This post builds upon last week’s post, so to get the most out of it, please read last week’s first.

One of the most common questions many musicians (even long-time ones) have is, “Why am I not progressing beyond a certain plateau and why doesn’t playing come more naturally?”

In many cases, the answer is that after learning a tune and practicing it (a lot) to get all the notes and the technique right –  which requires left-brain effort  –  it’s time switch over to allow the fingers to do what they know how to do by muscle memory while you concentrate on feeling and expressing the music. It’s nearly impossible to be expressive or lyrical when you’re thinking too much about the technical aspects of the piece. Too many musicians don’t trust our fingers and our subconscious, when in fact those are our best tools for smooth and natural playing.

While you’re learning new music, the neurologic system continually “files” the information in your subconscious (and this continues even between practice times). This allows later accessing of the skills merely by “hearing” the music in your head. If you’ve practiced well, the fingers can just play what you “hear” without your consciously telling them where to go. (I can hear the groans of protest… “Not ME. I can’t do that.” If you can’t, it’s because you’ve never learned how, not because there’s some shortcoming in your genes.)

Your hands will know what to do because a direct connection develops between the muscles and the subsconscious mind, bypassing the conscious mind. At this point, thinking too much about the logistics of playing it (“Now I put this finger here…” or “next is a G note”) can actually sabotage the process. It’s like tying your shoes: when you were a little kid you had to concentrate really hard on learning that skill, but soon you could do it on autopilot. Now if you tried to think about how you tie your shoes (“This end goes over that end and through this loop…”) you can’t do it as quickly as you can when you just turn your fingers loose to do it. Relying on muscle memory is far more efficient than trying to think it through when you already know it.

For those who must read the music while playing, seeing the notes substitutes for hearing the piece in your head, but after a certain amount of practice the fingers should learn to play what you see on the page without your consciously directing them there. Some musicians can also think about expression when they’re reading the music. But unless a piece is exceptionally long or is part of an orchestral arrangement, continuing to read the music after you’ve learned the piece usually just gets in the way of being able to play it expressively, because constantly looking at the page interrupts the direct communication between you and your instrument. I never consider a piece “learned” until I can play it from memory. (More on memorizing in a future blog…)

By the way, the subconscious and the right brain are not one in the same. The subconscious allows muscle memory to take over in playing your tunes, while the right brain is where expression arises. Therefore, you can purposely play expressively while also playing from muscle memory, because it’s possible to engage the right brain and the subconscious at the same time.

If you’re not sure you can allow your subconscious to work for you musically, start in little sections. For instance, you can start with the most difficult parts of a piece: when you know there’s a difficult passage coming up, just take a deep breath as you play, and let the breath out slowly. By the time you’ve done that, the passage has been played without your thinking about it (because you were thinking instead about your breath) and your hands simply did what they knew how to do. Once you’ve experienced this several times, you can turn the rest of the piece over to muscle memory as well.

In some musical circles, accuracy is considered more important than expression, such as in orchestral or ensemble playing where you’re part of a group that expresses as a whole instead of as individuals. But in solo playing, expression is essential. (Of course, don’t use this idea to justify sloppy playing; if a tune is a mess there’s nothing to express!) It’s important to be so well practiced that mistakes are unlikely, so your concentration can be given to expression instead of technicality. But an occasional floop doesn’t detract that much from the music if it’s being played beautifully, and interestingly, those who in performance think about expression tend to play more accurately because they are not sabotaging muscle memory with unnecessary technical thought. Though I personally strive for perfection, I will not sacrifice expression for it. And when I’m listening to other musicians I’d much rather hear a beautiful performance than a lifeless one that happens to be accurately rendered.

In the days when people played live music to pass the time, they exposed the whole family and/or neighborhood to it constantly. So, getting back to the idea of “hearing the tune” in your head, this is something you can do if you’ve heard it enough times outside your head. This means listening to it often, live or on a recording. If you can find good  recordings of all the pieces you’re learning, and play them in the background as you go about your day, your progress will be much faster. You don’t have to actively listen, just expose yourself to it over and over and over as you do other tasks such as housework, desk work, social networking, cooking, driving, working out, walking the dog, etc.

If you aren’t exposing yourself to a good recording or other aural source of a tune you’re learning,  you may come to “hear” the tune they way you’ve been playing it while it’s new to you: imperfectly, with all its hesitations and such. When you hear it that way in your head, it can actually prevent you from ever playing it better. It’s not that you don’t have the ability to play it better; it’s that your goal-image isn’t the best version of what you can potentially do. The best way to become a better musician is to imagine yourself playing the music the way you ultimately want it to be heard. That provides a goal, and it also makes use of the fact that what you feed your mind is what it believes.

One caveat, however: when what you hear in your head is the tune as you want it to sound, it should enhance your playing, but don’t let your imagination deafen you to what you’re actually playing. Too often we think that somehow, magically, our listeners will hear the music we’re imagining even when it’s not coming out on our instrument. This problem is characterized by flubbed notes or skipped notes that you may not realize weren’t properly executed; you heard them in your head but you weren’t listening to see if they actually happened. Be truthful in hearing yourself, and practice with focus until it matches your goal!

That doesn’t mean you have to play perfectly for yourself all the time. That would be impossible, and trying to do so would cause paralyzing stress. No piece is played well the first few times, or maybe even the first hundred times. Let the learning process happen; there is no shortcut. Trying to make it musical too soon can sabotage the process eventually perfecting it. Don’t try to make a new piece sound “like real music” by trying to play it up to tempo, or trying to play through the entire piece at once instead of learning it in sections. And there’s no need to be frustrated when there are hard spots or mistakes. It takes time; enjoy the process!