The Importance Of Not Knowing

“In the mind of the expert, the possibilities are few. In the mind of the beginner, the possibilities are infinite.” -Ryo Suzuki

It is natural for us to want to know. It’s what fuels our growth, our curiosity and our inspiration. Without knowing certain things, life itself would become quite difficult, if not impossible.

But sometimes we don’t know something when we think we do, and that’s where problems can arise. We anticipate the outcome of certain things based upon our erroneous preconception of what we believe to be true. This often manifests itself in lots of misdirected energy.

I’m speaking specifically here about how you perceive yourself as you play music: how you anticipate, measure and dispense your energies in relation to the music making process.

One of the more interesting things that I notice when I return from vacation (after not playing my saxophones for a week or two) is how different that first day of practicing is. I often find myself being able to do things technically that I couldn’t normally do before. Why is that?

Well in the simplest sense, it’s because I “forgot” that I couldn’t do these things. It’s been a couple of weeks and my preconceived limitations have sort of slipped from my memory.

Many of my music students report a similar phenomena: that first day of practice after a vacation, where anything is possible. As many of these students also report, by the second day, the magic is usually gone, and they’re back to where they were before (or maybe even a bit worse, being “rusty” from missing a couple of weeks of practice).

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can use this as an opportunity to observe the quality, and amount, of effort you use as you play music, and contrast this to what you do normally (habitually). What I and many of my students find is that we are creating far less muscular effort to play our instruments on that first day after vacation. (Again, probably because we’ve “forgotten” how much effort we need to play.)

Instead of having a knowing mind, we approach our instrument with an inquisitive (unknowing) mind. This is probably helped along by the fact that we are giving ourselves a chance to sound bad. After all, it’s been a couple of weeks, so no big deal if it’s not up to snuff. Often, having this kind of resignation has the effect of letting us let go of misdirected effort.

So when I come back  to practicing after a brief hiatus,  I use this phenomenon of not knowing to set a new benchmark for what is possible in my playing. I use it as an opportunity to observe my thinking. I notice, not so much what I am thinking, as what I’m not thinking.

As an example, I find myself not anticipating rapid passages with any sense of preparation (no unnecessary brain chatter). I’m just letting myself play. Same with playing in the extreme registers of the instrument. In essence, I stop “getting ready to play.” I simply play, and discover as I go along, how much effort, how much tension, how much energy I need.

And I aspire to carry this attitude into my playing each day, maintaining the my beginner’s mind.

Usually what I do at the start of my practice session is to produce a sound on the saxophone with as little effort as possible. This usually means that in the first few minutes I get no sound, other than the air going through the mouthpiece (not vibrating the reed.) As I begin to increase my energy, coupled with my intention, I gradually begin to get the reed to vibrate, and I learn how much effort is necessary in that moment, in that room, with that particular reed, to create a sound.

From there I continue to gradually increase my efforts until I’m getting a sound that pleases me. Just the right amount of effort to express my sound. All because I let myself discover, not knowing until I get there. I approach my technical work the same way. How little effort does it take?

One of the aims of the Alexander Technique is to help you learn how to gauge the appropriate amount of tension for an activity (musical or otherwise),  by observing the relationship of the head, neck and back.

When there is too much effort, the neck usually tenses and shortens, which causes the back to narrow and stiffen, which then interferes with everything else (hands, breathing, mouth…you name it). Alexander called this head/neck/back relationship the primary control, as it is primary in conditioning the coordination of the entire organism. (Both my teaching and playing experience confirm this principle to be true without exception.)

In the Alexander Technique, you learn how to carry out your activities without this tension. As you do, you discover again. You discover over and over that you can do things with even less effort than you thought. It is a life long journey of discovery.

You never really know how little effort it ultimately takes to play your instrument (or do anything else, for that matter). You learn only that you can always do less, and that as you do less, you get so much more.

So whenever you have these instances of seemingly effortless playing, playing that is beyond what your normal limitations are, observe your thinking and your body. Notice how free your body is, how much less tension than normal you are bringing into the music making process. In particular, notice your neck, shoulders and back, see how freely they work together. Notice how easy, mobile and confident your balance is.

Then go back to noticing your thinking. How are your thoughts different than when you normally play. Make a real study of the differences. Keeping a practice log is especially helpful for this. The muscular effort you create in your body is a direct result of your thinking. Improve your thinking, liberate your playing.





  1. Steve Peterson says

    To quote that great jazz commentator Will Rogers, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” I’ve often found myself saying about an instrument or specific musical concept, “That’s it. Now after all this study I know all that can be done with this, and nothing new will come out of it.” Then, quite frequently I’ll hear some player making totally fresh music using that instrument or idea. The mistake would be to then say, “Okay, now that I’ve heard THAT guy, I know all that can be done with it”, when the right approach would be to accept that the limits of that instrument/idea may be nowhere near where we think they are and to just keep pushing.

    • admin says

      I completely agree, Steve (love the Will Roger’s quote!) The ultimate limitation of any musical instrument (or technique, or concept, etc.) lies in the mind of the artist. A favorite saying by F.M. Alexander comes to mind, “It is the things that don’t exist that are the most difficult to get rid of.” In other words, don’t get stuck in your beliefs. That, of course, is a lifelong endeavor.

  2. Melanie says

    Brings to mind a Russian study from way back . . . it looked at physical responses in the extremely elderly in the first moments after waking. Turns out they could shame the Radio City Rockettes before they woke up enough to remember they were 90- or 100-something. No muscle tears or broken bones, either.

    • admin says

      Thanks for that Melanie! That’s a very inspiring story. It’s amazing what happens when we stop limiting ourselves with our preconceptions. Our ability to move well and respond efficiently are always lying within us latently, waiting for us to call on them.

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