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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Calibrating Tension

Before going further, it’s time to discuss that which defies discussion. That something is tension—the thing itself when trying to improve right hand speed. To be sure, this is very hard to do. Tension is an elusive, amorphous thing whose dimensions exist only in the mind of the one who experiences it. I can’t beam my experience of tension into your mind, nor can you beam your experience into mine. It’s a feeling that lacks a precise vocabulary. Imagine if you had to describe the color red, without being able to point to anything red. To paraphrase a venerable quote, talking about tension is like dancing about architecture.

But we’ve no choice. For those of us who have trouble with right hand speed, improvement is directly linked to how well we can learn to quantify and control tension. Practicing without a clear understanding of tension is aimless practice. It’s like jumping into a car and barreling down the highway without ever asking where we’re trying to go. Understanding tension is the GPS device that gives us a fighting chance for success.

My September 9, 2012 post is a step in that direction. It’s only a start, however, and I’d like to offer a brief illustration of how this might be applied in an actual practice session.

Below is a passage I practiced during the week:

Without a precise understanding of tension, I might merely practice this until I get to my target tempo. (I’m shooting for a performance tempo of 108. I’d like, however, to get to 120 so that 108 isn’t on the edge of my ability.) But with no precise understanding of tension, how would I do that? What, exactly, am I trying to do as I practice? To get faster with reliable accuracy, of course. But that’s the goal—it’s not the means by which to reach the goal. Indeed, it’s essential to understand that a goal isn’t synonymous with the means to reaching the goal.

Imagine, however, that prior to  practicing the above passage, I’ve spent some time familiarizing myself with the four steps described in my September 9 post. Having done this with some care, I now try playing the above passage at a gradually faster tempo. As I do, I encounter a tension spike illustrated here:

Now I have something more specific to work at. First, I can ask myself why tension spikes at this point. Is it a right hand problem, or a left hand problem? For me, it seems unlikely to be a left hand problem. I’ve fingered the spike spot in a way that has no difficult left hand shift. Rather, I notice the tension spike marks the point at which I begin three measures of continuous sixteenth notes. As this passage isn’t technically daunting, I suspect the problem is psychological. Unconsciously I’m nervous about this extended passage of sixteenths—the first extended burst of speed in the piece. Knowing this, I’ve something more concrete to work on. I can begin to directly monitor and control the tension at the exact spot where it begins. There’s nothing nebulous about this. I can monitor my breathing, notice whether I’m clenching my jaw or tightening my shoulders.

Let’s step back for a moment. By no means am I implying that I’m talking about something that no one’s ever heard of. Every good player knows that excessive tension is an impediment to good technique. What I’m arguing is that we need to be far more precise in our understanding of excess tension. It’s not enough to use tension as a buzzword. Rather, we must learn to calibrate it.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “The Right Stuff. ” In it, astronaut trainees are doing a breath control experiment. Blowing into a tube, they must carefully keep a little plastic ball between two marks—if the ball rises above or falls below the marks, they’ve failed. It seems a good analogy for what we’re trying to accomplish in our control of tension. Too little tension, and we lack sound and control. Too much tension, and we lose speed and ease. Good technique is a balance between extremes. If we fail to calibrate tension, then we fail to control it. And, of course, this failure is manifested in our rendering of the music.

As it happens, this is exactly what I worked on over the last week. My goal is to have the first eleven measures of Bach’s Invention 8 on video at a tempo above 100.

——[My next update will be October 1, 2012]——

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