Musical Technique As Bias Busting

Time and time again I find that technical challenges in music amount to the same basic problem: how to achieve independence between coupled parameters so that you can control one parameter without interference from the other.  For example, one “parameter” might be pitch, and another might be volume.  The question is: can you sing higher without getting louder?  Of course, there may be times when you want to do a crescendo on an ascending run, but what if a diminuendo on that rising line would sound better – can you sing high and soft at the same time?  The challenge is to break the coupling or correlation between higher pitch and higher volume so that you can explore different relationships between those attributes, all in search of the best expressive choice.

Such musical challenges remind me of the more general issue of prejudice and how to overcome it.  Without delving too deep into the psychology of prejudice, I think it’s fair to say that prejudice often involves a belief and a behavior that are mutually reinforcing.   For example, let’s say you’re a generally shy person and you think parties are annoying.  You have a prejudicial belief about parties (that they’re annoying because they’re always filled with loud people who gossip about trivialities) which supports a prejudicial behavior (you avoid parties and try to leave early whenever you’re forced to go to a party) which reinforces the belief (you never have the opportunity to enjoy a party so it’s easy to continue thinking they’re all bad).  In many cases the belief has some merit (many parties are annoying for the very reasons you’ve identified) and the behavior has some merit too (avoiding parties shields you from discomfort).  However, the belief is incomplete (some parties are actually filled with people you’d enjoy meeting) and the behavior has significant disadvantages (avoiding parties means you miss all the good ones).

An example of prejudice in music might be that you think high notes are hard to sing.  You believe they’re hard because you’ve often experienced tension and vocal cracking when you reach into your upper register.  And so you behave anxiously when it comes time to hit a high note, either shying away from it and under-supporting the note or else applying too much breath pressure and punching the note – in either case, the unpleasant outcome reinforces your belief that high notes are difficult.  Indeed there’s some merit to the belief (high notes do require a more coordinated technique than those in the comfortable middle of your range) and there’s some merit in the behavior too (you’re right to avoid a note that you really can’t sing, and when you do sing a high note you’re right to support it with strong breath).  But the belief is incomplete (high notes can in fact be easy when executed with a relaxed but precise technique) and the behavior is limiting (avoiding high notes prevents you from learning to sing them, whereas exaggerating them prevents you from singing them beautifully).  Your challenge as a musician is to break your prejudice about high notes – a system of mutually reinforcing beliefs and behaviors – that you may have developed through years of experience in handling this parameter in a certain way.

In some musical scenarios, the prejudice that impedes you may be of more psychological kind, where beliefs and assumptions play a strong role, as in the example we’ve just seen of a singer who’s anxious about high notes.  In other cases, the prejudice is less rooted in higher-order psychology and more in physicality – in your tendencies and habits regarding how you use body.  For example, in playing any instrument that requires two hands (like piano or guitar) you need to learn to control your hands separately –  to make each hand perform a complex motion that is coordinated with the other hand’s motion but still completely different from it.  One hand should not prejudice the other.   But even if there are no beliefs or fears in the way — even if you don’t hold the preconception that your left and right hands should always act similarly — you might still discover that you have a physical inclination to move your hands in dependent way, so that when one is playing loud or exerting a lot of pressure, the other hand tends to follow suit.  “Habit” or “predisposition” might be a better description of what you face here than “prejudice,” but the challenge to overcome is similar.  Can you make one hand play loud and the other play soft, and then have them switch dynamics?  Can you make one hand play a triplet rhythm while the other plays in duples?

If you want a systematic way to get good at playing a piece, try listing the most significant parameters in its performance, and then come up with small exercises or experiments in controlling those parameters independently.  Ask which of your own biases make the piece difficult to perform — which biases inhibit independence?  Consider whether those biases are rooted mainly in belief, or mainly in your physicality, or perhaps in both – and find ways to disrupt them.  Break unnecessary couplings!

Can you play more smoothly without getting slower?

Can you sing more softly and tenderly without getting breathy, or louder without getting shrill?

Can you keep a strict rhythm in one hand while playing a loose rhythm in the other?

Can you play guitar louder with the right hand without exerting more pressure on the fretboard with the left hand?

Can you sing passionately without gesturing with your hands?

Can you sing higher without looking upward?

Can you play one note very loud without also playing the next note loud?

Can you switch from playing one guitar string to another without a change in tone?

Can you compose two melodic lines that sound good when played simultaneously even as they maintain distinct personalities?

Please share your own examples.

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