It’s an oversimplification to say that we hear with our ears. Sure, the ears are a big part of it. They receive the incoming vibrations from the world and send them to the brain for processing. But it’s really the brain that hears. It’s the brain that interprets those vibrations as sound.
Timbre, pitch, dynamics, color, stridency, beauty, depth…these are all things manufactured in our brains. When we say that we are improving our ears as musicians, what we’re really doing is improving our brain’s ability to discern and judge sound. It’s a matter of broadening our perception.
Often when I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians, there is a magical moment when my students really hear their sound in a profound way. It’s almost as if they are hearing their authentic musical voice for the first time. It’s a powerful experience.
But it might surprise you to know what they are doing differently to hear their sound this way. I’ll give you a hint: they aren’t trying to listen more carefully. In fact, they usually have stopped trying to hear their sound at all. Let me illustrate with a recent experience I had teaching a small group of instrumentalists at California Institute of the Arts.
These student were part of a two-week intensive program in the Alexander Technique offered at CalArts, wonderfully organized and directed by my dear friend and colleague, Babette Markus.
After spending the first few days working with these musicians on their general coordination (sitting, standing, bending, reaching, walking, breathing), it was time to begin to apply the Alexander principles of awareness, inhibition and direction to the act of playing music.
One of the students in my working group, a young guitarist, had a particularly tense habitual use of himself, whether sitting, standing, walking, or playing music. Though we had addressed many of these habits of his “non-musical” activities with some success, we seemed to be back at square one when it came to making music.
When he played guitar, you could see him carrying out the same postural and movement habits that he was bringing to all his other activities: jutting his head forward as he stiffened his neck, pulling his shoulders forward and downward, thrusting his pelvis forward while locking his knees, ankles and toes (and holding his breath from time to time).
But one of the things that stood out most to me was how intense and inward looking his eyes were as he stared at his left hand as it moved up and down the neck of his guitar. It was clear to me that his attention was divided, and not well integrated.
I asked him what he was thinking as he played. He told me that he was concentrating on his left hand, mostly. When I asked why, he said that there really wasn’t a good reason. It was mostly for giving him a sense of security about his sound, allowing him to see his fingers land in the middle of the frets.
I then asked him about what else he noticed as he played. Did he notice what was going on in his body? Did he notice how he was balancing himself in relation to his instrument? Did he notice the size, shape and sound of the room that he was playing in? Did he notice his breathing?
He answered “no” to those questions. So I began to work with him as he played, helping him to notice some of these other things.
I asked him to shift his attention (and primary intention) from playing music to noticing himself, as I used my hands and verbal directions to help him. He was a quick study, and it wasn’t difficult for him to let go of many of his habitual tension responses. The moment he brought too much of his attention to the guitar, I would gently guide him back into noticing himself instead.
Then I got him to think more outward, more spatially. I had him play notes slowly as he listened, not to his guitar, but to the sound of the room as he played these notes. I also had him use his eyes differently, again, more outward. I instructed him let his eyes soften to take a visual tour of the room as he played.
Within minutes he had changed rather dramatically. He went from a very inward, downward and rigid direction to a soft, expansive and outwardly expansive direction. He looked completely different, changing from looking “focused” to looking easily aware of himself, his instrument and his environment.
But the most remarkable change was something we both perceived: his sound. The clarity and gentle precision of his attack in his right hand, and his easily responsive and supple left hand worked together to form a gorgeous sound.
Then he said the thing I often hear my students say when this happens: “It’s so easy to hear my sound.” So easy to hear. Easy. That’s always the adjective my students use to describe this phenomenon.
In this particular case it became easy because my student integrated his sense of hearing into the most important of all his senses: his kinesthetic sense. Specifically, his sense of his body physically, and the space around it. His awareness of himself in relation to the world.
Before, he was dividing his attention, focusing on his left hand at the expense of excluding the rest of himself and his environment. Now he was integrating and expanding his attention. He went from trying to hear his sound, to actually hearing it.
When you organize yourself this way, it becomes easier to see, easier to hear, easier to play music, easier to notice…easier to be.
So start observing your habits of attention as you play. Where do you place most of your attention? Where is your body in this equation? Where is your external environment? Is your attention balanced and expansive, or overly focused and narrow?
Start by noticing how free and easy you can be in your body as you play, and take that possibility outward toward your environment. You might be surprised by what you hear.