Teaching and Learning Music: Being Mindful of Metaphors

Whenever I give a first Alexander Technique lesson to a musician, it is not uncommon that certain misconceptions about playing music come to light.

It is ofttimes  an anatomic and/or physiologic misconception specific to the physical demands of playing the particular instrument.

It can also be a misconception about the acoustical principles involved with the instrument itself.

In both cases, these misconceptions invite lots of misdirected energy, preventing the musician from effectively growing toward his/her optimum potential.

There are many reasons these misconceptions arise and develop  (as I have sometimes written about in previous blog posts).

But today I’d like to address this specific one: confusing metaphor  with physical reality.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of metaphor  is:

A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.

The definition goes on to use the metaphor, “drowning in money”, as an example. (The operative phrase from the definition being “figure of speech”.)

Metaphors can be very effective in both creating visual (concrete) images about abstract things, as well as broadening one’s perception of a particular concept or object.

Sometimes a powerful metaphor can be the exact thing that fuels those “aha!” moments we all cherish (teacher and student, alike).

Yet, in learning and teaching music, metaphors can sometimes  be a “double-edged sword” (speaking of metaphors!), creating as many problems as they solve.

When a metaphor helps you convert an abstract idea into a palpable and positive psycho-physical experience, then yes, metaphors are wonderful.

But when a metaphor obscures the actual physical reality  of what is happening, then it can have limited usefulness (at best), and can even interfere with your progress (at worst!)

So many metaphors for playing musical instruments…

“Your fingers ‘dancing’ on the keys”…

“Your sound ‘bouncing’ of the walls”…

“Your arms ‘floating’ out of your back…”

Below are a couple of examples of some fairly common metaphor’s I’ve encountered in my teaching/learning experience as a wind instrumentalist that have produce mixed results, at best. The first involves anatomy/physiology, the second involves acoustics. Let’s examine them:

1. “Breathing from your belly.” (or the “belly as lungs”  metaphor, as I call it). First off, there is no air to be put in your belly, because your lungs aren’t located there. This metaphor is often given as an encouragement to engage more of the muscles in your abdominal region, as well as to prevent “shallow”, clavicular compression in the upper part of the torso.

So what’s the problem?

When so much emphasis is put upon getting the air “down there”, it invites you to misuse your entire head/neck/back mechanism to do so. This will usually get you to compress and distort your spine,  limiting the free, elastic and expansive movements of the thoracic cavity that are necessary to efficient breathing.

Whenever I work with a student on breathing, I demonstrate and explain to them (through images and videos) the actual coordinated movements involved in respiration, as well as giving them some hands-on help to have an experience of this natural and efficient coordination.

Rather than getting them to “breathe into their bellies”, I encourage them to invite the three-dimensional expansion and contraction of their torso that more accurately describes the reality of their physical mechanism. (I encourage you to do the same.)

2. “Your tongue is a valve that starts the sound”. Again, this is not indicative of what is actually happening acoustically. No matter which wind instrument you play, your tongue doesn’t start the sound. Ever. Your focused airstream  starts the sound. This “valve” metaphor is often used to call upon a more precise use of the tongue in articulation.

So what’s the problem?

Now to be sure, your tongue can be used to great effect to give precision to how your airstream is being used to start and stop your sound. But it doesn’t do that which only your airstream can do. If you think of your tongue as the “valve” that begins tone production, it can invite you to get too internally focused in producing your sound.

This can lead to lots of embouchure “micromanaging”, which can manifest itself into excessive jaw tension and misdirected “preparation” when attacking a note at the beginning of a phrase. In turn, it can also keep you from fully realizing and relying upon the voicing mechanisms as they need to work in relation to releasing air into your instrument.

Rather than getting my students to think of their tongues as “valves”, I encourage them to think of articulation as part of their sound.  And sound production on a wind instrument involves conception (imagination) and the movement of air (amongst other things).

So instead of thinking so specifically about your “tongue-valve” when articulating, try to imagine more vividly and precisely the sound  of your desired articulation (your expression!) If it’s clear enough, your brain will efficiently coordinate your physical mechanisms to realize your expression. That’s what you learn through practice.

So I’m not here to tell you to get rid of the metaphors. I use metaphor to positive ends in both my teaching and in my learning. I’m just suggesting to be mindful when using them (in both teaching and learning).

A metaphor (like any other thought) gets us to react in a specific way. If you (or your students) react in a constructive, flexible and exploratory way that invites better coordination, better understanding and better music, then great! By all means use it!

But even then, make sure you’re clear on the reality of what is actually happening. (In short, make sure you know that the metaphor is a metaphor!) Take the time to understand and learn the anatomy/physiology and/or acoustics that pertain specifically to what you do when you play your instrument.

Understanding the distinction between metaphor and physical reality can help you and your students continue to grow, improve and remain curious. All good things.


  1. says

    Hi Bill, great article, I’ve recently been teaching someone with autism who struggles with metaphor and takes things very literally, it has made things surprisingly challenging and I realise now how much metaphor I use!

    • Bill says

      Very interesting, Ben! I have a friend with a (now grown up) autistic son. I remember that he, too, could not take any kind of figurative speech well. I imagine this characteristic is getting you to rethink many ways of communicating your ideas about playing music. Best wishes!

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