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The First 4 Seconds, or How to Start a Piece

Performing, even if it’s only for one or two people, can be a funny thing.

We may experience all sorts of feelings, such as:

  • Generosity
  • Insecurity
  • Exasperation
  • Pride
  • Confusion
  • Humility
  • Anxiety
  • Excitement

In this article, we’ll explore what you need to be getting across with your music, and how to set yourself up to succeed by nailing the first 4 seconds of the piece.

But first, a bit of esoteric talk about feelings!

What’s the Big Idea?

Every tune you’ll likely play (or, most tunes under 10 minutes or so) have one main, white-hot emotional core.

They may also have the “other side of the coin”, by way of a contrasting middle section. But even that should be cut from the same cloth.

In other words, in short (<10 minutes or so) pieces of music, you don’t need to musically express every emotion in the book. Your communication and presentation will be better if you simply discover the one, main point and make all your musical decisions (dynamics, articulations, rubato, etc.) to support it.

Figure It Out In Practice

Of course, sitting in front of people and playing is not the right time to figure all this out.

In your practice, keep this idea in mind, and be on the lookout for that one, deepest, most complete emotional core.

You may not be able to put words on it, but you may be able to associate images, colors, feelings or memories. Whatever works. More on this later.

Try many different ways of playing your opening passage (and any and all passages in your piece).  You will likely find one that seems to be more “right” than the others.  Or one that you feel more connected with.

As always, exaggerate like crazy in your practice.  You can always tone it down later.  But this is not the time for subtlety.  It’s the time for clear projection of ideas.

The Wrong Way to Start

One of the lamest ways to start a piece is to sit down and just start playing.

We can call it unassuming, laid back, low key, or informal, but in reality, it’s just lame. You can tell yourself whatever you like, but if you start a piece this way in front of people, it’s for one of two reasons:
1. You don’t know any better
2. You’re scared to take a stand and say something with conviction

Now that you’re reading this article, number one is no longer available to you!  (My apologies, if that was working for you!)

That means that you’ll have to muster the energy and courage to make a bold statement. (Scary, I know, but you’ll find some tips below to ease into it.)

Rehearse Your Opening

Instead of just starting casually, take the time in your practice to begin your piece with every ounce of the “one core idea” you can muster.

Just knowing the emotional point is not enough. We have to demonstrate it with clarity, so anyone anywhere immediately knows exactly what is going on (emotionally, if not musically).

To demonstrate the music, we have to play each note intentionally, instead of just going through the motions (like rambling off something by rote that you’ve said a million times before without thinking, like the Lord’s Prayer or the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance). Seriously, every single little note with intention and focus.

Playing music is like a game of show-and-tell.

In this way, playing music is like a game of show-and-tell.  We have to share what is beautiful (or terrible, or tragic, or heartbreaking) with our listener directly and in a way that they understand it.  You can’t expect them to “get it”.  Instead, you have to do everything you can to make sure they can’t miss it.

Be Willing to Show Up

This requires something that may be a hard sell for you (or maybe not). This is the fact that you have to crank up the engagement in your playing. It’s like turning up the contrast, brightness and saturation up on a picture. Bigger than life.

To demonstrate the emotional core of your piece, you have to actively show up, take risks, and put the music ahead of your own personal habits, comfort zones, or preferences.

Be brave! And compassionate. The only way to fail at this is to not engage. With time, you’ll be more comfortable demonstrating emotional ideas. Allow yourself to make mistakes and accept that some mild self-consciousness or discomfort is to be expected.

It isn’t about you when you perform; it’s about the music and the listener.

The point is for your listener to feel something, not for you to feel something.  If you craft your music well, they will get something out of it.  In the process of demonstrating it, you may also get the emotional experience.  But maybe not, and it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t about you when you perform; it’s about the music and the listener.

Important note: This does NOT mean to make funny faces or try to force yourself to feel something. Affected playing is not what we’re after. “Method acting” doesn’t work very well in music. Instead, work out the dynamics, articulations, and basic phrasing so that the music speaks, and then just make sure that you play it that way, with focus and intention, every single time you perform. And above all, listen to every note.

Memorize the First Few Bars

Why not?  If you practice the opening with intention and really work to make it compelling, you will most likely memorize it just through the power of repetition.

But to be extra-sure that you own it, commit the first few seconds of your music to memory intentionally.  You can still have the music in front of you, but you’ll be that much more acquainted with it.

Memorizing the notes allows you the mental bandwidth to focus on expressive ideas, which is what you need in spades at the very opening of your music.

“But I Don’t Know the Emotional Core of My Piece…”

If you don’t know your main point of your piece, just choose something and go with it. Even if you’re completely off base, no one gets hurt.

You can make this easy.  It doesn’t have to be all that complex.
For instance, if the piece is sweet and melodic, your core idea could be:

  •  lighthearted love and warm fuzzies
  • deep compassion and care (which is not as light, and a little more serious.)
  • going on holiday or vacation
  • a 9 year-old girl picking flowers
  • the first date since being widowed
  • or anything else that evokes a specific mood

The main point is that you have something that you can base all your musical choices on, something to keep in mind to conjure the mood and tone of the piece. The more specific you can make it, the more you’ll be able to tie the piece together and make a more cohesive experience for the listener.

Just as an actor will create a backstory for her character, we can create an emotional context for our pieces.

(Quick note: In my experience, sharing this idea or story with listeners usually falls flat. Best to just keep it to yourself and let listeners have their own experiences.)

It’s important to remember that this is just “play”. There are no wrong answers. Just as an actor will create a backstory for her character, we can create an emotional context for our pieces.

Remember:

The point is to make musical decisions about how to play the dynamics (swells and fades), the articulations (accents, slurs, etc.), tone changes, and other musical devices.

The goal is not to try to feel the emotional core yourself in performance (you may, or may not), but to craft your music in practice by referring to this core emotional idea as the basis for all musical decisions.

This way every moment supports the “one big thing”.

Opening With Clarity: How to Start Your Piece

When it’s time to actually play for someone (anyone, anytime: there is no such thing as “casual”), the most important thing you can do is to take a moment and remind yourself of the main emotional core you’re wanting to communicate.

It doesn’t have to take long, but you ideally start from the very first note with all the power and character of the entire piece.

Make the first few seconds into a microcosm of the entire piece.

When you just start playing, and “get into it” a few bars in, you’ve wasted the first impression.

Make the first few seconds into a microcosm of the entire piece. That way, even if someone only heard the first four seconds, they would get the basic gist of the music.

They would be able to experience that one, white-hot emotional core we’ve been speaking about. All from the first impression.

Don’t Apologize for Your Bach

I was feeling sheepish playing with such bravado on a Bach piece a while back, and my musical coach caught on to it. He knew I was pulling punches.

He practically screamed: “Don’t apologize for your Bach!”

Meaning, get out of the way and let the music speak. It’s about the music, not about you. Again, the actor analogy applies.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It’s all well and good to read this, and to know what to do. But it’s another entirely to be in the habit of actually doing it.

There in “know-what” and then there’s “know-how”. Know-what comes from this article. Know-how comes from physically practicing. And then practicing some more.

The way to consistently play compelling music is to do it regularly. This means actively engaging (as we talked about above) in every practice. It means honing your listening and expanding your sense of possibility.

The entire exercise is a process, a development. You’ll get better as you go, and you’ll glimpse new frontiers as you go. This is the real meat of why music is so personally satisfying and so intimately rewarding.

Music can help us to explore attitudes and emotions that are not part of our daily lives or cultures (i.e. Where else can I be the complete unabashed machismo guy in SE Portland, OR, besides in my spanish guitar music? Likewise, I generally don’t make time for sorrow or melancholy in my daily life, but I’ll express it musically by deeply exploring pieces that have that as the emotional core.)

I find this aspect of music, and preparing to share music, one of the richest parts of my life. It isn’t always pretty, or “right”, or “good”, but it is massively interesting at the least.

“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Terence (195 BCE) (“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”)

Have Fun!

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