Learning an Instrument – Leaving the Inner Teacher Behind

When I was a child, I had a bike with a handle at the back. Dad and I would go up the road to the shops: me on my bike, him walking behind, holding the handle. One day, he let go and I rode home, not realising that he was no longer with me until I reached our gate.

If Dad had let go before I was ready, I could have crashed to the pavement and possibly ended up too traumatised to get back on a bike again. If he’d not let go when I was ready, I could have become dependent on him for balance and never risked riding off on my own. Luckily for me, he let go at just the right time.

Learning an instrument is like this. Regardless of whether we have a human teacher or not, we all have an inner teacher inside us, reminding us of what we need to put into practice as we develop on our instrument. If we have a human teacher, our inner teacher repeats our teacher’s instructions as we practice. We need our inner teacher’s instructions. Without them, we just hope for the best, tra-la-la-ing along in a willy nilly fashion, never developing a solid enough technique to allow us the freedom eventually to play what we want. To mix metaphors, with one hand on the bike handle, our inner teacher keep us moving forward.

But there comes a time when our technique is solid, we are ready, and our inner teacher must let go. Otherwise, the helpful, nurturing voice, becomes the repressive, critical voice that holds us back.

Unlike me on my bike, the musician doesn’t have a Dad who knows when to let go. We have to pick the moment to say goodbye to our inner teacher ourselves. How do you know when its time to let go of your inner teacher? When you feel like you are 90% where you want to be with your instrument. You can play it fine, the notes are there, but you listen to recordings of yourself playing and there’s something missing that you can’t put your finger on. Then its time.

How do you let go of your inner teacher? Thank them for their help and explain that from now on you are going to play without regard to your technique, trusting that it is within you and you no longer need to think about it. Perhaps you might ask your inner teacher’s help if you are studying a tricky new passage or if there is some technical difficulty that you need to analyse before you can play. But once that is under the fingers, it is time for them to go back into retirement.

This is scary stuff. Having your inner teacher’s voice nearby – by which I mean continuing to play while thinking about technique – feels safe. To play a difficult passage without thinking about the notes is scary. To sing without any attempt to control your pitch is scary. To expose your heart and soul and play from a place of total freedom is scary.

Think of my Dad again. When he let me go, he was 90% confident that I was able to ride on my own: the final 10% was trust in a universal grace that would keep me upright. No doubt he was scared too.

Go on. Do it. Now there’s no one holding you upright, but there’s no one holding you back. Once you realise that you are riding your own bike through a combination of 90% innate technique and 10% universal grace, the fear turns into exhilaration. You will also come to know the nature of the 10% that you were missing before you left your inner teacher behind – and you will be missing it no longer.

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.