Paying Attention As You Practice: Think Globally Instead Of LocallyOne of the first things I ask a musician who comes to me to study the Alexander Technique is, “What are you thinking about as you’re playing music?” I get a variety of answers, bust most of the answers have one thing in common: Evidence that the musician is thinking of himself or herself in parts, rather than as a whole, integrated being.
I hear things like, “I’m really focused on my embouchure, making sure I center my sound.” Or, “I’m making sure that my fingers are moving smoothly and evenly.” I also hear things that completely exclude the person playing the music:
“I’m thinking mostly about what I’m playing.” Or even, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just playing.” (When I continue to ask questions after hearing this answer, I find without fail, that the musician is indeed thinking, perhaps too much as a matter of fact.)
Either way, it becomes clear to me that there is a tendency to divide and focus the attention, as opposed to gathering and expanding it.
Most of the musicians who study the Alexander Technique with me come to me because they have very specific problems. Maybe it’s chronic pain, loss of technique and coordination, or a host of other things. Often in their pursuit of solving their problems, they begin to hyper-focus their attention onto the perceived part of themselves that’s causing the problem. This more often than not makes the problem worse.
For sure you need to become aware of what you’re doing habitually that might be interfering with your ability to make music. That’s one of the main components of changing yourself. But you must also understand that each part of you is conditioned by the rest of you. The whole of you. And that whole is conditioned by how you think, by where you place your attention.
To use the metaphor of geopolitics, you must learn to think of yourself more globally instead of locally. What your impact is on the rest of the world, so to speak. You must realize that every time you directly change one part of yourself, that the whole of you will change in response.
One of the main aims of the Alexander Technique is teaching you to think of yourself as a whole, to see how your thinking influences how you use each part of yourself. This begins by learning to pay attention to your thinking as you play. Where does your attention go when you play? Is it different in practice versus performance? How much of yourself is included in your attention? Too much? Too little…?
As I began to study the Alexander Technique some years back because of problems I was having with my left hand, I soon came to realize two things:
First, that I was paying way, way too much attention to my left hand as I was playing my saxophone, at the expense of excluding the rest of myself. (This was making my playing go from bad to worse on an almost daily basis.) Second, that the problem with my left hand had to do with how I was organizing (more like disorganizing!) the use of my head, neck and back.
In Alexander lingo, we call this head/neck/back relationship the primary control. Primary indeed, because how you organize this relationship will directly impact how you use your entire self: arms, legs, lips, tongue, breath, fingers….the works.
By learning how to notice and prevent some of the unnecessary habitual patterns of tension I was causing with my primary control, I indirectly solved the problem of my left hand. My left hand became integrated into the global community of my whole self.
So if you’re experiencing problems with a very specific part of you, like your hands, tongue, fingers…whatever, notice how you’re thinking about it. Then see if you can notice what you do with the rest of yourself as you play. See if you can also notice the following:
- How much of your attention is going straight to the problem area? If it’s your hands, for example, are you bringing all of your attention there? What part of yourself are you ignoring as you do this? What aspects of the music are you ignoring?
- What happens to your neck the moment you find yourself struggling with your particular problem? Do you begin to stiffen it up as you bear down into yourself? What happens in your shoulders? Your back? If you do, understand that no matter what your specific problem is, this is root of that habit. Learn to prevent this and you’re halfway home.
- Does your attention shift as soon as you encounter that trouble area? Do you become hyper-focused? Do you lose touch with the music? With the rest of you? Contrast that to where your attention is when your not encountering this specific trouble area.