Lisa McCormick discusses the concept of the “self” in music, the importance of nurturing a positive and constructive mindset for learning, and the need for a holistic approach to practicing that encourages constant dialogue between mind, body, and music.
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Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast, my name’s Christopher Sutton and I’m the founder and Director of Musical U.
Recently at Musical U we’ve been revisiting our past masterclasses, producing full transcripts and cheat sheets, and packaging them up really nicely – and a cool byproduct of that is it’s been an excuse to go back and watch them again.
And as you will have noticed if you’re a regular listener, I’ve really been inspired to want to share little bits and pieces with you guys in our podcast audience, because these masterclasses are packed with gems and insights, and although the full recordings are for members only, sometimes I just think “Ooh, we have to get this bit heard by more people!”
So today I have another masterclass gem for you, this time from when Lisa McCormick visited us at Musical U to share her “Note2Self” method which, in my own words, I’d say is about transforming your music practice to be more mindful, joyful and ultimately more effective.
Lisa was introducing the concepts behind the name “Note2Self” and after explaining that the word “Note” can refer to the music itself, she went on to say this…
In Note2Self, a note is also a message. It’s a personal reminder. It’s, “Oh, I really need to work on that E7 chord. I’m not really, I’m not good at that. That’s a problem,” as you’re playing through a song that you’re working on. I highly encourage you to make it also a written reminder. If you discover a problem spot in a piece, draw a circle around it, and we’ll come back to what to do with what you put in that circle. But, actually use what’s called in education multi-modality. Which, is to say, we’re using listening, we’re using seeing, we’re using assessing, and we’re using written language to make really useful notes to ourselves so we don’t have to remember it, and reinvent the wheel every time.
A note could be a mental flag while practicing. I kind of already said that. Like, “I’m playing this song along, but ugh, there’s this one part that always kind of gets me. I’m just going to make a note to myself, and come back to that.” It’s also your internal dialogue and narration. Is this going well? Is it not going well? If it’s not going well, is it because you don’t have a musical bone in your body? No, it’s because there’s some misunderstanding, or skillset that hasn’t quite come into form yet.
Internal dialogue and narration is super important, because what it does, is it… Again, it stimulates brain chemicals that stimulate certain mood sets. If you’re having a positive internal dialogue and saying, “Well you know, this is coming along. I’m working on it, I’m getting there.” That’s adding to a positive mindset with those endorphins, and dopamine, and stuff like that. That allows your process to flow.
If you’re having negative thoughts about yourself, about the instrument, about music, about any of that. What that does, is it actually, the brain, the very deep part of your brain interprets that as an attack on your wellbeing. You get a little bit of that fight, flight, or fright response. Which creates tension, physical tension. The more physically tense you are, because you’re having negative thoughts, the worse your playing is going to get.
It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want to watch for that. My thinking existentially like, “I can’t play this chord because I stink,” is just not going to help you. “I can’t play this chord because I haven’t sorted it out yet, and we have some sorting out to do.” That’s great, great. Okay, so two aspects of note. A musical note, and the note as in a message to yourself, in your internal dialogue, or something you actually write down.
Then, self. Two aspects of self. Your physical self. Your hands, your fingers, your arms, your shoulders, the parts of your body that are in contact with the instrument, the parts of your body that need to be loose in order to really bring your best interpretation to the music, and relaxation.
You and your instrument physically itself. Some people, if you’re a small petite person and you play a big dreadnought guitar, that may not be the greatest relationship physically for you. You want your instrument to be something that you can physically be comfortable with. I do a lot of that with ukulele and guitar students, “Let’s experiment with a slightly different size. Let’s experiment with a slightly different way of sitting, way of holding the strap.” It’s your actual physical relationship to the physical instrument, and is it maximized to let you bring out your best?
Your breathing. This, I don’t know how many times as a teacher I’ll be having somebody work on something kind of intense and they’ll be like, “Huh.” I’ll say, “Breathe.” I understand the impulse, you’re kind of all in. But, on the other hand, if you can be aware of breathing while you’re working on working at a bug, or a sticky part, what you’re doing is building a sense of relaxation into your technique, into what you’re learning, okay? You’re learning not only how to do it with your fingers, but you’re learning how to do it in a relaxed manner.
You don’t want to be playing a song all relaxed and then, “Huh, here comes this part,” and then go back. You want there to be a relaxed flow all along. Keep an eye on your, “Am I breathing?” Pretty simple. Physical quirks. Oh, how many people have said, “Oh, my fingers are too short.” Or, “My fingers are too fat.” Or, “My belly is too fat.” Or, “I broke my finger when I was 11, and it healed funny.”
All of these things may be true, and what we do is we just work with them. I mean, there’s a ton of professional musicians who have physical disabilities of many different kinds, and it’s not an… It doesn’t mean, in most cases, you can’t play. It means we’re going to have to find some workarounds, if you have some physical issues. Arthritis, weird fingers, whatever. But, that’s something to be aware of, and something to work with and not say, “Well I’m doomed because I broke my ring finger 10 years ago.” No, you’re probably not doomed.
And, brain chemistry that we’ve talked about a little bit. Are you nurturing a positive sense of joy, and flow, and relaxation in your process? Or, are you in a state of stress, and tension, and angst, and anxiety? Which is just going to make the playing tenser, no matter what the difficulty level is, okay? Keeping an eye on your mindset, and that will bring us around to the Note2Self mantra that helps maintain that.
Then, self, also. Your mind and soul. We’ve talked about your body, now we’re talking about the mind and the soul. Your analytical thinking mind. Why is this chord change giving me trouble? Let’s figure it out, let’s think. Your present thoughts. Again, your self narration. “What am I, am I any good at this? Should I just give it up?” Or, “I’m on the path. I’m getting there.” Your beliefs, your core beliefs about yourself as a musical person. Your beliefs about music. Is music only for certain special people, like high class athletes? Or, is music for everybody? What are your beliefs about that? If you believe that music is for everybody, then you believe that you’re in the right place. Even though all of us are always working to make it better, to make it flow better.
Your personal identity and core beliefs. Again, the teacher who said, “Don’t sing, you haven’t got it.” “I’m not a musical person. My core belief is that I’m not a musical person.” Well, what if you pretended that you didn’t think that? What if you just threw that out and said, “Well, let’s find out, you know? Let’s find out what happens if I actually try and make some notes. I might surprise myself.” I see people do it all the time. I’ve taught hundreds of thousands of adult beginners, who thought that, “Eh. This is not going to… This is going to be really hard, it’s not going to be for me. I’m too old, it’s too late. I’m not a musical person.” But, surprise, they’re out having a great time.
The state of emotion that is brought up by that, feeling good about yourself or what’s going on, feeling upset, feeling discouraged. Again, keeping an eye on keeping a positive environment. And, your state of focus when you are practicing. I really, really, really, really encourage people to practice in a place where they feel they have privacy. Where they can experiment, and try different things. ‘Cause, that’s how you’re going to learn, is by experimenting and trying different things.
If your roommate is in the next room, and you go out after your practice session and they say, “Man, how many more times you going to play that song?” Suddenly you’re self conscious in your practicing, and when you go back to your practice space you’re thinking about, “Oh God, they can hear me.” It really, really breaks the kind of focused attention that we need to do this kind of work. Are you private, or are you in a state of feeling witnessed? You want to be private. Get creative. My dad, he started playing ukulele at the age of 78. For privacy, he goes and plays in the car. He just pushes the seat back, and takes his ukulele, and he’s in his own little world, and it’s great.
All right, so let me make sure this is all in the screen. There we go. You see, we have the note, it’s two aspects. It’s the music, and it’s also the message, the language, the thoughts that go around it. We have the self, your physical self. Your body, your muscles, your physical memory. And, we have the mind and the soul. Practicing music is a constantly flowing conversation, between all of these things. They’re constantly informing one another, okay?
I hope that you enjoyed this little snippet from our masterclass with Lisa. There’s so much wisdom in her Note2Self method and I’m a really big believer in the power of these little changes to your mindset in music to have a massive impact on how much you enjoy and succeed in your musical life, so I hope you’ll be taking some of these observations on board for your own practicing.
You can learn more about Lisa McCormick and the Note2Self method at her website, LisaMcCormick.com, that’s McCormick spelled M-C-C-O-R-M-I-C-K, LisaMcCormick.com, and of course we’ll have that link, as well as Lisa’s interview here on the podcast, in the shownotes for this episode at musicalitypodcast.com.