Relaxing for Success

I enjoyed our performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto Saturday night – our soloist, James Tocco, was lovely and musical and refined, and what I really noticed is how calm he seemed. His body was relaxed, and his face was relaxed, and his fingers flew over the keys with an energy that was all the more impressive coming from such a comfortably poised figure. I certainly don’t mean to imply that he was deadpan, or boring – there was plenty of communication in his body language, but very little tension, and it stood out to me because this is something I work on very consciously in my own playing.

I do believe in moving when I perform soloistically, especially in recital or concerto appearances. Meaningful movement helps to confirm my phrasing choices to the audience and to my colleagues, and can really augment a performance. What I try to eliminate, though, is unnecessary motion – mannerisms like toe tapping or arm-flapping – and unnecessary tension, especially in my face and shoulders and legs. These are muscles that do not help me to play the oboe better but just make me look awkward. The more relaxed I can make my non-essential muscles, the more energy I have to devote to what I am doing, which is making music.

In the orchestra, very soloistic physical movements are rarely acceptable, and so when I prepare my week’s music or orchestral excerpts (which are usually played behind a screen, at least at first) I make an effort to eliminate extra movement and to listen with my ears “outside my body” to ensure that I’m making the phrases I think I’m making and making them with my sound so no one has to see me to understand them.

Sitting in rehearsal, I frequently do a tension check, especially after solos and difficult passages, to see if I’m carrying unnecessary tightness somewhere. I often can find it in my face and shoulders and legs, and when I consciously relax them everything just feels easier. That quick full-body tension scan is a trick I pulled from the natural childbirth classes we took last year, and it serves me tremendously well in my running, also. I was out on a ten-mile run last weekend, and noticed that as I started to get tired that I could smooth out my stride and drop my shoulders and relax my face (those same three areas, fancy that!) and almost immediately I felt faster and easier.

There’s something lovely about the realization that I can draw on a new store of energy right in my own body just by releasing my forehead and calf muscles or dropping my shoulders. Like magic, I feel more able, more confident, and more smooth, even as I look more relaxed and in control.

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