On Musicking in the Moment

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Music is, by definition, a time-based art-form, so producing sounds one after another is inherent to its praxis. But, as I explored a few years back, the unrelenting march of musical time can create unhelpful pressures on musicians, and, when not actually performing, it is often valuable to suspend time and let moments elongate themselves around you.

I recently remembered a lovely exercise that Jim Henry did with the White Rosettes at the LABBS Directors Weekend in 2015. He had them sing the target vowel of a particular syllable in the lyric of their song, but without knowing until he signalled whether they were going to sing that word, or another with the same vowel. I forget which actual words were involved, but for example sustaining ‘moo’, without knowing until the signal whether the word was going to become ‘moon’ or ‘mood’.

The point of this exercise was that it stopped them distorting the vowel as they sang it in anticipation of the consonant to come. It was a great exercise, and I recommend it to you as he did to us.

The reason I was reminded of it was that I was finding in piano practice that the urge to reach for the next note was not infrequently introducing tension into the execution of the note or chord I was currently playing. So I had to forbid myself from going on while I cleaned the unnecessary muscular effort out of the present moment, and only then, maybe, let myself consider how to get from here to where the music was going next.

There are some deeper reflections available here on the relationship between my habitual forms of anxiety (fear of being late, of being left behind), and how they relate to my identity as a musician, and indeed as a human being. But I’m not going to dig into them here, not least because I’m not sure that my insecurities are necessarily very interesting to other people!

What I am going to share is coming across the following passage just a couple of days later when re-reading F.M. Alexander’s The Use of the Self. For context: he is writing about his personal journey of discovering and trying to train himself out of the unhelpful habits that were causing him vocal difficulties. He had got to the point where he had worked out better ways to use his body, and had practised those at length without trying to apply them to speaking or reciting. When he finally did start to apply them, he found that at the moment he formed the intention to speak as a performer, the old reactions intervened and diverted him away from the new bodily procedures at the moment of execution. This passage describes the method he developed to circumvent those habitual reactions.

[At this point] I would change my usual procedure and

(4) while still continuing to project the directions for the new use I would stop and consciously reconsider my first decision, and ask myself 'Shall I after all go on to gain the end I have decided upon and speak the sentence? Or shall I not? Or shall I go on to gain some other end altogether?' -- and then and there make fresh decision,

(5) either
not to gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use and not go on to speak the sentence;
to change my end and do something different, say, lift my hand instead of speaking the sentence, in which case I would continue to project the directions for main- taining the new use to carry out this last decision and lift my hand;
to go on after all and gain my original end, in which case I would continue to project the directions for maintaining the new use to speak the sentence.

The process described here is the one that Alexander Technique refers to as ‘inhibition’, which I have written about before. But those previous reflections don’t include the key point made here that, in order to retrain the current step in your procedure, you need to remove the inevitability of the next step. Alexander doesn’t write in this specific bit of the book about the problems generated by ’end-gaining’ but he is getting the focus on to the ‘means-whereby’ one does something by the quite radical expedient of eliminating the end from the process.

Or, to put it more precisely, he is replacing the end to be gained with a selection of possible ends. It is much easier to avoid unhelpful reactions formed from anticipating what comes next if there are multiple possible futures open ahead of you. Instead of being sucked down the rat-run of habit, you can stand still in the moment, before making a more considered step into one or other of them.

I often find the mindfulness imperative to live ‘in the moment’ difficult; my mind wants to rush forward into the future and make sure I’m ready for everything that’s coming up. I find this approach to inhibition helps in two ways. First, by having something very specific to do while in the moment: whether purifying a vowel, playing a chord on the piano or maintaining the ideal head/neck alignment for speech, there are requirements for precise motor control to focus on. Second, by entertaining the possibility of moving on to do something different next, or indeed nothing at all, you stop the future bleeding back into the present before you’re ready for it.

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