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How to balance physical, mental and emotional aspects of your playing

Playing an instrument is not just a physical feat – it requires a musician’s hands, head and heart to work together in perfect combination. Pedro de Alcantara explains how to achieve better coordination between the three

Thursday, 17 July 2014

We tend to compartmentalise different aspects of our lives. Into one box we put things that we consider physical: the body, movement, posture, tension and relaxation. Into a second box goes all that we consider psychological: moods, emotions, feelings, opinions and suppositions. And into a third box goes all that appears to be metaphysical: symbols, metaphors and concepts that transcend our everyday existence. This determines much of our behaviour. For instance, we visit the osteopath to deal with the physical, the psychotherapist to deal with the psychological, and the priest to deal with the metaphysical. In terms of music, we practise our instruments with the intention of becoming physically comfortable with them. There’s only one problem. The separation of the physical, the psychological and the metaphysical is illusory, and potentially disabling.

The simple act of brushing your teeth, for instance, appears to be purely physical, involving your mouth, one of your hands and little else. But it’s impossible as a human being to do anything without it having psychological and metaphysical dimensions. The emotions associated with brushing your teeth are varied and intense, going back to your childhood and involving memories, fears, desires, pleasures and disappointments. The act contains faint or not-so-faint connections with every visit to the dentist, every meal and its aftermath, and every moment of vanity or shame regarding your teeth and your smile. Furthermore, brushing your teeth is a ritualistic act of cleansing that prepares you for talking to someone intimately, for appearing in public, for going to bed at night and entering the land of dreams, and so on. In truth, brushing your teeth reflects the intertwined and inseparable coexistence of the physical, the psychological and the metaphysical – or, to put it differently, body, mind and soul.

Making music is no different. Your job as a musician isn’t just to become physically comfortable as you play, but to bring together all of your capabilities in one balanced whole, in which body parts are interconnected, body and mind are interconnected, player and instrument are interconnected, and player and music become one.

Coordination: a circuit of complex connections
Instrumental technique isn’t a matter of agile fingers alone. When you play a trill using two fingers of your left hand you’re actually using both hands, both arms, both shoulders, and your head, neck, back and legs at the same time. If you don’t direct your back and legs to support your upper body, you’ll compensate unconsciously by stiffening your neck and shoulders, thereby affecting the fingers of your left hand. If you don’t command your right arm to bow smoothly and steadily, your left hand will lose some of its own stability. The principle is universal: every part of your body plays at least some role in your every gesture, and it’s impossible for you to use any body part in total isolation. In making music and in your daily life, you need to sense, activate and nourish the connections that exist naturally between all the parts of the body.

Mastering mobility and resistence
Counter-intuitive though it may be, the key to coordination isn’t relaxation but instead a collaboration between mobility and resistance. To give an example, many musicians practise and perform sitting with their backs leaning relaxedly against the back of a chair. To release wrong tensions in the neck, shoulders and arms, however, you need to increase the right tensions in your back and legs – right in quantity, quality, placing and timing. To awaken your back, sit fairly far forward on the chair, resting the weight of your torso more on your sitting bones than on your thighs and allowing the back to remain erect on its own, rather than propped up by the chair. Then ask a friend or colleague to stand behind you and apply gentle pressure to your body – for instance, by pushing a loose fist against your spine, in between your shoulder blades. If you resist the pressure, you’ll connect your back to your shoulders, your spine to your pelvis and your pelvis to your legs and feet, distributing and projecting your energies throughout your body. If your friend stops applying pressure, you can retain what is called latent resistance, the capacity to resist again immediately if so needed.

While resisting your friend’s pressure, you’re free to turn your head in every direction, stand and sit again, rock from side to side, lean your trunk forward and backward from the hip joints, and so on. If you choose not to move, you retain latent mobility, the capacity to move in any way you wish at any time. Latent resistance and latent mobility combined are the springboard to good coordination.

Get your friend to apply pressure to your spine as you play your instrument. Resistance, when distributed throughout the body, allows for the release of energy: the spine lengthens, knotty spots on the back and shoulders soften, and breath flows more easily. Your sound gains in strength and richness, your rhythm becomes stable, and your phrasing becomes more coherent. Let’s call the chain of events pressure, resistance, connection and release. To facilitate the release of sound, energy, movement, emotion or thought, focus on resistance and connection, not on the release – which can look after itself.

Improving coordination by understanding sound
Coordination and sound are deeply intertwined. You can work on your coordination by becoming better aware of the nature of sound – and vice versa. We think of sound as a form of noise captured by the ear, but of vibration as a type of kinesthetic or muscular experience – a shake, a rattle or a tremor. In truth, all sound is vibration. Take a party balloon and blow it to its full size. Then hold it lightly in your hands, bring it close to your mouth, and speak or sing to it. The balloon captures and magnifies your voice’s vibrations, giving you the experience of holding lively sounds in your hands. What happens when you scrunch your neck on purpose and speak with a strained voice? The balloon’s vibrations become thin, reflecting your change in coordination and sound. It’s safe to assume that playing a stringed instrument is similar: your sounds are vibrant when you coordinate yourself well, and thin when you scrunch and strain.

Most string players are so intensely absorbed in playing that they don’t actually hear or feel the vibrations they produce. To become an integrated musician you need to balance out the roles of the actor, the receptor and the witness in your life. Your actor makes decisions and acts upon them; your receptor senses and feels everything in the world and inside yourself; your witness dispassionately analyses and synthesises information. Get your actor to play a short note on an open string with a forte dynamic, using only an inch or two of bow. Immediately after sounding the note, become a full-time receptor and do nothing other than listening to its vibrations. Do not strike another note, do not talk or hum or cough, and do not judge the experience; be in it for the duration. Depending on your instrument, your bow stroke and the room’s acoustics, the sound might take 15 seconds or more to die down. After your actor plays a single short note, your receptor listens to it with pleasure or displeasure, and your witness makes a sober technical assessment of the relationship between your physical act and the sound that came out of it. Then your actor can play another short note, informed by the feedback from the receptor and the witness. With experience, your actor, receptor and witness will collaborate seamlessly at all times. Then you’ll be able to optimise the vibrations of your music making, allowing the freest possible sounds to emerge from your instrument with minimal physical effort.

Understanding the relationship between sound and rhythm
Sound as vibration is the very source of a musician’s life. Music itself, however, is born of the heavenly marriage between sound and rhythm. You can conceive music in two different ways: as a series of physical gestures that create sounds, or as a series of words and phrases that, to be rendered audible, require certain physical gestures. ‘The language in which musical ideas are expressed in tones parallels the language that expresses feelings or thoughts in words,’ Arnold Schoenberg said in his famous essay ‘Brahms the Progressive’. ‘Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony… contribute to an organisation that makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible.’ Schoenberg pointed out that these linguistic elements function ‘like the rhyme, the rhythm, the metre and the subdivision into strophes, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc in poetry and prose’.

Behind music, then, there lies a verbal and linguistic basis, of which rhythm is the most important element. As a musician, you take on the mantle of an orator, a protagonist in a comedy, an entertainer, and so on. Every role demands that you become an expert storyteller with a deep command of the language – that is, a command of the language’s rhythms. Say out loud, ‘To be, or not to be.’ Your ears will immediately group these six syllables in three groups of two, the first syllable being a preparation or upbeat to the second, which is a stress or downbeat: ‘To BE | or NOT | to BE.’ Now say out loud, ‘Never, never, never!’ You automatically organise these words into three groups of two syllables, of which the first is a stress and the second, a release: ‘NE-ver, | NE-ver, | NE-ver!’ Infinitely varied patterns of preparation, stress and release infuse speech, song, locomotion and every human activity. Sensing these patterns and embodying them will help you ‘speak music’.

Read this line out loud, stressing the capitalised syllables:
To | BE or | not TO | BE that | is THE | ques-TION.

In spoken language and also in the language of music, the wrong rhythmic patterning will make it difficult for you to speak and even more difficult for you to be understood. Conversely, accurately perceiving the rhythmic patterns in the music you play makes it easier for you to play and to be understood. Start your quest simply. Play two notes on separate bows, having decided that you want them to say ‘NE-ver’ (this is called a trochaic foot in poetics). Do it down-bow, up-bow a few times; then do it up-bow, down-bow. Now decide that you want your two notes to say ‘to BE’ (an iambic foot). Do it up-bow, down-bow; then down-bow, up-bow. It seems like a simple exercise, but to really stick to your linguistic decision in the face of physical habits – which are often divorced from musical considerations – will take a lot of practice. Ideally, every one of your bow strokes ought to be born of the linguistic and rhythmic qualities of the music itself.

Day by day, explore the universe of coordination as connection, sound as vibration and music as language. In time, you’ll become the centre of that universe, integrated in body, mind and soul.

This article was first published in The Strad's July 2011 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here

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