Applying principles of ease to playing music

After seeing the principles of ease with more clarity I started exploring how they apply to playing music.

Here is what I found:

Playing music is a skill that we all have to some extent.  We can all make sounds (sing, whistle) or make a rhythm and even if it is just tapping to a tune in the radio.  But it is a skill we need to practice to make this inherent ability for sound and rhythm into something more sophisticated.

During our practice there are some things that seem to stand in the way of getting better effortlessly.

Give up the idea of how it should sound
Instead acknowledge how you do sound.  In order to get better at playing music, no matter what level of music making you have, it is important to acknowledge where you are at.  It is easy to be at ones own level of musicianship.  It becomes hard, frustrating or shameful if we carry a belief that we should be better than we are. Have a vision or clear intention of where you want to get – this is what motivates us naturally – but don’t get tricked into thinking that this is where you should already be.

Love your mistakes
In my classical training as a violinist all the focus in the teaching was on avoiding mistakes and fulfilling the teachers demand to produce a certain sound or play in a certain way.  When I failed at doing so it would often make me feel inadequate and not good enough as a musician.  Mistakes were seen as something to be avoided at all costs.  And my entire practise effort was focused around not making mistakes.  Thinking about it today it seems ridiculous.

How do we get good at something? 

By making lots of mistakes and learning from them.  But if we spend all our focus on not making mistakes it stands in the way of learning big time!  Listen to your mistakes, be present to them and learn.  This is how children learn in their first years (walking, talking, standing…).  Kids use mistakes as a way to navigate towards what they want.  When they are small they don’t have the concept yet of being a failure or not good at something.  Imagine a toddler falling over when learning how to walk and then thinking: “I am such a failure for not being able to walk!”  It seems funny.  But we often do the equivalent to ourselves when practising music.  A mistake simply shows you your current limitation.

Have a clear intention of what you want
Instead of focusing your attention on not making mistakes focus it on what you want, the music you want to play, the sound you want to make.   Be clear in the intention during your playing.  Avoid trying to get better.  That is only effort.  Your intention is enough to make it happen.  Let the music play itself.  If you practise in this way there is no way to not get better.  And you get better minus the stress of trying to avoid mistakes.

Inspiration vs Comparison
Get inspired by other musicians but don’t compare yourself.  Often what inspires us to get better at playing music is listening to good musicians play.  It is great to get inspired this way.  But it becomes a trap when you start comparing your own playing to that of the masters who inspired you.  It comes back to the first point I made.  Don’t get trapped into thinking you should sound a certain way or you should have a certain level of skill when this is not where you are at.  Always start from your current level not your imagined dream level.

Practise makes permanent not perfect
This means that when we practise we want to make sure we are practising the right thing.  For years I was practising not to make mistakes.  I created a habit of stopping every time I made a mistake and repeat the phrase again and again until I mastered it.  What I didn’t know was that instead of practising music I practised stopping and starting all over again.  So every time I came to the “tricky” place in a piece I would tense up because I knew that I had practised it over and over and I hoped that I would manage to play it this time.  In a way I made that “tricky place” in the piece into a permanent problem.  Today when I practise I have my focus on the whole piece of music and what I want to play.   I keep my intention clear and let the mistakes happen until they have informed me enough that I acquired the skills necessary to play the piece.   It is much more fun to practise this way and learning happens much quicker!

And a final note about talent and skill
We can all learn to express ourselves be it through music, writing, movement or otherwise.  If we dare to be authentic in our expression that means we acknowledge the level of skill we have and dare to express ourselves honestly with what we have the world will always be a richer place than if we hadn’t expressed ourselves.   One quote that inspired me in my learning as a musician is this:

Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.  Henry Van Dyke

I would love to hear how you get on!  :-)


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How my posture has taught me a lesson about life

I never really thought about my posture before I studied the Alexander Technique.  However one thing the AT is know for is to indirectly improve peoples posture.  So studying the technique made me question my own posture.

Good posture – Bad posture?
Looking from the outside I always seemed to have what you might call “good posture”.  But looking a bit closer at the whole concept of posture I realised that there is no such thing as good or bad posture.

When I teach people today I often show them this picture and ask:  If this tree was a human being would it have good or bad posture?

Of course often people say that it would have bad posture.  It is not until we look a little closer at the tree and its environment that it becomes clear that the “posture” of this tree is perfect for the environment it lives in.  If this tree was completely straight it would not stand a chance against the b wind of its surroundings and would probably break.

Posture towards life
This analogy works well for your posture as a human being.  Your posture is not separate from the rest of you.  It is no state to acquire and it is nothing you can be good at or fail.  In fact your posture is not your responsibility. It is an expression of all of you – a byproduct of your life experience.   It is influenced by your environment, your particular life story and the current beliefs you have.

Trying to support myself was hard!
My particular posture was one of holding myself up so that I would not appear as someone who slouched, someone who gives up easily and is not motivated and driven to get things done and make things happen.  This was of course not happening consciously.  My posture was simply reflecting who I was at a given time, given the story I had and the believes that conditioned me as a result of that story.  This holding up was a lot of work and consumed much of my energy.

My learnings
By learning how to apply principles of ease to my life, my posture has changed dramatically.  I no longer seem to hold myself up.  Much more I got in touch with the internal support mechanism of my body.  The lesson I learned is that: “I don’t need to support myself.  When I stop trying to support myself support happens without my doing – effortlessly and often in surprising ways”

Is there anything you can learn from your posture?

Leave your comments below :-)

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Lessons I learned from applying Principles of Ease

To tell you what I have learned I have to explain first why I ever started researching “Principles of Ease”  and ultimately decided to train in the Alexander Technique.

For a long time in my adult life and probably before I felt life was full of effort and things were hard to achieve and I had to work hard to make things work.  Especially with the birth of my daughter I felt that I needed to figure out life and make “it” happen.  “It” meaning to become successful at something and make life work.  I never really defined what that could mean specifically.  But I looked around me and saw that for some people life seemed to flow with ease and joy and for others myself included there was a lot of effort in “trying” to make things work.

I started reading and researching into psychology and self-help, started going to therapy sessions and so began my journey of self discovery.  It seemed fascinating at the time how certain patterns had formed in my life due to my particular story and life circumstances and how I had formed certain habits to keep me feel safe.

I started to feel very passionate about breaking limiting patterns so I could finally experience more ease in my life.  I experimented with many self help techniques, spiritual practices and felt very excited about the prospect of breaking free from what seemed to be holding me back.  During my research and explorations I began to realise that these patterns I was discovering were not only an intellectual concept but they were deeply rooted in my body.  They were very much embodied experiences.

It was while reading “The art of effortless living” a book by Ingrid Bacci that I noticed the urge to explore those embodied patterns in me.  I started researching different techniques and two of them  (Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique) resonated deeply with me at least on paper.  Since at the time there was no training school for the Feldenkrais Method where I was living I went to explore the Alexander Technique.

During my training and even more so in the following years teaching other people some core principles have emerged for me.  I call them principles of ease.  Following those principles here are the lessons I have learned and am still learning.

Life does not need me to manage it – it happens anyway
I discovered a very strong tendency in myself of wanting to manage and control life’s flow.  I felt very bly that if I only put in enough effort and willpower I could make things happen and create the life I wanted.  This seemed exciting in the beginning because I felt I was totally in control and only needed to figure out things a little more to finally get the life I wanted.  The initial excitement quickly turned into frustration and shame because no matter how hard I tried the life I wanted seemed still as far away as in the beginning of my journey.  It soon became a lot of effort to control and make things happen.  It seemed to consume all my energy mixed with a growing frustration of not seeing the results I wanted.  In my body this effort showed up as tension and pain.  Lots of tension and pain in my neck and shoulders.

It was with the help of colleagues and friends that I started seeing the trap I was caught in with more clarity.  I began to inquire into this effortful belief system of mine in more depth.  I started some explorations to test my beliefs.  The most telling one was when I tested my belief that I needed to put in effort to earn money.  (the myth of no pain no gain)

I set up an experiment where during one month I would stop all the effort in trying to make money and see in the end of the month what the difference was in my income.  To my big surprise I made more money that month than in the previous couple of months.  The conclusion I am coming to see more and more is that life happens anyway.  We don’t need to control and manage it.  When we stop all that effort of trying to control and manage it a different flow seems to show up- I call it ease.

Pain is not the problem
When I was suffering from neck and shoulder pain I would see the pain as my problem.  It was something I wanted to get rid of – and fast!!  I was annoyed and impatient with feeling this pain.  Pretty much my entire focus was on fixing the pain so that I could return to feeling well.  Makes sense right?  Nothing could be further away form making sense.  What I have since learned is that the pain is not the problem, it is a symptom!  The pain is like the engine lamp in your car flashing, telling you that there is a problem with the engine.  Trying to get rid of the pain is the equivalent of turning off the flashing engine light.  It is merely getting rid of the symptom but what is causing this symptom?

Every symptom has a root cause – but we might never find it
The symptom showing up as dis-ease (pain, tension, suffering) is an expression of something.  Something is causing it.  When I learned this I got excited and thought all I had to do is find the root cause and all would be well.  And here is the hard lesson for me.  Sometimes we can find the root cause and often we have no idea what is causing it – even after long periods of inquiring and experimenting.  But if we apply the principles of ease we might have a chance of influencing the root cause indirectly and so paving the way for change.

Change happens indirectly
When I have spells of feeling uneasy or suffering with a symptom of sorts (this can be physical or emotional) I often find myself focusing my entire energy on trying to get rid of that symptom.  I now know that this is a trap, because change seems to happen indirectly.  It seems to happen through the back door.  So now when feeling unease in some way I experiment with staying whole and not getting pulled into my problem.  If I stay open and available in my awareness – that means noticing and acknowledging what is happening but not making any direct changes (effort) – the symptom resolves itself without my direct doing.

Intention is all it takes – not effort
To get a certain result it does not take effort to make it happen.  It takes a clear intention.  Our being seems to be organised by intention.  When I have a clear intention of what I want but don’t interfere with it to make it happen (= effort) I seem to move towards my goal with ease.  It only becomes effortful when I have an agenda of how fast this goal should be achieved.  I learned this lesson recently in relation to a goal of mine of writing my own songs.  It has been something I always wanted to do but I felt I couldn’t.  It just seemed beyond my abilities.  When my attention switched from I can’t do this to:  I want to write my own song (= clear intention).  Things started to happen.  It is not that I made it happen but I seemed that I steered more and more towards this goal.   A lot of things started to happen around me to support my goal.  I bought a new computer of a friend which had a recording software installed on it.  Other friends of mine invited me to be part of a game that involved songwriting.  Today I have written my first 20 songs.  They are nowhere as good as what I would like them to be.  But the fact that only very recently I believed that I was incapable of writing even one song and now I have 20 makes me feel I am moving in the right direction.

Mistakes are your friends
We live in a culture that is obsessed with getting things right.  It is all about avoiding mistakes and getting it right.  This avoidance of mistakes is such a b habit and I started noticing it more and more in me and people around me.  But the thing is that it is a huge effort trying to avoid mistakes!  I learned this in my classical violin training.  My entire training was about not making mistakes.  But if we think about it for a while this is such an inefficient approach.  Mistakes are such a necessary thing to happen in order for us to learn more effectively.  A mistake is simply showing you the limits of your current knowledge.  So trying to avoid mistakes is like trying to know more than you do….Not possible!  When we are really present to our mistakes we can take them in and use them as excellent learning tools.


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