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I am currently playing one of Brahms's intermezzos on the piano.

Sometimes when I perform that piece, I feel "in the zone". The music seems to flow, I play with emotion, I tell a story, it just goes really well.

Other times, I feel like I'm being forced to play. I have to force emotion, and it sounds plain, like when a person reads a speech looking down at his cue cards the whole time.

So how do I bring more emotion into a piece I'm playing and "get in the zone" before starting? I notice a lot of admirable pianists close their eyes before they perform... what are they doing? And while they are performing, do they force emotion? Or do they just let it flow...

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    Just a thought: it's entirely possible that the ability to reproduce the emotional content of a piece at will is what distinguishes great musicians from merely competent ones, and that it can't be learnt like technical competence can. I'm not saying that is the case, but the absence of well-known methods of achieving this is somewhat suggestive. – Kilian Foth Nov 29 '18 at 9:30
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    Just curious--have you tried recording a few performances and then doing a blind test to see if you can identify the ones where you felt more in the zone vs not? If you can tell them apart blind, then you can probably recreate it. But sometimes I listen to a recording and it brings all kinds of emotions, and sometimes I listen to the same recording and nothing--in that case the actual sound hasn't changed at all, just the listener. – user3067860 Nov 29 '18 at 18:49
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Musically, it is important to be aware of what you are doing that helps to create that emotion. What notes are you emphasizing? Where are your crescendos, decrescendos, accelerations and ritards? What dynamics are you using and where? If you do not know how you want all this to be shaped, it will be a crap shoot whether or not you will get the expression you want from your piece. Once you have all that mapped out, you need to practice those things in addition to the notes and rhythms. Make sure you are bringing out the expression you want every time.

The more you practice and the more you know your piece so well you can execute it the same way over and over, the more comfortable you will be with it, the better chance you have of doing it right.

There is an additional step to being in "the zone", though, and in my experience that is related to being relaxed. I have done things to practice relaxing. I do something I call "zen scales" and play my scales super slowly and softly, focusing on making sure my posture is right, my shoulders are down, fingers are curved appropriately, and everything is just so relaxed I almost sink into the keys. It is almost a type of meditation, but it is highly directed. I become very aware of what that state feels like in my body. Now, when I say to myself "relax", my muscles know exactly what to do and I can recreate that feeling. (I do not do my zen scales before performance. They are something I do every so often during practice to help me "practice relaxing." It does help later, when during performance or right before, I tell myself to relax.)

You may also want to read the book, "The Inner Game of Music" which also goes into detail about visualization.

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    Well written -- my only objection is that every musician has to find their own preparation sequence that works for them. I often, after physical warmups, play bits of any number of pieces not on the program. I have no idea why that helps but it does for me. Some people play the most difficult short passage a few times as self-assurance. And so on. – Carl Witthoft Nov 29 '18 at 13:10
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    @CarlWitthoft, I do not have a specific way of getting in the zone right before a performance. I edited my answer to make that clear. – Heather S. Nov 29 '18 at 13:32
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I highly recommend the book "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner. The book deals a lot with the anxieties of a musician and how to handle them. Part of the book involves training one's brain to go into "the zone" quickly.

Werner introduces the reader to something similar to mindfulness, which involves short periods of meditation in order to get into "the zone," but then, he takes it a step further. He takes the reader through a series of exercises to train your body/brain to get into "the zone" without spending the time meditating. I worked my way through the book about ten years ago, and I still use the techniques quite regularly; it allows me to quickly calm my mind when it starts racing.

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Music is communication and indeed, should be different each time we play. Every day we are a different person. Every time you sit down at the piano you carry different baggage, different dreams, different emotions, different physical awareness and different emotional and intellectual attentiveness. Indeed, our performances should not be carbon copies each time we sit down. I think we do a disservice to the art when we attempt to set it in stone.

If you sang Happy Birthday to your sleeping baby, your deaf grandmother, to someone you didn't like, as a solo, with a group, in a living room or in a noisy bar, on a stage, you would sing it differently because you are a different person to each circumstance and space and time.

But, you can train yourself to enter into the moment on command. Your questions is over two thousand years old. It is called Kaddosh or loosely translated, entering into the holy. In the bible, whether you beleive in it or not, Isaiah in a dream ascends to heaven and witnesses the most glorious moment of his life, hearing a multitude of angels singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. That was his Kaddosh moment. A moment he woke up with and lived with the rest of his life. Many of us have had moments and events that have changed our lives.

You too, if you are aware and can study the moment, your emotions, your body or, the overall feeling, then you can call upon your Kaddosh moment in an instant. If you have ever been to church and the priest says "Lift up your hearts" and the people respond "We lift them up unto the Lord," THAT is supposed to be a Kaddosh moment. Most people just regurgitate the words as if it were a script but, that is the moment we are called to enter into the Holy. Most don't. We don't even know it happens or it was supposed to happen.

So, you don't need to get into a zone if you present your music in the zone you are currently in. Then, each performance is new and fresh for both you and your audience. Not to mention, as you grow as a musician, human being and as a technician, you would never want to revert your music back to a lesser previously admired zone.

Music is finicky. If we don't own our technique, our playing will be different each time we sit down which detracts from our brain as we attempt to correct technical flaws on the fly and we lose emotive focus, more tension creeps in, more brain detraction . . .

So, find various Kaddosh moments in your life, remember them and recall them in an instant. They may include the birth of your first child, a yes to a proposal, climbing a mountain, hearing a multitude of angels, watching a sunset.

Mine was attending a music convention with 5,000 musicians and at the opening ceremony there was a 8-5-8-5 of tympani, a fanfare of trumpets, a harp let loose a six octave glissando, a cymbal crashed, an organ roared in with huge 32' bombards in the pedals, dancers/banner wavers/thurifers all sashayed in doing their thing, dancers carrying huge clay pots of water twirled in and poured them into a pool up front as a waterfall erupted from the dais, a 400 voice choir processed in and the conductor turned around and cued the assembly to sing. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It took me two verses to compose myself.

Every time I perform, I call upon this moment. With my day's baggage. Now, go lift up your heart.

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