Being aware of your body whilst playing any instrument is something that the majority of people assume they are doing, but most of the time they actually aren’t. Often in life we are not conscious or aware of ourselves and how our bodies are feeling. Physically you can be conscious of course, (I hope!) but are you mentally conscious whilst playing your instrument—for 100 percent or even 95 percent of your practice session? Being mentally conscious is a very different concept to being physically conscious. Are you in the moment, questioning your actions, listening, feeling, processing, thinking, working and discovering new or better ways of doing things? Or are you simply moving your arms, pushing keys down or bowing at some strings to get to the end of a page of notes?
You may be acutely aware that you’re standing or sitting whilst playing your instrument, or that you hold your instrument/rest it on the ground/rest it on your body. If you’re aware of this, great: this is a significant step in being awake and present whilst practicing your instrument.
But let’s go further than this—when was the last time you asked yourself in your practice session ‘how do my shoulders feel when I play this phrase?’ or ‘how does my neck feel when I make it to this part of the piece?’ and then actively sought an answer?
I actually do ask myself these questions regularly in my practice sessions, and upon asking these questions I usually find that my answer is ‘tight’ or ‘tense’ or ‘not relaxed’. Once I am aware of this, I am then able to ‘free’ these parts of my body so that I’m not playing whilst tense. I know I’m not alone in this answer either; a large portion of musicians play with unnecessary tension somewhere in their bodies.
Sometimes I realise that I’m standing with more weight on one foot that the other. Other times one of my arms is really tense in preparation for a particular phrase in a piece. Another personal favourite is raising my shoulders up towards my ears (even just the tiniest amount)—creating unwanted tension in my neck, shoulders and back. Doing this makes breathing and breath control slightly more of an effort. Occasionally I even notice that my head and neck are tense AND tilted slightly to one side (this is definitely helping me play the saxophone better right?!?!).
Next time you watch someone perform, see if you can notice any of these habits. I noticed as soon as I was becoming aware of certain bad habits in my own practice, I was even more aware when I saw other people doing them. This especially applies to standing unevenly or raising your shoulders whilst performing, which is more common than you would think!
As human beings we hold the weight of the world’s problems on our shoulders, and on other parts of our bodies. So whilst playing an instrument, us musicians often hold all our perseverance, drive, determination and tension physically in various parts of our body whilst we play.
Speaking from my own experience, this tension was just something my body did whenever I played the saxophone; it tensed up to try really really hard to get that phrase exactly right, or that low C to not honk, or those staccato repeated notes to be tongued smoother and faster. Whenever I played my sax—even at first just holding the instrument—my neck and shoulders would tense up.
Once I realised that tension would not help me play those repeated notes faster, or that phrase exactly how I wanted it to sound, I recognised that this was something I could change. I didn’t need to play with tension, so why should I let this be my habit?
By placing extra tension and pressure on parts of my body, I was using more effort than required, and therefore not breathing, playing, performing, and executing things at my most efficient and productive level. Not being efficient means it takes longer to do things and can place extra strain and wear and tear on the body in the long run. However, by trying to be present and aware, through constantly questioning myself and how my body was feeling in a practice session, I was quicker to notice how I was conducting myself and whether or not I had tension in my body. Often as I went through a practice session I would notice tension, but the fact that I had notices it and been made aware I was tense, meant that I could change what I was doing and fix it in that moment. Through consciously ‘freeing’ my body and creating space for my muscles to move, I could release any tension.
By continuing to practice and perform on our instruments with tension in our bodies (and often also tension on our minds), we are making this tension a habit. Just like the saying "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks", these habits when practiced often enough can become very difficult, if not near impossible to break. Or in other words, "you can teach an old dog new tricks—BUT it may take a very long time for their old habits to be broken and new habits established, because its habits have been set in their way for such a long time"!! Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well as the original saying! The key is to try to reinforce the good habits, and stress the importance of awareness and presence every time we pick up our instruments, with the goal to make our practice as efficient and tension-free as possible.
Through reinforcing this idea of awareness I hope that more efficient practice techniques and performance can become the norm. Often it can take a repetitive strain injury for a musician to realise the way they have been practicing or playing (often both) isn’t as efficient as it could be. If they’re smart or perhaps hunting out alternative ways then they may have this realisation, but some people just continue doing what they’re doing, believing in the ‘no pain no gain’ mantra. This ultimately just results in more pain, more tension, more damage to their bodies and minds in the long run, and perhaps a change of career or loss of a loved hobby as a result of being unable to play their chosen instrument.
It’s only once you are aware of the bad habits that you can break them. Even the smallest ones that only you notice can be making a massive difference to the efficiency and ease of your playing and performances. And by noticing what you’re doing along the way—instead of just trying to get to an endpoint—teaches you more in the long run. As Ernest Hemmingway said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” So, be conscious and aware so that you CAN appreciate the journey!