Setting the Parameters

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” -Arthur C Clarke

Several years ago, I had a moment of intuitive inspiration where I suddenly realized that anything we do or want to master has to function inside a set of boundaries. By setting the specific parameters of anything we want to control such as deciding the perfect tempo for a fast or slow movement of any work that we are performing gives us a clear set of guidelines that will help identify the best tempo. In PracticeMind: The Complete Practice Model by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk, a whole chapter is dedicated to “Setting the Parameters”. The following is a short excerpt from that chapter. Enjoy!

Setting Parameters to Understand Your Limits 

Parameters refer to a measurable set of variables in a functioning relationship and ultimately define the limits and boundaries that a process must function within. Setting parameters helps you measure and develop an understanding of your own limits. Within this process, it is important to measure and define the limits and boundaries for what you are trying to do and accomplish in specific terms. 

For many technical and musical skills, knowing and setting clearly defined parameters helps identify the sweet spot for control. Knowing and controlling the boundaries on both sides of the sweet spot is a vital control element for technical and musical mastery. For example, being able to play +/- 10 percent of the final tempo builds a buffer zone in case you rush in performance or your excitement of being onstage alters your perception of the tempo in the moment. This is also necessary for playing in any setting with other musicians. The only thing you can control (at best) is your own playing; if the conductor or other chamber music colleagues decide to take the tempo slower or faster than you are used to, setting these parameters ahead of time prepares you to play an expanded range of possible tempos.

Setting Parameters in Practice and Performance

1. In a fast movement or piece, it is essential that you know the fastest tempo you can play and sustain for the whole movement.

- As an example, for the allegro movement from Monti Csárdás, if the performance tempo is quarter note = 150, the parameter range should be quarter note = 140 to 160.

2. In a slow movement, knowing the slowest tempo that you can play and keep under control will keep you from running out of bow.

- As an example, for the slow movement of the “Ghost” trio by Beethoven, if the preferred tempo is sixteenth note = 50, the parameter range should be sixteenth note = 40 to 60.

3. In a rich melodic passage, knowing how loud you can play before the tone breaks or becomes scratchy will prevent you from going past your limit amid the excitement of a live performance.

- As an example, in measures 7–10 of the Adagio Affettuoso movement of the Brahms F major Cello Sonata, op. 99, playing with a free and open sound within the appropriate tempo is challenging.

- A number of factors play important roles here: The contact point, the bow speed, and the weight.- The tempo, the speed, and the width of the vibrato.

-If the tempo is eighth note= 66, the parameter range should be eighth note = 58 to 74.

- Find the ideal contact point for an open sound and move closer to the bridge as the phrase ascends. Then practice it a quarter of an inch closer to the bridge and a quarter of an inch closer to the fingerboard. Use your ears and your intuition to determine how much weight to apply.

- Many great cellists vibrate in triplets in this passage—one triplet for each sixteenth note.

- In your exploration of tonal possibilities, try playing a bit on the side of the hair (angle the stick toward yourself). Playing with flat hair in the higher registers will restrict the sound and the overtones.

4. To control a sautillé stroke, identify the point on your bow where the stick has the best flexibility. This is usually close to the balance point, but the ideal spot largely depends on the speed of the stroke and the quality of the sound you are aiming for.

In a slower tempo, the stroke is closer to the frog than the balance point, and in a faster tempo, it is slightly closer to the tip than the balance point. In many sautillé passages, the excitement comes not only from speed but from the range of colors and dynamics the performer creates to follow the contours of the phrases. The amount of hair on the string also plays a role. With flatter hair, the bow will bounce more.

- For a sautillé stroke, always keep the hair on the string. For a shorter stroke, allow the stick to bounce more vertically; for a broader stroke, make the motion more horizontal but still allow the stick to bounce.

- Experiment with playing on both sides of the balance point depending on the speed of the stroke.

The above ideas should give you a better understanding of the concept of setting parameters for anything old or new that you want to have better control over. There is no limit to what skills or ideas this concept can be applied to and it has helped immensely over the years both for myself and in my teaching.  It is often difficult for musicians to decide where the higher limit is for playing fast. When setting the tempo for a fast piece or passage, be sure to set the upper level at a tempo that you can 100% control. 

Try to experiment with this concept in your own practice over the next week.

All best,
Hans Jensen