Music as Physical Expression

When I play and perform as a musician, I have a tendency to get locked up in the head, constantly trying to think my way through things by analyzing, looking ahead, and evaluating myself in relation to where I think we should be. Of course, I need to be able to think about the music in order to play it.

But too much analytical thinking detracts me from the playing in itself, which is rooted in physical action and the movement of physical energy. Ever since attending Amy Porter’s Anatomy of Sound flute workshop several weeks ago, I have been becoming more aware of how the head can get in the way of the body when it comes to expressing yourself through music – or for that matter, any mode of physical expression. Here are some of the concepts and ideas I’ve been processing, mostly collected from Jerry Schweibert, author of Physical Expression and the Performing Artist.

Performance as Balancing

Think of performing like walking across a metaphysical tightrope. On one side of the rope is the music’s demand for your focus, for your full attention. On the other side is play, the ability for you to be right in the moment and immersing or “losing” yourself in what it is that the music is conveying to you. A dialectal interaction between two opposing forces, between a left brain and right brain, or a focused and diffuse mode of thinking.

Focus. Performing is about having a specificity of intention. That is, you need to know what exactly it is that you are going to say. To know what your intention is, you have to develop the technique in order to say it effortlessly, you have to practice your music, and how you will say what you want to say. To have specificity of that intention, you have to know the music so well that you don’t need to think about it. Preparation sets you free. Discipline sets you free.

Play. To truly enjoy the music and cultivate a sense of play, we have to let the whole body be available for movement. Having an available body doesn’t mean you have to move, it just means you have that option. Of course, in reality, we are always moving – the natural volume of the body constantly expands and contracts as we breathe in and out. Your muscles extend throughout your body – all of them have to move while you play. In other words, movement is natural if you allow it to just happen!

Too often we try to fix most of our problems by stillness and isolation – but this is the wrong approach. We need to have movement to allow for counterbalance. Muscles work in pairs – when one contracts, the other relaxes. When we don’t allow this natural counterbalance to happen, we get tension. (One way to play with this idea: as you go up, think down.)

If you’re too busy judging yourself, then you’re not truly playing the music. Just celebrate the music. Rather than coming from a fearful place of inadequacy, trust yourself. You already have it in you. Now simply get it out.

Break the Default.

When we want to do a good job, we hold ourselves in a certain way. We to lock ourselves in the perfect “default” position in order to play. The default position feels like a safe spot to be in. It provides just enough tension to make it feel like you’re going to achieve something. However, the default is actually limiting you because your flexibility and capability to engaging in different modes of expression. The audience will get bored if you always use the same tone color, volume, and vibrato.

What happens if you break out of your own default? Guess what – it won’t be the end of the world! Try not to “assume a position.” Just put the flute on your face and play. Experiment, explore – the worst thing that can happen is that you might sound “bad.” You might step over the cliff a few times (i.e., where you can’t get an actual sound/tone/the effect you desire on the flute), but this will teach you where the edge of the cliff is. And you might even notice that where the edge is changes over time.

Making changes in your embouchure and the way you play will be uncomfortable at first, because you’re working muscles in ways that you haven’t had to before. It can be tempting to back out of that discomfort and return to the comfortable default, but you have to play through the discomfort if you want to make changes. (Note: this is not to say that you should “push through it” if a certain action causes physical pain.) Practice going back and forth between the old “default” way and new ways, and noticing the difference between these two states.

Take Up Space.

Compression blocks the flow of air. Don’t start from a compressed place or collapse down when you go to look at the music. How tall can you actually be? When you take in a breath to begin, think about the back of your body breathing, moving, and being just as present as the front. (We hold a lot of the sound in our back. Let it go).

As you play, keep your head suspended on your neck.Take up space in the downwards direction, too. Realize you have a whole lower body under the diaphragm. (You don’t want to be trying to hold all your weight in the upper body – this creates tension in the arms and hands. Practice dropping your elbows down while playing). Keep your ribs open when you breathe out. Stretch out those intercostals as you play to provide yourself with additional support (i.e., playing on a “cushion of air”). Trust that the support will be there.

Remember that when you perform, you own your space (both your body and the stage).  Coming from a grounded place will then allow you to share your space with your audience. Invite them into the experience you want to share.