The sound you produce on your instrument is a product of several components: your imagination (conception), your equipment, your physical structure, and your coordination. To get the best sound you can at any given moment, all these components need to be in place and working in harmony.
This is perhaps more immediately evident for some instruments than others. If you play a wind instrument, like I do (saxophone), you know how absolutely crucial it is to coordinate breath with embouchure (including tongue and oral cavity) in response to your equipment as you aim toward your conception of tone.
For an instrument like piano, for example, you may not have to coordinate as many different things physically to produce tone, but you still have plenty to deal with in order to touch the keys with the kind of attack and color you imagine.
Part of the work I do as an Alexander Technique teacher is coaching my students with their sound. What I find with many new students is that they’re not hearing the beauty and resonance that is already there in their sound. Instead they’re in a state of frustrated distraction as they struggle to produce a sound that doesn’t match their exact preconception.
In essence, the problem is that they’re trying too hard to listen, but aren’t really hearing. When this is the case two unfortunate things arise:
1. Unnecessary strain: stiff necks, jaws, backs, arms, legs …all in an effort to muscle the sound into submission.
2. Withheld enjoyment: not being able to take pleasure in the process of music making.
Whenever I work with these students I’m usually taken aback at how they’ve cut themselves off from fully realizing their sound. I hear things like, “It’s really thin”, or “It has no color”, or “It’s not well-focused”. Yet it doesn’t sound that way at all to me when I listen to them. I hear resonance, energy, rich color, intensity, expression…I hear what’s actually there. It’s just that I’m just not listening with my student’s expectations.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that my students shouldn’t try to find that “ideal” sound. Of course they should (and you should, too!) That’s part of the journey an artist makes. It’s just that they might be closer to producing that sound than they think. (You might be closer than you think, too!)
Does you ever struggle like this to more fully realize your sound? If so, here are some things to do and/or keep in mind to help you:
- Broaden your listening-Rather than listening closely to your instrument, let yourself hear your sound as it resonates in the room you’re playing or practicing in. I tell my students, “Listen out into the room. That’s where the sound is.”
- Take care of yourself-No matter what you’re hearing (or trying to hear), don’t lose sight of what you’re doing with yourself as you play. It doesn’t help at all to stiffen your body to produce yours sound (makes it rather worse, actually). Instead, think of releasing your sound.
- Hear with more than your ears-Resonance can be felt all over your body if you’re open to it. Notice how your chest, jaw, neck, back…even your fingers feel as you make your sound. Notice that you can hear more when you’re not stiffening your body.
- Learn to discern-Instead of immediately judging (as in good or bad) your sound, aim towards being able to identify and describe more objective data, such as pitch, overtones (can you hear the partials?), volume and balance of color. Recording yourself regularly (on good equipment, of course) can help tremendously with this. Learn to hear yourself in a more detached way, as if you’re simply observing something with no personal agenda.
- Seek out goodness-Even when I’m playing on a bad reed, in less than ideal acoustic settings, I’m actively listening for what is good (what I like!) about my sound. I can always find something that pleases me, as I reconnect to what makes my sound mine. In fact, sometimes I intentionally practice tone exercises with these challenging conditions just to give myself a chance to put this into practice.
- Be grateful-To play music is such a huge blessing. Most people who’ve never played and instrument envy even the mediocre musician’s ability of musical self expression. Sometimes in the quest for improvement, it’s easy to lose sight of what you already have. Let yourself enjoy and fully embrace where you’re at with your musical development right now.
It’s natural to want to improve your sound (I’m always working to improve mine; and yes, I’m helping my students to improve theirs, as well), but please do let yourself hear what’s already there. (You might be surprised!) You’ll play better, feel better and enjoy yourself more.
I’ll leave you with these old words of wisdom that I first heard from my mother many years ago: Happiness isn’t having what you want; it’s wanting what you have.