Playing music is largely an internal process. Tonal conception, rhythmic conception, pitch and expression are all things that begin inside your imagination as you play (if you’re improvising, perhaps even more internal impulses and decisions are at work).
Yet ultimately these internal stimuli manifest themselves in the external environment in order to make the music that you and the rest of the world can hear. From conception to physical expression. From internal to external.
And of course, you’re getting feedback from this external world, which constantly informs ands conditions your internal world as you play. You hear your sound, pitch, tempo, dynamics…as well as any of the other musicians with whom you’re playing. All this information is going back to you to affect your internal world.
In my experience teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, I often find either an imbalance, or a disconnect between the internal and external. This is the source of many difficulties for these musicians.
Everything from excess strain, to chronic injury, to focal dystonia, can be caused by (or exacerbated by) this disintegration. (The condition of focal dystonia in particular can usually be traced to an over-emphasis of the internal.)
I see the greatest amount of evidence of this problem with my students as I observe (and ask questions) about what they do to warm up. I’ve found that it is this “warm up” habit that sort of sets the stage for many of their other problems.
These musicians see the warm up as an almost exclusively “physical” activity:
“I’m getting the muscles loose and the blood flowing.”
“I’m waking up my fingers.”
“I’m opening up my breathing.”
“I’m setting my up embouchure .” And so on. (You’ll notice that these things are mostly internally experienced.)
Now, to be clear, certainly part of the warmup is about something physical (blood flow, muscles, etc.) A good warm up can help you avoid injury, and can also help create the conditions for you to play with greater efficiency and less strain.
But the warm up is not just a physical activity. As F.M. Alexander (the founder of the Alexander Technique) might say, warming up is a psycho-physical activity. It involves the whole self: thought and movement integrated together.
The students I encounter that are struggling with their playing tend to focus too much attention on one aspect of the internal. This mostly involves trying very hard to re-capture the feeling (or the memory of that feeling) of what it is like to play well. Their energy is going inward almost exclusively. Often they’re not hearing themselves nearly as well as they could.
And of course, because they’re not hearing themselves as well as they could, the troubles begin. Pitch, tone color, projection, time, breath control…Coordination in general begins to suffer. They can sense and even hear that things aren’t quite right, yet they continue to go inward to try to feel the right thing. (This creates a downward spiral of frustration for many musicians.) The more disconnected they become from the external, the more deeply internal they go.
This over-focus on one aspect of the internal also cuts them off from other crucial information in their internal environment. Specifically, the attempt to recapture the feeling of playing well tends to create lots of excess physical tension, especially in the neck, jaw, shoulders, ribcage and legs (not to mention hands and fingers!)
Often this excessive tension is below the consciousness of these musicians. It simply becomes part of the “memory” (distorted as it my be) of playing well. Yet this tension is making it even that much more impossible to play well (to play at an optimum level).
So what to do? First, change your perception of what you’re trying to accomplish in your warmup.
In my own practice as a saxophonist, I’ve radically re-designed my warmup. I’ve shifted my aim from merely “warming up the muscles” to “integrating the internal with the external.”
Here’s what I do:
I start my practice session by lying down for a few minutes in constructive rest. This gives me a chance to quiet myself and bring a gentle awareness of what’s going on inside my body as I stay connected to my external world.
Next, I pick up my instrument, and sort of freely improvise for a moment or two as I begin to wake up my senses. I notice the resistance of the reed and mouthpiece, the movement of my breath and fingers (my internal world).
As I’m doing this, I’m also hearing my sound by actively listening to the walls resonate in my practice room (my external world). That is, I’m not trying to feel what my sound is (or even hear it come out the bell of the instrument), but to actually hear it.
From there, I begin to do some slow work with the metronome (playing very simple melodic patterns that I know very well). I do this because it brings my attention to an external time source, and is a way to integrate my internal perception of time with the external reality of the metronome.
As I’m paying attention to the clicks of the metronome, I’m beginning to expand my attention. I start to notice and direct the release of my neck and shoulders. I sense the easy, elastic expansion of my torso as I breathe. I become aware of the vibrations in my face as I play, and more.
All of this as I am actively listening to my sound in the room and the clicks on the metronome. (Sometimes I’ll rhythmically displace the melodic pattern with the metronome clicks so that I must listen even more actively.)
After a few moments, I begin to increase the tempo of the metronome, all the while paying attention to the other things I’ve mentioned above. It is so easy to do this, and within minutes I’m fully ready to play anything. Psycho-physcially ready. My muscles are warm, my mind is calm and alert, and I’ve now easily integrated the internal with the external to create one thing: my consciousness in playing music.
In essence, cultivating this skill (of integrating and balancing the internal and external) has been the very thing that has saved my career as a saxophonist. My playing continues to improve and grow.
So how is your warmup? Are you expanding or narrowing your attention? If you practice expanding your attention, you’ll effortlessly play with a nice balance between the internal and external. And that’s where you’ll find the great music that’s already inside of you.