Kinesthetic Awareness

In our attempt to improve our proficiency at playing a musical instrument (or any physical activity), there is a natural tendency to analyze what we are doing. We begin to dissect a particular aspect of playing into its physical components, hypothesize about how we are being inefficient, determine a way to correct course, and then incorporate the correction into our playing. This can happen in subtle ways, as in learning a new fingering or trying to breathe at a different moment in a phrase. This can also happen in more complex ways, as in trying to change the way we form our embouchure or move our wrists.

Sometimes when we do this the change can be made effortlessly without much of a second thought. Other times, the change never seems to stick. This post is about those other times. Usually they are the result of having done something a particular way repeatedly for a very long time. As we try to reprogram ourselves, our brains resist the change and keep resorting back to the old well learned way. Almost every musician encounters this experience at some point in their musical upbringing.

Many of us will be tempted to double down on our analysis of what’s going on. We will look with increasing detail at every single muscle movement. We will attempt to correct each individual action involved in a particular aspect of playing. Our goal is a noble one. We simply wish to improve, to become more efficient, and to correct bad habits in our playing. However, to our frustration we find it increasingly difficult to make progress in this approach. Many teachers use the phrase “paralysis by analysis” to describe this tendency. They will often say to take the focus off of our technique and just focus on making music. Turning the analytic part of our brain off will usually help us get back to where we were and out of our rut, but it rarely leads to permanent improvement. What’s going on here, and how can we escape this very frustrating trap?

In my opinion, the phrase “paralysis by analysis” is a misleading one. It presumes that the analytic part of our brain is at fault for our lack of progress. If that were the case, we would never be able to play an instrument at all. Many of us who have been playing for a very long time forget that we were once beginners. At some point all of these concepts were quite new to us, and we had to think analytically about almost everything we did to make even modest improvements. However, the beginner’s mind has a distinct advantage over that of the experienced musician—they’ve never done any of this before. It’s much easier to do something a particular way when you’ve not yet spent years doing it some other way.

The problem isn’t the analysis. It’s that many of us lack an understanding of or appreciation for the process by which we reprogram old habits out of our brains. Knowledge is much cheaper than skill. This brings us to the title of this post: kinesthetic awareness. The root word of kinesthetic—kinesthesia—refers to an individual’s awareness of the position and movement of their body. The idea here is that instead of trying to actively manipulate how we are moving, we should simply strive to become more aware of how we are moving. Surprisingly, this bit of self knowledge can go a long way toward correcting our bad habits.

I encountered a trombone student a few years ago who was in the midst of trying to change the position of his mouthpiece on his face. He told me that his previous teacher suggested that he was setting it up too high on his face and that it should be in a more centered position. I asked him what he had hoped to accomplish in making this adjustment, and he believed that the way he had been previously setting his mouthpiece was most likely responsible for his difficulty in playing high notes. I watched him look in a small mirror he had with him, set and reset his mouthpiece a few times until it was where he thought it should be, and then struggle to get a clear/responsive sound. Many times he was getting a double buzz (where his lips vibrate simultaneously at two or more different pitches) or an airy sound that would give out on him very frequently. His high register, what he had hoped to improve, was virtually non-existent. Every time things didn’t work, he stopped playing, looked at the mirror, and further reset his embouchure. It was tough for me to watch him struggle with all of this with such little understanding of how his embouchure worked or how such a change might actually help him improve.

Those of us who have ever taught a brass instrument know just how easy it is for a teacher to give someone a psychological complex about how their embouchure works. It was very tempting for me to start disagreeing with the advice of his previous teacher and arguing with the student. However, I learned many years ago just how easily students can misconstrue advice they were given. I never argue with current or former teachers—especially when they are not around to defend themselves. Furthermore, doing this would have most likely just made whatever issues this student was experiencing even worse because he wouldn’t know whose advice to trust. Instead of contributing even further to my student’s paranoia, I asked him some simple questions: 1) Are you aware of where your mouthpiece is when you are in the midst of playing? 2) How does it feel when the mouthpiece is too high on your face? 3) How does it feel when the mouthpiece is too low on your face? 4) How does it feel when you have found the perfect position for your mouthpiece?

These questions seemed to catch him by surprise and start us down a path toward self discovery. Instead of being told by his teacher where to set his mouthpiece, he started paying much closer attention to how his embouchure was already moving, what it felt like as he played higher/lower/louder/softer, and ultimately the cause and effect relationship between where he set his mouthpiece and how his lips vibrated. Most importantly, he was no longer trying to manipulate his everything into some hypothetical form. He was feeling things out, experimenting, and paying much closer attention to what all was happening. We worked together to help him find a placement for his mouthpiece that was neither where he had been playing before nor where he had previously been told to set up. He found a unique placement that worked best for him. We emphasized a more natural posture, using less tension all ready, making simpler movements, and how to manage the unique features of his jaw and facial structure. Not only did his high register improve, but so did his ability to produce sound.

Learning to play an instrument is a slow process that involves trial and error and individual accommodation. While there are some general principles that seem to work well for most people, the realization of those principles will always take on an individual form. The quest toward continuous uninterrupted progress is always a bumpy one with lots of barriers and setbacks. Analysis is an essential part of that process, but we must be careful in how we employ it. Instead of using analysis to issue grand proclamations about how we ought to play and then trying to manipulate our bodies in accordance with them, we should think of practicing as a type of experimental laboratory where we get to test the ideas we each develop about how playing our instrument works.

For those of us who teach, it is important to recognize that our students will often need to find different solutions than what works or has worked for each of us when we were learning. We need to remind ourselves of what our own process of learning was like so we can help each of our students find their own way toward what progress looks like for them. We should teach them to become more aware of what they are doing and trust that they will be able to figure out a better way on their own. Our main job as teachers is to give our students the tools they will need to solve these problems on their own. That said, any path toward progress requires lots of time, patience, and self discovery if it is going to last.

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