If you’re like most piano teachers, you’ve had students, often teens or adults, who are awkward, stiff, or use too much force when playing. These students are often highly intellectual, and may seem almost detached from their body.
The Mind/Body Split
I’ve had a perennial interest in the relationship between mind and body for reasons both musical and non-musical, and have read extensively about the so-called mind/body split that happens to most people as they mature into adulthood.
Young children are naturally in touch with their bodies. They are relaxed, loose, and free. Unlike adults, who tend to be identified with their minds and feel that they “have a body,” children still feel themselves as a body. Yet as the average child grows up, particularly in our hyper-mental culture, he tends to shift awareness away from his body and towards his mental self (or “ego”). As philosopher Ken Wilber wrote, “Few of us have lost our minds, but most of us have long ago lost our bodies.” Novelist James Joyce put this tendency even more memorably when he wrote that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”
A piano student who lives a short distance from his body is unlikely to realize his highest potential for musical expression and technique.
A Strategy to Connect Piano Students to Their Bodies
As I’ve become increasingly aware of the tendency of many older students to be stiff, tense, and even awkward at the piano, I have been trying some different strategies. While I will have more to say about this topic in a series of upcoming posts on mindfulness and piano pedagogy, today I’m going to tell you about one simple strategy that has had interesting and potentially good results.
That simple strategy is to ask a stiff or awkward student to “get in touch with (or channel) your inner five-year old.” I ask them to reflect on how little kids that they know are so free and relaxed and embodied when playing piano, or when playing period. I then ask them to imagine that they are five years old again, have never played the piano, and may have never even touched a piano. I give them a few notes to play, and say “channeling your inner five-year-old, how would you move your body to play this?” Or “how do you think a five-year-old would move in order to play these notes?”
The Results – Freer, More Natural Movement
The results have been interesting. So far, students seem to relax, using more of their body in a looser way. A student who has been playing with excessive muscular effort or as if he lacks a true physical connection to the instrument suddenly seems to get in touch with an inner somatic intelligence, a memory, perhaps, of what free, natural movement feels like before he became disconnected from his body.
There’s a saying that “Sometimes your body is smarter than you are.” Since piano playing is an integrated experience involving mind, heart, and body, it is essential that we bring our innate bodily intelligence back into the picture if we have lost touch with it.
If you try this strategy with your own students, send me a note and tell me how it goes!