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A Mindset for Playing

A college bassoonist, James, began his weekly lesson by playing through the opening phrase of a piece as though he'd never seen it before. Wrong notes, wrong articulations, missing dynamics; the performance was generally clumsy and unsure. He had practiced, but somehow it didn't stick. He's a better player than this, so I was surprised. 

We figured out that some passages, even though he knew them and could play them from memory correctly, came out wrong when he tried to play them in context while looking at the music. He mentioned that sometimes when he is learning notes, just looking at the music and fingering without playing, he loses track of which note he is on. 

I thought at first that this might be some kind of visual perception problem, but it didn't appear to be. Then he discovered that if he blew air (not into the instrument) while he fingered and watched the music, he didn't get lost in the notes. Neither of us could understand why, but blowing seemed to help. 

I couldn't figure out why James could play a passage easily at one moment and then have trouble executing it while playing through the piece. Retention problems? More likely it was an access problem. It seemed as though his brain sometimes had trouble accessing what he already knew. 


We tried various approaches to this problem without success, and then we stumbled across a breakthrough. Often James plays very well, so I wondered if one cause of these problems might be a change of mindset. Maybe there was one way of playing in which he lost touch with fingering patterns that he had learned, and another way of playing that was able to draw on those learned patterns. I asked him about the mindset from which he played—how he holds the task of playing the music.

He thought there might be different mindsets, and described two ways of playing. One way involved looking at the notes and playing them one by one. The other way involved "feeling" the music and hearing it before he played it, as though starting a tape in his head. James said that this second way of playing began with opening up to take a deep breath while also “opening up my mind, feeling a greater sense of space, allowing me to feel more comfortable to make music.”

I asked him to play a later section of the piece, something he hadn't yet played that day. We both suspected that he had played his first music of the lesson in the note-by-note way, so I asked him to play a later passage in the second way, the more “open” mindset. He had practiced this passage but had not yet played it for me. He started playing, and he went on to the end of the section without making mistakes. This level of accuracy was a bit unusual for a first play-through at our lessons. I kept expecting a wrong note, a missed accidental, a misread rhythm, or a fingering glitch. None of that happened, and all the dynamic markings were heard, too. Even more striking, his playing was warm and beautifully paced, with clear musical intention. 

Then he played the same passage again, using the first mindset, the note-by-note approach. Immediately the music sounded different. He didn't make any mistakes, and he followed all the instructions; everything was correct. But the phrases didn't flow as organically; the music sounded like notes instead of musical gestures. The difference was subtle but very clear. 

I don’t know if we had found the reason for the clumsiness that started the lesson, but we had certainly found something with exciting musical potential.

I didn't quite trust my perceptions, though. Maybe my hearing was affected by my hopes for the outcome. I asked James to repeat the experiment, to play one time in each way, but not to tell me which mindset he was using. I turned my back so as to listen without any visual information. He played the passage twice. As before, both times he played the material correctly, but the difference between the two performances was clear. One version sounded to me like well-executed notes; the other sounded like music. 

It's not that the well-executed notes were cold or mechanical-sounding. There was no specific shortcoming to identify. It was well done. Yet the overall effect was of somebody following instructions very well. The other mindset produced a performance that was better integrated, more expressive and communicative. It didn't sound like somebody following instructions; it sounded like James’s musical and expressive intentions were clear. Once again: one version was notes; the other version was music. 

I have been fascinated for much of my musical life by this distinction between notes and music. What's the difference, so clear in my experience and so difficult to articulate, between well-played notes and communicative music-making? Classical music, like most art forms in the West, is very complicated, full of details that require multiple tasks to be carried out with great precision. Executing all the instructions is very difficult. And yet executing the instructions well doesn't necessarily produce a musical effect, or at least not the kind of musical effect that I most like. James's experience that day suggests that it matters whether the details of music-making are integrated. It also suggests some territory to explore in the search for ways to help students learn to play musically.

James and I now have new code-words to use at our lessons. We talk about “Way Number One” and “Way Number Two.” Although he sometimes slips into Way Number One without realizing it, James is able to identify which mindset he has been using, and he is able to switch easily between these two ways of playing. Just as he has gradually changed other habits to improve aspects of his playing, I suspect that James will eventually get into the habit of playing in “Way Number Two,” because he enjoys playing more in that mindset, it seems to make playing easier, and it produces results that he likes better.

I am grateful for James Hartford’s help and suggestions as we explored these ways of playing; his skillfulness, flexibility, and curiosity made our experiments possible; his musicianship and discernment made them fruitful. I don’t know what relevance these experiments may have for other players, but I suspect that the experience of playing and the terms used to describe it may be quite different for other players. I welcome others’ experiences and observations about this aspect of learning and playing; contact me at

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