022423 Instrumental Technique & Energy

It takes very little physical energy to play an instrument well. The most efficient playing is achieved when energy is conserved. Regarding energy, this refers to the physical output, decreased by gravity (and instrumental defaults[1]).

In a formula:

Figure 1.


[The Total Energy required in instrumental playing equals the physical energy, minus the inherent energy of the instrumental design, and minus gravity]

Once achieved, the instrumentalist is free to enjoy their own music-making. This is from a meta-perspective, i.e., the point of view of seeing oneself create in the process of making music and directing artistic goals. Let’s refer to this as:

Figure 2.

APOP [Artistic Point of Perspective]

To be in absolute communion with music is an ideal for all listeners and musicians alike. As interpreters and re-creators however, the attention is redirected to being in communion with the instrument and one’s personal physiology, with the ultimate purpose of allowing the Music to realize itself and live freely in the moment of realization. This can be cultivated (and should!) – equally in personal instrumental practice and rehearsal, and performance. The ideal state for optimum performance is to be alongside (i.e., Astro-body detachment) the listener and enjoy one’ s co-creation of music.[2]

The Piano and Violin will be the instruments used as examples for this exploration.

We can begin by discussing the first of the two figures above.

  1. Energy required for playing comfortably and correctly.

Knowledge of one’s own physiology in relationship to the instrument is essential. This is unique to every instrumentalist, unique to You. A simple preparation is to do this mental exercise (no instrument required): close your eyes and flex the muscle groups involved to play your instrument. Start with the muscle group itself, such as both your entire hands. Next, flex each finger individually and note the physical feeling of releasing the flexion. [Be sure to check on your breathing – better slow and expressed, rather than short and anxious]. Your hands naturally fall into a curved hand shape. It is important to return, if not keep this hand position, as much as possible. This applies to both the hand on the fingerboard and the other hand on with the bow. [3] The final suggestion for this preparation exercise is to note any ‘double-dexterity’ features that are unique to your hands. Having this knowledge is vital to your technical decisions (fingering, leaps, octaves, scales, etc.). For example, if you’re a pianist, it might be more natural for you to execute scales with your thumbs always tucked under to some unique degree; for my hands, I need to release them back to its natural position.

The ideal state is a complete communion of the body, music and mind; first attained by: 1) surrender 2) awareness 3)presence 4) listening and responding 5) anticipation.
The result is freedom and satisfaction! And the amount of energy required is surprisingly (thankfully) very economical. I must bring up that if any of my former ‘racquets’ from traditional pianoforte teaching comes up, i must ‘redirect and reframe’ the energy from the muscles (i.e., no pain-no gain) to my skeletal joints. Efficient piano playing comes from the engineering of the bones, in relationship to the intricate mechanism of the piano. There exists an ideal symbiosis, which I like to think is unique to each pianist.[4]

Let’s talk about Energy. What I’m referring to is an optimum level of physiological realization of music without causing stress. Repetitive Stress Disorders are a result of disregard of one’s own physiology. No study needs to be referenced for this. Whenever one’s focus is spotlighted (conscious or not) on a non-physio-technical aspect, the body will respond with tension and the need to control. This state is the beginning of these contemporary hand disorders. The good news is that once addressed, this state can be undone.

An exercise is in order: whatever is the most complex technical feat on your respective instrument, go through it in super-slow-motion and mentally articulate every muscular detail required; go through this as many times necessary to rid yourself of unnecessary effort. You will discover, a lot of the repetitions are about elimination and surrender. The passage will naturally increase in Tempo, while simultaneously training your physiology and unique musical pneumonic. It’s liberating.

How is this done? It begins with a very specified focus, to quote a former yoga instructor “put your mind in your wrist”. How does your wrist want to play continuous octaves without stressing out? Does it bobble up and down or does it follow-up from your fingers? Know what your keyboard span is, it could be different for the left hand from the right. (As are mine).

Depending on one’s artistic ‘phenotype[5]’, the Energy will express itself to unique degrees. While one musician can be completely comfortable in being overtly expressive, another needs to keep the body still (G.P.[6]: Do you know where you are between these end posts? Take the time needed to establish this. Also, it will be different in the practice room than during a performance. More on this later.)

The Phenotype reference for achieving artistry is the end-goal. A lot, if not most instrumental instruction, is from the ‘outside in’ rather than ‘bringing the inside out’. The most immediate example is the myriad of available technical ‘methods’, each with an intent for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. We’ve learned over and over, with great delight, that every student has a unique technique. This is the pedagogical challenge, to uncover and develop this musical language. It’s not easy, the most immediate block is basically all matters pertaining to the Ego; self-consciousness, authority-pleasing, people pleasing, perfectionism, and any personal hang-ups based on the musician’s experience. [7] It is worthwhile to do the healing of undoing deeply ingrained sources of self-doubt. In instrumental playing, these ‘issues’ surface and do not serve your technical output. Perhaps your artistic expression can use some of them for your “baggage” for interpretation, but please select those that inspire and not inhibit your performance.  Only you know which these are.

IE , Instrumental Energy. Let’s define this: every instrument on Earth has a mechanism with a minimum and maximum exertion required to proud a sound. This is at its most basic, the Energy required to produce a ppp as the minimum effort of the inherent mechanism of the instrument, and fff as the maximum effort. So, on the violin, the minimum IE is the sound the instrument produces when the instrumentalist plays double whole notes (ie., super-slow bow stroke while maintaining sound without interruption), with the bow about an inch/2.4 cm over the fingerboard, and with the bow slightly tilted and with the bare minimum ‘weight’ from the bow-hand index finger required to produce a decent tone. The maximum fff is the inverse exercise; the instrumentalist is playing a fast 16th note passage, at the frog of the bow, using full-flat hair, arm weight (before ‘point of squeak’) as needed to support the execution, the bow close to the bridge, and a fast bow stroke. String players, try it! Find your Min and Max on your instrument du jour. You will discover the range of your sonic palette. Fun stuff. I’m not qualified to make an analogy to winds and brass, but it’s conceivable for you to find your Min and Max too, but again, I can’t comment on breathing technique. Basically, the easier it is for you, this will settle on the Min of your IE, and the more complex, the Max of your IE.

The one prevailing tool for both the body and learning a new work, no matter what exceptionality (or not) is inner self-listening. This is on both the aural and physiological levels (anything else is a distraction!). Physiologically, the term is ‘proprioception’, or awareness of the position of one’s body. This awareness can (and should) be developed from gross motor awareness to small anatomical mechanisms. A ‘zooming in and out’, as it were. Mastery of self-listening is the key to the meta-level of self-observation from your listener’s perspective. The listener listens to the musician.

This is a segue to Figure No. 2: APOP: Artistic Point of Perspective

  1. Your APOP is Your Game Console.

In the act of practicing, while giving attention to the conservation of energy and the optimal use of one’s body, the perspective is very similar to playing a video game at an advanced level. The correct decisions for the best outcome become reactions.

Here are two examples of the APOP in action, to demonstrate:

 JS Bach BWV 1016 Allegro (last movement):

  1. Keyboard Part beat 3 [V- I; G# Major – c# Minor] The L.H. finger #3 ‘settles’ on the B#, being between two black keys (G# and C#) and gets delayed to get to the following F# eight note. The solution: Finger #2 needs to ‘take off’ from the C# and ‘land’ on the F#. Meanwhile the R.H. makes the leap from the tenor G# to the alto B# with a ‘grasshopper’ jump. It’s almost instantaneous.
  2. Violin Part [vi-V-I; g# minor-C# Major- F# Major] The awkward key structure makes the L.H. insecure on the G-string at first-and-a-half position, moving to third-and-a-half position. The solution: it is imperative in this case that the L.H. thumb (while passive) move up the neck of the instrument. The R.H. Bow stays on the string, detache strokes for the sixteenth notes, and then attention to the proximity of the G and D strings for the triplets.

These examples are unique to my own physiology and music literacy. My choices for fingering on the piano are guided by the meter of the music, followed by the proximity and relationship of the fingers to the passage, and the physiognomy of the black and white keys. My choices for fingering and positions on the violin are based on the propinquity of the strings, i.e., ‘how can I make the least amount of string crossings’. All along, I’m making body ‘checkpoints’ for any tension or awkward positioning. As any tension gets eliminated, the music is being learned into my subconscious and my physiology. This is my video game.

[1] For pianists, this is the mechanism of the key depression; for woodwind and brass players, the depression of buttons; for string players: the intimacy between the body and the sound source.

[2] Quote from personal ‘piano musings’, March 2017.

[3] The bow hand has an extended natural hand curve position. While both hands have different functions, they are both aligned with gravity.

[4] Excerpt from personal Piano Musings, March 2017.

[5] An observable characteristic resulting from the interaction of genes, manifested in the spectrum of each person’s unique physical attributes.

[6] G.P. is an abbreviation for “Grand Pause”, usually unmeasured.

[7] Highly recommended fix: Michels, Barry & Stutz, Phil, The Tools, “Inner Authority”, pp. 98-140 c.2012, Random House.