Would you say playing (or singing) music is more mental or more physical? Student (and teacher) perceptions of this can color how we practice and play an instrument (including the vocal chords).
Do we mentally make fingers do what they need to do, or physically drill them so they do the work for us? How we balance the ebb and flow between mental and physical tells a lot about how we and our students practice and learn.
[Before we discuss this, I want to invite you to review teacher comments by Sherie, Chris, and an extensive response from Toby, all on Payments & Cancellation Policies; from Betty on How to Get Connected; and a controversy presented by Jeff commenting on Finding Students For You, with explanations by two online companies represented by Brian and Steve.]
Below are some student examples, and maybe a surprise conclusion, which I hope provide food for thought. I don’t have scientific answers about the balance of mental and physical in playing music, but by thinking about this, we certainly can benefit in terms of practical ideas for learning and teaching.
Steve contorts his face all the time while playing. He is obviously trying very hard mentally to control what his fingers are doing. He hits a rough spot and then goes back to the beginning to start over and see if he can remember everything right and get over the rough spot. This doesn’t work too well.
When I got him to take out 3 notes that bridged the good part and the rough spot, and acquaint his fingers with their pattern physically, he was relieved to find out that he could go through the rough spot fine.
The lesson there was that his fingers needed the physical experience of that pattern in order to do the work for him. It wasn’t enough for his mind to know what was happening, nor was it fair to expect his mind to keep track of all that.
Phyllis gets all the phrases of a tune fine but sometimes leaves one out or repeats one in the wrong place. Partly she fixed this by practicing the few notes that connect phrases to each, like Steve did with his rough spot. But mostly she fixed it by put up a red flag, mentally, so her ears could guide the fingers into the correct phrase. Once they began the phrase, the fingers and ears knew what to do.
What about Dave, who can’t understand how he was able to play some music in a group when he didn’t feel he had it under control? Often our ears and fingers surprise us (if we give them a chance) because we expect our mental faculties to be on top of everything and we suddenly find our ears and fingers doing fine on their own!
It’s useful to think about physical tasks, and mental attitudes, but I wonder if we don’t go too far sometimes, treating technique as physical, for example, and musicality as mental.Â It can affect the procedure we use, the order in which we teach.
In the end, we probably have to accept that the physical and the mental processes are indivisible, all one ebb and flow.Â The learning and playing of music may be one of the best proofs of this.
We can’t mentally micromanage our fingers, nor can we let our fingers take care of everything. How we think and feel about a piece of music; our thoughts, fleeting or otherwise, about the people who are listening; our sense of phrasing, fingering patterns, bowing or breath; our posture and momentum; are all integral parts of playing music. There’s something missing if we try to split things up.Â We have to balance and learn about it all, from day one through tomorrow.