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.

Legato and Air

Two concepts have come up for me in recent lessons and practice that I'd like to explore today: legato, and air.

Legato.

In general musical terms, legato refers to a smooth and connected style of playing, in which there are minimal breaks between notes. Legato can be produced as an articulation with the tongue, but it is also created by how a wind musician uses their air to move between the notes, playing the complete arc of a phrase rather than note-by-note through a consistent, horizontal air stream. As flute players, however, we don’t spend very much time talking about or working on legato for multiple reasons. For one, we often have so many notes to learn that technical facility becomes the main priority. But more importantly, unlike other woodwind players who have the resistance of a reed, we have a completely free-blowing instrument. This makes connecting between notes a lot more difficult for us, and we end up not spending a lot of time getting this concept of legato in our ears. Listening to non-flute players, however, can give us a more informed approach of legato. This can be especially helpful when working on flute solos that were also written for another instrument (such as oboists on the Mozart D Major Concerto, and violinists on the Prokofiev Sonata). That being said, try listening to how professional oboists, violinists, and singers move between notes. You can also integrate more “legato thinking” into your warm-ups. Moyse’s De La Sonorite exercises are quite appropriate for this. However, you can also add something more melodic to your palette. Use Moyse’s 24 Little Melodic Studies, or etudes with a mix of intervals, such as Etude No. 1 from the Anderson Op. 30 book. Breathing whenever you need to, notice how you use your air to make the shapes of each phrase in these exercises.

Air.

Air is closely related to legato, because the extent to which you are able to control the speed and volume of your airstream is what allows you to create the resistance necessary to fluidly move between notes. As flutists we ideally want the usage of our air to be separate from the usage of our throat, fingers, and tongue. At a recent lesson a teacher noticed that sometimes she would hear something stuck in my through, a sort of catching in between notes, that made each note its own entity rather than one long, connected line. I need to make sure that I am keeping my throat open and using my throat (i.e., closing my vocal folds) to assist in articulation. During my practice this month, I’m aiming to be mindful and periodically ask myself if I am carrying the same homogenous sound completely, from note to note. As my teacher described, ultimately it can be very freeing to get that separation between air and throat, and it really comes through in a performance. The audience can pick up on a sense of freedom in a sound that is continuous and doesn’t depend on what type of notes, (articulation, rhythm, etc.) that you are doing. Always return to the air.

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.

Artistry

Sometimes, as a musician, I get so wrapped up in learning the notes of a piece and playing them “correctly” that I forget that I am an artist, an individual capable of giving life to a piece through my own ideas and creativity. At times I find it useful to have a tunnel-vision focus in the practice room, with logically-oriented tasks and goals to help me get from A to B.  However, if I forget about my primary role as an artist, I end up merely reproducing what is on the page. When this happens, my playing ends up not very inspiring. Boring, even. I merely go through the motions by executing the instructions handed to me, doing what I am “supposed” to do and not letting myself be moved by the music and have an emotional response that translates into a personal interpretation of the piece.

I find that this type of machine-like tunnel vision tends to turn on when I feel under pressure, such as while playing in a lesson or masterclass. This is because I become especially attuned to the judgment of those listening to me and worry about outer expectations of what I should do, rather than listening to my inner muse (who, by the way, already knows how the piece goes because I’ve done it that way so many times in practice).

This fixation on the outside opinions of others is a common trap that any of us can fall into when we want to do a good job on something, as musicians or people. As I described, worrying about performing well for these “others” – your audience, your teachers, or the instructions of the composer – can lead us to playing in a mechanistic way and consequently ignoring our own musical intuition. This shift away from our musical intuition is related to my last post, where I discussed the traps of solely focusing on developing our technique as musicians. But let’s step back for a moment. As musicians, we aren’t mere executors, we are artists, if we allow ourselves to be. But what exactly does it mean to have artistry in what we do?

Artistry = Technique + Voice

This formula is inspired by a masterclass I attended last summer given by flutist Donna Shin. Technique represents the physical skills a musician-artist has. It also reflects the intellectual and aural knowledge they have about the music they play– a piece’s historical context, ways it has been performed and interpreted, their idea of how a piece sounds. As musicians, we gain this information through the various experiences we have built up through the years, through lessons with teachers, masterclasses, time in an orchestra or other ensemble, music classes such as music theory and history, the list goes on. In other words, we acquire this knowledge through outside sources. But there is another aspect of artistry that must be acquired internally. That is the artist’s voice.

What is your voice as an artist? Your voice is what you have to say as a unique individual. What do you have to say, and what do you have to express to the world that no one else can say or express? Your voice is very personal, and is connected to your identity as an individual. I once heard a teacher say, “to have something to say on your instrument you first need to develop who you are.” This remark honestly discouraged me a bit when I first heard it. As a young person, I felt a bit lost and was still in the process of figuring out who exactly I was. Well, here’s a little secret: you are always growing and changing as a person, no matter how old you are. Those unknown, foggy parts of ourselves are still a part of us, even we can’t quite understand how quite yet. Both our known self and our untapped potential are core to each of our identities. And as you begin to explore and grow into the unknown parts of yourself, your voice becomes stronger. When you become more attuned to and comfortable with your authentic self, that is, the self aligned with your inner desires and principles rather than outside expectations and “should,” you have a greater capacity to express it freely.

At many points in our lives we may come to a threshold where we are leaving a period of “fitting the mold” and faced with finding our own voice. I am personally at one of those thresholds, having recently graduated college and navigating what it is that I really want to do with my life. To recognize the sound of your own voice in these moments in life is to be able to identify what parts of your identity have been given to you by others. We have all been shaped in various ways by our families’ beliefs and values, the culture we grew up in, and the educational institutions we learned from. Once you have parsed out what voices in your head are coming from others and which are coming from within, you are able to take a step towards deciding which of those outside voices and beliefs you want to keep as aligned with our identity, and which you want to let go. With this clarity you can then seek out new beliefs and values if you wish, exploring other outside voices (reading books, gaining new knowledge), and taking the time to look deeper within yourself through a contemplative practice (through journaling, meditation, a physical activity like walking or yoga – how you do it is a personal choice).

This perspective allows me to see myself as actively shaping my own identity, through a process carving out the beliefs and values you choose to live by based on my daily actions. The wonderful thing is that this process can be ongoing for the rest of my life, if I continue to let myself grow through learning and exposing myself to new experiences and perspectives. We are all in a constant, never-ending process of becoming. This process of becoming is what formulates our voice as a musician-artist. With your unique voice, you communicate your idea of a piece of music as filtered through your own values, experience, and perspective.

Of course, as musicians playing a piece of music that is written by someone else, and to an audience that may not share all of our beliefs, we aren’t necessarily just expressing our own personal voice. You are trying to navigate the complex combination of the composer’s, your teacher’s, and your personal intentions. How do we balance all of those voices in the act of performance is an art in itself.

To put these other intentions aside at the moment (maybe I’ll address them in a future blog post), how can we take practical steps to strengthen our own voice in the context of the practice room? First, recognize that in order to make your own sound and own it, you need intention. That is, a knowledge of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your intention is not simply “I am doing x because x told me to do it that way.” Rather, your intention is a melding of what you have collected from the outside with what you believe from the inside – yes, what your teacher told you to do, but also what you have found to work from listening to recordings and experimenting on your own. You need to know what you are saying it, how you are saying it, and why you are saying it in that way. In other words, you need to know as much about your playing as the audience does.

This is where technique comes in. Use the tools from your technique toolbox to convey your voice. You’d be surprised to see how many tools you have at your disposal – articulation, tone, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, knowledge of musical structure and form, rhythm, character… these are all factors you can manipulate to be more “musical.” While practicing, think in terms of how a tool can be applied to convey the voice you are aiming to express. Experiment, and exaggerate differences to get it across to an audience. And don’t just think analytically. Can you play a phrase angry? melancholy? anxious? joyous? Often without even thinking about technical directions we can change a lot in our playing through getting the imagination involved. Playing music is not executing technique. Playing music is using technique as a tool to express your voice. Have your vision, and the tools will be employed. This is the approach I am personally striving towards as I make the transition from self-identified student to a more whole musician – student, teacher, creator, listener, artist.

Beyond the Masterclass, and Out of the Box

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Jim Walker’s “Beyond the Masterclass,” a weeklong series of flute masterclasses and recitals held at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic experience, both to get more practice at performing in front of others and to be inspired by so many talented, driven, and passionate musicians.

Jim emphasized a few key themes in the masterclasses throughout the week that reflect his philosophy and approach towards playing music. I thought I’d share some of those themes and my reflections on them here.
 
Being an intentional performer.
 
Simply stated, to perform something means to convey an idea to a recipient, or audience. A performer ideally aims to impart to their audience a certain emotion, or to get their audience to feel a certain way through the medium of their choice, in this case, music. In this respect, a performer is channeler of emotional energy, which flows from themselves to the audience. (And for music, there is also a channeling of a very physical element – sound waves).
 
In order to effectively channel energy to an audience, a performer needs to have a clear idea of what that exactly that energy is. They need to have a clear intentionality in everything they do. Jim often stressed that every musical action we take as a performer must have an intention, and that intention  must have been practiced and rehearsed beforehand. Even is the exact message isn’t known until the time of the performance, such as in the case of improvisation, the performer still has spent hours honing his or her craft of improvisation. In the case of composed music, this means knowing and anticipating what you’re going to do on certain notes.
 
Intentionality is not an easy task. To approach the act of performance with intentionality requires complete commitment. The performer’s attention should be fully invested in what is going on in the music at that moment. In other words, the performer is completely present in what they are doing. To me, this notion of intentionality is a key to overcoming performance anxiety. Performance anxiety either occupies the past (I should have practiced more) or the future (I’m going to fail). The intentional performer, however, is too invested in the present moment of the music to be distracted by those worries of the past and future. Professionalism is, simply stated, being able to think about what you are doing. It’s a mentality of being able to turn on the focus, even when its not comfortable.
 
Having an understanding of the music.
 
How do we, as musicians, determine the intentions behind what we are performing? In order to have an intentionality about the music, you need to be able to understand what exactly you think the music is trying to say. This is where having a theoretical understanding of the music becomes so important. Understanding the underlying harmonies, motifs, and structure of a piece – its “inner logic” – allows you to essentially read the hieroglyphics and break the code of what’s going on. This is what you should essentially be doing in practice: decoding the hieroglyphics. This is very different from what you might call the “rote” method of practicing – repeating something over and over until you trust that you can reproduce it on automatic pilot, without thinking about it.
 
Jim repeated throughout the week that don’t practice something to have it on “automatic pilot,” rather, we practice to know exactly what’s going on in the music, so that we can pay attention to the notes and have a clear visualization of exactly you want to perform each part of the music. The “deliberate practicing” that this type of method requires is painful – but its the only real route to owning a once-unfamiliar cluster of notes at a whole deeper level. This mentality of diligent patience (understanding, attention to detail) that needs to be cultivated, but it yields great results. (Stay tuned for a future post specifically about deliberate practice).
 
Another side to intentionality that is important to note is having an idea of why you are performing. To win an audition or competition? To satisfy your teacher? To make money? Try to get to the deeper, core values behind what you do. For the love of music? For the joy of performing? Sometimes it becomes easy to forget why we have dedicated so much of our lives to becoming proficient at our instrument, and reminding ourselves of these underlying beliefs and projecting them through the energy we bring to our playing can be both motivating to ourselves and our audiences.

You have to do whatever you have to do to sound good.
 
You need to be in the mindset where you’re consistently dedicated to producing a beautiful sound on your instrument, and everything you do is in service to making that beautiful sound. When we hear a performer, the first thing we’re struck by is their quality of sound. Does your sound have a dynamic energy to it? (Hint: use more vibrato, and sing right away on your tuning note with the piano – its the first impression you make as a musician).
 
Ask yourself in any situation, ”what can I do to make it easier to sound good?” In other words, be results oriented – what is going to get you the best results? That might mean breaking so-called “rules.” But as Jim put it, “If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.” (And breaking the rules to sound good is not breaking the rules, by the way.) Dare for 90% of the sounds you make to be “money” sounds – a sound that you, yourself are passionate and engaged with. Impart some feeling into it. Get the listener involved. Remember, your sound is the fundamental medium for communicating your message, your voice, what you have to say and how you feel about the music.

Expanding your box.
 
You might have a “lid” on your sound – unintentionally limiting the full extent of the volume or resonance you can produce out of a fear of cracking a note or making a mistake. As Jim stated at one point, “you’re playing cautiously because you don’t want to make a mistake. But just do it, even if that’s tough in this environment.” Making a great sound might require you to expand your comfort zone in a scary situation, to open that lid. Using your voice to your fullest capacity, in fact, might require you to act completely against your nature. We all have our own “nature” (our sense of self). But in order to continue to grow as both performers and humans, we need to give ourselves permission to give yourself the opportunities to expand our own nature. Be in a play, or do an activity that requires you to stand up and deliver/use your voice. Be curious – learn what is completely NOT in your nature… so you can do it.
 
Learning to use your voice and do things not in your nature doesn’t mean abandoning you who are. (I, for instance, am proud introvert and a more quiet and reflective person by nature. But in order to perform, we have to learn to be like an actor or actress, able to put on different masks and portray different characters or moods in the music. To success to which we channel the energies of those characters and moods depends on the extent to which we use our voice to fully embody those masks and let them become who we have, even if just for the length of the performance. This is my personal next step in the quest to see myself as a performer. My job, especially in this year ahead as I apply to graduate programs, should be to give myself chances to evolve. Yes, its always going to be scary to expand the box, but every time you have a chance to stand a little higher, or use your voice a little louder, dare yourself to do it.

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.