The effortlessness of the expert

It takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless – Steven Sondheim

When we witness an expert performer in music or in sport the word “effortless” often springs to mind. However, most people are (hopefully) aware of the amount of work actually needed to reach this level of mastery. Therefor “effort-less” can necessarily not mean that something is “without effort”.

Hånd på klaviatur

A seemingly “effortless” performance is indeed the result of a sophisticated physical and neurological coordination which creates a subtle fluctuation between tension and relaxation in the parts responsible for the movements and to master this coordination is at the true core of every excelling performance.

Excessive and static tension

In a body performing at a high level of function there is very little excessive tension present, each part of the body has just the necessary amount  needed to perform the task.

A lot of us carry an excessive level of tension in certain parts of our bodies, both when we are performing tasks and when we are seemingly relaxed. Changing the tensional pattern of our body takes a long time, primarily because most of us are unaware of much of the tension present in our bodies. In our minds we have a tendency to think that:

TENSION = PAIN

so that when a part of our body is not performing as it should according to its design we may not necessarily attribute the lack of performance to excessive tension as long as it´s not causing us any pain. But the presence of tension is not necessarily visible only through pain but also in restricted movement, non-optimal coordination  and affected performance.

Changing a pattern requires that we first become aware of it. Do a simple exercise: Stand on all fours and allow your stomach to relax and sink down like a hammock.

All the way…

Take some time (think a couple of minutes) to let your stomach completely give in to gravity. You will probably experience that  what you thought were a full relaxation is just a fraction of the potential and that as the seconds pass you will sense more and more micro-releases in the tension in your belly.

Most of us spend an excessive amount of energy constantly sucking in our stomach, so much that when we are in a position where gravity naturally pulls our organs forward we have a problem releasing this tension because it has become a more or less constant and unconscious pattern.

But constant static tension also means restricted circulation and our abdominal region contains things that are dependent on good circulation in order to function properly.

Like your digestive- or reproductive organs.

A constant excess of tension makes it harder to relax but more importantly: it also leads to a limited ability to activate and relax your muscles at different degrees.

A healthier alternative is a constant fluctuating pattern of tension and relaxation where our muscles have the option of not only being in an on/off mode but rather cycling constantly through different degrees of tension/relaxation according to what is needed.

Not this:

av-paa-bryter

but this:

Trinnvis bryter

Keeping a steady frame with your partner while dancing the tango demands a whole range of different degrees of tension that allows you to respond according to the impulses you are receiving. If the muscles of your upper body are so tense and unresponsive that their only options are either on (rigid) or off (loose) there will be no options to choose from, and to just be told to “relax” your elbow or “keep a steady frame” just isn´t detailed enough information.

tangosko

Coordination – using what is needed

When we want to make a movement we have multiple choices  as to how to make our bodies perform that movement. If you intend to pick leafs of the ground in your garden you could use a crane to do the job, it would just not be very practical. Keeping your lower arms extended horizontally in front of you for several hours every day while typing on your computer requires a certain activation in your muscles but the coordination or distribution of workload between those muscles is decisive when it comes to how straining this activity will be for your body. Skjelett

And you can switch the activity of typing with pretty much any other activity, like walking, dancing the tango or playing an instrument.

So why would we use more than we need?

Our muscles are controlled by our neurology. A motor unit consists of a nerve attaching to certain muscle fibres of a muscle. The greater amount of fibres it attaches to the “bigger” the movement the nerve controls. In what we call fine motor skills the motor units attache only to a few fibres and the amount of motor units working at the same time and (hopefully) in coordination is very great, on the opposite side of the scale we have large muscles where a single motor unit controls a great amount of fibres and make them all move at the same time giving a high degree of leverage and force with a lesser degree of coordination needed.

But having the neurological hardware to be able to move the different parts of a muscle independently to one another is not the same as actually being able to do this. Through lack of regular use muscles can become neurologically “lumped together” so that we are not able to differentiate between them any more and differentiation is the key to coordination: if I can’t differentiate between the different muscles in my body I am not able to make them to move independently of one another.

Coordination is the ability to decide  what parts of a muscle  to activate  and how those parts are to move  relative  to each other  and to other muscles of the body.

Some people have a natural tendency for good coordination but for most people the “default” coordination is a result of the sum total of how you have used your body up to this moment which is a highly individual matter for most of us.

Therefor training is sometimes needed.

Both Timani and Nutritious Movement as methods are all about coordination in order to achieve a more sustainable use of the body in order to increase performance and to take a step closer to the realm of the effortlessness we all can benefit from – whether we are experts or no.

 

The inner and outer experiences of music

kamfestHaving  just returned from the annual Trondheim chamber music festival KAMFEST I had some thoughts in my head, spurred by the many musical experiences there. KAMFEST has always been one of my favourite festivals in Norway as it always seems to somehow be able to think outside of the Box when it comes to chamber music and concert programming in general. A great mix of Expressions, genres, venues and, most often, superb musicians. This year’s composer in residence was the multi-faceted composer /pianist/poet and artist Lera Auerbach who were participating in all of her artistic roles. The program varied from the music-theatre-opera The Blind, chamber music works where the composer performed herself, poetry recital and a silent auction of some of her pictures.

This combined presentation was a rare experience and I wondered in advance how Auerbach would succeed in filling all of these roles. Through history there have been many examples of great composers who also have ventured into the field of performer; a double role which was much more common in older times, from the improvisation-competitions of Mozart´s time to the semi rock star-hysteria surrounding virtuosi composer-performers like Chopin and Liszt. But that said there are considerable differences between the demands to performers of today as to that of earlier times, both in instrumental changes and technical demands.

Some of the things I experienced with Auerbach concerns the theme of listening in a very profound way, more specifically: it concerns something we might call outer and inner listening.

Outer and inner listening

Inner listening

When a musician performs, he or she is experiencing the music emotionally and bodily as well as intellectually and technically. It is easy to get swallowed by the emotions welling up from within when confronted with music by Rachmaninov or Scriabin. We often choose the music we play precisely because it talks so strongly to us. A musician, however, is faced with the responsibility of making not only himself but the audience as well experience these same emotions. That is quite a different thing.

There is a myth going around that says that if you only experience something very strongly yourself, then your experience will somehow automatically spill over onto the people listening to you. Maybe the reason for this idea is the convincing nature of these strong emotional reactions. Often they might get us so involved in our own experience of the music we are playing that we quite forget about the audience.

We might call this process inward listening as the performer is completely absorbed in his or her own emotional reactions to the music. It is a very personal kind of listening which can have a tremendous impact on our lives, creating sometimes a lifelong relationship between the performer and the composer of the music.

L1020891However, just like a spiritual or religious experience, experiences like these are often highly personal. A performer who aims to communicate with an audience needs to take on a different role. The purpose is not to experience for ourselves but to make the audience experience, and in order to do so we need outer listening.

This type of listening is strongly linked with the ability to tear ourselves loose from our own emotions and to be able to observe the sounds we are making from the outside. Just like a pointillist picture needs distance in order to be perceived properly a musical composition needs the all-encompassing perspective of a musician who knows its totality and is able to portion out every last detail according to its place in the sum-total of the work.

When a particular place or harmonic turn in a composition yanks our emotional cords we are naturally turned inwards, listening deeply to our own emotions reacting to the call of the music. In a natural response our emotions are crying for the release of a fortissimo blow-out to match our inner experience but our mind and musicality knows there is more to come and that this part must be balanced against both what has gone before and what is to follow.

The great Rumenian conductor Sergiu Celibidache adresses this in the following way:Sergiu+Celibidache+celibidache8

“A sequence of tones follows a structure which finally connects the beginning with the end. When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised. Continuity doesn’t mean: to go from one moment to the next, but: after going through many moments to experience timelessness. That is where beginning and end live together: in the now. What is required to experience any structure as a whole? The absolute interrelation between the individual parts.” ( from the film “You don t do anything. You let it evolve”. Produced by Pars Media)

If we choose to simply wallow in our inner bliss while playing we have left the audience behind and are no longer listening to the actual music we are making but only to the one we are experiencing internally. We have also paradoxically lost the sense of “now” in the music which Celibidace talks about.

In the case of Auerbach the word “overwhelmed” seemed essential. In the works where she performed herself this was the essence that she projected as a performer, and I was left with the impression of a performer struggling (but quite ecstatically) with too strong emotions, emotions that were literally choking the music she was performing. Emotions in music shouldn´t be a problem except if the emotions exist solely in the performer and doesn´t extend to the audience.

At one point when struggling with the balance between outer and inner listening we might actually feel as if we are committing some sort of betrayal, consciously leaving our emotions behind to get about the work of communicating. We fear losing those emotions which the music initially stirred in us. But what is the result if we fail to make this switch between outer and inner listening?

When Auerbach played her own music I saw only her. She filled every pore of the music with her own experience of it and there was no question about how it made her feel. At the same time it was a lonely experience listening to her playing because I was witnessing a reaction to a music of which I was deprived; the music was happening inside of Auerbach, not on the stage. As a consequence I was presented with a music that lacked in depth and detail, where there was no holding back in anticipation of later pleasures, no lines stretching over more than three bars at a time, no delicate differentiating between subtle nuances of tone colour. The elements were all there in the music but they passed by un-noted like an unlit tramcar.

I´m sure it was a great experience, I´m just sorry I didn´t get to hear it.

(This blog-post might seem overly anti-Auerbach which was not my intent, it was just that she provided a chance to adress this topic and illustrated my point to perfection. However, I quite enjoy some of her more symphonic music very much and would encourage everyone to check out her Works here:  http://www.leraauerbach.com/ )