Why is it when faced with a tricky passage in music we grip our instruments tighter? Do we think this is going to magically help us to play with greater accuracy? Or how about when we need to really project in a loud section; why grip here? It’s not technical. Yet the keys get squeezed beneath our fingers like some kind of death grip. We take in a giant breath as if we’re getting ready to swim the English Channel under water which usually results in all sorts of unnecessary tension in our necks, chest, shoulders, and abdominal muscles.
Exactly how is this helpful in our music making?
My good friend and OEBS/Alcyone Ensemble/body mapping colleague Amy Likar and I discussed this in detail recently. As flutists, there’s a certain nerd factor that can be pretty high when two or more flutists come together outside of the work place. So, two body mapping instructor flutists … well, we can’t help but go full-on nerd. It was an insightful and eye opening discussion though, and really got me thinking about what I do in my practice and performances.
Here are a few musical highlights from the past few months and the challenges each presented:
In January, we performed Shostakovich Symphony 8 in Oakland East Bay Symphony. When we found out last season that it was on the schedule for this season we were so excited. Shosty 8, as many of us fondly refer to it, is a monumental work in the symphonic repertoire, and doesn’t get performed too terribly often in the regional orchestral world. To say this piece is challenging is a gross understatement. It’s a huge mountain to climb for every single person on the stage. But wow, what a piece! And, we totally knocked it out of the park. (Check out our glowing review here, and read Mark Wigglesworth’s notes on the symphony here.
There are many moments in the symphony that are very difficult technically and require a great deal of detailed, mindful practice. This is not the kind of practice you can cram into a few days, like cramming at the last minute for an exam. It’s the kind of practice where you must pace yourself over periods of weeks, so that you are able to absorb the material, get the crazy passages under your fingers, and not injure yourself.
A couple of weeks later I had the opportunity to join the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra for their February Main Stage concerts, which included Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture (always a fun piece to play, especially on piccolo!), Schumann’s Piano Concerto (lovely), and an extraordinary newer work, a set of songs by Maria Schneider for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories.” (Check out the terrific review here). Besides the joy that playing in a chamber orchestra brings, it was especially fun to play flute, piccolo, and alto flute on these concerts.
The past two weeks, I had the good fortune of playing an 8 show run of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” with ABT and Pacific Symphony. Actually, I’ve worked with ABT before, and they are a remarkable ballet company. The only drawback is that I never get to see any of the ballet because I literally sit underneath the stage in the pit. I can tell you though, that the costumes were absolutely amazing (those I did see!), and this new production, celebrating their 75th anniversary, was a huge hit. (Check out reviews here and here, and note the gorgeous sets and costumes).
Here’s a fun fact: The first professional job I ever played was a production of “Sleeping Beauty” with the Macomb Symphony 30 years ago. In fact, I missed my senior prom because of it! Over the years, I’ve played “suites” from the ballet, and even saw ABT do it here in LA about 5 years ago.
This new production however, had very few cuts and some of the numbers were faster than I’ve ever played them. Seriously, we’re talking some crazy fast tempi, or as the NY Times reviewer so eloquently put it; “Tempos for Tchaikovsky’s superlative score are marvelously fast.” There were a few numbers I’d actually never played before because they were cut from previous productions that I’d played, so that was a nice treat also.
Between the technical challenges in Shosty 8, the low alto flute soli moments in the Schneider, and the non-stop, high, awkward fast notes in the Tchaikovsky, I’ve had quite a lot of material to provide me opportunity to ponder habitual gripping. Once I noticed this in my practice room, it was a major “ah ha” moment…
“Maybe that’s why this passage isn’t improving… because I’m making it that much more difficult by gripping my flute, or engaging my left arm and torso muscles in an unhelpful way, or taking a much larger breath than necessary thereby creating tension in my neck muscles, etc…
As soon as I became aware of these all too familiar habits in these familiar places, I was able to address each one. It didn’t stop there in the practice room, I took it to work with me. It was really interesting to observe how I’d grip as I’d approach something difficult. I literally had to tell myself to let go, or some other useful instruction. Then something pretty cool happened; I let go. And guess what, the really hard stuff got a little bit easier.
If you’re practicing and you play a wrong note or an out of tune interval, do you keep going or stop and fix it? You stop and fix it, of course.
So, why do we keep playing when we feel tension, imbalance, or gripping?
I propose the following:
When we feel ourselves tense up; squeeze or grip our instruments; lock our hips and knees and deliver weight down into our heels; drag our head forward or in anyway that compromises balance; overwork by taking enormous breaths; overwork by practicing until we are literally in pain, or worse yet, until we feel numbness and tingling in our hands and fingers, etc., can we all just make a little deal here to promise that we’ll stop and address the situation right there and then?
Stop and let go. Unlock our knees, hips and ankle joints. Take breaths that are appropriate for the phrase we’re about to play. Bring our heads back to balance on top of our spine. And, speaking of our head, allow our head to lead our spine when bringing our flute up into that oh so unnatural position. Resist the temptation grip our flutes tighter or squeeze our arms closer into our bodies as we approach a particularly challenging technical passage. Allow our arms to remain suspended over our ribs.
Here’s the thing friends, if you experience playing your instrument with ease and balance, instead of habitual tension, you’re going to want to return there each time the gripping and tension creeps in. Stay aware and let go when you notice it. Be careful not to be judgmental. Just let go and bring yourself back to balance. It’ll get easier as time goes on, and the bottom line is, you’re going to sound a whole lot better, which will be an excellent motivator. Guess what else? You’ll be able to do what you really want to do which is to play more musically.
As for the Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Schneider performances, they all went remarkably well. Fortunately for me, this well timed discovery helped me to play as well as I could possibly play, without unnecessary tension, and enjoy the musical journey that much more.