Awareness

Phrasing and Meter

Today’s ruminations have to do with musical phrasing.  As a music critic for the Washington Post, I’m regularly attending concerts of all kinds.  That, plus a lot of chamber music coaching, leads me to ruminate on this subject often.  The ability to produce clear phrasing is just as important as having good rhythm or intonation, but a lot of folks don’t do it well, or as well as they think.  Remember, in grade school, when we had to take turns reading aloud from the book?  And how some kids were flat, with little inflection and the same pause between every word, while with others it came out sounding like natural speech?  To a certain extent it’s the same with music, sometimes even at the professional level. It’s often been remarked that the [...]

Holding on for Dear Life

“Doing in your case is so ‘overdoing’ that you are practically paralysing the parts you want to work.”      — FM Alexander As an Alexander Technique teacher, I work with many cellists who are in distress —the kind of distress that means they can’t play for the time being. Their conditions vary from tendinitis to De Quervain syndrome to back pain to focal dystonia. The list is long but one thing most of them share is the habit of ‘holding on to themselves.’  What do I mean by this ?  When they are in a position of rest on my teaching table— lying on their backs with their heads also resting on a small pillow—they remain gripped by tension in their necks, backs, arms and legs that may take us [...]

Improve Your Talent: Breathing Awareness and Control — by Gregory Beaver

In "Developing a Technique to Improve Your Talent," I laid out 6 things that I have been using actively in my teaching to improve my students’ talent.  This post will investigate the first of these, Breathing awareness and control. “I am so totes aware of my breathing!” you might be thinking, especially if you are a vocalist or a woodwind/brass player.  However, in my experience, there are very few people who are truly aware of their breath.  Breath awareness is not just about being able to breathe in and out and notice it.  It is the ability to do something very complicated and still notice your breathing.  For those who do not use their breath to create the music, it is about using your breath to provide energy and power when needed, and [...]

THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits, Part 5 of 6: Fleet Fingers — by Selma Gokcen

"The body is like an instrument; it depends who is playing it."  —F.M. Alexander In the Alexander work I do, I consider there are five stages in learning to let go of the left hand fingers in cello playing so they can be free to race around the fingerboard, as well as play expressively. The hand must be soft and empty of all intention in approaching the string. If it has preconceived form and shape, then it cannot function except within the confines of this preconception. In connection with this work, I often ask my students the meaning in Zen Buddhism of "the empty hand that holds the spade." We can think of the fingers as the end of a long chain of joints starting with the upper arm ball [...]

The Tools of Embodied Music® – the Feldenkrais Method® for Musicians [Part 2]

The tools of Embodied Music® – the Feldenkrais Method® for Musicians: 1.    Movement 2.    Awareness 3.    Reeducation of perception 4.    Learning to change habits 5.    Learning to use the whole self in playing Movement Dr. Feldenkrais used to say: “Movement is life. Without it, life is inconceivable. Improve your movement and you improve your life”. One can use the word “music” instead of “life” and the meaning will be as true. Playing an instrument is a succession of movements. The properties of movement are the properties of sound as well: time, space, weight, rhythmical impulse, gesture, momentum towards an action, the process of speeding gradually and slowing down gradually.  Improving these properties in our movements will make it easier to achieve the sounds we want. […]

Raising the Arms (Part 2) — by Selma Gokcen

A wheel needs a central point of contact, an axis, in order to turn and spin. One never loses touch with one's central point—the spine—as one moves through life. But society today has lost that core. It has no idea where it is going. - Svami Purna When I was well into my studies as a young cellist, I became fascinated with the question: How does one raise the arms to play? My naive mind wondered: is there a wrong way and a right way, and how does one distinguish between the two?  I read a great many books on cello technique and for years I asked this question of my teachers. It seemed to me to be a very important gesture that most people took for granted, and my [...]

Passing It On — by Brant Taylor

A few weeks back, I was having a post-concert drink with my friend and colleague Joshua Gindele, cellist of the Miro Quartet, and the conversation turned to teaching. Though we are both associated with ensembles that perform dozens of concerts every season, teaching the cello is an important component of both of our musical lives. (Josh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and I teach at DePaul University.) Discussions on the general relationship between performing and teaching often give rise to interesting questions, some without straightforward answers. Many performers teach even though the skill sets required for good teaching and good performing are far from identical. If great teaching is something that is learned, when and how are the skills acquired? If a performer is a big star [...]

So You Think You Know? (Part 2) — by Selma Gokcen

“Sensory appreciation conditions conception; you can't know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.” -F.M. Alexander. Our body-mind could be called our home. We live in it from the inside, looking out at the world. It provides our orientation, our focus, our sense of what is right and wrong, up and down, around us, beneath us and above us. All day long we are encountering and interacting with the world; stimuli are filtering through our senses and being evaluated against past experience. The question raised within us after only a few lessons in the Alexander Technique is the same one that F.M. Alexander grappled with for nine years as he searched for answers to the mis-use of his voice: what am I doing and how can I know that [...]

So You Think You Know? (Part 1) — by Selma Gokcen

“We think we know what we do, but all our efforts show that unless our sensory appreciation is reliable, this belief is a delusion.” – F.M. Alexander Musicians, like athletes and dancers, work on the basis of muscle memory. Our conventional teaching has taught us to play by "feel," as well as by using the ear, by sensing how far, how near, how long, how short, how much force or weight, how slowly or quickly—the endless  subtle variations of these directions we are called upon to make as we move. We rely on this "sense of where and how things are" not just at the cello but in everyday life. Through constant repetition, the conduits are formed for nerve impulses to activate muscle.  In this process our kinaesthetic sense is [...]

The Eyes Have It (Part 1) — by Selma Gokcen

One of the most valuable indicators of well-functioning coordination is eye movement.  I have noticed for a long time now that there are different types of gaze in musicians. The "well-trained" musician of today often exhibits what I call blinkered attention, the result of years of too much effortful practice. The strain around the eyes is visible and often accompanied by laboured breathing. Caught by inward feelings and sensations, this musician is "concentrating." In the words of my Alexander teacher, the original meaning of concentration used to be: to relate a set of factors to a central point. It has been increasingly misused in our educational system to encourage the shutting out of everything else out to focus on a single thing. Concentration therefore as a useful aim has been [...]