Learning an Instrument – Old, Familiar Tunes

You’ve been working hard at learning your instrument. You are frustrated. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot play that new piece you’re working on. You could give up.

I can help you with this, but first it is only fair that I reveal my own approach to teaching an instrument. If I had my way, no beginner would be let within a mile of a tune they know for about two years. Instead, they would spend the time on technical exercises. I never get my way because my students tell me that playing exercises is oh so boring and that they want to play tunes because then they feel that they’re actually playing something. So, as a result, I watch them trying like crazy to play tunes, feeling for them because I can see exactly what is happening.

Here’s a scenario: my new student has been learning the harp for three months. We’ve gone through the basic technique and she knows what her technical tasks are at this stage of her development. She also knows that she needs to absorb these until they can be executed unconsciously. She plays a five note exercise. Its short enough and easy enough for her to be aware of her fingers, shoulders, wrists, back and the manner of her pluck and replacement and she succeeds in being aware of at least some of these. She turns the page onto Lavender’s Blue¹. “At last”, she thinks, “a tune I know!” I watch as everything falls to pieces. Her technique goes flying out of the window; she gets to a tricky bit and stabs at the strings with any old finger, completely forgetting the fingering we’d just worked out; there is a general sense of panic and enough tension in her body to give both of us a headache.

What’s happening? Simply put, she is trying to play the tune and not the harp. For my student, the tune is the most important thing to achieve and she will sacrifice almost everything we’ve worked on in the vain attempt to do so. F M Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, would refer to my student as an endgainer: one who is concerned only with attaining their end (the tune), without giving due consideration to the means whereby that end could be gained (correct technique).

Does this sound familiar? Well, you have two choices. The first is to go back to exercises for two years or so, until your technique becomes such a part of you that it will be there for you, no matter what you are playing. (No one yet has chosen this option.)

The second choice is to change your approach to learning a tune.

We do things wrongly because we want things wrongly. Therefore, we can’t change our doing if we don’t change our wanting. Pedro de Alcantara

Since your desire to play the tune is what is causing your inability to play the tune, your first task is to stop wanting to play the tune. You need to be absolutely ok with the possibility that when you get to the end of your breath, bow or tether, you may or may not have played the tune. It must be of no importance to you, either way. You’re here to play your instrument, not the tune. By stopping wanting to play the tune, you will no longer be triggering the panic and tension that leads to poor technique that leads to you not being able to play the tune. This, in Alexander Technique terms, is called inhibition. Here, inhibition is not meant in the sense of shyness, or self-consciousness, but in its other sense of preventing or holding back: essentially, it is meant in the psychological sense of “a restraint on the direct expression of an instinct”. In effect, inhibition is non-doing.

If your concern is not with doing (playing the tune), but in inhibiting yourself from doing, you prevent yourself from endgaining: you inhibit the misuse that leads to you not being able to play the tune. At the point that you inhibit yourself from misuse, a universe of possibilities opens up. You can pay attention to anything at all: good things to pay attention to are the feel of the instrument against your skin; how you are breathing; the placement of your fingers; the sound you make; your technique.

Of course, it would be beautiful at this stage to say guess what, as soon as you stop trying to play the tune, you will be able to play it. This may be the case later on when you have absorbed your technique, but it is not like that now. You are simply not there yet. You are still learning. You will not be able to play the tune perfectly yet (and that’s totally fine with you, isn’t it?) But if you keep on preventing yourself from misuse and instead, concentrate on focussing on those things you need to absorb, those things that will help you to play your instrument, not the tune, then, one day the tune – any tune – will flow from your fingers like water.

 

De Alcatara, Pedro, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, 2nd Ed, 2013

¹ Well known English folk song.