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Good health is a creative act

Musicians lead demanding lives. Practicing, sight-reading, rehearsing, and auditioning all can be stressful and, at times, actually painful. How to stay healthy and free from pain? I think the answer lies in realizing that your health is completely tied in with your creative efforts, or the way you respond to music itself. In brief, good health is a creative act. Here are seven tips to get you started.

  1. To be a musician is to speak the language of music. When you think of yourself as a musical storyteller, your performances become lively and interesting. Let’s suppose you’re a string player. Your bow can travel back and forth along the string because you mentally say, “Elbow: open; elbow: close.” These are physical commands. Or the bow can travel back and forth because you mentally say, “YES, yes, YES, yes.” These are linguistic commands, rather than physical ones. To every bow stroke there might correspond a word or a syllable. The words and syllables can be banal or clever, soppy or cynical, in English or in Italian, literary or gibberish. The main thing is for you to appreciate the difference between physical and linguistic commands, and develop the art of integrating them in your every gesture.
  2. Imagine you’re walking down a dark corridor with low ceilings above your head and wobbly wooden boards under your feet. Every step you take requires you to make physical decisions with psychological and emotional components. Coordination, then, requires a nimble mind and a steady heart. This may be obvious when you’re walking that dark corridor, but it also applies to playing a scale at the piano or turning a page when sight-reading a score. Body and mind together, right here, right now.
  3. The primary dimensions of music are rhythm and sound. Bringing them into life requires the participation of your body as you move in space. It’s useful to think of coordination, rhythm, and sound as being completely interdependent. Would you like to improve your sound? Then become aware of how you’re coordinating yourself when you sing and play. Would you like to release tight shoulders? Sense the beats and beat subdivisions of the pieces you’re performing, and let rhythm itself (rather than muscular effort) drive your music making.
  4. Pedro's violin. Courtesy of Pedro de Alcantara.
    Pedro’s cello. Courtesy of Pedro de Alcantara.
  5. You can improve your playing or your singing by working on your coordination away from the practice room: tango lessons, Tai Chi, Alexander Technique. There are many wonderful ways of opening up your perception, making friends with your legs and feet, or just enjoying the physicality of moving in space. When you watch Artur Rubinstein at the piano, you can’t help but imagine that he must have been a fabulous ballroom dancer too.
  6. You can improve many aspects of your music making through indirect means. Suppose you’re a pianist and you’re working on a piece by Maurice Ravel. Attend a French film festival. Listen to the French language whether or not you understand it. Suss out the rhythms of spoken and sung French. Listen to Edith Piaf or Charles Trenet singing French hits from decades past. It’s possible that your playing of Ravel might become a bit more fluent, or a bit more coherent, or a bit more idiomatic – without your having to spend endless hours repeating passages from the actual piece you’re learning.
  7. Who were the great violinists of the past? Niccolò Paganini, Henri Vieuxtemps, Henryk Wieniawski, Ole Bull, Eugène Ysaÿe, and George Enescu, to name a few of the best. What did they have in common? They were all composers as well as instrumentalists. The same would apply to flutists, cellists, or pianists. Even if you aren’t a trained composer, it’s useful to be a performer who thinks like a composer, that is, who performs with an understanding of how a composition unfolds. Take a phrase from something you’re preparing for performance. Improvise versions of it, some simpler than the original, others more complex. Improvise a version so simple that it resembles a scale. Now play the following sequence: a scale, a simple tune that resembles a scale, a simple tune that is a compromise between a scale and the phrase from your concert piece, the phrase from your concert piece. You’ve now become the composer of the piece you’re playing.
  8. The playwright Noël Coward is credited with saying, “Work is more fun than fun.” I’m not sure what he meant by it, but all I know is that working on the multidisciplinary skills of making music (and this includes attending French film festivals and taking tango lessons) is tremendous fun.

Featured image: Violin. (c) carroteater via iStock.

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