The 30,000 Foot View: Letting Go of the Details

performing practicing Jul 12, 2021
This post was first published on April 27, 2015. Updated on July 12, 2021.

Are you practicing the big picture, or do you get stuck in “the dots?”

Sometimes you can be standing so close to something that you can't actually see it. You just don't have the right perspective.

I have always enjoyed short air flights on the small commuter-type planes. You're low enough that you can see the houses and trees, but you're high enough that you can see the landscape that the houses inhabit. Seeing the view from the air always gives me a fresh perspective. 

Music is much the same way. Seen from our regular practice perspective, it's a lot of dots on the page that demand our careful attention. But form a listener's perspective, the music is quite different. There are no dots at all, just a thought expressed in sound.

Music is an art, a joint creation by composer and performer, designed to communicate to a listener. As a performing medium, music is also an art “of the moment.” When we hear live music, we hear something that will never exist again. That note is over, that crescendo is gone, that sublimely beautiful moment has evaporated into the atmosphere. When we perform music, our music is only alive in each moment as it happens.

It’s easy to see why we strive for perfection. We have only one chance in a live performance to make the impression we want, to create the musical mood we want, to play the note correctly.

But if that becomes a primary focus, or even our sole focus, in our preparation or in our performance, we lose the opportunity to create and enjoy everything that is wonderful about music. Mostly, we lose focus on the music as a whole, and replace it with a much more self-conscious and even self-centered view.

It’s not about us, not about the flashy technique we have or the mistakes we make. It’s about music, it’s about the partnership with the composer, it’s about the musical story we are telling the listener. And if your preparation isn’t leading you there, to that place where the notes are merely the dots on the canvas that create the picture, you need to redirect your efforts.

Consider the famous painting by Georges Seurat, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” It’s an enormous painting, about 7 feet by 10 feet, and it’s composed entirely of tiny dots.

This entire huge canvas is filled with little dots of paint, applied one at a time, that together create this scene of French society on a Sunday afternoon. Seurat was influenced by the Impressionist painters, notably Monet and Pissarro, but he developed his own unique style of painting which came to be called pointillism. What is remarkable about pointillist painting in general and Seurat’s masterpiece particularly is that the scene depicted in the painting is only visible at a distance. When we stand too close, all we see are the millions of tiny dots of paint. It’s only when we stand at a little distance that we can see what Seurat wanted us to see. Taken singly, not one of those dots would signify much. Taken together, we see Seurat’s vision.

And that vision was critical. If Seurat hadn’t known the larger purpose of those dots, the people out for their Sunday stroll would never come to life for a viewer. Each of those dots is only meaningful in the larger context of the picture.

In a similar way, sometimes we “stand too close” when we practice. We place so much importance on the notes that we lose sight of the reality – each of those notes is only one note in the larger scope of the entire piece. We want a listener to hear the whole piece, not just the notes, and we must practice with that bigger musical vision in focus. Obviously, there is a balance point. If too many notes are incorrect, then the listener’s perception of the music is marred. The attention is drawn to the “dots” instead of the picture.

But if our vision never gets beyond the dots, how can we expect a listener to hear beyond them?

Listen to my podcast on this topic.


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