Friday, May 7, 2010

Musician’s Journal: Awareness and Balance

I’ve been a musician most of my life. Though I’ve never made my living as a musician, there have been times when it’s put food on the table, though not paid the rent. And there have been times when I’ve hardly picked up the horn.

That’s how it’s been for the past three or four years. I’ve jammed every week or three with some friends, and maybe play the horn for a minute or three every other day. But I’ve not played enough to keep my chops in shape – and the trumpet is a physically demanding instrument.

I’m now getting back to a routine of daily practice. And I’m finding, almost for the first time in my life, that technical exercises are no longer quite so boring. You know, the same scales and arpeggios, repeated time and again, and again, and ... again. Same old same old.

Nothing like it to get the fingers and lips moving in concert. But, it’s not like a hot blues in the early morning when the lights are low and spirits high. No sirree, not like that at all. The exercises are necessary, but ...

If you pay attention, those repetitive exercises can be interesting too. It’s about awareness, mindfulness. What you’ve got to pay attention to is what’s not so repetitive. You must pay attention to your body, while also hearing the sound. What you’re attending to, above all else, is the relationship between what you’re hearing and what you’re doing.

Sounds simple, no? Not so simple.

It’s easy to think that the trumpet is about lips and fingers, because it is. But not only. The lips do two things: 1) they vibrate and thus produce the sound, 2) they act as a valve to regulate the air flow. The air flow, in turn, is produced by the respiratory system, which involves the lungs and the large muscles of the trunk. Those muscles, in turn, are supported by the pelvis and legs and their musculature. So, the lips are connected to all that, and you need to be aware of all that when you practice – when you perform, of course, you don’t want to be aware of any of that.

I find that, in particular, I am aware of my buttocks. They affect tension in the trunk and thus the air stream. Sometimes I relax my buttocks, sometimes I tense them. All according to what the situation requires.

Then there’s the fingers. The muscles controlling your fingers are in your arms, forearms mostly. The big issue, of course, is the independence of the fingers for the second and third valves (ring finger and middle finger). Training them to move independently of one another is a bitch. When the fingers don’t move where they should when they should, you tend to tense up, which makes things worse.

And not just the muscles in your arms. The tension can easily spread to your whole body. This came home to me with particular strength when I was watching a young boy who’s taking occasional lessons from me. When he has to concentrate on finger movements his whole body gets tense and jerky and his lower legs start flailing about (he’s sitting on a chair) with the effort of bringing his fingers into line. Why is that? Why should concentrating on finger movement recruit the entire body?

I don’t know, though I suppose I could guess at an explanation if I wanted to. The point is simply that telling your fingers what to do will activate your whole body if you’re too insistent.

In that situation my immediate objective is to get the fingers to move properly without, however, inducing tension throughout the body. That requires active relaxation, being aware of overall tension, but not forcing it. And that while you are regulating your breath, another whole body activity. It’s all a matter of balance, of loosening up, of differentiating one’s movements so that each component of one’s effort can move freely on its own, rather than being strapped to everything else.

You play simple repetitive patterns so you don’t have to think about what notes you’re going to play. Put that on autopilot so you can be aware of your body and of the sound itself. As your body functions more efficiently the sound becomes cleaner and more even. Sound and body, body and sound.

Or is it body and soul?

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