I’m having a week teaching where many of my Alexander Technique students are (purely coincidentally) discovering the same truth about their technical facility. It’s a a truth that is rather surprising to them. Let me illustrate with a short story:
One of my students, a fine cellist, was in his lesson with me noticing the lack of evenness and rhythmic clarity in a particular musical passage he was playing. (Specifically, he was rushing some notes in the passage.)
As my student and I began to explore this further (he, too, could hear the rhythmic imbalance in the passage), I asked him to stop the moment the sound of any given note in the passage was less than the quality he wanted. (I had him slow the tempo a bit to make this exploration.)
He stopped each time he didn’t like his sound on any given note in the passage. This was somewhat new and surprising for him, as he said he wasn’t paying such careful attention to his sound as he played the passage.
What we found was that many of the notes he didn’t like were notes bowed on the upstroke. I had him repeat each of these notes several times, going from downstroke to upstroke.
What became immediately apparent was the difference in color between the two strokes. (Now, for sure there is naturally a color difference between bow strokes, but his was more than necessary or desirable.) The reason he could so easily hear the difference is that he normally plays with a more homogeneous color between bow strokes.
So we had to ask this question: What are you doing differently with your entire self as you change bow direction on this particular passage. What are you adding in terms of tension and doing that you don’t need to do?
We found that he was mostly bowing from a narrowing shoulder (mostly contracting) on the up stroke in this passage, as opposed to bowing from a widening back (mostly expanding), which he was doing on his downstroke. It was fairly easy for him to redirect himself (he’s a good Alexander student!) and to not worsen the conditions of how he was using himself from up to down bowing.
He was then able to keep a beautiful evenness in his tone color.
Suddenly, as if by magic, as he brought this into the context of the passage he was playing, his rhythmic troubles disappeared. He was soon able to play the passage with great facility, speed, clarity and expression. He could really hear his sound as he played.
As I mentioned above, this seems to be the week that many of my students are learning this same lesson, whether on guitar, saxophone, trumpet, drums, or cello. It’s actually a lesson about cause and effect: Technical problems are often rhythmic problems. Rhythmic problems are often sound production problems. Sound production problems are often problems of unnecessary tension. Unnecessary tension is caused by unhelpful thinking.
(Last week I wrote an article specifically about maintaing the ideal conditions in yourself to play your best. Give it a read after you finish this article.)
Often when musicians are struggling with a technical passage, they sort of lose connection with their sound. They get very interested in the parts of themselves they think are responsible for playing the passage. For my cellist, it was placing far too much attention in his left hand, at the expense of dividing his attention and cutting of his capacity to really hear his sound.
There is one simple truth about the great virtuosi: every single note they play is sonically gorgeous. Every note. Not only does this make beautiful music, it also makes for greater technical facility.
So if you’d like to improve your technique, make paying attention to your sound the lens that you judge the quality of your work. Sounds simple enough, I know.
Here is a way to proceed as you practice in this manner:
- Don’t approximate-Give yourself a chance to really hear each passage clearly, note by note. This means playing very slowly, with the metronome.
- Listen and stop-The moment you hear any note out of color, any note less than as beautiful as you know you can make, stop and see if you can understand why it is less than ideal. Are you tensing somewhere? Are you being less than accurate with finger placement, embouchure control, air stream, bow energy (or any other element relevant to your instrument). Give yourself a chance to discern what you are doing differently with yourself to interfere with the sound, then make a conscious choice not to do that.
- Stop and listen-Once you’ve noticed your less than optimal sound, stop and play this note by itself a few times, sustaining it, to really get back in touch with the quality you want. See if you can use your thinking to bring you back to that ideal state of conditions to produce the sound you know you can get.
- Work your way forward-Define the length of the technical passage that’s presenting the challenge. Let’s say it’s about 12 notes long. Play from the first note until you run into any notes whose color you don’t like. Play the passage up to that note and sustain that note, again, going back to your good conditions to produce your best sound. Continue this until you can successfully make it through the entire passage with beautiful, clearly intended and executed sound.
- Enjoy your new rhythmic clarity and technical control-You’ll be consistently pleased with the results if you follow this procedure.
To sum up, stay connected to the sound you hear on each note, discern what you are doing if your sound is less than what you know you’re capable of, then trace that back to how you’re thinking. Because above all, it is your thinking that conditions everything else in your playing.