Finding Your Way to What’s Natural: Reliability Plus Flow

By Madeline Bruser

This article contains a video

We all recognize a natural performer. Music seems to flow effortlessly through her body, as if it were as easy as breathing. Every muscle seems smoothly coordinated in a seamless sequence of movements that she knows inside out, as if she could perform it in her sleep—except that she is brilliantly awake, creating living magic for us. We aspire to be like her—free and unobstructed, expressing our pure musicality to others, straight from the heart.

This is a beautiful and powerful image, and when we witness such naturalness onstage it stays with us unforgettably. Yet it’s important to remember that even the most natural performers have had to learn something about instrumental technique from someone else. They may have been born with wonderful physical coordination for their particular instrument, and they may have learned much faster than most other musicians can. But it is the combination of their inborn ability with the knowledge passed down through generations of teachers that results in the utterly natural look, feel, and sound of their playing. This process of a teacher and student working together to develop what we call “natural technique”—a seeming oxymoron—contains both method and mystery, and is highly creative and educational on both sides.

Learning Through Imitation

For a student, learning a new and challenging technical maneuver typically entails roughly imitating their teacher’s movements and then feeling their way to something more refined and natural. The following video shows me demonstrating the opening of Chopin’s A minor waltz to my student Jill, in two consecutive lessons. In the first clip, I demonstrate the basic movements of the right hand. In the second clip, I point to how she can refine the large movements she had practiced into something more subtle and fluid.

As is common in the learning process, Jill had practiced these movements carefully but had exaggerated them a little. Exaggerating a movement that feels new and foreign can be helpful at first; it can take a while to get comfortable with the new technique so that it flows more easily.

Expanding Your Movements If They’re Too Small

Often the movement a student makes is too small rather than too big. In this case, I often have them try the movement away from the keyboard—perhaps by closing the keyboard and trying it on the fallboard, or by doing the movement in the air. This can bring more freedom to someone whose habit is to be overly careful and limit his movements. Then when he goes back to the keys, his body remembers the free feeling he had when he wasn’t trying so hard to get it just right.

It’s About Feeling, Not Measuring

No matter how often or how well a teacher demonstrates efficient and natural technique, he can only point the way toward what feels natural for you. Clear, descriptive words can help a lot. But you have to feel your way into the movements themselves and trust your body to know when your coordination is starting to become more natural.

In teaching the forward movement of the arm that you see me make in the video above, I often tell students that it isn’t about exactly how far forward the arm moves or how high the wrist goes. But it’s about noticing the sensation of the weight of the arm going into the keys. In other words, watching me is only part of the learning process. They then have to experience the movement for themselves and feel the appropriate sensations. That’s how they get the hang of it.

Learning Through Osmosis

A lot of learning happens through osmosis—by intuitively absorbing how someone plays their instrument. Studying with Menahem Pressler was a vivid experience for me of learning through osmosis. His hands not only moved deftly over the keys, but also touched the keys with extreme sensitivity. I had never seen or heard anything quite like it. It seemed that his skin actually breathed life into the white plastic and black wood surfaces of the keys, feeding his poetic energy into them.

Such teaching goes beyond inviting imitation. It is a transmission—of the profound art of making music on an instrument. As you witness it, you absorb it by osmosis. It becomes part of your own way of moving and touching your instrument and bringing it to life. Such transmission happens when you absorb the music along with the movements, so that you can’t separate one from the other.

Using Video As a Transmission         

My student Barry intuitively understood this idea of transmission after a recent lesson. During his practicing that week, he put a video of my hands (which he had taken with his phone) on the music rack in front of him. While watching my hands and listening to the music, he went through the motions of the piece with his hands, without actually putting keys down, focusing on the sound he heard me produce in the video. He was thus able to clearly connect the sound he was hearing to the movements he was making. The result was a tremendous improvement in his playing within one week. His hands worked more smoothly, and his playing also sounded more musical.

Barry’s method was brilliant. It combines the first two ingredients of Fearless Performing, which I wrote about in my very first article: reliability and flow. The clearly defined movements in the video provide reliability. And mixing these clearly defined movements with an awareness of their musical effect brings a sense of flow. The magic in doing this is that as your movements become more flowing they also become more reliable—because when your body is flowing smoothly and naturally, you can count on it.

But Can’t You Still Make Mistakes?

It’s true that letting your body flow in making music cannot guarantee a note-perfect performance. By definition, when you let things flow you are giving up control. But in place of control comes something I call “natural command.” This means that by trusting the smooth and efficient movements you have learned, as well as developing a deep and thorough connection to the music, you are able to perform with tremendous precision.

It seems paradoxical, but the closest we human beings can come to being perfect is to develop as thorough a knowledge of what we’re doing as possible and then to just let go—mistakes or no mistakes, memory lapses or no memory lapses. We are not machines; we are alive. The magic we want can only come if we trust what we’ve absorbed and let it flow through us.

Twelve Keys to Developing Natural Technique

Here are some keys to developing natural technique:

  1. Find a reliable teacher—someone who can play naturally himself, who can demonstrate the moves in detail, and who can guide you toward your own natural movement.
  2. Trust your body to tell you whether something feels comfortable and natural or stiff and awkward.
  3. Ask questions.
  4. Experiment and make your own discoveries.
  5. Remember that the body is infinitely complex, and have patience with the learning process.
  6. When you feel frustrated, stop and breathe for at least a few seconds. Resume when you feel relaxed and refreshed and can think clearly. Switch to another passage or piece if you like.
  7. Know that sometimes your brain just needs a rest, and that a tough passage might fall into place the next day.
  8. If the muscles of your playing or vocal mechanism feel tired or sore, stop immediately and seek expert help, in order to prevent the possibility of injury.
  9. Remember it’s supposed to feel good to make music, even if you’re just practicing a scale or a brand new piece. Make sure it feels like music, not just technical work, no matter what material you are practicing.
  10. That means enjoy listening. Your muscles will work much more smoothly if they are informed by your ears. (see my article, What Price Freedom? from October 2012).)
  11.  Consciously organize the music into coherent groups and phrases, so that it flows naturally in your mind. (see Chapter 11 of my book, The Art of Practicing.) Remember that you can’t separate technique from music.
  12. Think of developing technique as an ongoing journey of discovery. Even musicians who are masters of their instrument continually learn new things.

 

I wish you much joy and success in making music.

Madeline Bruser

P.S. If you’re ready to receive help with developing your piano technique, I invite you to try a free consultation or a lesson in person or on Skype. If you are a subscriber to this e-zine, you will find recommended teachers, in the margin of the copy that appeared in your inbox, who can help with violin, trumpet, saxophone, tuba, and low brass.

Q & A of the Month

My piano teacher has a lot of good ideas about how I should play every piece I study with him, and I learn a lot from him. But he isn’t very interested in my ideas. In fact, he gets impatient if I question something he says. How can I make this a happier situation for myself?Many students have similar communication problems with their teachers. Sometimes the student has to recognize that she has a kind of wisdom the teacher lacks, in terms of relating to others in a sympathetic and helpful way. For all of us as human beings, sometimes we have to see that another person’s ego is in the way, and to find skillful ways of dealing with it.One helpful approach would be to sincerely and clearly express your appreciation of your teacher’s idea first, and then state your own point of view simply and gently. For example, “Mr. Stern, I like your idea of bringing out the bass line here—it adds a lot of strength to the sound. I’d also like to try also adding a little emphasis on this note in the middle voice, to bring out that change of color. Can I show you what I mean?” You might find that he enjoys your appreciation so much that he becomes more open to what you have to say.

If this doesn’t work on the spot, you might try scheduling a time outside of the lesson to talk to your teacher about the general issue of how he communicates with you. Or you might try talking to the dean or another school administrator about it.

No teacher has all the answers, and I have been humbled countless times by students pointing out both musical and technical details that I’ve missed. Without this mutual exchange of wisdom and respect, I would find teaching a very one-sided experience, not very human or interesting, and certainly not a learning and growth experience for me.

If you find it impossible to create a happier relationship with your teacher, and you start to feel more and more unhappy, consider finding a new teacher. Studying music should be joyful and creative, and this can only happen if there is mutual respect and appreciation between teacher and student. Get support from friends you trust, and seek what you really want. It will help you open up as a musician and person and discover the depth of who you are.
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