In playing any musical instrument there are certain undeniable principles that need to be recognized. When you use your instrument to make sound, what you are creating is a phenomenon in nature called vibration.
To create vibration you must set something into motion. If it is a brass instrument, you have to vibrate your lips. If it’s a reed instrument you have to set the reed in motion against the mouthpiece. If it is a string instrument, you have to set a string into vibration either by plucking it or by bringing tension to it via the hairs on a bow…and so forth and so on.
In other words, when you make a sound, you are directing your energy to interface with an instrument to create vibration. If you keep this in mind, you will be able to understand more clearly your role in making music, and how your habits either help or hinder this process.
You can think of your habits as the total manner of how you react to the thought of making music. That’s right, the thought. Because as soon as you think about playing, your body is already setting up the habits you’ve developed from practicing and performing music.
Your breathing changes. The muscular tension in your body changes. You use your eyes in a certain way, etc. In short, your thinking sets up your habitual patterns, for better or worse.
Now, you certainly need your habits. You couldn’t function in life if you had to re-learn every experience over and over. But as a musician, is it possible that some of the habits you’ve acquired are causing more difficulty than benefit?
If you keep in mind how you interface with your instrument to create vibration, and become aware of many of the things you do habitually to create this vibration, you might want to ask yourself the following question: “Am I playing well because of what I do, or despite what I do?”
Because of, or despite…that is the question. If you take note of what you do to make sound, you can use this question as a lens through which you can evaluate your playing habits.
If you notice yourself tightening your legs, or raising your shoulders, or noisily gasping in air before you play a phrase (even if you aren’t a wind instrumentalist or singer!), or a host of other patterns of contraction, ask yourself this question: “How is this helping me to create vibration in my instrument?”
If you can’t answer this question, then there is a good chance that not only is your habit not helping you; it’s probably holding you back.
It has been said that the greatest hindrance to our own improvement is our success thus far. Nowhere is this truer than for musicians. As musicians, we’re often ready and willing to suffer a certain amount of pain and discomfort to get the results we want, never for a moment questioning whether or not this discomfort is actually making it more difficult to obtain the desired results.
Because I’m primarily and improvising musician, I tend to more readily notice the postural and movement habits of some of the great jazz musicians. Somebody like Art Blakey, who was always easily upright and free when he played, makes me think, “It’s no surprise that his sound and time are so good…he’s playing in such an easily efficient manner.”
On the other hand, when I watch somebody like Sonny Rollins play, with his head thrown way forward and his legs thrown way back and his raised shoulders I say to myself, “He’s playing really well despite what he’s doing.”
And that’s the truth. Some musicians play very well despite their harmful habits. But it begs this question: could they be playing even better if they didn’t have these habits? With the greats, no one can ever do more than speculate about this. And for many musicians who are at least moderately successful, “Why fix something if it ain’t broke”? “If I’m doing well already, why should I change?”
Well, you should want to change because you wish to grow. You know that even though you’re playing well, you can always play better. If you’re interested in trying different instruments and different equipment in your quest for improvement, why not consider your primary instrument: You. That’s right you are the primary instrument, no matter what instrument you play. It is what you do that makes the music happen.
If you observe many of the classical virtuosi, you’ll often find a set of habits that really do support their outstanding performance. Somebody like the great pianist Artur Rubenstein, who always appeared to play with such ease, really did play with ease. To many of the great musicians in the world, playing music is easy. And so it should be.
If you experience strain and discomfort when you play, there is a good chance that you are creating unnecessary tension in making the music happen. If you experience inconsistency in your practice and performance, there is a good chance that it is because of your unconscious habits that are interfering with easy music making. If you practice and practice with no noticeable improvement, it is probably because of your habits. The list goes on. Making music can be easy and enjoyable.
The Alexander Technique is the best way I know of dealing with this issue. With the Technique you can learn how to become aware of and prevent the harmful habits that you bring to making music.
The Technique becomes a standard through which you can judge the accuracy of your answers to the question, “Am I able to make music because of this, or despite this?” Then you have a choice as you become aware of your habits. You can decide for yourself whether or not they’re helping you.
In my own case, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Alexander Technique saved my musical career. With the Alexander Technique not only am I pain free and technically more facile and precise, but also, my musical expression is deeper and more personal than ever before.
Years after studying and now teaching the Technique, I believe it to be the most important thing a musician can do to insure growth, improvement, health and satisfaction. I invite you to consider it.