Saturday, May 7, 2011

Flexible Stability vs. Contorted Rigidity

I had a great back and forth with David Wilken down in the comments on this post of his. The topic was embouchure, but it's my feeling the general concept plays in to music making on all levels. Here's something I said:

The other thing I keep wondering about is your point of the less movement of the embouchure the better. I understand how that really helps cleaner playing. The problem for me that led to an embouchure crisis that nearly had me give up the horn was that I think I got more over into “rigid” rather than “stable”, and that the appropriate supporting musculature and fascia weren’t in place, leading to over stressing some parts of the embouchure and not using others as much as needed (if that makes any sense).

And here's Dave's response:

I understand exactly what you mean here. It’s very common for players to concentrate their effort in areas that aren’t ideal, while letting the muscle groups that should be doing the work be lax. This happens with breathing as well as embouchure. If you look back a few posts I wrote up on a study that used infrared photography to note the areas on trumpet players’ faces that were doing the work while playing. One thing that was noted was that the professionals had a more uniform look compared to each other, whereas the amateurs had their muscular effort all over their face, with a lot more variety.

It's my feeling that this idea of the physical effort being evenly distributed throughout the embouchure applies equally to other areas of music making. One of the constants of my helping people make music on a whole panoply of instruments over the years has been helping them see and hear and feel how they're stressing where they don't need to and not giving full attention to other areas. 

So often people starting to play an instrument seem to be contorting themselves in ways they never would in everyday physical endeavors. I think this becomes less immediately apparent as we play our instruments better over time, but needless small rigidities can still lurk just below the surface and hinder us from being as fully expressive as we might be.

Part of my recent "flow" experience was not once experiencing any physical glitches and the horn simply making the sounds I wanted it to. I just thought about the sound I wanted, not about what I needed to do to make it. My sense is that having a flexible stability in physical technique makes that more likely to happen than when you've got some physical contorted rigidities getting between you and the music.

Just as music making and meditation seem to have some overlap in terms of brain function, music making and yoga seem to have some overlap on the physical level.


  1. Professionals have to have found a technique that allows them to achieve greater feats of endurance than amateurs need to. The idea that in professional musicians effort is spread over a number of related muscle groups makes sense, since it avoids any single muscle becoming too quickly over-tired. I suspect that many players have gained their endurance without having he slightest idea of how it has been achieved physiologically.

    Alexander Technique also looks to reduce these kinds of muscle stresses by allowing people to hold their bodies in a more balanced way.

  2. Jonathan - That's a great point about endurance. Maybe one way to self check one's technique is to pay attention to where the fatigue first sets in.

    I'd remembered you and James Boldin talking about the Alexander Technique, but I've never splashed down the cash to try it so didn't want to talk about something I don't really know much about, and the post was getting pretty long as it was.

    Two other things left out were my notions that balanced physical effort has a lot to do with good tone, no matter the instrument, and that extremely unbalanced physical exertions over time might set you up for dystonia. That embouchure crisis I had back a while ago when my lips started spasming might have been a very brief dystonia. I can't believe they're not in some way connected.

  3. By the way, I also put a comment up on the article on Dave's blog which you might find helpful.

  4. Hi, Jonathan - Saw your comment over there and am still puzzling over what seems so clear to you and Dave ;-)

    Keep meaning to do a post about how, while helpful, language cannot carry the whole weight of teaching. I'm sure that for you two guys, what you're saying perfectly encapsulates what you know, but for me there's the sense of not really getting, in an experiential way, what you're saying. I'm hearing the surface meaning of the words and you and Dave have a deeper understanding of what they mean.

    "Flow" means something entirely different to me than it did a month ago.

  5. The point is this. All the possible motions that your tongue can make will have no effect on the sound unless as a result of moving your tongue some air starts to flow into the horn.

    It is the air that produces the sound. And so attack depends surprisingly little on the precise movement of the tongue that ends the interruption. Instead, it depends primarily on how the air starts to flow. And that in turn depends on how you are breathing and supporting the air column.

    So it is the manner in which you breathe - the pressure you build up and the ease with which the pressure is relaxed which defines now an attack sounds. Attack is about breathing.

  6. Hi, Jonathan - Thanks for that comment, but it lets me know I'm not getting across my point about language and experience.

    Another way for me to make that point would be to ask if you've ever had home cured Virginia ham. If you haven't, it's a taste like no other. I can write pages of descriptions of the taste, but until you actually taste it yourself those words won't carry the full meaning thye have for people who know the taste.

    You've been wonderfully clear in your explanation of tonguing/ breathing, but I just know I haven't fully experienced, as you have, the concept you're talking about. The words show me the way, but I have to work my way experientially down that path to get beyond the merely verbal.

    An experiential advance I have made was the realization brought on by playing with voices instead of concert band instruments. It got me to understand I can breathe playing the horn just like I do when singing, something I've done lots more of. My sense is that that experiential advance is a step along the path of fully feeling on a physical level what you're talking about, which I completely understand on the verbal level.

    Thanks very much for this conversation, as it's getting me to think through something I think is a linchpin of teaching music making.