Daydreaming The Way To Better Performance

Tyler Cowen shared a link on his Marginal Revolution blog about Hillary Hahn discussing daydreaming as a form of practice. The link went to blog post by Bill Benzon featuring a video of an interview with Hahn. Benzon transcribes the relevant portion of the interview, but I listened/watched the whole thing.

Hahn talks the challenges of touring, including difficulties practicing for the next tour; reading between the lines on Yelp reviews to find decent coffee in a new city; and her “Ice Princess” nickname which seems to be more about scrutiny of her facial expression and range of motion when performing.

But as Benzon says, the real prize comes around 55:54 when she discusses daydreaming and playfulness when she practices. As someone who has come out of the theatre acting tradition, I was intrigued when she talked about being honest to the moment rather than executing a rigid conception of the music. While this is considered important in acting, my perception has been this isn’t valued in classical music.

In theater, if an actor says “I’m sorry” more defiantly today than they did yesterday, as the person performing opposite them, the way you move and deliver your next line has to be an authentic response to that .  Hahn says when she is doing master classes and she sees a student is clearly censoring their playing because they think it would be improper to do otherwise, she says she talks to them about it. She says when she has low energy during a performance, she doesn’t try to pump herself up, but uses that and plays a little more mellow so that when she reaches a point in a piece where the energy starts to increase, the audience is even more aware of the palpable change.

What classical musicians might think of all this I don’t know,  but as someone from the outside it runs contrary to my conception of the philosophy and practice of classical music and begins to align more with what I know of the process of theatre, dance and visual artists.

Around 1:22.00 in the video she does a demonstration of what she means by daydreaming during practice. It isn’t so much daydreaming in the woolgathering sense as it is paying close attention to what one is doing and playing with different options to imagine what might happen during a performance. (The following comes much closer to the 1 hour mark, but expresses her approach)

I reverse the assumptions that I have. I just neutralize everything and then I’m…Kind of letting my mind wander. I’m thinking about what is going on with the orchestra. Waiting for something to occur to me. I think people don’t ever think that happens in practice.

For a lot of people, I think practice is about being more accurate, improving your playing, being more expressive, being more this or that. But for me, yes, there’s that, but… Those are the tools to get to the point where you can let your mind wander and get ideas.

During her demonstration of her practice process, she verbalizes what she is thinking:

“…so right there I heard the violin kicked into a certain resonance and I was really listening for that and that felt like it had a certain tone quality that I like.

And that feels good so it gave me a little bit of inspiration…


Perhaps I can take that further…how far can I go?…how long can I hold it?…can I get away with that?…I imagine the conductor is looking at me like…” (makes ‘get on with it’ hand motions)

She talks about how having this bit of fun helps her feel creative, cleanse her system of instincts she has and find answers to questions she has about the music. Earlier in the interview, in a bit that Benzon transcribed, she seems to indicate this approach also helps keep her nimble enough to practice with unfamiliar musicians on short notice:

I’m always trying to trigger in mind into new phrasing ideas, so I don’t get stuck and so that when I’m working with other people, I don’t have a lot of rehearsal time and I need to present a unified concert. So, when I’m working with other people, how can I play it in a way that’s authentic to me, but really coincides with what they’re doing and brings out a better version of the music than we could arrive at ourselves separately.

As I said, for musicians this may all be familiar equipment in a potential toolbox, but as an outsider I found it helped make unfamiliar material more relatable.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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