CREATING PRESENCE AND REDIRECTING ATTENTION

Stanislaw Kulhawczuk’s teaching liberates the musician and the music, and focuses away from cognitively controlling the use of muscles for controlling my movements. I’m convinced that his teaching has had a positive impact on my playing, and that what I learn and develop will be useful to other performers as well as create knowledge.

The German philosopher Eugen Herrigel describes differences in the Western and Eastern way of thinking of teaching and learning in his book Zen in the Art of Archery. A Japanese scholar on Zen Buddhism, Daisetz T. Suzuki says in the introduction: “The mind has first to be attuned to the unconscious“ 1)Herrigel, E. (1971). Zen in the art of archery By Eugen Herrigel ; with an introduction by D.T. Suzuki; translated by R.F.C. Hull (Vol. V-663). New York: Vintage books, p. vii. Zen, but also chi/qi, can be described but do not lend themselves to rational analysis. I will not pretend that Stanislaw’s method lies on a spiritual level like zen, but there are many truths in this tiny little book which makes me see parallels to my own work, for instance on how to work with the unconscious, letting go of control and intellectual understanding.

Kulhawczuk uses musical images or coded words to explain phenomena that can be difficult to understand. They take their meaning through him showing, explaining, singing, and pushing me to keep searching until I have filled them with my understanding both cognitively and in an embodied manner. I then also use coded ”buttons” of understanding to activate the right feeling during playing, and to focus my mind. In music, it is the norm to use images to describe musical phenomena that are otherwise difficult to describe in words. His imagery creates new meaning and an embodied symbolization of the experience, by referring to familiar symbols or words. In understanding Kulhawczuk’s images, the embodied meaning emerges out of the relationship between the physical experience and language.

His teachings are based on an understanding of the body being balanced and free so that you can play anything. The basic focus of the method is an economical use of the body: balancing the body to avoid unnecessary tension in the muscles. When your spine is well balanced and your head is balancing, relaxed on top of the spine, you enduce a natural relaxation of the upper body.

I see that when I have Alexander lessons, it is easier to find the right balance in his lessons and to locate the “right” feeling more quickly. The music comes from a centeredness inside me, and my embodied feeling controls the movement and the music. It is also a constant play with the energy of the music and the energy within me, and never letting totally go of this energy. I develop a new alertness with respect to the body, energy, and touch with the bow on the string.

Harpist and conductor Andrew Lawrence-King claims that being ‘centered’ not only optimizes your own physical co-ordination in performance and combats nervousness, but also empowers emotional communication to your audience, and puts both performer and audience in touch with the ineffable, mystical spark of artistic inspiration (Lawrence-King, 2014). Lawrence-King discusses this notion of centering which is common in several other practices too:

When you ask someone where their self, their YOU, is situated in their body, many will say head or high up in the body. Moshe Feldenkrais says: ‘It is certainly true that most people feel the ego, i.e. the pointwhich feels more like ‘I’, at the base of the forehead between the eyes. But it is not exclusively so. With the advancement towards fuller maturity of the spatial and gravitational functions, the subjective feelingis that the ego gradually descends to be finally located somewhat below the navel’ (Lawrence-King, 2014).

Stage performers similarly seek a sense of being “centered” or “grounded”. When I try to locate ME it is somewhere around the solar plexus.

When you do something, or hear something over and over again, it forms a strong neural pathway. Fortunately, however, the brain is always changing and you can forge new pathways and create new habits. This is called the neuro- plasticity of the brain, its capacity to learn from experience by changing its structure 2)Rugnetta, M. (2017). Neuroplasticity Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.

Kulhawczuk urges me to let go of my intellectual control and trust my sensory awareness and embodied feeling to control the music. My intuitive presence gets stronger the more I work on this pathway. I understand both cognitively and in an embodied manner. Let go of the cognitive control and trust the body to play. The body feels the contact between the string and the body. From the beginning, Kulhawczuk has warned: “don’t play with your hands”, they are just doing what is needed to create the sound, contact or affect I feel centered in me. When I try to control my arms, even ever so slightly, they are stiff and they disturb the fine balance and contact of the bow on the string. I should use the energy inherent in the music suited to the character of the piece. Feel this as a build-up of tension, and then release, even before the smallest theme or episode. I balance to create freedom for the arms, concentrate on letting intuition and my body steer my choices while I observe with my intellect. Inside every little note there is a burning sensation, and all music has swing, says Kulhawczuk.

Intuition is steering; the body awaits messages from it. Then I obtain a delicate and natural embodied control with so many more possibilities for variation than when I work more cognitively. Casals says he asks himself: “What is the most natural way of doing this?” 3)Casals, P., & Kahn, A. E. (1970). Joys and sorrows: reflections by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn. New York, p. 76.

An important part of working to create this sense of concentration and presence, is to learn to discipline my wandering attention, and continuously bring it back to a specific point by giving myself special messages or “concentration buttons” to help find and keep the feeling of presence.

I am “taming” the mind by engaging it in attentive awareness to a specific task. This is described by Zarrilli as keeping our “analytical, squirrel-like minds occupied” 4)Zarrilli, P. B., & Hulton, P. (2009). Psychophysical acting : an intercultural approach after Stanislavski. London: Routledge, p. 26.

Kulhawczuk asks me to practice away from the instrument, only visualizing the performing and at the same time activate feelings. A mental practicing of finding and keeping a right presence of mind. This will strengthen the new neuroplasticity that I’m trying to increase. As Oliver Sacks says: “[…] imagining music can indeed activate the auditory cortex almost as strongly as listening to it” 5)Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain: Vintage Books, p. 32. It also creates a clear idea of what I want to do with the music, without being bothered by technical difficulties on the instrument.

With this method as well as the physical act of practising, I create new neural pathways, firstly identifying the old habits and what I want to change. Then I shift the focus of concentration, and every time I feel myself slipping into the old habits, I stop what I’m doing. I use mental visualization and affirmations to reinforce the new pathways. I keep trying and gradually transforming. The new neural pathway gets stronger each time I use it correctly. I have to work with new types of embodied understanding and mental concentra- tion to get in contact with the right feeling. By creating these new pathways in the subconscious, the neuroplasticity is gradually working to my advantage. Oliver Sacks quotes Alvaro Pascal-Leone, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School: “The combination of mental and physical practice leads to greater performance improvement than does physical practice alone” 6)ibid, p. 32.

The study Musical Imagery and the Planning of Dynamics and Articulation During Performance says that: “[T]he ability to imagine a desired interpretation is said by some musicians to be integral to expressive music performance” 7)Bishop, L., Bailes, F., & Dean, R. T. (2013). Musical Imagery and the Planning of Dynamics and Articulation During Performance. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(2), 97-117. doi:10.1525/mp.2013.31.2.97, p. 97. They also say about this mental preparation that:

Aural skills are practiced by many music students, but if consciously imagining a desired sound increases the success with which intentions are realized, then an increased focus on developing and diversifying auditory imagery skills may be beneficial 8)ibid, p. 114.

When I imagine the music, I anchor it in my body and I feel and visualize the different colors and affects of each note. Mental rehearsal allows me to test potential interpretations and analyze anticipated results without interference from auditory, motor feedback, or bad habits.

One thing which I find challenging is to not use too much muscle power when I want to play a big forte. I activate the consciousness of the muscles in the arms and try to take the force from there to get a heavier bow and bigger sound. I sometimes have too much consciousness, or more precisely pre-reflectiveness regarding what my arms are doing at any given moment, even though I don’t consciously think about them while I play. I have to activate the responsibility and trust of my body, and let the arms be its tools. De Alcantara says for example:

When you want a big sound, a resonant, uniform and elastic sound, you need a “total absence of brute force, and instead the perfect coordination of the musician’s entire body, from head to toe; a virtuosity of contact between the player and his or her instrument; and, most important, the capacity to allow sound to flow out of the instrument 9)de Alcantara, P. (2010). Integrated Practice : Coordination, Rhythm & Sound. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.

This resonates with Kulhawczuk’s method of taking away the brute force from the arms, and placing it in my center and building the dynamic force from my inside while keeping my arms supple and to obtain a big and resounding forte. It has been indeed hard to let go of the impulse to compensate with muscle power and always try to let the energy and dynamics build up from within myself.

Kulhawczuk can easily spend one hour working on one bar or one line, and I appreciate this attention to details. It is also demanding, because my “bodymind” needs optimal functioning to be able to express what I want, and what the music demands. That is, choosing between the millions of shadings, colors, articulations and sounds inherent in the music. It is not enough to keep an expression through a line, I have to go further and keep the music alive in every little note, in their beginning, middle and end. My concentration is totally focused, while my consciousness keeps watch and intuition is steers through my embodied feelings.

I direct my awareness straight to the core of the body, the grounding, and I feel that I’m inside the tone from the first moment. The instrument is only a part of me, a means to express myself. The instrument can get in the way, as a technical issue – I try to be one with it. The best is when I forget there is an instrument present; it acts as an extension of me.

The music is shaped in my mind and through my bodily affects. When I play I’m not trying to force my personal feeling onto the music. I use my affects to color or to create variations in the music and in how I communicate with the listener. Fear, anger, sadness, happiness, love – these and many other affects are the raw substance that we have in our bodies as reactions to events, sounds, speech, and encounters.

I obtain a feeling of relinquishing control, but at the same time of gaining a different “felt sense” control. This intuition is, of course, shaped and formed through years of practice and performing, and is also now broadening and developing with the work I’m doing. I can, with this embod- ied approach to playing, interpret with a greater freedom, as if the thought, mind and feeling from which the music stems are embodied. I need to perceive the sound and energy of the music, the contact of the bow on the string, with a feeling in the center of my body. Intuition consists of the following: affects, temperament, sound quality, dynamics, and very importantly, energy. Music comes from impulses.

The consciousness is slow, the intuition and subconcious are much faster and more varied. Trust your body, center your energy and let the technique be free. Suddenly I can play difficult passages I thought were impossible, and even almost without practicing. But then I balance, with the feel of the rhythm centered within the point of balance.

Kulhawczuk’s students have an enormous respect for him. While others wonder “what he is doing”. When I got the taste of what he is urging you towards, never content with 99%, and always pushing my abilities to the maximum, it keeps me returning again and again. I get a burning wish to understand more and find the best way of activating my musical intuition. Again, I return to the words of Casals:

[I]t has always been my viewpoint that intuition is the decisive element in both the composing and the performance of music. Of course, technique and intelligence have vital functions – one must master the technique of an instrument in order to exact its full potentialities and one must apply one’s intelli- gence in exploring every facet of the music – but, ultimately, the paramount role is that of intuition. For me the determining factor in creativity, in bringing a work to life, is that of musical instinct” 10)Casals, P., & Kahn, A. E. (1970). Joys and sorrows: reflections by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn. New York, p. 97.

In Kulhawczuk’s teaching, I also find other resonances with Casals’ views: One must understand that the purpose of technique is to transmit the inner meaning, the message, of the music. The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all 11)ibid, p. 76. This requires a lot of imagination and visualization, and it is easier to explain and teach in person than it is to describe.

I am now at a point where I am able to distinguish, on my own, when I’m playing with “my arms” or managing to keep the feeling of presence. I feel the qualitative difference. Once this has been experienced, it can no longer be ignored, it is like when a bear has tasted honey, she will always keep searching for more.

Further reading…

References   [ + ]

1. Herrigel, E. (1971). Zen in the art of archery By Eugen Herrigel ; with an introduction by D.T. Suzuki; translated by R.F.C. Hull (Vol. V-663). New York: Vintage books, p. vii
2. Rugnetta, M. (2017). Neuroplasticity Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc
3. Casals, P., & Kahn, A. E. (1970). Joys and sorrows: reflections by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn. New York, p. 76
4. Zarrilli, P. B., & Hulton, P. (2009). Psychophysical acting : an intercultural approach after Stanislavski. London: Routledge, p. 26
5. Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain: Vintage Books, p. 32
6. ibid, p. 32
7. Bishop, L., Bailes, F., & Dean, R. T. (2013). Musical Imagery and the Planning of Dynamics and Articulation During Performance. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(2), 97-117. doi:10.1525/mp.2013.31.2.97, p. 97
8. ibid, p. 114
9. de Alcantara, P. (2010). Integrated Practice : Coordination, Rhythm & Sound. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3
10. Casals, P., & Kahn, A. E. (1970). Joys and sorrows: reflections by Pablo Casals as told to Albert E. Kahn. New York, p. 97
11. ibid, p. 76