It’s not bad or good, it is. The Art of Observing Your Playing

I was recently inspired by the ‘Practice Shake-Up Challenge’ of the Honesty Pill facebook group to record a practice session.  I haven’t been consistent with this practice since the start of the academic year combined with other life distractions.

This week I have an etude on my stand.  While it is familiar to me, the way I am approaching playing it this time around is quite different.  I am tuning into the quality of the movements I use to create the lines and contrasts instead of succumbing to the mindless habits I used to play with, gripping the instrument, not planning breaths, and moving extraneously when unsure how to execute the musical intention.  It is amazing to play with air flowing and awareness of fluidity in the body.  I could have left the practice being satisfied with the satisfaction of this approach, but decided to go deeper, to step back and listen to myself through recording.  

As soon as I pressed record on my phone, I began trying hard, wouldn’t you know those old habits crept back into my playing.  Old habits die hard.  When I listened to the recording, I was surprised by how the things I heard did not align with what I felt.  What I heard was not what I expected. 

After an initial feeling of disappointment, it was time to accept what I heard and become an observer.  To do this, I asked myself the questions:

  • “What do I like?” 

  • “What would I like to be different?”  

What would I like to be different?” is a very different question then, “What was bad?” or “What didn’t I like?”  By asking myself what do I want to be different, I am empowered, because the intention of the question is to make a change in the future and that is exactly what needs to happen.  Once I identify what I want to change, then I can dive into “how” to make the change.

How to make the change is one of my favorite inquiries.  It gets to the root of music-making, movement. Any musical change comes from a change in the way you move.  For example, if you want a louder forte dynamic, how is it created?  On the flute, this change requires more air speed and a change to the aperture and oral cavity. The simple answer is, move differently.  Identifying the precise movements sets the stage to make the change. In my classes, I love learning how other instruments create sound, dynamics, articulations, a perk of teaching Body Mapping.

This brings me to, how are you sitting, or standing?  Does the way you sit or stand enable you to access subtle changes in movement that bring your musical intentions to life? 

In this session, I used an audio recording, but it is even more informative to use a video recording and see what is physically happening.  Extraneous movements become blatantly obvious and small habits such as tensing the neck or jaw when the music becomes demanding can be seen.  I once worked with a pianist who held their left foot above the ground for an entire piece.  The effort to hold the foot which means the whole leg up restricted mobility throughout the body including facility of the fingers.  Without this information, making a sustainable change will never happen.  Music-making requires the whole body, tension anywhere in the body limits all movement.

A shout out to Chris Still, and Honesty Pill for bringing musicians together to talk and share.  Being part of a community makes us all stronger.

Boost Expression By Optimizing Awareness

I have been thinking a lot about how awareness impacts movement lately. Every time I challenge my movements skills I find that elements of my playing (and teaching) become more vibrant and flexible. 

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Movement, Sound, Vision & Touch are all integral parts of performing confidently. Missing one, each of the other senses. What are you aware of as you play?

Awareness to the sights, sounds, and feelings of music-making is integral to expression.  The sensitivity I speak of is not emotional, but the ability to feel movement, effort, and coordination, and sense your space.  This isn’t something most of us were taught.  I find that musicians don’t realize how over gripping their instrument diminishes sound quality or putting most of your body weight on one leg limits breathing. You would practice for hours without reliably attaining the sound, articulation or phrasing you imagine for the music.

An important element of Body Mapping is training awareness.  I systematically guide musicians to expand their awareness to include the visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic senses.  At first, this feels awkward and unfamiliar, some describe it as distracting, but the expression is always more exciting, more engaging when awareness is optimized.

Why? Having the four senses awake and alive in playing calms the central nervous system which in turn allows movement, it also allows you to sense what you are doing in real-time.  I won’t get into too much of the science here, but the CNS knows where it is and does not feel in danger, so it allows you to move.  Better movement means movement precision and ease, which opens access to a wider variety in tone colors, articulation and reliable technique. This opens up your ability to adjust even amid a phrase. 

How to work on awareness? Practice, practice, practice!  We are musicians 24/7, we can take advantage of virtually any moment to practice awareness.  Having to hold a job to pay the bills, work on papers, or clean your living space are all opportunities to work on optimizing your awareness (plus they will make your time more enjoyable).  

How much time do you spend walking down the street or driving a car, riding public transportation or brushing your teeth? Each of these activities is an opportunity to fine-tune your senses and practice optimizing your awareness. 

  • You can see what is in front of you, to the sides, the sky above and the ground you walk on as you look clearly at your focal point.

  • You can hear the layers of sound in your environment. cars, conversation, ambient noises, maybe even music if you walk down Gainsborough Street in Boston.

  • You can feel your clothing, and how it moves against you. You can feel your feet traversing the ground, the contour of the ground.

  • You can feel your legs bending and extending as you walk. You can feel your breath via your ribs moving up and out as you inhale, down and in as you exhale.

Once you become familiar with the senses individually, combine them in your awareness.  For example, noticing the movement of your ribs and the space beyond your focal point.  Transfer this practice into tone, and warm-ups, then a phrase of your rep.  Next, combine 3 senses and eventually bring each of the 4 senses into your awareness before you deliver hands to instrument or instrument to the body.

Optimizing awareness is an integral part of your musicianship.  Having trouble with technique? Optimize your awareness, you might be surprised by the true root of the challenge. It’s not about practicing more, it’s about practicing smarter bringing awareness into the equation.

BONUS: You will notice physical discomfort early before it comes a problem - injury prevention!