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“ ((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.
Stanislaw 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 ”concentration buttons” to direct my awareness and activate the right feeling during playing.. 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.
If I use the body right, in the most efficient way relating to the tension in muscles needed, or relaxation in the muscles not used in the moment, I am free and can play anything. By engaging the body and use an active inner energy, I use little muscle force but the effect of the music is so much bigger and the sound is bigger and open.
Focus on feeling the point of balance. The image of how to find this feeling: Imagine being a pen, which can find the exact point of balancing with no support, and without falling. When I shift the focus to the body and balancing, technical difficulties are easy to overcome. The rhythm of the music is also anchored in the body, and I sense the swing. I feel the pendulum moving if I imagine it, steadily swinging from side to side.
In my reflection notes I have described a practice session where I concentrate on sensing this embodiment:
I start my practice sessions just working on sitting and centering my attention. Attention on how my back is, am I sitting on my sitting bones? Head balancing on the top. Not held, not forced, just balancing. Head free. Arms hanging. The cello peg is in my neck but I try not to be bothered. I adjust the instrument slightly. Feel the contact with the string. I play long notes. Keep this contact, in the body and with the string, all the time. I stop myself from time to time to check on the balance and the point of contact with the bow and the body. It’s easy to lose while playing, I have to check constantly.
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.
One of the important aspects of this work on embodiment is to activate this energy of the body and relieve the arms of responsibility and tension. If the body is “sleeping” and not active enough, the arms take over. The body and the hands must cooperate giving the hands the best possible situation. Let the body take responsibility, the arms should be relaxed and soft. The inner activity of the body is always changing, it’s not constant. If you are not active enough, the arms take over.
Awareness is again a challenge in changing this habit. Sometimes the arms take control without me noticing. I have worked so much on consciously feeling the proprioception in the arms, it is demanding to let go and to try and just trust that they know what to do. I also see that I have a tendency to activate the arms when I am high up on the fingerboard.
I let the energy of the music build up before the tone before I release at the right moment. Wait for the body to be present, and the tension builds up before releasing tension. I have to wait for the feeling in the body, and not play before it.
The energy is the music’s inherent force. I need to know how much to use at any given time. The metronome does not decide time. Energy in the music is not metronomic. A totally even metronomic rhythm can be used as an effect, but not as a musical principle. I work with the metronome to check, but not when playing music. The energy comes from impulses, the music and impulses have varying amounts of energy. Music has to have groove or swing. I visualize this as feeling an inner pendulum constantly swinging – sometimes attached above my head, or in my body. If the music swings, then I embody the rhythm. This swing is super important. Tempo, rhythm and phrasing is steered by this energy of the music, and this energy creates the language of music. I try to also sense the energy in between the notes.
Sometimes when I play I force the timing, I am too quick, I have to wait for the energy of the music to build in me. I should not be too early, I have to feel it as holding the moment, a build-up of tension, till I have to release. Feel it as a rubberband being stretched out, and then let it go. I have to both feel the swing, the contact and the amount of energy needed. This work with timing also creates a feeling of “speaking” the music, not bound by the metronome but more flexible following the lines within the larger frame of time.
A part of this work on embodiment is to center this energy in my body. 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).
Centre the awareness and sense into the chore of the body, I imagine this situated around solar plexus. Stage performers similarly seek a sense of being “centered” or “grounded”. In my work with Stanislaw one of the reoccurring aspects of each meeting is to focus on the contact between the bow, (the string) and the body. The body is in charge of this contact between bow and body, and it needs to have a delicate quality. When I work I concentrate on sensing this contact and listen as well for the quality of sound.
I let the body control the point of contact with the bow – when I have that I can also vary any type of bow speed, and still keep the sense of the lines. Even when I want a quick movement of the bow, the awareness has to stay in the point of contact in the body. Imagine the weight, sound and the energy before I play.
The challenge in developing this contact is mostly in changing habit and enhancing this new focus and awareness. Examples of my work can be seen in the practice vlog (http://www.makingsense.no/?p=579) and in my notes I have written:
May 2012 The point of contact is there, activated in the body, but it is maybe not varied enough. I can see that I sometimes think a bit too much sideways with my bow, without keeping the point of contact. It becomes mostly one type of contact and sound even though of course I use dynamics. I should think as if I am stroking the string, cuddling it. My sound gets much better, more open, and the lines are clear. Sometimes I keep “holding” a note, I got the right feeling at the start, but then I try too desperately to hold on to it. Just balance and stay centered, holding on to the contact without it becoming stiff or held. It works better when I think the bow movement more inwards, than sideways with speed. Contact has to be present in each note. I can use a quick bow but still think delicate. When I practice this, I try just sensing the notes and almost not moving the bow – only feeling the variations in contact.
August 2014: I try to keep the contact in the body, and feeling the body balancing while I play. The tone starts from inside, with an impulse, anchored in the body. It is alive, and the body decides. I can feel the intonation in the tone. The contact on the string is decided in the body, or through the body, but of course anchored in musical choices. The energy and production of sound comes from the body and creates sound in the point of contact. I really try to concentrate on embodying and not losing the feeling while I play, constantly producing sound. Then I can make a big and strong effect without working too hard, less muscular power but more effect.
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 ((Rugnetta, M. (2017). Neuroplasticity Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc)).
February 2014: I keep trying to keep the right feeling of what we work on, but it is not easy to find it on my own. I keep getting frustrated, and sometimes I feel afraid of practicing in case I work in the wrong way and ruin everything! All the new paths in my brain needs to be groomed, not left alone to wither away.
March 2014: Understanding intellectually is not the same as understanding embodied. I should use the embodied affects, but still I am using so much time just getting to this point of flow and using the body right, so it feels like there is a long way to go before interpretation is the main focus.
April 2014: It is a really hard run-up to the concert because when I practice how I am used to I end up with my old habits. I change how I practice and use much more energy on focusing and directing attention, instead of playing over and over again, mindlessly. In changing my habits, I feel nervous: is this going to work. I cannot “over-practice” like before, because then I end up repeating bad habits. What if I cannot realize this in the concert? It sometimes takes some time getting the right sensation when I work with Stanislaw, so what about when I am alone and nervous? I want to realize so much that I start overcompensating with both my force and the interpretation, instead of trusting my embodied control. It works, but at the concert in Rissa, I could feel myself going in and out of concentration. And I kept gripping my bow too hard, which did not help freeing the arms, and the arms werer really tired.
I have to trust my “new-way”, I know it works. But I keep focusing on one thing at a time, forgetting other things which are important. I am too busy thinking about how, so I forget to feel the music. I feel stressed about having to prove something about music and language. I want the audience to be in the music, through their own bodies and experiences. I lift my playing to a new level, but at the same time the stress makes me lose it, and I revert to old ways which seem more familiar and safe. But then I do not get the same presence in the moment, or “magic”.
These three reflections are from the first period of my project, and as I showed in the paragraph on developing presence and analyzing my first solo concert in 2014, this uneasiness and distrust made the start of the work maybe even unsuccessful.
August 2014: This changing of habit demands a lot. I try to feel and not think too much. It’s so hard when I have been trying to think all my life. It is a question of concentration and redirecting both mind and embodied energy. It is good to practice a lot, but only if I do it right. Otherwise it is harmful, for me. To create new neurological pathways, I have to use all my concentration. I am fascinated by the inner work and how much difference it makes to my sound. Relaxed body, but still awake and alert. Maybe I just underestimate how much work it takes to actually do something about getting a better use of my body and changing my ingrown habits.
Stanislaw 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?” ((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” ((Zarrilli, P. B., & Hulton, P. (2009). Psychophysical acting : an intercultural approach after Stanislavski. London: Routledge, p. 26)).
(Zarrilli, 2009, p. 26). One example is the button CUDDLE, when the body keeps the contact I can focus on enjoying and cuddling the string, and my body is balanced and awake. Other buttons can be:
RESPECT – ONLY CONTACT, IN THE BODY – BURNING SENSATION IN THE TONE – FEEL MUSIC IN YOUR BODY – EMBODY THE DYNAMICS – BODY DECIDES.
They all help in the performing moment to direct my concentration and release also the other aspects of performance, but sometimes I find it difficult to find the right ”button” to trigger the right feeling. I have to work on finding the right awareness of the feeling I want, and also manage to keep it. And to not hold on to it too spasmodically, suddenly working against myself.
Stanislaw 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” ((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” ((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” ((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 ((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 ((de Alcantara, P. (2010). Integrated Practice : Coordination, Rhythm & Sound. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3)).
This resonates with Stanislaw’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.
Stanislaw 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 embodied affects. When I play I’m not trying to force my personal feelings onto the music. Fear, anger, sadness, happiness, love – these and many other affects are the raw substance or intensities that we have in our bodies as reactions to events, sounds, speech, and encounters, before the emotions. When I play I can activate the embodied affects which lies close to the subconsciousness, by feeling them linked to the music in the moment. I use my embodied affects as a resource to color and to create variations in the music. The word affect has many connotations philosophically and historically, and my understanding of embodied affect as a performer describes something about how it feels when being in the performing moment. I relate this to the characters or emotions I find in the music, similar to the rhetoric thought of the passions in the music and arousing them in oneselves as a musician (see more about the rhetoric affects in chapter 5). I am interested in both the more individual embodied affect and the old understanding of the affects, or passions. I believe the use of the embodied affects in interpreting music can create an experience of direct communication with the audience.
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” ((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 ((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. When I got the taste of what he is urging me 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.