Finding the Story

I was just out of grad school and still living in Urbana, finishing up my Alexander Technique training. I was playing in the violin section of the Peoria Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma was the featured guest for the symphony’s end-of-season gala. He came in for the dress rehearsal on the same day as the concert. I assumed that he would disappear after the rehearsal like some of the other soloists that had played in Peoria. But he was incredibly generous with his time. After rehearsal he stuck around backstage, shaking hands with the musicians and signing CDs. Before the concert, he hung out backstage, shaking hands with musicians and signing CDs. And after the concert, he hung out backstage, shaking hands with the musicians and signing CDs.

I didn’t have anything for him to sign but I did have a question. A few years before, the New Yorker had published an article by Malcolm Gladwell about “The Physical Genius,” which profiled masters of skill: the neurosurgeon, Charlie Wilson, hockey great Wayne Gretsky and Yo-Yo Ma. One quote in particular had really stuck out at me: “Ma says he spends ninety per cent of his time ‘looking at the score, figuring it out—who's saying this, who wrote this and why,’...and only ten per cent on the instrument itself.” I was a bit flabbergasted by this idea. So I got in line and when I got up to him, I mentioned the article and then said, “Do you really only spend a 10th of your time on your instrument?”

And he got super excited. I don’t have an exact quote, but the gist of what he said is this: You have to figure out what the story is before you go to your instrument. So you study the score. And you try to figure out the story. And once you have an idea, you go to the instrument and try out the story. And then you decide, no, that’s not quite it. And you go back to the score to figure out the story. Then you come back to the instrument and try out the story. But no, that’s not quite it. And then you go back to the score until the story is clear to you. And then you tell that story at your instrument. But you have to find the story to tell the story! If I remember correctly, he may have started waving his arms and gesticulating enthusiastically.

When I was coming up, I was often told by teachers that if I wanted to make it as a musician I had to put in 6 to 8 hours a day on the violin. It never occurred to me that I could get as much accomplished—let alone more—if I dedicated most of those hours to score study and mental practice.

If you have never mentally practiced before, it can be hard to know where to start. Choose a short passage: maybe four measures. Completely imagine what you want it to sound like: dynamics, tone quality, phrasing. Imagine the physical sensations of playing. If you’re a string player, imagine the fingering and bowing patterns, the contact of the bow hair on the string, the bow’s speed and contact point. If you’re not a string player imagine the sensations that come with your instrument or voice. To this long list, add your whole body. Feel your feet against the floor and the delicate balance of your legs. Include your breath, the subtle movements of your torso, and the balance of your head on top of your spine. You don’t have to tell your body to do anything, just expand your awareness to include your whole body. Then play the passage.

When I was coming up, I was often told by teachers that if I wanted to make it as a musician I had to put in 6 to 8 hours a day on the violin. It never occurred to me that I could get as much accomplished—let alone more—if I dedicated most of those hours to score study and mental practice.

One advantage of mental practice is a sense of fluency in your body. The Alexander Technique teacher Walter Carrington once said, “People imagine that their bodies are disobedient and unreliable in carrying out their wishes, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Our bodies get terribly confused because of the conflicting demands that we make of them all the time in our muddled, confused, contradictory wishes.” This is especially true in practicing. When a piece of music is hard, it is hard because a lot of things are going on at once. If you notice your body getting tense or tight, start with your mind. Is your intention clear? Or are you sending muddled, confused, even contradictory directions?

In that old Malcolm Gladwell article, Yo-Yo Ma says that he remembers riding on the bus when he was seven and solving a difficult musical passage by imagining himself playing it on his cello. That’s so precocious that I kind of hate him. But it’s also inspiring. There’s so much that can be accomplished if we just use our brains.