One of the most common misconceptions about gaining technical fluency on a musical instrument is that it is mostly about being able to move quickly. Fast fingers, fast hands, fast tongue, etc. (depending on which instrument you play).
And for sure, when you see a musician displaying stunning technique, you are going to see various body parts moving rapidly.
But technical skill is more than just speed. It’s control. It’s the coordination between intention and execution. And that’s where time and rhythm come into the picture.
When I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians I’m always reminded of this. Without fail, every technical limitation (whether in the moment, or chronic) that my students demonstrate can be traced to a lack of rhythmic clarity. This lack of clarity manifests itself as an uncoordinated technical effort: unsteady tempo (rushed or dragged notes within a single phrase), missed notes, uneven color, uneven attack, etc.
But here’s where it gets interesting, because often the poor rhythmic clarity is being exacerbated by poor overall coordination. This is mostly a manifestation of habitual, excess muscular tension: stiff necks, shoulders, arms, hands and rib cages; locked knees, noisy breathing and more.
And (as anyone who has ever taken lessons would tell you) this is what the Alexander Technique is especially helpful for. You learn how to recognize and prevent these unhelpful habits.
As I get farther along teaching the Technique (and applying it to myself as a saxophonist) I develop a deeper understanding of this inseparable relationship between rhythm and coordination:
As my sense of time improves so does my technical skill. As I improve my overall coordination, my sense of time and rhythm improve. One hand washes the other.
Alexander Technique teacher and cellist, Pedro de Alcantara, in his excellent, highly practical book, Integrated Practice, speaks at great length about the connection between bodily coordination and rhythm. One of his talking points is that musicians need to aspire to not only play rhythmically, but also, to live rhythmically (i.e., in a well-coordinated way). I couldn’t agree more.
This morning I was giving a lesson to a fine professional guitarist here in Los Angeles. He’s been studying with me for nearly two years, and has considerable skill applying the Alexander principles to playing his instrument.
He was working on a very fast bluegrass style piece in his lesson with me, and was having difficulties on one particular passage. As we took time to workshop the tricky part, I asked him, “What are you noticing here in this part compared to how you’re playing in the rest of the piece?”
As he took time to investigate, he answered, “Well, I notice two things: First, I’m tensing my left shoulder a bit in anticipation of the ‘hard part’. Second, my conception of the time and rhythm is not as clear as it is in the rest of the piece. It’s almost like I loose my imagination of the pulse and the groove that I had going into this part.”
So, he simply reminds himself not to tense his shoulder (and to let his neck be free), then slows down the tempo a little on the piece to clarify and reintegrate his rhythmic conception with his new coordination. He practices it a few times with this new thinking.
When he is confident that he is keeping his tension in check, and that he has a uniform rhythmic clarity throughout the entire piece, he brings it back up to tempo. And…problem solved.
You see, it’s not that my student needed to move his fingers and hands faster to play this fast passage; it’s that he needed use his hands in such a way as to have them serve his rhythmic imagination. In essence, he was lacking evenness in playing the passage. He was lacking coordination.
I teach my students to work with themselves the same way I do as I work on technical challenges. Always aiming to bring my bodily coordination into sync with my rhythmic imagination, and vice versa. I’m pleased with the results.
So here’s a few things to work with and/or keep in mind to help you with this:
- Check your tension-Where are you holding? What are you doing that you don’t need to be doing as you play? Check your neck, jaw, and shoulders. Are you stiffening in anticipation. How are you doing in your legs? Are you knees free or locked? Give yourself a moment to consciously let go of some of that unnecessary tension.
- Clarify your rhythmic imagination-Make sure you’re “pre hearing” the passage you’re going to play as vividly as you can. Slow it down if you need to. (If you’re improvising, it’s not quite as simple as this, but that’s the subject of another blog article). Sing the passage. Using spoken words (for example, “hippopotamus” can be used as a verbal representation of a quintuplet; “wonderful” is a good one for triplets, etc.) is great for helping you strengthen and clarify your conception. (In Indian classical music rhythms are learned and memorized vocally, by using specific syllables.) Make up a list of words that you can use to help yourself.
- Be clear on the pitches-Is the sequence of notes clear both in your ear and your mind. Take some time to know it well. Again, don’t hesitate to slow the tempo to do so. (Singing the sequence is very helpful here.)
- Listen to what you’re actually playing-Try not to get caught up into what you think it should feel like to play. Notice where you lose the continuity of your rhythmic conception. Is it in certain range of your instrument? Is it when rhythms shift (e.g., going from triplets to sixteenth notes)?
- Connect your imagination to the outside-Use a metronome. Listen to the metronome very carefully, especially as it relates to your internal sense of time. This is also a part of listening (see above).
- Investigate-When you find yourself getting stuck on a particular technical passage (whatever the tempo), take time to make sure that you haven’t lost your rhythmic conception. (This is a good time to use your words.) Also, see that you’re not tensing up again. Keep refreshing the thought (the wish) to remain free and easy. Trust in this process to address your problem.
So if you want to increase your dexterity, velocity and technical control, work on cultivating the connection between what you imagine (rhythm, pitch, time, expression) with what you’re doing in your body. Best wishes!