“Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.”
Whenever I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians, there always seems to be these revelatory moments when they find they’ve been wrong all this time about something that previously felt perfectly normal in playing their instrument. Typically, it’s something that they thought was helping them play better. Ironically, it more often than not turns out to be the very thing that is making playing more difficult.
Why would any musician hang on to a habit that is making things worse rather than better? Simple. It’s because habits feels normal. And as long as those habits feel normal, there’s no impetus for change.
Many musicians are wary, even suspicious, when it comes to changing habits. “It doesn’t feel natural to do it that way. I just want to play naturally.” I hear this on a regular basis as I teach new students.
But these musicians are confusing natural with normal. Normal is what you do habitually, no matter if it’s in accord with the design of your bodily structure, gravity, and the physical laws of acoustics, or not. Natural, on the other hand, is when you direct your playing toward being in harmony with these things. To let your playing be supported by the laws of nature.
So as I teach, I keep two objectives in mind: First, to help my students learn what is natural, to help them understand how they function best within the laws of nature. And second, to get them to stop relying solely on what feels normal as a guideline for directing their efforts in playing music.
The first of these aims is fairly easy for me to implement. By giving students a chance to understand (both intellectually and kinesthetically) how their bodies work best to play music, they practically have no choice but to realize that their previous conceptions are somewhat inaccurate.
The second of these aims is a bit harder to bring to fruition. Because musicians are so driven to play by what feels normal, what feels right, sometimes the only way they can open the door for constructive change is to allow themselves to feel wrong. Not an easy thing for musicians to do (nor anyone else for that matter).
Even if a musician can clearly and unmistakably hear the improvement in that instant when they stop doing their habit, they are still haunted by that sense that “It doesn’t feel natural to do it that way.”
But as the Alexander lessons continue, the student gets enough of these experiences with the unfamiliar sensations that they stop feeling wrong. When that happens, it’s an indicator that great changes have been made with regard to their old habits (and to the quality of their playing).
Usually at that point I make a little experiment. I’ll use my hands to guide them back into their old habits, just so they can the sense the changes they’ve made. When I do this I usually hear something like, “Seriously? I used to do that? That feels terrible! It feels so unnatural.”
And of course, it is unnatural. But fortunately it is no longer normal. When this shift in thinking occurs, the musician is solidly walking upon a path of continuous growth and improvement.
Here are a few things you can do to point your playing toward the natural as opposed to the normal:
- Study the laws of nature-It is vitally important that you move in a direction of better understanding both your body and certain principles of physics that are relevant to playing music. Browse anatomy books to better understand your structure. Pay careful attention to the shape, location and function of your joints. Also, get to know and understand the essential physical properties that govern sound production. By getting a clearer understanding of the physical phenomena involved in playing, you can save yourself lots of setbacks, frustration and even injury.
- Question things-If you study the laws of nature and acquire a good foundation in understanding your body and basic acoustical principles, you’ll be in a good position to question things. Place even the best intended advice (always respectfully, of course) under the scrutiny of the laws of nature. Also, question your own beliefs. Make sure you understand why you proceed the way you do.
- Allow yourself to feel wrong-It’s very likely that when you change something for the better it will feel wrong (that’s not always the case). Again, compare what you are doing with what you understand about the laws of nature. If you are fairly certain that a new way to do something on your instrument is better, more efficient and effective, follow your intellect. If you stick with your decision to change, eventually the right thing will feel right (more important, the wrong thing will feel wrong).
- Consider getting help from a good teacher-The Alexander Technique is an especially practical way of addressing your habitual patterns of tension and inefficient movement. You don’t need to find a teacher who plays your instrument, nor do you need to find a teacher who is a musician. You can read about the best saxophone lesson I’ve ever taken to find out more about my specific experience in learning from a non-saxophonist. If you don’t have access to a certified Alexander Technique teacher, find another well-respected expert to help you (perhaps another musician). Just seek out a person who is teaching in accordance with the principles of nature, and not in accordance with their own habits and beliefs.
Stay with these principles and you’ll find that your continued progress and growth will be supported by the confidence that your idea of right, just might be right after all.