A teacher recently asked on one of those wonderful internet music teaching forums how to get her middle school and younger students not to rush in recitals. I saw lots of interesting and inventive answers about metronomes, playing with the cd, etc., but reading those answers, I realized that my younger students don’t rush when playing in public, even after they make some pretty egregious mistakes. I then polled many of my recitals’ spectators one by one to see if they noticed anyone rushing. Nope. Want to know my secret?
Here it is, but first I have a confession to make.
I don’t use a metronome on my students.
I can hear the collective gasp all over the English-speaking music world. But I really don’t. And here’s why.
First of all, time doesn’t really exist – it’s a perception. Haven’t you noticed that when you’re having fun, time flies? Conversely, ask any woman who has been through natural childbirth how long the minute (only a minute!) that a labor contraction actually lasts seems to last. Have you also noticed that an accompanist trying to hold back a rushing student usually doesn’t succeed and winds up running after him? So all the metronomes in the world aren’t going to help if, once they’re turned off, the student’s perception of time is skewed. So why is this? What messes with a student’s sense of time?
BODY MEMORY (it may not be remembering what you want it to):
A well known violinist, who I won’t name as I haven’t asked his permission, once told me that he had decided to learn the Barber 3rd movement (presto in moto perpetuo), listened to recordings, put them away and started practicing. But no matter how much he practiced, he couldn’t get it up to tempo. He then listened again to the recordings and discovered that he was playing much faster than those recordings. His conclusion was that the body has a memory and plays up to it’s habitual level of discomfort. Students usually start rushing when they get to the difficult parts, even when they are no longer difficult, as body memory takes over – it isn’t happy until it’s miserable sort of thing. So make students aware of this phenomenon, remind them that the once tricky parts are no longer difficult and not to let their bodies dictate tempo. Remembering to breathe through it helps, too.
THEY STOP THINKING ABOUT WHAT THEY”RE DOING AND START THINKING ABOUT THEMSELVES:
“Uh-oh, I made a big mistake (memory lapse, wrong note, whatever they find upsetting).” And things go in a downward spiral from there. They get flustered, convinced that the whole world heard that mistake, it’ll be on the front page of the NY Times, and so on. What has happened here is that they have forgotten two cardinal rules of playing music in public:
- Think about what you’re doing, what you’re going to do without ever (and this is the hard part) thinking about what you have just done. I liken it to driving down the street while looking back to see where you have just been. “What’s going to happen?” I ask my students. “Disaster,” they answer. Upon getting flustered, adrenalin flows and they want to get the whole thing over with as fast as they can. Ah, the poor accompanist. (I pay mine very well, just in case.)
- Think about the music, not yourself. Allowing yourself to lose control means you let that monkey in your head take over and you are only thinking of yourself instead of the music. And that is really a very serious thing, indeed. To transmit your anxiety, your thoughts, your fears is not why we play music for others.
THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY REALLY WANT TO ACHIEVE
If they don’t know what they want, how are they going to get it? Sometimes, students don’t have clear ideas what they want to do with a piece. Just hearing it a million times isn’t enough. Playing by rote is not interpreting the music. And you can ask even rank beginners to interpret, have their own ideas and be aware of rhythm and pacing, among other things.
THEY RUSH WHEN THEY PRACTICE
They need to be reminded that how they practice is how they’re going to play and to always remember that they’re playing for the universe, not themselves. Music is something you do every time you play a note, even a scale, and deserves respect. A metronome doesn’t teach you this.
THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY ARE REALLY DOING WHEN THEY ARE PERFORMING.
And this is really the crux of the problem, in my experience. And this is how I get them not to rush: I talk to my students. I don’t know why there’s a theory out there that we should talk to our students as little as possible. Is it better to inflict a metronome on them at a young age instead of explaining what we’re really doing when performing?
What is it that a performer does on the stage? Transmits the music, of course. But that’s a pretty abstract explanation for a young person.
Instead I ask my young students how much power they have over their lives. Can they vote? Can they sign a contract? Can they work? Can they get a driver’s license? Can they get married? Can they quit school? Of course not. So I explain that this is their moment to be truly in charge; they now have power and can use it as they please. The accompanist has to follow them no matter what and even I have to sit there and be quiet for once (they love this). If they slow down at the end of a phrase to make the audience really want that last note, that’s using their power. Not acknowledging a mistake and playing on as if nothing has happened (realizing that the vast majority of the audience didn’t hear that mistake and really wants to enjoy the performance) and never forgetting the music, that’s showing real power and control. Making the audience wait to hear what they want and, more importantly, when they want the audience to hear it, means they’re in charge.
I explain to them that what they are really doing is taking their listeners on a journey. The point of the journey is the journey itself, not to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, like when they go to school or to soccer practice. They are in the driver’s seat of a great big bus and they decide how slow or fast to go, what colors their passengers are going to see and what emotions their passengers are going to feel. When they rush, they are thinking about themselves instead of the music, they are transmitting themselves and their anxiety instead of the music. And their job, above all, is to do what is good for the music without worrying about themselves.
You hear people bandy the word “empowerment” all over the place, but if a young person understands that for those three minutes he has some real power, he’s probably going to be careful how he uses it. He is empowered. Doesn’t happen often to children and tweens.
We all know that music is powerful, have certainly felt the power of music and seen its effects on others, but we may never have formally informed our students that whoever plays that music – no matter if old or young, beginner or virtuoso – is even more powerful than what I call the Mount Rush-no-more trio: Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Without us, their music is just black scribbling on a page. We alone have the power to make those scribblings into something that moves the human heart. With power comes the responsibility to do the best we can to do what’s right for the music, and thus for our audience. Make your students aware of their power and I think you’ll find that they will truly rush no more.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer