The Inner Game of Music
by Barry Green

Tennis professional Timothy Gallwey developed a method of mental exercises, known as the inner game, as a result of his observing how the best coaches worked, how his coaching style sometimes helped or hindered those he taught, and how his thought processes affected his tennis play. Gallwey discovered strategies that the best coaches and tournament players used.

The method of the inner game is based on teaching a student to do what comes naturally, and how to avoid specific pitfalls and habits. The method follows naturally from what is the best, most natural, easiest, and most graceful way to play.

As principal bassist of the Cincinnati Symphony for the past 24 years, I developed this method as the most natural and effective way for teacher and student, conductor and ensemble to work together.

I have played under conductors who run rehearsals that are consistent with this approach, but who have never heard of the method. These conductors are among the best in the business, and they have discovered what is most natural and works best.

Have you ever attempted to gain control of your car while it was skidding on an ice-covered street? Sliding to the right, instinct tells you to slam on the brakes and turn to the left. As a result you continue to slide to the right. The brakes don't slow the car as you yank the wheel in desperation. You bang your foot down harder as you skid off the road or into another car. After surviving this awful experience, you may have learned that you can gain control of a skidding car by letting the wheel go in the direction of the slide and by letting go of the brake until the car straightens out. Doesn't this sound rather backward?

Riding a bicycle over a bumpy road or riding bareback on a horse, you have the choice of resisting the rough ride by tensing your body and gritting your teeth, or you can let go of your control and allow the bumps to be absorbed by your flexible muscles, guiding your bike or horse with less effort and more responsiveness.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to win an argument by insisting you are right and forcing your way? But when you let go of your position and explore where you can find agreement, you may gain more than you originally demanded.

When we truly want to gain control, we may be more successful by letting go of our control. Our greatest accomplishments are often achieved with the least effort. If we can put our trust into what really works, we may take different directions which seem less controlling, less ego-directed and less attached to a result.

The Inner Game when applied to music is about overcoming distractions that stand between us being at our best in learning, practicing, teaching or performing. Distractions take the form of an inner voice attempting to control our actions and keep our attention away from the music. These diversions can be overcome by letting go of that inner voice, and focusing on different aspects of the music.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
to the Sights and Imagery in the Music

At the New England Conservatory of Music I visited a career class that helps graduating musicians find work. My session was centered around a practice audition. Young professionals are usually preoccupied with a need to please the judges and are attached to winning the position instead of letting go to something in the music that displays their natural ability to perform.

The room was prepared with four students posing as a jury (pens in hand) just a few feet away from a nervous auditioning vocalist, What a distraction! Yet how can this seemingly hostile atmosphere be transformed into something musical? John was singing "Greensleeves." We visually transformed the room (like they do in opera or theater rehearsals), changing the furniture and observers into props.

The four judges represented a flowing stream. Behind the jury (stream) the classmates represented a hillside with green trees. The lights on the ceiling became clouds, and the walls became blue sky.

John sang to the water, the peaceful countryside and beautiful sky. John had us convinced with his soft, unfocused eyes that he was bonded to another pastoral world of beauty. He sang with conviction, tenderness and grace.

Orchestral auditions can be approached in a similar way. Instead of playing to a blank screen for a competition, imagine playing your part on stage surrounded by other orchestral musicians. Rather than playing your excerpt like it was a solo competition piece, play it as it would sound in the orchestra. Hear the entire orchestra as you play your part, feeling the comfort of blending with your imaginary colleagues.

When you play this way, the jury also senses the orchestra's presence, hearing you in touch with the real music. This sets you apart from the others who are attempting to impress a jury with how fast and clearly they articulate their notes but never really connect with the music as it naturally sounds.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
to the Sounds in the Music

Jan, a double bassist from New York, was playing a long melody by Shostakovich. She was struggling to gain control of her vibrato. She said it felt stiff and sounded too fast.

Instead of trying harder at the same exercise, I asked Jan to play the phrase without any vibrato. No problem. Then I asked her to let her left hand choose only four notes for vibrato and that she should not decide which notes by figuring it out in advance. Her left hand will make the decision to vibrate based on what she hears. This sound will determine the speed, width and choice of notes for vibrato. She played beautifully. The power of the sound of the music controlled her fingers better than her own strength could. The other notes in the phrase didn't need any vibrato at all.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
to Feelings

In Perth, Australia, Edith had to perform a Mozart sonata on a strange piano without warming up. Neither her fingers nor the piano would respond to her instructions. Her playing was tentative and inaccurate, lacking good rhythm and expression. She was asked to repeat the Mozart, but, while she was playing, to verbally talk about this grand piano as if she were trying to sell it to me. In order to do this she would play along while describing the tone quality of the instrument the speed of its response, etc.

As Edith is playing and talking in order to sell the piano, she must "feel" the response of the instrument, Her attention to the touch allowed her performance to become more accurate, spontaneous and musical. She was delighted with the piano and excited about the music. She felt she gained the control she was unable to find in the beginning by just letting go to the touch of the instrument.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
to the Meaning of Music

In April 1987 I visited the Queensland Conservatory of Music in Brisbane, Australia, and heard a gifted pianist, Ellen, perform the Debussy prelude, "Fireworks." However, she played the Debussy with a stifling, methodical approach, clearly showing she was frustrated with her performance. When asked how she felt, she replied, "I have trouble remembering all the right notes and feel I don't have enough physical strength to play this piece. I was worrying about playing poorly in front of all these people and things just got totally out of control! She had been going for the chords more concerned that she played the right notes, and her fireworks came off as a big dud.

We decided to improvise our own version of the prelude, something Ellen had never done either by herself or in public. She played the rumbling figure representing the muse, and then at the most unpredictable times would explode with loud chords while shouting "BANG!"

After realizing this version wasn't anything like fireworks, she gradually lost her identity and became transformed into a mischievous kid with a secret up her sleeve. Her hair had come slightly disarranged. Her posture tightened like a snake ready to strike, She let go of worrying about hitting the right chords and became unpredictably explosive. Her improvised performance was electrifying!

Returning to Debussy's rhythm and notes, Ellen played with a new sense of letting go to the true meaning of the fireworks in the music. She acknowledged that the Debussy really needed to be played "out of control" in order to be authentic.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
of Preconceptions

Also in Brisbane, Jack was playing a Haydn cello concerto and was disturbed by playing on stage in a large hall when he was used to the comfortable sound of a small practice room. The piano accompaniment sounded so different that, he could not concentrate on the music. His scale passages were out of tune, and his rhythm suffered. He felt the balances were all wrong, especially different from the way he had practiced.

Jack agreed to explore playing without any preconceived balances. His accompanist was instructed to change the volume, tempo and style every two measures. Jack was only to play his part and follow the lead of the accompanist.

The first two measures began as rehearsed, then the piano took off faster and Jack had to follow. The B theme was half tempo and very romantic. Then the volume increased and the tempo quickened. Jack was getting so good at responding to the changes, he seemed like a champion bull rider who could not be thrown. His performance was sensational!

We all learned that letting go to that unpredictable balance and tempo change was by far more effective than having everything the way it was planned in the practice room. Jack returned to a more traditional framework of interpretation and played with a new sense of spontaneity and aliveness that delighted everyone.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
of Critical Corrections

Jesus Lopez-Cobos, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, brings a new sense of excitement and musicality to the stage that captures the attention of musicians and audiences alike. His unique instructions to his players seem to inspire a new quality of ensemble precision, pitch awareness and cooperation from his musicians.

He seldom tells the musicians that something is right or wrong. He frequently asks musicians with a polite Spanish accent to "take attention" to the phrase, ensemble, pitch, balance or rhythm. The natural response to this "I take attention" cue is to listen or notice something and then voluntarily do something about it.

In a way, Lopez-Cobos is not criticizing, judging or controlling his players, but instead is just asking them to pay attention to what is going on and to make their own adjustments. The difference brought about by this kind of relationship has created a dramatic shift in the participation of the entire ensemble: judgments tend to block awareness of what is really going on in the music. Attention cures the problems.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
of Mistakes

When practicing, our neurological system and brain function much like a computer that stores information and brings it back when it is signaled. It doesn't make sense to program a computer with 90-percent bad information. Is practicing really programming mistakes?

Let me describe how I used to practice. For months, I would hammer away at a piece on my double bass hoping the week before the performance I would play the way I like. But in the months of practice, I had been playing out of tune, correcting bowings, struggling with string crossings, following fingerings, forgetting dynamics and neglecting the expression until I got everything in place just days before the performance. Then I prayed a lot for a miracle and hoped to only draw on my last three days of practice under the most stressful conditions of the concert. There is another way.

If one expects the body to remember everything it has ever experienced, then why not play only what you want to repeat during a performance? At a slower tempo, almost anything is possible. One doesn't have to practice wrong notes, and yet, one can still maintain the dynamics and character. It is also possible to learn notes and work out fingerings away from the instrument.

If you spend 90-percent of the time playing what you want to retain, then you can expect to be at your best 90-percent of the time on stage. Respect your body, brain and muscle memory like a precious white silk sheet that you don't want to get dirty.

Gaining Control by Letting Go
of Your Inner Game Techniques

At a workshop in Los Angeles, I heard a lovely harpist who was very dedicated to the Inner Game of Music. After having read the book several times, she was eager to play using her new Inner Game techniques. However, her techniques backfired. Trying to use the right techniques became a new distraction disconnecting her from the music.

If we learn music in an ideal state of concentration, without practicing mistakes, we can have it all. Inner Game techniques will work if used to connect you to the music I but not to success. Enjoy the beauty and exhilaration of losing yourself, your ego, and dissolve into the true essence of the music.

Yehudi Menuhin gave me the most meaningful lesson I have ever learned about control. He said, "Our best control is when we are least aware of it." This subtle, less conscious control out-maneuvers and out-performs the best of instructions. Why not let go to it and enjoy being free?

Techniques of Trust
"When I play the fast movement of Bach's Sonata in E minor, I have problems and lose my confidence. I think about it being difficult because it has too many notes and I know I will stumble and make mistakes. As a result, when I get to a tricky passage, I either slow it down or mess it up. My teacher has told me to trust myself because I know the notes. What else can I do?"
Under the most difficult conditions, what works best is often the least likely choice.

An example of this is learning to ride a bicycle. Do you remember the feeling of traveling fast over a smooth surface and then suddenly hitting rough, bumpy gravel? As in the Bach sonata, the natural instinct is to slow down, be careful, defend, and protect oneself from getting hurt (or making a mistake). Yet the last thing one thinks of doing is aggressively getting into the hazardous spot and letting go of being defensive.

When riding a bicycle over rough terrain, the best way to control the situation without falling is to relax and let go of fear, which will seemingly lighten the body weight to travel over the rocks. Tension makes us feel heavier and inhibits our ability to respond instinctively.

The essence of the challenge is to trust yourself under fire and know what action to take. Take, for example, a piece of music with a tempo marking of Allegro vivo. Sometimes when a player performs at the correct tempo, it is clumsy, tentative, and stiff.

Instead, a player can perform it with reckless energy and enthusiasm. Does this still capture the spirit of the music, and is the tempo fast enough? Occasionally we can trust the articulations in tricky passages, yet other times we can ignore them and play the passage more comfortably by following natural instincts. By listening carefully, you can decide which sounds best and which articulations to trust.

Sometimes it is better to trust the feeling of calmness or of beauty. Other times the most musical playing comes from being reckless, playful, or vivacious. Trust your fingers to move by themselves without mentally directing them to be too cautious.

Returning to the Bach sonata, practice it in a variety of ways, and be certain that your body knows the notes well enough to play without reading the music. Let go of the need for accuracy so you can trust yourself to play with vitality and energy. Play with reckless abandon, and permit yourself to make mistakes. Play again and concentrate on a feeling of excitement. Another time let your fingers go wild.

Of all these ways to play, decide which comes closest to being the sound you want. Trust the most trustworthy version. But don't return to the cautious, tentative feelings that never sounded right.

Let it Happen

If you have experienced stress, memory slips, shortness of breath, and frustration, you are normal. Welcome to the music profession.

These symptoms come from a state of confusion. Instead of trying to treat the symptoms, the inner game of music strives to manage the problems by achieving an ideal state of relaxed concentration.

Think about your best individual performance. The inner game makes it possible to trace the conditions that lead to those great musical experiences. Pursuing that path of relaxed concentration may lead to natural, spontaneous music making.
"I know I play much better than my competition, and in rehearsals and concerts I play well. But every time I play an audition for seating within the orchestra, I see the judges in front of me and lose my concentration. All I can think of is, 'How can I get my fingers to stop shaking?' My tone is nervous; I make stupid mistakes I never made before and know I will not make first chair. What can I do to play the way I know I am capable of playing and skip the horrors of auditions?"
The problem is that you are playing an audition and not playing the music. Your best auditions are not auditions. Consider what you are thinking when you play in rehearsal. When playing in the band, you probably try to play in tune, blend with your colleagues, and enjoy the music.

If your function is different when playing your audition - if your purpose is now to win the first chair, you have changed your attitude and purpose in playing. No longer are you trying to blend, play with your section, and enjoy the music, but you are trying to do all that as well as win the chair, stop the shaking hands, avoid mistakes, and impress your teachers. Taking on all these outer games makes your task twice as difficult as the music demands.

As a means of silencing the voice in your head, instead of listening to these concerns, doubts, and fears, replace those with the sound of your instrument. Every time you hear your inner voice talking, listen to your tone. This uses the inner-game concentration skill of awareness (of sound) to silence the distracting voice.

Stop Trying to be a Good Musician

"When I practice difficult passages at a fast tempo, my fingers become tense. Rehearsing the same piece with an ensemble, I panic when I see the same spot and tense up even further. By contrast, every time I bring the passage to my lesson and ask for help, the problem is not so bad. Why can I play it in my lesson but tense up when the pressure is on?"

Trying too hard to accomplish anything usually creates the opposite result, because trying produces tension. It also reduces the player's senses of sight, hearing, and feeling.

When you wanted to show your teacher the problematic passage, you didn't make mistakes. The game changed from trying to make the problem go away to making the teacher aware of what you wanted to change. During a lesson you feel more safe to have a problem because someone will help you deal with it. When you stop trying to play accurately so you can demonstrate a problem to your teacher, you move into an awareness state.

When we increase our awareness of what is happening, we are no longer trying to control it or make it go away. The result is correction of the problem itself, which is the key. Your challenge is to monitor what is happening without judging it as good or bad.

Permission to Fail

"I have been successful in small competitions. But when I audition for All-State or large summer music festivals I do not play my best. Auditioning for a prestigious music school will be impossible. How can I block out this pressure and succeed?"

One way to deal with this is to neutralize your need to succeed. Do this by giving yourself permission to fail. Do not focus on the result of your performance, rather, concentrate on playing the music. This is the purpose of performing in the first place. Don't add the pressure of winning to the primary function of making music.

Know your stuff, then relax and enjoy just doing it.

[source unknown]
(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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