What Your Test Notes Are Trying To Tell You
Do you or your students rely on test notes before playing?
If the first test note is undesirable, we play a second or third with the goal of improving. Ultimately, we want our actual first note to be the best. The process often goes like this:
1. Play Test Note
2. Judge and Adjust
3. Play Test Note Again or Begin Piece
Ultimately, removing the need to play a test note is an important goal:
In a performance or an audition, every note is judged, and the ability to begin a piece confidently without playing additional notes after approaching the stage is a necessary performance skill.
Test Notes Can Reveal Performance Habits
Long tones and isolated tone studies provide a lot of information about how we create our best sounds.
When we remove the other variables of playing in context, we can focus on embouchure, air speed, vowel shapes, and more, and this process involves a high level of awareness.
Quick test notes, however, can tell us how we actually respond under pressure when we're about to begin a specific piece, and how we may change certain things when approaching different musical contexts.
That's an important difference!
If you begin a piece on a soft high note and go for a test note to make sure it will happen, your body is probably giving you a lot of information before you even begin.
In my experience, I stop myself and realize that I've lost all sense of my head balance in relation to my spine, my throat feels more tense, and my thighs have started gripping!
Next time you find yourself testing notes, pause and gather some information.
Here are Some Useful Questions:
Do my feet change?
Ground yourself in preparation to play, keep awareness on your feet and their contact with the ground while inhaling, and continue to notice through the first sounds.
Do your feet attempt to leave the ground? Do you feel a sensation of pulling upward caused by excess tension and doing?
Noticing if the feet feel less contact with the ground is a sign of the body gripping and pulling upwards.
Do I Hold At the Top of The Breath?
During your inhalation, do you attempt to help the body inhale by adding tension at the top of the breath?
I feel the arms gripping over the ribs and a tense feeling near the sternum when I'm consciously gasping in air.
To go from activating to a state of simply allowing optimal breathing, watch the journey of air, beginning with watching the air coming into the mouth. Lay on the floor to get to know the feeling, as the entire body can be supported by the floor while we observe.
*The most important tip for beginning sounds with a free feeling in the body is to move slightly and fluidly while breathing and into creating sound. Holding the body in a rigid position for the breath and before the initial sound can reduce the feeling of ease and increase anxiety.
Cultivating Trust + Alleviating Test Note Dependency
Once the body has given information, notice what information the mind can provide when you play a test note.
- Does the test note involve the same level of mental imagery and preparation as an actual performance?
- Do you hear the same level of detail regarding the initial attack, intonation, vibrato, and color before playing?
Overall, thinking musically and imagining the sound you want (in all its dimensions) before playing can alleviate the need to test the first. Thinking this way builds trust with your inner performer.
If your test notes are aimed at the practicalities of creating sound, considering the intention of always beginning with a musical intention and cultivate trust with your inner performer each time you initiate sound in the practice room!
What have you learned from your test notes?
How do you cultivate trust with your sounds without playing a test note first?