Why You Can’t Make Music on Autopilot

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autopilotAutopilot has a comfortable sound to it. The computer can take over, make the tough decisions, free us up to catch up on our reading or our sleep.

I love thinking about getting my first driverless car for similar reasons. Will I be able to take a nap or work on my computer while my car takes me safely where I want to go?

Most of us run parts of our lives on autopilot. There are routine tasks that we do so often that we don’t need to use our conscious brain to guide us through them. This is an efficient use of our energy. It requires much more physical energy to devote attention and focus to a task, which is why our body switches so easily into “autopilot” mode.  It conserves our energy by using our subconscious mind whenever possible.

If we allow ourselves to use our autopilot when we make music, either in performance or in practice, we run the risk of not making music well at all. In fact, we are actually sabotaging our ability to learn music throroughly, to play confidently and securely, and to express the music to its fullest.

The Danger of Performing on Autopilot

Numerous studies have shown that when drivers of cars rely on cruise control, their reaction times become slower. One study among French drivers revealed that across diverse age groups,  drivers using cruise control displayed signs of drowsiness and delayed reaction time in applying the brakes when necessary. Drivers tune out and lose focus on regular driving tasks and then may panic when a critical situation presents itself.

Musical performance on autopilot has similar pitfalls.

Imagine this scenario: you’re performing for an audience. Everything is going well, in fact, better than you had expected. You feel like you’re cruising along. Then suddenly, you’re distracted, perhaps by some movement in the audience or maybe by a wrong note that surprised you. You’re suddenly on high alert, suddenly focusing and trying to regain your poise. You’ve just come off autopilot. This moment, when we are recalled to a higher level of awareness, is when most performance “crashes” occur.

The Danger of Practicing on Autopilot

No matter how much you love to practice, you must admit that parts of practice can be boring, especially the repetition that is required to learn, perfect and secure difficult passages. This is the perfect situation for autopilot, right? Wrong.

What do you lose in your practice when you allow the autopilot to take over? You lose the critical listening and analysis that is an essential part of music practice. You must be attentive to notes and rhythms, to tone and technique, to continuity and expression. Those details that make your music connect with a listener are the ones you need to be actively paying attention to in your practice.

Granted, this is hard work.  It requires you to be mentally present and focused every moment in your practice, which is why a concentrated practice session can leave you feeling like you’ve run a marathon. That’s one way to know you’re doing it right!

The Danger of Planning on Autopilot

Do you know why you’re practicing? Do you have a plan, not just for today, but for this week, this month, this year?

It is important to bring focus and intention to your planning and goals. A concrete plan allows you to turn “someday” into a specific date, to turn your dream into a reality. Letting your playing drift for too long without a purpose can result in circular motion rather than forward progress.  Be the driver, not the passenger, in your musical life.

Getting off Autopilot

Drivers who love to drive never use cruise control. They want to be in charge, to feel the car respond, to sense the road beneath the tires, to make the car take them where they want to go.

Take your music off cruise control. There are many strategies and techniques for bringing more focus, attention and intention to your music every day. The one thought I want to leave you with today, however, is this: Lose yourself IN your music. Get inside it to know every note and nuance. Love every phrase and color of it. You won’t regret a moment of the journey.


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