One of my violin pupils, we’ll call him Ben, was finding it hard to bounce and catch a ball last term, in one of his last lessons before Lockdown. I am always looking for new and better ways to help children feel what it is that they need to do to improve their playing, and bouncing a ball is very similar to the movements of a bow, going down and up. It requires a similar pattern of tension and more importantly relaxation, and for many its an easy analogy: they can bounce the ball and then move easily to releasing the bow. Except Ben would bounce, and fail to catch ball, which rather took him somewhere more challenging.
I told him to do it slowly, and that helped, but once he dropped the ball he continued to. We tried him watching for the writing on the ball, – he was catching ‘the letters’ on the ball: same thing: it helped, but not after he failed a few times.
Through this I was watching, and trying to analyse what he was doing:and realised he was tightening muscularly. As the ball came close his arms and fingers stiffened. This made it more difficult for him to move fast enough that his timing allowed him to catch it, and more likely that even if the ball landed in his hand would bounce right out of his hardened palms.
It turned out he wasn’t good at games, was rarely the first to be chosen in teams, and this affected his self-confidence as an 8 year-old boy. So I had touched on a nerve. Oops. When he didn’t catch the ball that fed into his negative thinking loop that he couldn’t catch the ball because he wasn’t good at games, and not as good as others.
We tried him keeping his hands floppy as the ball came near his hands, and that helped a lot, especially whilst the ball was slow. We tried alternating hardening the hands so he could consciously feel the difference. That helped too.
And finally, we talked together about whilst it being desirable as a skill, the ability to catch a ball or not was not going to affect what he did with his life unless he had a secret wish to be a sportsman (he didn’t). And then I asked him to fail. To not catch the ball. Which he was very successful at to start with (which we both laughed about), and then he started failing at failing.
I asked him to imagine he was someone for whom catching the ball meant nothing. It had zero value. It wasn’t important. It wouldn’t affect anything that was important for him, or the consideration of anyone who was important to him. He was wearing the cloak of a person who didn’t care for a few minutes. And that had the most impact. When he took out the value judgement, and was in the moment, either catching the ball or not, he caught it. No matter the speed. And the change in his demeanour as he realised that he could do it was wonderful to see. And an added bonus? His bowing improved too!.
When we are able to remove judgement from the equation, we affect our attitude, our mindset: “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Mr Shakespeare. And how we think affects our physicality.
Its rare to feel a strong emotion, and that not affect us physically in someway. When we regularly feel judged, hurt, or negative emotions, we often add an “armour”, in the shape of muscular tension, to allow us feel less, to not get hurt. Which then means we are more defensive, ready to reject (words or ideas) as we’re wearing our musculature of fear and defence.
And that makes pretty much everything else harder. Harder to think objectively, and more difficult to separate out the details of what we’re doing technically. When I asked another violin pupil whether he liked the sound he was making, he replied “no, it sounds bad”. When I asked him how that made him feel to “sound bad”, he said it made he felt bad, about himself. I suggested that we think a different way. I asked him to remove the attribute, as it didn’t sound very helpful to his learning, and simply say ‘a singing sound’, or ‘a scratchy sound’ instead. It was more descriptive, helped him know what the goal was (or wasn’t), and with that choice of words he didn’t feel that he’d lessened his self-esteem.
And that’s so important for our learning. We simply learn better, more easily when we feel comfortable both emotionally and physically.
So how can we do something different? How can we make it easier for ourselves to learn? To improve, to seek perfection in our artform without becoming the kind of perfectionist that stops everything? I would rather ask how can we turn practice in to a process? Its one day along the pathway of our musical life after all, we will get better simply by practising. We don’t need to add complication to make it harder.
When we can reduce the importance of a goal, and certainly remove sense of “good and bad”, we can help find greater simplicity. We’re letting go of an idea in order to simplify, not to not feel, or take ourselves out of life, but to create a separation between our ego and our instrument to make it easier to learn.
In Feldenkrais we have the ideas of the neutral self, (an idea taken from Judo: Feldenkrais was one of Europe’s first non-Japanese Judo masters) and that freedom of action is the ability to go in reverse, or any direction without having to readjust. But also one can see it emotionally: to not be so wedded to an emotion that we can’t let go of it if its no longer useful.
If I only measure myself by my success, I am making failure more likely, and more important if it happens. If I look for a more neutral place from which to think, to work, then I can weather the storms of both success and failure more easily. I bend, but don’t break.
For me, coming back to my physical self, in a Feldenkrais lesson, whether its 10 minutes or 60 helps me reground, re-centre, find my neutral. The next time you’re practising try this exploration before, in the middle (if you find your mind going into a critical place) break it into smaller chunks, but do let me know whether it helps.
When we’re in a more grounded place, we are often less judgemental. Try this short video lesson I gave earlier in the year on Grounding before your next practice, and then take little snippets of that to break up your practice whenever you find yourself moving into judgement. (The lesson starts at 7.25 from the beginning).
Want to take a dive into this work with us? Join me, Anita and Niall for the Well Musician Online Summer School next week, the 17th-20th August. Click here for more details.
Photo: New York Public Library.