Feb 272012
cartoon of a mummy

The body of the fossil is not too old to learn, it’s just fine. The fossilization of the body is a myth. It’s an exaggeration. Even in our “advanced years” the body is marvelously capable. As we get older we become aware of the changes in our bodies that make us physically stiffer and less responsive. In part, this may be our body’s attempt to remind us that we can’t ignore its needs any longer. Perhaps it’s telling us to pay attention and work with it instead of taking it for granted.

If we believe this myth of the fossil, either as piano teachers or students, we are in trouble. If we believe it as teachers, we will never take our students’ musical aspirations seriously and will be condescendingly sympathetic towards their efforts. We will never encourage them to reach their full potential. If we are students, we won’t really try.

I’ve had students who quit lessons because of arthritis but I’ve also had students who took lessons because of arthritis. Obviously, attitude is very important.

What is our approach to getting older? Some feel tired, quit trying, go home and watch television. Some see it as an opportunity to do things they haven’t yet done. These are the kinds of adults who take piano lessons.

For a variety of reasons, neither teacher nor student fully understands the body we bring to the piano. We really don’t know it very well. Mostly we pay attention when our body hurts and when it doesn’t work effectively. We don’t pay much attention to the myriad things our bodies do right because we just take them for granted. Our lack of attention makes it hard to be aware of the development of the physical habits that make us feel fossilish.

For example, pianists of all ages habitually tense their shoulders while playing. Many are aware of the problem but do not address it in an aggressive manner. Eventually, these tense shoulders begin to hurt. They cooperated with our abuse over time and now they protest. What’s important to realize about these tense shoulders is that certain muscles became weak to accommodate the habit and that others have compensated by becoming overly strong.

To change the habit is to learn to strengthen the weak muscles even though they don’t feel like cooperating. The other half of the problem is to learn to relax the muscles that have become overdeveloped to compensate for the weak ones. Not only is recognizing the habit important, but it is also necessary to change the relative strength and weakness of the muscles involved. We’ve worked the muscles this way many years so we should not really expect them to change in a few weeks. It is difficult to be attentive to the problem and certainly takes time to change the muscles. But it’s just not true that change is impossible because we’re too old.

Interestingly, when I tell my young students to sit up straight, they do so for a few seconds (just like the adults, actually) and then return to their curved posture. Even though their muscles haven’t had the years of training, they still don’t seem willing to engage the constant attention necessary to change the habit. Perhaps at any age the bigger issue is the desire to change.

Another important transformation most children in our culture undergo is the separation of mind and body. Our culture approves of the mind of concepts more than the mind of the body, ignoring the fact that the mind is part of the body. Though there are delights to be found in the mind of the body, some regard the mind as the source of salvation and the body as the source of damnation. This separation will be an ongoing issue in these chapters.

In our early years, bodies are a major source of embarrassment. As children, we had to go the bathroom at the wrong time, we threw up, and we spilled our milk and dropped our crayons. Our bodies got us into a lot of trouble and we were chastised, humiliated, embarrassed, or worse.

If we happened to have anxious parents the problem was intensified. They wanted us to be pretty close to perfect and not make them worry. We had to look just so and sit just right. Taking risks in adventurous activity made them worry so we learned not to take risks because the possibility of our failure was too embarrassing for them. We learned to be quite, contained, and well behaved.

Some of us were clumsy when we were kids. Of course, that only made things worse since we got yelled at more and other kids made fun of us when we didn’t do things right. We may have learned never to try new physical things because trying just never seemed to work. It was too humiliating.

All these possibilities set up a feeling of estrangement from our physical self. Unfortunately this happened during a time that was supposed to be filled with a growing sense of physical mastery.

In the process of growing-up, we found that in our culture there were two ways for us to relate to our bodies. The first was athletic and the second was sexual. As much fun as these two activities were and are, the body plays a larger role in our lives.

When we get older our bodies are still inconvenient at times as they become a source of ailments, aches and pains. As we get older still, it becomes undeniable that it is our body that is our future death. We look in the mirror and wonder, “Who is that old person?” Our minds don’t feel old but our bodies convey another truth. It’s no wonder then that we continue the separation from our physical selves. The loss is great. The loss actually relates directly to making music. When we were very young we moved our bodies to the music; in fact, movement was our first response to music, we couldn’t sit still. Motion was music and music was motion.

A bit later, we were told to inhibit our natural physical reaction and to sit still when listening to music, especially classical music. Look at an audience in a concert hall. Everybody’s learned to sit still. At least when people listen to jazz in a concert setting, some move their heads a little. In our culture, the greater esteem and “seriousness” a type of music holds, the less the audience is allowed to move their bodies.

The lost experience of physical motion to music is a significant problem for adult students. Unless they recover some of this abandon to the feeling of motion in music, their efforts to make music will be seriously compromised. Their music will sound as stiff as the bodies making it. Motion and emotion come from the same root word. Music is impossible without the full participation of the body.

A final point about our fossil bodies. We seldom learn new physical skills anymore. Children do it all the time. We’ve lost the habit of physical learning. While we may have lost the habit of learning new things with our bodies and while it may take us time to recapture our youthful sense of adventure and confidence; it’s not the same as being too old. If we believe the myth of the fossil we will be afraid to try.

If some never experienced those childhood feelings of physical adventure and confidence, all is not lost. They may well be lurking in the body somewhere and we may experience the joy of finding them in our adulthood instead of our childhood.

If we were one of the clumsy kids, it’s possible that playing the piano, with its heavy reliance on the smaller muscles, will not recreate the same feelings of physical awkwardness remembered from childhood. After all, one can have neat handwriting but not run very well. In childhood, neat handwriting didn’t make you popular but being a skilled runner made you part of the team. Watching Vladimir Ashkenazy conduct an orchestra illustrates this difference well. He looks awkward and clumsy conducting yet he plays the piano wonderfully. He is an excellent example of the differences between the various sets of muscles.

One of the joys of playing the piano is the physical pleasure that is an integral part of the experience. For many adults, the joy of this experience is never found because teachers seldom talk about it and adult students have never been taught to look for it as a part of any education. This will be discussed at greater length in later chapters.

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