In this post you will learn how one little thought can transform struggle and pain into astonishing freedom.
Most of the musicians I know practice with a particular intention: "getting the music right." Sound familiar? I actually believe this is one of the major contributing factors to playing-related pain.
We've all heard of the mind/body connection, right? But what is it, really? And what insights can it shed on playing with pain? Here is a practical exploration demonstrating the that way you think directly affects how you use your body. The following exploration is inspired by another Alexander Technique teacher, Meade Andrews, who lives near Princeton.
Try this: think to yourself, "I have to do it fast and I have to do it right!" Take that in for a minute. "I have to do it fast and I have to do it right!" Take a walk around the room with this thought. Pick up your instrument and play a little bit, all the while thinking, "I have to do it fast and I have to do it right!" What do you notice about your body? What's changed?
When I do this, I often notice that I feel way more tense than usual, and that I'm bracing my back.
This is what "getting the music right" often does to us. So, if "getting the music right" isn't helpful, how are we to still play what we want, accurately and musically? I have two main suggestions:
Replace this intention with a more effective one and,
Reorder your priorities and begin practicing with the body in mind.
Let's first find a different intention. What might be the opposite of "getting the music right?" Perhaps "I can't do it and I give up." Again, take that in for a minute. "I can't do it and I give up." Take a walk around the room with this thought. Pick up your instrument, and play a little bit, all the while thinking, "I can't do it and I give up." What do you notice about your body? What's changed?
I notice that my body feels heavy and I'm less motivated - more slumped. So, perhaps this isn't the best intention to work with.
Here's another one to try: "I am at ease with myself and I have plenty of time." Again, take that in for a minute. "I am at ease with myself and I have plenty of time." Take a walk around the room with this thought and pick up your instrument, play a little bit, all the while thinking, "I am at ease with myself and I have plenty of time." What do you notice about your body? What's changed?
I notice that I feel both relaxed and alert.
So, you have some choices here! Personally, I prefer living and practicing from the third choice, but the great thing about this is that it is a choice. If you find yourself "doing it fast to get it right," that's fine - just know that that's what's happening and that there will be consequences to that. If you find yourself getting discouraged and heavy, again - that's fine. In either case, you have the choice to come back to a more calm and collected way of being. Try this during your next practice session. Notice your own tendency to either brace upwards or slump downwards, and see if you can practice from a place of "I am at ease with myself and I have plenty of time."
The second thing I recommend is changing your priorities in practicing. We often go wrong in our body when our priorities don't include our body. This is because without awareness of your body's movements you don't exercise choice in its functioning, and pain is a clear signal from your body that it's not functioning optimally.
So how about this: instead of making your #1 "getting the music right," try making your #1 priority "using your body easefully." When you practice a passage, for instance, try practicing it from the point of view of your body.
How do you hit that high note without forcing it?
Can you play that tremolo without scrunching your neck?
Does tightening your chest really help you emote?
Can you play without locking your knees?
Can you practice with your whole body in your field of attention?
This way, you still learn the passage PLUS you've learned the passage without your bad habits of tension. Double win!
A violinist friend of mine told me an anecdote about one of her teachers. She said that when she played for him, he often said "Very good! Now show me the simple version." This is a great way of thinking about using your body more efficiently and easefully.
A fundamental tenet of the AT is that how you think affects how you move - this is the mind/body connection. Certain thoughts cause strain, others collapse, and others cause you to be alert and at ease. AT is all about becoming familiar with this process and using it to support your life.
Changing the way you practice will not be easy. All I can say is to stick with it. Notice your body and makes choices in your practicing that are good for your body. I promise that you'll still learn your repertoire and you may even learn it faster! It works for me.