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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher.

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, specialised activities, pain relief and managment.

Stop trying to be musical

Jeremy Woolhouse

In any educational process, there are inevitable ups and downs.  When progress stagnates, this is an indicator that some mode of thought is preventing further development.  One of the most confounding barriers to a musician is when an intention for musicality inadvertently creates conditions which limit performance.


Identifying the problem

Technical ability and positively engaged coordination are prerequisite to musical performance.  The artist needs to have technical skills at his or her disposal, and needs to have managed the general coordination of the whole self to enable this.  If performance is still falling short of potential, there must be some interference.

A skilled teacher can investigate processes interrupting performance.  There are infinite ways we can mess with the natural flow of concept into performance.  Teachers look for indications of what makes it worse, or better.  We speculate, hypothesise and trial.  

Under this kind of examination, sometimes an insidious pattern presents: the student is successful in playing sections, exercises or out of context elements of a piece, but when it comes to putting it together, coordination which has hitherto been fine, gets compromised and the performance is dissatisfying.  If the harder the student tries to infuse performance with musicality, the more problems present, then the student is adding some extra, counterproductive movement along with the intention to be musical.


A benign intention.

In itself, intending to be musical is indispensable.  Musicality is an organic and natural process which we have seen emirate from musicians without compromise to coordination - i.e. we have evidence of easeful, musical performance.  The intention to be musical gives purpose to our movement, and context to our coordination.  It energises and motivates performance.

The problem with ‘trying to be musical’ is either in the ‘trying’, or in the concept of what ‘musicality’ feels like.

Some effort is implied in ‘trying’.  For every musician, there is an association of sensation with what this effort is - a feeling.  If our prerequisites of technical ability and coordination are taken care of, then what overrides the positive preparation for performance is an insistence on a certain state which feels like ‘being musical’.

As my mentor Robert Schubert is fond of saying; “the audience want to hear the music, not see it”.  Yet since the performer is so intent on putting musicality into performance, he or she will contrive movements to create a sensation associated with musicality.  

It is the same for emotion or expression in music.  These are elements of music which do not need to be added.  They are integral parts of music.  So long as the musician has cultivated an aesthetic and addressed the technical and coordinative prerequisites, musicality, emotion and expression come through in performance.


Playing without trying.

When a musician has the intention for musicality, but doesn’t ‘try’, or do anything directly to add it in, the body responds to intention and indirectly makes all the required motions to excite the musical intention.

The student undertaking this experiment may feel like the result is unmusical.  To which we can ask, “But does it sound unmusical?”  That is a key distinction.  The discrepancy between sound and feeling may be the reason the musician has never have overcome the problem.  The feeling may be so unfamiliar that it may even corrupt the subjective perception of sound, so a recording or audience are useful tools for objectively seeing if the process works.


What to do instead of trying

If one can recognise an interference pattern - weather it be ‘trying to be musical’, ‘trying to be expressive’ or what have you, the first stage is inhibiting that desire.  Since we can associate interference with trying, there will also be context for working on a coordination which transcends such contradictions to intention.  In other words, if one has stopped the ‘trying’, then one positively directs for good coordination, the interferences associated with the ‘trying’ pattern will be less likely, and the pathway for expressive, musical playing is clear.


Music, by its nature, is an intuitive natural phenomenon.  An artist who has refined sensibilities is still accessing something which is a fundamental human experience.  Alexander Technique enables a more honest and direct musical, expressive and emotional connection with this mysterious phenomenon.

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