To improve as a musician, you need discipline, drive, passion, commitment, persistence, a sense of humor, organizational skills, patience and more. But the thing that really fuels (really nourishes!) improvement is curiosity.
And Einstein was speaking from his own experience. His talent was his deep curiosity, and it was directed toward better understanding the physical nature of the world around him. That curiosity fueled his passion to make astounding discoveries about our universe.
To be curious means that you don’t know, but would like to know. It is a source of energy.
As musicians, we can be curious about a great many things that pertain to our music making: equipment, acoustical physics, pedagogical philosophy, musical theory, practice routines of accomplished musicians, and so forth.
But if you want to always grow as a musician, the most important thing for you to be curious about is yourself.
I teach the Alexander Technique to performing arts majors at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Sometimes I’ll have a student come up to me at the end of the first day of class and ask, “What do I have to do to earn an “A” in this class?”
“All you have to do is remain curious about yourself”, is my answer. Of course I go on to explain more specifically what I mean by that. But my own experience has shown me, without fail, that it is the students who have a genuine curiosity in themselves that not only earn a good grade, but also, make lasting and sometimes profound improvements in how they perform and otherwise function.
To improve, you have to make changes in yourself. You can’t change until you are curious enough to start asking how and why you work the way you do. How and why.
In essence, this means to be curious about your entire self: your physical organism (especially as it relates to gravity), your thinking, and how your thinking affects the functioning of your physical organism.
It’s the same with my private Alexander students who are professional musicians. The ones who really progress rapidly with the work are the ones who are really curious about the how and the why of themselves. Part of my job is to help them to discover and cultivate this kind of curiosity.
I’m still amazed at the number of musicians who come to me for help that don’t have the slightest idea about how they’re body works in relation to playing their instrument. (For example, sometimes problems are immediately solved simply by showing the musician where her/his hip joints are, and how they work.)
I often run into musicians who know much more about their equipment than they do about their own bodies (not to mention how their thinking impacts the functioning of their bodies).
Yet ultimately it is your body and mind that is the vehicle for your self expression. When you perform with an inconsistent quality, it is you, not your chosen instrument, that is creating the inconsistency. As important as it is to understand the physical principles of what it takes to produce sound, deal with mechanical design of your instrument, etc. (and that is very important!), it is equally important that you understand your body’s role in working harmoniously with the acoustical and mechanical principles of your instrument. You’re either working with or agains these principles, depending on what you’re doing with yourself as you play.
I also encounter musicians who never really notice their own thinking. They are often unclear as to what the most helpful kind of thinking is. Sometimes they are trying way too hard to do something, bringing not only lots of muscular tension into the picture, but also, a kind of “being in a hurry” mentality that never lets them settle in and actually be present with music they’re playing.
I can often see their thinking by way of all their postural and movement habits: lots of compression and tension, lack of balance, sometimes even fear as they play.
By getting these musicians to observe their own thinking and linking that observation to what happens in their bodies as they play music, they begin to finally understand what leads to consistent performance. This is often when they remain curious about themselves for the rest of their lives. A fundament, profound change. Continuous improvement.
So here are two questions to ask yourself. Seeking the answer to these questions will keep you forever curious (and improving!):
“How does my body work most naturally and efficiently in the act of playing my instrument?”
To answer this question it would be helpful to understand some basic anatomy and physiology. You can find many free resources online for this. If you like books (as I do) , I’d recommend Anatomy of Movement By Blandine Calais-Germain. It’s loaded with illustrations and easily understood text. You’ll gain a great sense of how your musculoskeletal system works.
If you want to start with something even more basic, consider this excellent DVD, Move Well, Avoid Injury by Amy Likar and Barbara Conable. Based on the principles of body mapping, and the Alexander Technique, this has marvelous animated images and advice for giving you a much clearer understanding of how your body naturally works best. Everything from how to stand, sit, maintain balance, use your arms and hands, breathing and more is lucidly explained and demonstrated. Highly applicable to all activities, especially playing music.
And of course, a good teacher can help you with this. In the Alexander Technique you get hands on guidance to gain the experience kinesthetically of lighter, more efficient movement. You also gain clarification on your understanding of how your body functions best in relation to all activities. There is no end to this study. The more you understand, the deeper you understand, the better you’ll play.
“What makes the quality of my performance inconsistent?”
To answer this question you have to not only understand your body’s role in music making, but also, how your thinking impacts this. This is the essence of how the Alexander Technique can help you. By changing your thinking, you change what you do in your body as you play.
I encourage my students to notice their thinking, especially on “bad” and “good” days practicing or performing. They learn to notice what they are doing in their bodies that might be interfering with or (better supporting!) their playing. Then I get them to link that to their thinking. By constructively directing their thinking, they learn to get the best response in their bodies. Rather consistently.
If you need help finding a certified Alexander Technique teacher in your area visit the Website for the American Society for the Alexander Technique.
Whichever path you take, remember, you are the ultimate mystery. Place your curiosity there and ready yourself for continuous discoveries and growth.