PRACTICE: The 7 Dwarfs
Here at MUN, and at music schools all over North America, we are ramping up to jury and recital season. It’s an exciting time of the academic year and also a time when many musicians get stuck in that awkward place where their repertoire is pretty much learned, but not quite at the level they want it to be, whether technically, musically, or both. In this place, the intended result seems so close and at the same time inordinately difficult to reach. Maybe we can image imagine what we want but can’t quite get it to come out. Or, we know what we’re doing isn’t exactly what we intend, but we struggle to find clarity in our interpretation. It is easy to fill this gap with a lot of grinding of gears and spinning of wheels in an effort to just get. it. right. It seems like if we just play it enough times, it should get better, right? Well, sometimes repetition does the trick. But there is often a cost that is paid in frustration, wasted time, and physical tension and we inadvertently cultivate the opposite of the kind of freedom and authenticity we ultimately want on stage.
This is the time — the time when it seems like we should be moving closer to our end goal — when I think it can actually be helpful to do the opposite, to loosen up on our interpretation or our search for more clarity and to approach the process with more curiosity and playfulness.
Here is my favourite exercise for reducing self-consciousness and musical rigidity and freeing up technique in order to explore a broader range of musical possibilities. I call it The 7 Dwarfs.
the 7 dwarfs
For this exercise, it is helpful to choose a passage from one of your pieces or excerpts over which you have reasonable technical control but whose musical character you are struggling to either uncover or portray. You want it to be fairly short — maybe around 1 minute, but you can play around and see what works for you.
Here is where the dwarves come in. Remember the 7 Dwarfs: Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy, and Bashful? Take your passage and assign it a dwarf name and character. You can use the actual 7 Dwarfs to get started, but it is fun to make up your own names. Here are some that have come up in my classes and workshops:
When you perform the passage, aim for the right notes and the basic rhythmic outline, but feel free to change articulations, dynamics, style markings, etc. in order to convey your character. See if you can let go of ideas about how the passage is “supposed” to go and just explore how it sounds and feels with this new character. Most people kind of phone it in for the first few and then start getting into it, so do a bunch of characters in a row and try to get into each one a little bit more. Once you feel as though you have kind of let go some of the rigidity or effort that had been plaguing you, think about what dwarf name you might assign to your passage for real and then play it, ideally with the same spirit of curiosity and fun you brought to the other characters. Notice what you notice. Move on to something else.
This is especially fun to do in a group setting (e.g. a masterclass) where audience members get to call out dwarf names for the performer to try. Once the performer is comfortable, you can reverse it and have the performer play a certain character and the audience guess what it is. But, it is also effective to do on your own, especially if you get really nervous in front of others.
In addition to the benefits noted above, I have received the following feedback about this exercise over the years:
It’s fun and playful!
Exploring a wide variety of “inappropriate” music styles helps to clarify the desired style.
Expanding the musical parameters helps dial down physical tension.
Did I mention fun and playfulness? I did? Well, it bears mentioning again. Generally, I think classical musicians would benefit enormously from injecting a daily dose of playfulness into their practice. Not only does purposeful goofing off feel good, but it can speed learning as well. Check out this blog post by writer and movement educator Todd Hargrove for more on this.
This is the sort of practice activity I personally like to do right up to the day of a performance. I like feeling as though new expressive dimensions may reveal themselves at any moment, including the moment of performance. Also, being able to play a passage in many different ways gives me confidence that I can navigate the unexpected on stage. One time, I was playing a concerto and the conductor started the slow movement quite a bit slower than we had rehearsed it. Suddenly, I couldn’t make it to all my carefully planned breaths. But, instead of panicking (much) I was able to let go of my expectations and plans and embrace the musical opportunities presented by this unfamiliar tempo.
a note about the name
Could you just call this exercise something like “The Adjective Game”? Or not call it anything? Sure. But despite my better judgement, I seem to favour making up cutesie names for things. Plus:
In third grade, I played Snow White in my school’s production of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, so the dwarves hold a special place in my heart.
Thinking of, say, Sneezy (whom my younger brother played in the aforementioned production) as a character rather than just an adjective is a bit ridiculous but (therefore?) tends to get the expressive juices flowing a little more freely.
Anyway, if you are your students are in that wilderness between Kinda Learned and Technically Assured and Powerfully Communicative, give this a try. At the very least, it will shake up the routine. And who knows, you might even discover something about the music you never noticed!
I love Ellen J. Langer’s work on mindfulness. She writes a lot about the importance of being continually open to new possibilities. I am particularly a fan of her books The Power of Mindful Learning (Da Capo, 1997) and On Becoming An Artist (Ballantine Books, 2006).
From a motor learning, standpoint, I think Todd Hargrove’s work is great and very accessible. I linked one of his blogs above. No, it is not heavily referenced, but I trust his understanding of the available literature and his experience as a clinician and educator. You can find the rest of this blog and info about his forthcoming book (which will be heavily reference, if that’s your jam) about the importance of play here.