reply

  • Lillian

    This reminds me of what my piano teacher in college told me, many years ago. He said that one of the differences between my performances and those of Arthur Rubinstein was Arthur’s superior ability to hide/cover his mistakes. On the harp, where I am a relative beginner, I need that skill more than ever!

    I am also reminded of something I hear on NPR not too long ago. The commentator said that recording technology allows commercial music recordings to be essentially error free. So when people attend a live concert, they are often disappointed because the performance is not perfect, even when the musician is a virtuoso.

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