Knowing a piece in your bones

Today I am going to talk about the physicality of music.  It is sometimes seen as an intellectual pursuit, but we make music with our bodies.

This is, of course, true of everything we do. We can only live our lives through this one body we have been issued with.  Changes in your body – whether that’s through the passage of time, hormones, an accident or illness, even gaining or losing weight – will affect many of your daily activities, including making music.

Last week I talked about ageing and how it affects the voice.  We all know having a cold affects the way you sing, and if you have burnt your left index finger on the oven it will affect your piano playing.  That index finger might affect your singing, too, because it will take a bit of your attention away from your focus on your voice, and there might be some tension in your left shoulder because you keep fiddling with the little burn.

Learning to make music, whether with the inbuilt instrument of your voice, or another instrument, is a process of physical training just as much as learning to run or do keepie-uppies with a football.  Improving your scales or learning the bass part of “Hail, Smiling Morn” are not things you do purely by mental effort.  You embody the learning and develop the physical habit of getting the music as you want it to sound. 

It may be more obvious with an instrument like the piano, because you can see your fingers on the keyboard in a way you cannot see the physicality of singing.  You cannot see your vocal cords, or as they are called more accurately these days, vocal folds. Your breath is invisible.  But look at all the physical structures that enable you to make a sound:

For every instrument the music works better when you involve your whole body.  Breathe deeply, stand or sit in a balanced way, and don’t let anything be tense that could be relaxed. Engage your core muscles.  Then you need to practise the music.  Using your ears to know when it’s right, go over it in sections until it’s right all the time.  The messages received by your ears – and if you are reading music, by your eyes – start making neural pathways to your fingers or your larynx.

The wonderful thing that happens when you have spent the hours going over and over whatever it is you are learning, is that your body remembers it without your brain having to get involved at all.  Thinking too much, in fact, can put you off your stroke. If you consciously prepare your body to get in the right position for the beginning, hands on the keyboard or feeling where the first note sits in your voice, your body will perform the music and you will experience a wonderful sense of flow.

This really struck me when we sang before Christmas on the hill in Meersbrook Park.  Someone suggested we should sing “Hail, Smiling Morn” and we just went for it.  None of us had sung it for roughly 360 days, and it was marvellous.  We knew it in our bones.  Each of these songs we learn is an invisible gift we carry around with us and they are priceless.