Sunday, January 12, 2020

Hilary Hahn on daydreaming as a mode of practicing music, of priming yourself to go with the flow in performance

Some time in the last week I discovered TwoSet Violin, a YouTube channel for two Australian violinists, Brett Yang and Eddy Chen. They are classically trained and are perhaps the most interesting musical comedians since Victor Borge – though admittedly, musical comedy, in the sense of comedy acts organized around musical performance, is a scarcely populated genre. They’ve done a number of videos with Hilary Hahn, the classical violinist, who has also performed with them in some live concerts.

The following video is an hour and a half of conversation between the three of them. It starts off with chit-chat about being a performer, the logistics of touring, this that and the other, and then hits pay dirt when Hilary talks about daydreaming when she practices.

Of course, I know about daydreaming. And I know about daydreaming while practicing, too (I’m a semi-virtuoso jazz trumpeter). But daydreaming is something that’s been extensively studied, in one way or another, by contemporary neuroscience, and is associated with a complex of neuro-functional areas known as the default mode network (which I’ve blogged about). So I’ve transcribed some of that conversation below.

Starting at roughly 55:54:
Hilary: I daydream a lot when I practice. I don’t practice full volume all the time. I don’t practice like I’m performing. I’m daydreaming about the music. I’m playing it but I’m thinking what could I do? Can I do more of this here, or could I do more of that there? I just kind of leave my mind blank to see if something suddenly occurs to me that I wanna’ then practice, expound up on in the practice session. [...]

I don’t do visualizations, I guess. I don’t know. I’ll be practicing and I’ll think...Well, I kind of want to...

Brett: You talk about tinkering with practice.

Hilary: Yeah.

Brett: How does that work? Because it’s – I mean –

Eddy: I think a lot of people watching this would love

Eddy & Brett: to know how to

Eddy: Even help their own practice improve in efficiency, right?

Brett: What goes on in the mind of Hilary Hahn?
There’s a bit of chat back and forth in which they agree that Hilary will give a demonstration a bit later (at 1:22:22). She makes it clear she’s not talking about “spacing out,” that she’s “not giving them permission to not focus” (Eddie’s words).
Hilary: I’m not daydreaming about other things. I’m daydreaming about what the music could be.
Brett and Eddie with questions:
Do you hear it? Do you see like characters playing a story? Do you see yourself doing it? Do you see colors? Do you feel something? Smell? Taste?

Hilary: Let’s see. So, I’m trying to think of a parallel in another topic because it’s really hard to describe. It’s like if you just have a blank piece of paper and you have a pen and you draw a line. What else can you do with that line? Are you going to draw another line off of that line? Are you then gonna do like a circle? It’s kind of doodling? It’s mental doodling, with phrasing, with tempo, with everything.

I kind of start with a blank slate. I reverse the assumptions that I have. I just neutralize everything and then I’m...Kind of letting my mind wander. I’m thinking about what is going on with the orchestra. [Remember: she’s talking about personal practice here, not rehearsal much less actual performance.] Waiting for something to occur to me. I think people don’t ever think that happens in practice.

For a lot of people, I think practice is about being more accurate, improving your playing, being more expressive, being more this or that. But for me, yes, there’s that, but... Those are the tools to get to the point where you can let your mind wander and get ideas. Or it’s like having a bunch of Legos. What are you going to build with those Legos? You put one Lego on top of another and it kind of looks like a house. But then you realize, oh, I have these other Legos. Am I gonna build more in this house? Or am I gonna go off in that direction?

I’ll think about basic things like do I want a crescendo when it goes up or a decrescendo when it goes up? I’m always trying to trigger in mind into new phrasing ideas, so I don’t get stuck and so that when I’m working with other people, I don’t have a lot of rehearsal time and I need to present a unified concert. So, when I’m working with other people, how can I play it in a way that’s authentic to me, but really coincides with what they’re doing and brings out a better version of the music than we could arrive at ourselves separately.
Just a few seconds later after a question from Brett she’s switched from questions of aesthetic interpretation to matters of bottom-level physical technique. That is to say, these may seem to be very different worlds – the highest levels of almost “spiritual” artistry and the brute business of how to hold and manipulate your instrument – but to the skilled performer, one is but the obverse of the other:
I change my technique all the time too. I tinker with the angle of my thumb, the angle of my hand and I notice something’s getting explicably tired. So I’m playing and thinking, why is that – why is that tired? [...] Why is this...Is it how I’m...It’s like ... What is it? I’m just asking questions. [...] Why is this happening? Where is this going? What’s that about?
Eddy goes on to remark that after he left university things got better because he began to question the traditional way he was taught. And then he began to “play around with it.” But, “how much do you think one should balance between just self-experimentation and that creativity versus have a strong kind of teacher or a guide?”

And at this point (1:01:59) I’m going to leave off transcribing. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to listen to the rest.
Hilary (1:02:23): “I know it’s good when I get goosebumps. [...] Or you feel like the audience was just 100% silent for a second and that second felt like forever. It’s just wow something magical just happened.”
Let that be the last word. But, I assure you, there’s some really interesting chat about actual performance from all three of them. Audience interaction makes all the difference in the world.

* * * * *

On magical moments in music, see this working paper for a collection of anecdotes: Emotion & Magic in Musical Performance. When Miles Davis brought the audience to 100% silence. Finally, note the remarks about riding a roller coaster and music at about  1:07:09. I've got a post on that.

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