This Simple Shift In Attitude Can Yield Great Rewards

I gave a lesson the other day to an excellent saxophonist who has been studying with me via Skype for many months now. He was very pleased with the recent breakthroughs that he’d made in his playing, and expressed this profound change simply, but quite accurately:

“Before, I was anticipating; now, I’m responding.”

I was filled with joy when I heard him say this, because I knew that he had discovered, through his own experiences, a shift in thinking that was showing him significant gains.

I could easily hear this change in attitude in everything, from the quality of his sound, to his breath control, to his time, to his expression. All freer, more flexible (yet precise), more spontaneous and powerful.

I could also see this change in attitude as it is manifested in his body: calm, expansive, mobile, easy, balanced. In fact, I would say that I heard and saw the same things. Everything integrated into the present moment.

Anticipating versus responding. Let’s look at this with respect to what my student was doing (and what many musicians do) that was causing some of his problems:

  • Anticipating posture-His back arched, chest lifted, eyes fixed, neck stiff, legs rigid.
  • Anticipating  jaw position, embouchure formation-His jaw held rigidly without enough energy being directed toward the reed; his facial muscles around his mouth working more than they need to.
  • Anticipating note voicing-Creating a strain everywhere in his body, as he tried to “place” the air “just right” into the mouthpiece/reed.
  • Anticipating breathing-Never allowing the actual demands of the music to inform his breathing; instead, sort of “holding on” to his breath, never really letting it release to balance itself against the resistance of the mouthpiece/reed.
  • Anticipating sound-Having a somewhat fixed idea of his own sound (not only what he wants to hear, but how it should feel), sometimes to the point of not fully hearing and realizing his sound as it actually is.

As you might imagine, all of these habits of anticipation were inviting strain, loss of coordination and artistic dissatisfaction to my student. With his somewhat rigid ideas of how it should be, he was closing himself off to the possibility of how it could be. Specifically, he was keeping himself from responding to the actual needs (in the moment) of what was necessary to play his instrument.

Through our work together using the Alexander Technique principles, he began to allow himself to explore the possibilities of playing without many of his habitual preconceptions. He began to discover, through direct experience, that there is a natural way to respond to the demands of playing his instrument.

He began to think about balance instead of posture. He realized that he could let his jaw be free to respond to the resistance of the mouthpiece/reed. He learned that (just as we do with our own voices) his internal embouchure (soft palate, tongue position, etc.) will effortlessly and dynamically respond to voice the note clearly and powerfully.

He also discovered that his sound could inform his breathing, integrating both breath and sound into one responsive, dynamic, flexible and controlled, whole entity.

And oh, how his sound changed! It went from generically good,  to highly personal and expressive. Beautiful! This to me was the biggest thrill to experience. It was like I was hearing his true voice for the first time.

All of this largely due to a shift in his attitude. A shift from rigid beliefs about what it takes to play, to trusting his ability to respond constructively.

I should point out here that anticipation itself is a form of response. (In truth, it is the reaction to the thought of playing, rather than the response to the needs of the act itself.) But too often, it is a response that carries lots of misdirected energy. Suffice it to say, that most of your habitual tension and strain as you play your instrument is from this kind of anticipation.

It is easy to get stuck in anticipation mode. Maybe you do so from unconscious habit, advice given to you, anatomical or acoustical misunderstanding…even fear. But whatever the reason, shifting your attitude from expectation to exploration can help you play better, easier, more expressively and joyfully.

Start by noticing your own thinking and the habits that come along with it. What do you do to prepare as you play your first note? What are you doing that is not necessary to produce that note (tension, gesture)? What would it be like if you played without those habits of anticipation?

Give yourself a chance to explore these questions. I think you’ll be surprised by what you discover. And please, let me know.



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