Musicianship and Embodiment

I believe that I play my best when I am fully embodied. To be embodied is to live consciously within your body, to be in touch with your senses and have a full acceptance of your body the way that it is. An embodied person is able to listen to messages and cues from their body, and respond to those cues in healthy ways – resting when they are tired, nourishing themselves when they are hungry, energizing their body through movement.

Embodiment refers to being aligned with one’s emotional body as well as their physical body. To be emotionally embodied is to feel our emotions rather than ignore them. It means expressing ourselves when we want our inner voice to be heard, or stepping back into quiet reflection when we feel saturated so that we may process our experiences.

The opposite of embodiment, disembodiment, is when we numb out from the body’s physical and emotional cues. In a disembodied state, we harden and construct walls around our physical and emotional pain in order to protect ourselves. But in not acknowledging that pain, it remains stuck in the body. (What you resist, persists). To live in an embodied way is to be able to soften around that pain, to recognize and accept so that it may move its way through the body.

I am personally striving towards becoming a more embodied person, so that I can both grow as a musician-artist, and feel more at home within myself. Embodiment starts from self-acceptance and self-compassion. It means practicing self-care; taking care of your body, mind, and heart. For the body: are you getting enough sleep, are you eating well, are you getting in daily movement? For the mind: are you being kind to yourself through your thoughts? Are you learning something new everyday and allowing yourself to open your mind to new perspectives? For the heart: are you loving others and letting yourself be loved? Are you able to connect to something greater than yourself? Are you allowing yourself to experience belonging within a community or group? Each question takes time and patience to tackle, and we work towards them through the small actions that make up our daily lives.

 

Four Tips for Cultivating Embodiment (as a musician, and as a person)

1. Check in

Check in with your body regularly. Listen to the body’s cues, and respect those cues. Don’t ignore or delay responding to them. It might feel it might feel as if you are not working hard enough at first, because we’ve all received the societal message that we are worthy when we are busy or overworked to the point that we become burnt out with stress and fatigue. However, you are able to achieve your best quality work when you are well. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Create a mini body-check in routine before each practice session and during breaks. Take a minute or two to release tension where you discover you’ve been holding tension. (If it helps, do a body scan, starting from the crown of the head and moving down to the bottom of the feet). Take stretch breaks, especially if sitting or practicing for long periods of time, so that you’re not staying in the same position for an extended amount of time. Breathe, let oxygen get to the brain and move through the body.

 

2. Energy management

Become aware of the things you can do in your day to best manage your energy. We all have peaks and dips in our energy. We can learn to work with them, not against them. Get familiar with the times of day that you feel most energized and capable of giving your best in practice sessions. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, challenge yourself to practice in non-optimal times as well so that you can be prepared for auditions, lessons, or other important events that might fall in this time.

Remember also to treat your body well. See your musicianship as physical training – train your skills like an athlete would. Your physical and psychological health is just as important to your success as your playing ability.

 

3. Carry yourself with dignity and self-respect

Become mindful of how you carry yourself (your posture) both while you are practicing/playing your instrument, and when you are moving through your everyday life. How you move through the world says a lot about how you see yourself occupying the world. Are you staying small by keep your head down and slouching? That carries a message of “I don’t deserve to be here.” Try taking up more space. Validate your own existence. Carry yourself in a way that says, “I deserve to be here. I want to be here. I respect myself. I respect you, and am open to what your have to offer.” Let your chest expand. Allow yourself to move when you breathe. Lift your head up. This is a shift from closing off from the world to opening up to the world. Moving and holding yourself with dignity and grace translates to treating yourself with dignity and grace. Other people can see that, and are attracted to that. You are acting your way into the way you want to be, and how you want to be seen.

This goes for how an audience perceives you on stage, as well. You are opening yourself up and connecting to the audience with the music you have to offer, rather than closing off from the audience and projecting a message of “I don’t want to be here. Don’t listen to me, I’m no good.” Project an open body language. Take your time. Accept audience applause. Keep your eyes open when playing a memorized piece. Transition from feeling like you don’t belong to the space or don’t deserve to be there into holding the belief that in this moment, you completely own the stage. Allow yourself to take up space when breathing. Give yourself room for imperfections, rather than staying contained within a safe bubble. Be okay with stepping off the cliff. What happens when you step off the cliff? Maybe a bad sound. But no one dies. We are generally not risking or lives as musicians, but sometimes we play so carefully as if this is the case. Stop being so careful. Take risks. You completely own the space. You control the atmosphere. Doing this can be especially challenging in unfamiliar spaces. Try to see if you can visit the space or see pictures of it beforehand. You can visualize the space even if you’re not sure of what it will look like.

 

4. Allow yourself to feel

We are all emotional creatures. But some of us who consider ourselves more reserved or stoic (hey there) can feel as if we are numbing ourselves off from our own experience at times. Or, we might be so driven and focused towards achieving a goal that we forget to really pause and feel the process of reaching the goal. We forget to stop and smell the roses along the way, if you will. As a musician, don’t forget to get out of the practice room, sit down, and just listen to music. At the risk of sounding a little woo-woo here, don’t try to analyze or form opinions about the music or the performer, just let the emotional experience of the sounds run through you. Remember the reasons you love music in the first place. Take these powerful emotional experiences with you and use them as a tool in your own playing.

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I am still discovering and exploring the connections between physical, mental, and emotional embodiment. If you have any other suggestions for how to exist in a body – as a person, as a musician – feel free to leave a comment. We could all use a little guidance sometimes with the ever-perplexing and continual challenge of being human.

Staying on the 'Edge'

I have an ideal version of my playing. I don’t always have access to it. I only reach it after a secret combination (unbeknownst even by me) of warm-up, playing done in a given week, and time of day. I know immediately when I am in this ideal state of playing. Playing the flute is easy, not hard. My sound comes out effortlessly, and my body is doing what it has to do without my mind trying to think about it or force it. The ease at which I am able to play allows me to release tension and relax, which frees up my sound even more. This creates a positive feedback loop that fuels the ideal state even more.

Yet as I mentioned, I only reach this ideal state when the conditions – some in my control, some not in my control – are perfect. I wish I could have this ideal experience every time I play, but the truth is, this is not realistic. Here’s how I like to think of it: Playing is not an act of balance, but an act of balancing. The word ‘balance’ implies a type of static equilibrium. The word ‘balancing,’ however, implies a constant back-and-forth movement. Having the perfect sound all the time would mean that I as a physical and mental being would be static and unchanging. But humans are dynamic creatures. Our sound changes just as our mental, physical, and emotional state change. In other words, our playing is a direct reflection of our physical, mental, and emotional states. We have to learn to live with this fact rather than fight against it.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We cannot expect to always be in an ideal state when we practice. In fact, I believe that it is crucial to practice specifically in times when we are not in our ideal state. Why? Because this will help us prepare for the reality of a higher-stakes performance or audition, where we are certainly not going to find ourselves in an ideal state, no matter how much preparation for the event we may have done.

Because no matter what you might do to try and prevent it (sleeping well, eating a banana before, visualization. etc.), there will still be that element of uncertainty, the nerves may evidently show up. However, rather than letting the certainty of uncertainty, if you will, be a reason for us to give up, we can learn to work with the uncertainty. We can accept that the nerves may evidently be there without letting them have complete power over our capabilities as musicians.

“Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty – and thinking that it is perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human.” – Pema Chödrön

Practicing in a non-ideal state: playing “on the edge”

Learning to play comfortably in a non-ideal state is learning to play “on the edge.” At the risk of sounding cliché here, the playing “on the edge” as often as you can allows you to become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. First, figure out what times and conditions you generally avoid practicing in. This could be playing at a different time of day than you normally would, such as in the early morning, playing in situations where you feel nervous or on edge (in front of people, in public places), or playing when you don’t feel you have enough energy, such as at the end of the day.

Before you even play your first note in this uncomfortable place, accept that this state you are in is a temporary reflection of your situational state and not a permanent representation of your identity. There is nothing morally wrong with how you are going to sound. Let go of the notion that there is only a good sound and a bad sound. They are simply different types of sounds with different qualities, and each has its own value.

Be prepared to hear your inner critic’s voice a little louder than usual – you’ll have to learn how to turn down the subjective judgment and turn up the objective, neutral observation. Yes, you’ll have to live in that sound you don’t like for the time being, but don’t lose yourself to a snowball effect, letting every aspect of your playing go to the wayside (well, my tone sucks, so I guess I can’t articulate as clearly, so now my rhythm is off…). Instead, notice what you can and can’t control in this non-ideal state. Hone in on the aspects that you can control.

One way to neutralize the inner critic is to replace judgments with key words that can act as gentle reminders to bring you back to what you are doing – such as “relax,” “breathe,” and “listen.” Let’s go over each of these key words.

First, relax. You may notice yourself tensing up the muscles more. Repeatedly stop and tell yourself to relax. Don’t try to force the sound out. Restrain yourself from making constant adjustments to your instrument in the hopes that a better sound will come out (doing stuff with the reed, adjusting the headjoint). Try to soften the muscles around the area of tension. A progressive muscle relaxation meditation can also help with this.

Breathe. When our body is relaxed, we can breathe more deeply. See my previous post for breathing advice – think about breathing low and full, from the diaphragm. Especially for wind players, when we are breathing more deeply, we can move more air through our instruments, thus giving our sound a nice cushion of support.

Listen. The number of elements we can potentially notice in our playing can be overwhelming, especially when we don’t feel in complete control of all of those elements. Instead, choose one thing to listen for at a time. As my teacher Karla Flygare says to her students, “focus on the note you are playing and its relationship to the next note.” That’s all you need to do. This focus can help melt away irrelevant thoughts that are getting in the way of your playing. Try also singing along in your head to the music. That is, instead of monitoring and judging what you sound like as you play, focus on what you want to sound like by singing along with the music in your head. Think, for example, of pianist Glenn Gould’s habit of singing to guide his piano playing. For more information on this idea, see Noa Kageyama’s article: What Should You Think About When You Perform?).

“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” – Eric Whitacre

The most rewarding part of non-ideal practice is when you are able to get over the initial hump of discomfort and forget that you are in a non-ideal state. You may still sound the same, but your mind is no longer obsessing over the way you sound. Your muscles are more relaxed and you can play freely and with ease. At this point you have entered a flow state despite being in sub-optimal conditions. You realize that your musicianship is unconditionally contained within you, it is not something elusive that must be externally sought after. When you have let go of striving to arrive in a perfect or ideal place, you have the freedom to enjoy what you are doing. You are reminded of why you fell in love with music in the first place.

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.