Lost and Found in Translation

“Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking at what you did.”
—Neil Gaiman

A while back, I came across a few of the violin method books I used when I was nine and first learning to play. My teacher’s instructions were handwritten across the tops of the pages. “Keep bow straight”. “Don’t let bow slide!”. A sliding bow stroke along the length of the string or one that is too much off of parallel to the bridge will produce an unclear sound. It appeared several times, clearly something I’d struggled with. Many years after my first teacher made these notes, and as I unraveled an issue of excess tension in my bow arm, I realized that some of my trouble might have come from the tenacity of an ancient belief: that controlling the bow is difficult.

When I taught violin lessons, I was always interested in the fact that my students could receive the same instruction from me, and yet interpret it so differently from each other. It was a daily lesson in communication. From a teacher’s concept of his or her own technique to their ability to understand and communicate about what’s happening in a student’s playing, to the student’s understanding and ability to follow the instructions, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Whatever we choose to practice, whether we’ve been taught or have taught ourselves, has beliefs and assumptions behind it, helpful and not. Success is often measured by more or less consistently achieving a result, even if getting there was difficult or the understanding is still a bit murky. As a young player, if a lot of extra effort helped me find my way to playing with a straighter bow, it made sense that I believed that’s what was required. It also makes sense that it eventually just became part of how I played.

Deciding to unpack this idea and to see if it was possible to use less effort and still control the bow, I had to be willing to give up some dearly beloved habits. Much more insidious than playing habits, were my reactions to sounding bad! When I used less effort to control my bow, it did slide around. I let that happen, bad sound and all. The hardest part? No rushing to fix it, and no judgment. I just stayed with it. I used a mirror to see as much as I could, tolerated the sound, and became interested in the problem. How much and what kind of effort was actually needed? Pretty soon, I discovered a way to be in control of the bow without some of the unhelpful efforts I’d learned to rely on so many years ago. A more fluid bow stroke, better sound, and more comfort were the results. It was a process of taking a clear look at and undoing what wasn’t working and being open to learning what might.

An Alexander Technique lesson is a place to try new things. Sometimes that involves discovering, questioning, and testing assumptions and beliefs that we didn’t even know we had. Sometimes, it involves learning to un-do something that feels essential but may not be, an idea about a correct position, or maybe just a strategy that has outlived its usefulness. This applies to any activity, not just music!

Is there anything in your playing or in your life that might benefit from a closer look or anything that you’ve been able to change through a similar process? I’d love to hear from you!

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