Performing a piece of music is a challenge in temporal awareness, in the sense that you have be conscious of the past (what you’ve just played), the present (what you’re playing now), and the future (what you’re going to play next). You want to be aware of the past so you can respond to it and build upon it. You want to be aware of the present so that you can stay connected to what you’re actually playing. And you want to be aware of the future so that you can hint at what’s coming next and be ready when it arrives. How can you do all these things at once?
In years of studying music, I’ve learned some lessons about interpretation and practice, but I’ve not yet come across a teacher who offered a full system for the mental discipline of performance, a system that answers the question: “What should I think about when I play?” Perhaps I’ll meet that teacher someday, but in advance of that, I wanted to share an exercise that’s been helping me. This exercise focuses specifically on the skill of “future awareness” or anticipation. Perhaps there are other exercises that could build the complementary skills of “present awareness” and “past awareness” but I won’t try to address those here.
Before mentioning the exercise, I wanted to talk about one phrasing pitfall that comes up for me sometimes, particularly when I’m singing. My voice teacher occasionally remarks that I’m “sitting on” or “holding onto” the ends of phrases for too long, as opposed to “getting off” the end of the phrase: letting it go and moving easily to the next phrase. I think there are two reasons why this happens. The first is that I don’t feel fully satisfied with my execution of the current phrase, so when the end comes around, I’m thinking about how much better it could have been and I’m hoping I can squeeze a little more juice out of it. The second is that I’m not mentally prepared for the next phrase, so I’m trying to buy a little extra time to get ready. Of course there’s a third reason that I shouldn’t leave out, which is that sometimes it can be quite beautiful to linger on the end of a phrase, but only sometimes.
Now here’s the exercise. Play or sing a piece you know well. As you play one phrase, try to hear as much of the next phrase (or next few phrases) in your mind as you possibly can. At any given moment, forget about what you’re playing right now and dedicate all your available attention to imagining what comes next. You’ll need to be really comfortable with the piece so that you can execute each phrase automatically while your attention is focused entirely on the future material.
To make the exercise a bit more manageable and systematic, you can experiment with the idea of targets. As you play one phrase, scan ahead in your mind through the rest of the current phrase and into the next one: pick an important upcoming moment (a specific note of interest, a salient word in the lyrics, etc.) and choose it as a target. Now keep thinking of this chosen target until it arrives, until you’re actually playing it. When the target does arrive, scan ahead again and choose another target. Repeat.
Here some of the interesting things that have happened for me while practicing this:
- There’s less of a desire to linger on the end of a phrase because I feel more prepared for what’s coming next. Once I’ve imagined the upcoming phrase, I’m eager to get to it.
- When singing, my breaths feel more natural and automatic and I don’t have to remind myself to breathe as often. Proactively imagining what I am going to say or sing activates my instinct to breathe right before it’s time to let that thing out, whereas if I arrive at the phrase end and only then start thinking about what comes next, there can be a little bit of panic (a sense of feeling rushed while I figure out what to do) that causes me to hold my breath.
- There’s a sense of flow that comes about where it feels that the music is actually streaming from my mind into the world, because I keep having the experience of imagining a phrase, then hearing it “come out” few moments later, imagining another phrase, then hearing it come out few moments later, and so on.
- When I make a performance mistake, it feels a little bit less crushing, because I’ve already “performed” a beautiful and correct version of the phrase in my mind. In other words, I have a sense of there being two performances, the mental one that comes first and the physical one that comes later. When the physical performance falls short in some way, I have the option of remembering that initial, beautiful performance in my imagination. It can then serve as the “past” that I respond to.
- The problem of mind-wandering or daydreaming while playing is greatly reduced, because if I’m always imagining the upcoming phrase, I simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to daydream at the same time.
- The act of not thinking about or worrying about what I’m playing at a given moment sometimes makes it come out better, particularly if I’ve practiced it many times before and can rely on that practice to “make it good” as opposed to trying to will it to be good while I’m executing it.
So that’s the exercise. How should it be applied? Should you turn this into a performance habit, anticipating the upcoming phrase all the time, or should you do it only occasionally, in combination with other modes of awareness, keeping your focus mostly on the present phrase? I’m not ready to make a definitive statement one way or another, but I’d make a few observations. You probably do use this anticipation technique already, without noticing it. Practicing the exercise can help you access the technique more deliberately and consciously. It can also reveal those places in your repertoire where you’re neglecting to anticipate and where you’d benefit greatly from doing so.