By Madeline Bruser
(This article was originally published in October 2013. It contains a video.)
I am passionate about piano technique. Great technique feels like play—free, comfortable, and easy. Natural. From what I have heard, this idea applies to technique for all instruments. And it’s essential for fearless performing.
When students first learn to do something effortlessly with their instrument, they often say, “It feels like I’m not doing anything.” They can’t quite comprehend that it takes so little physical effort to have power and expressiveness in playing or singing.
At the same time, the mental effort required to learn a new technical approach can be considerable. In fact, often, when I ask a student how a new hand or arm movement feels, they say, “I can’t tell. I’m just concentrating so hard.” Then maybe after another minute, the coordination starts to come more easily and they begin to perceive that the new movement is physically much easier—lighter, freer, and more comfortable.
Here is a one-minute video showing some of the arm movements that I teach. The first clip, taken by my student Barry at one of his lessons, shows my hands demonstrating the movements for a few bars of Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor. The second clip shows my former student Amy using these basic movements, in combination with other arm movements, in her performance of the Gavotte from Bach’s French Suite in G at the wonderful recital she gave in New York before moving back to the west coast.
Notice the verbs I use in the minilesson to describe these movements: bounce, land, spring. And in addition, you can see that my hands are also sliding—forward and back on the keys, in and out of the keyboard. When Amy combines all of these movements in her performance, along with a few other ones, she is clearly enjoying herself. In fact, if you look closely, she even smiles once for a second.
That’s because these movements feel good, especially when music is flowing through your body. It is supposed to feel good to play your instrument, or to sing.
So Why Do People Complain About Practicing?
Practicing becomes drudgery when we lose the sense of play. Let’s look at three of the reasons that we lose this sense of play.
First, many musicians have not learned a completely efficient physical approach to their instrument. There is a tremendous amount of information to absorb in order to master the body mechanics of any instrument, and it can be difficult to find someone who can teach you all of it.
Although natural technique looks simple and effortless, it is also endlessly complex. I am always learning more about it. For instance, the sliding motion you see my hands make in this video is something I wasn’t aware of doing until a few years ago, when I was demonstrating at the piano for a student and he said, “You’re sliding!” Wow. What a great discovery.
I’ve since realized that sliding is often part of the natural follow-through that happens when your arm is moving freely. It’s similar to a tennis player’s arm continuing to move forward after the ball has left the racket.
Many teachers are so natural in their physical approach that they are similarly unaware of some of the details of what they are doing. Teaching is a tremendous opportunity for us to discover essential facts about how we play and to transmit them to others.
A second reason we lose the sense of play in practicing is that we think practicing is supposed to be hard. People say that it is, and we aren’t taught that it doesn’t have to be. So we push our bodies and minds, and practicing starts to feel unpleasant.
Real discipline isn’t about pushing ourselves. It’s about learning to continually let go of pushing ourselves and finding ways to do things comfortably and naturally.
This doesn’t mean that we never get frustrated. But if we monitor our frustration—if we are aware of it—we have the option of stopping what we’re doing, taking a moment to relax our mind and body, and then taking a fresh start. This is one of the essentials of productive practicing.
The other reason I’d like to mention now for why we lose the sense of play in our practicing is that, to different degrees, we tend to be out of touch with our bodies. We go through our daily lives consumed with worries, stress, and all kinds of mental distractions. We often have to relearn how to feel our own feelings and sensations, the way we could as young children.
One of the great benefits of studying an instrument is that, if you have a good teacher, you gradually become more aware of how your body feels in general. You learn to sense emotional and kinesthetic experience more keenly in your body, because you have to—in order to access musical energy and channel it into your instrument. Each movement of your playing mechanism connects you to an awareness of your whole body—how it is positioned, how the parts work together, and how the visceral experience of the music affects the mechanics of playing.
To learn the complex movements involved in making music, we need to watch and listen to someone play in addition to hearing or reading about the physical details of playing. We are creatures of sensation and sensory perception, and we instinctively absorb the lessons of touch and movement by seeing and hearing these things in action.
Developing an awareness of your body in making music can also be aided by many other physical experiences—disciplines such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Body-Mind Centering, yoga, Dalcroze eurhythmics, and dance, as well as such healing modalities as Rosen Method body work, chakra work, meditation, and 5Rhythms, are some of a great variety of methods now available to help all of us become more vibrantly engaged in music and in our lives.
Go For It
I encourage you to explore your potential to let go of limiting physical habits in playing your instrument and to learn to move freely and easily in making music. When you notice during practicing that your body is not happy, just stop. Take a minute to breathe and relax. Then take a fresh look at the passage you are practicing, and see if you can make it easier somehow.
In my experience, there is always a way.
I wish you much joy and success.
P.S. If you are wondering about how to play a particular passage more easily and are ready to receive help, I invite you to show me the problem on Skype or in person at a sample lesson.
Q & A of the Month
I’m recovering from a playing-related injury and sometimes get very discouraged. Things get better, and then worse again, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to really play. Is it typical for the recovery to go like this?
Setbacks are common with all kinds of injuries, including playing-related ones. It can take great patience sometimes, especially if you’ve had the injury for a long time. The longer you’ve had an injury, the longer it can take to heal.
The field of Performing Arts Medicine is still relatively new, and health professionals, as well as instrumental teachers, are learning new things all the time. No one can say what a particular musician’s course of recovery will be like. Generally, an injured musician needs a team of people. These definitely include an instrumental teacher who has experience helping musicians recover from injuries, and may also include a physician, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, or some kind of bodywork professional, such as a Feldenkrais practitioner. What matters most is that you remain true to yourself during the whole process, following your own intelligence each day.
So many factors combine in developing an injury and in recovering from one. Sometimes you just need to take time to feel your discouragement so that your emotions don’t get bottled up inside you. At other times, you might need to explore a new kind of bodywork or physical therapy. One of the most important factors is your trust in the people you choose to work with. Trust brings relaxation, both physical and mental. Some musicians have found psychotherapy very beneficial in recovering from an injury. Just having someone to talk to and to explore whatever psychological issues might come up can bring a deep sense of relief and relaxation and have a transformative effect.
Finally, as with other great challenges in life, we have to come to terms with the mystery in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We have to accept the fact that we can’t know or control things as much as we might like, and to learn to relax about that. This is the spiritual aspect of dealing with fear—the fear of not realizing our dreams, not fulfilling ourselves as musicians or artists or human beings. There’s a lot of magic in learning to accept what we can’t control. It’s an opportunity to open the heart and become a bigger artist and person. It’s the opposite of being so driven by ambition that our muscles actually tighten. Many injuries are directly related to this kind of excessive ambition and tension.
I wish I could give you a clear idea of what to expect on your journey of recovery. But your journey is unique to you, and it will bring you unexpected discoveries and rewards. It’s important to keep in mind that many musicians have enjoyable careers even if they don’t recover 100% from an injury. They still perform, but maybe they have to be a little more careful than other people about how they warm up or cool down after practicing or performing. Having an injury gives you a keen awareness of your body and what it needs at different times.
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