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Andrew Hodges
Category: Creativity

Music, Yoga and Experiencing Quality Improvement

As a professional violinist and teacher, and having spent a number of years practising yoga, I am becoming intrigued by my growing awareness of the connection between the practice of yoga and the quality of my violin practice and teaching.  Those of you who don’t play the violin need not necessarily stop reading at this moment because these thoughts may generalise to other instruments and also the voice.

When I play I have been aware for many years how tensions, both mental and physical, can materialise within the body and can affect the way I play. For example, my left thumb often tightens when playing extremely fast.  As you might appreciate this tightening provides a direct contrary energy in the hand which inhibits the very act of ‘playing fast’.  It results in pain in the hand and frustration.  I have, in the past, even characterised this as my ’angry’ thumb.

When I teach the violin I notice that students will often place much ‘effort’ into trying to play their violin but the more they ‘try’ the less they succeed.  This lack of success frequently comes out in the tone they get from the instrument.  Beginners wonder why their sound is so scratchy or ‘juddery’.  The piece they playing may have something difficult about it but this doesn’t explain the worsening tone.

On the other hand, in yoga, I often hear instructions by my yoga teacher to perform certain actions which I perform but I don’t seem to fully appreciate the actions’ meaning or impact on me.  This is in instances when I am asked to feel the difference after a particular yoga asana session.  At one level I guess I do have an awareness but at another deeper level I don’t seem to be able to consciously sense it.  

So much of yoga is about releasing and letting go.  One is often dealing with the ‘non-application’ of an action rather than the concrete discipline of implementing something that is more specifically measurable.  One becomes aware of different muscle tensions and the effect of releasing and letting go, the outcome of which is a general feeling of wellbeing but nothing more specific. This probably because the experiences are just too subtle to consciously perceive unless of course you are a real adept.

However I have noticed how, in both my own personal violin practice and in violin teaching that if one starts to perceive the experience through the yoga ‘letting  go lens’, then one can start to kindle some interesting developments which provides an effective ‘in-the-moment’ feedback mechanism of some considerable quality and subtlety.  

Take, for example, the conscientious violin student who puts emotional effort into overcoming a problem in the left ‘fingering’ hand but finds that the sound they are making is awful.  He/she doesn’t know why but assumes that they are at fault and tries even harder.  Further tensions creep in and the tone unfortunately continues to deteriorate.  The problem I have found seems to centre on a lack of mental, emotional and physical ‘discernment’; a lack of an ability to understand how mental effort and motivation distributes itself inappropriately across various centres of the body. 

In these situations I assist the student to develop a deeper awareness of how a ‘trying’ energy can indiscriminately target not only where it is intended to go but also where it isn’t meant to be manifesting.  The problem might be in the left hand, let’s say, but the effort made is finding its way into the bowing arm.  This doesn’t help the bowing arm – it only serves to tighten it and hence affect the tone.  Students realise that they can develop an ability to simultaneously drive attention into one part of the body whilst causing a sense of’ letting go’ in another.  You can also add that they are also refining their emotional state too.  The end result, as this awareness develops, is a rapid improvement in the sound they are making and an increase in their learning and problem solving capabilities.   What is remarkable to observe is that along with the almost instant improvement in tone and musicianship, there is a realisation in the student of an almost magical level of mental discipline.  They are experiencing their brain multi-tasking across a broad range of personal skills which include the physical, the emotional and even the spiritual dimensions of their mind.

My learning of the mind, body, spirit relationship through yoga has been incredibly helpful to both my violin tuition and my performance.  However I do find it interesting to conjure with the idea that you could reverse the process.  The yoga student could use sound as an instant feedback device.  It would help tell them, when they are making careful adjustments to their body posture, their breathing and their mental state, about the quality of their yoga.  As I mentioned earlier I often can’t seem to truly appreciate the more subtle changes that can happen in yoga.  My teacher is in a position to observe me and provide visual and kinaesthetic feedback.  Nevertheless she can’t so easily provide feedback in the more subtle realms. 

But what about the possibility of ‘tonal’ feedback?

I notice that when I am toning the qualities of the sound I make changes as a result of the yoga.  The effect is pretty much instantaneous. The quality of the experience of releasing, relaxing and letting go whilst toning is appreciated audibly and the benefit is felt as much in the sound as in the body.    But those of us who have had experience of yoga know that it is only rarely that sound and yoga are combined.   Nada Yoga; the Yoga of Sound, is very rarely practised or experienced.  In most classes, yoga is experienced as posture work with the student being silent whilst a few words are heard from the teacher.  

Might I appeal to those of you experienced in both Yoga and Music? I am interested in hearing from music teachers and voice coaches who have used yoga practice and philosophy to enhance their pupils’ musicianship.  I would also be interested in hearing from yoga teachers who use sound in their yoga to understand from them how a student's sound might impact their asana work.   

How does sound affect their practice and how does the practice affect the sound?   What is the Yoga of Music and what is the Music of Yoga?

Posted: 09 Dec 2010 By: Kirsten Grønn Kirsten Grønn

Qigong, creativity and singing.

I found this article really interesting, and have a similar experience, though not with yoga, but qigong, which I like to call a ’kin’ of yoga, and also one of the really old, wise ways of training both your mind and your body. And this first experience that I would like to tell about, is really the reason both why I kept on with my personal improvising-research and now also am a qigong instructor giving classes, but also using a few exercises as a preparation to sing, both for my choir and a singing student.

Here is my aha experience: In 1996 I attended a course in ’composition’ – very scary for me, even though I am musically educated. The course in Denmark was led by the Sweedish singer Marie Bergman, and this very fact (because I love her singing), and the scariness of the subject both intrigued me to sign on. So, sitting in this room with 8 strangers, trying to appear cool and relaxed whatever comes... I remember my breath was pretty high up, hands were sweat, eyes were flickering – and the others seemed a bit restless, too! Thoughts? - they said: ”So you think you can compose? You can’t really compose, why are you here? You even think you might learn something? All the other people here surely are more competent.” You know.

Then after a few hellos, this lady suddenly invites us to stand together i a circle with bare feet or stockings and then led us through simple movements in a slow pace, telling us also what to keep in mind. Despite the slowness and simpleness of these movements and attention targets (like bright sun, nature or body parts), I realised that I felt different, and was prepared for ”whatever comes”. What was different, was the feeling of being inside (centered), relaxed, warm in my body and at the same time open and attentive!

We were then led through walking, sensing the room. Music was put on, we danced. Then we fingerpainted on a big piece of paper, even cooperated, but finished our own, meditated, wrote a poem, put music to it, rehearsed it with ’the band’ (which was the rest of us), taped it and performed it for the whole seminar crowd, a few hundred people. And felt safe! Everyone in this group created something genuine with the intuitive and musical guidance by Marie. For my own part however I clearly knew, that the way we started each session each day – with these magical movements, did most of the trick to lead me into this creative work, even collaborating with my self confidence. I asked her then, what is this? So she mentioned this strange word qigong and explained a bit of which I do not remember.

The effect of the exercises led me to ask Marie to come to Norway and give a course, which she did, as long as I got people together. Which I did. No regrets!

Since then, I have been training daily with few exeptions, and also used it in acute situations, in front of difficult and mental straing tasks, before teaching, performing and so on. I then tried it on my choir one night the workout lady was late. I have tried it several times since. What happens? The singers calm down, seem to ”take ground”, relax and concentrate. When I then ask them to sing, their tone is clear and clean! For a while, all right, but a good start has its clear effects on the whole rehearsal. Not only once or twice, but several times have I experienced this. And it really is a wonder how so many people in a crowd can consentrate, listen and sing together. Minds are soooo busy, and average people’s mind control is often weak. This qigong seems to have a good effect! I therefore practice it with a student who comes to me to develop his singing and hearing. A few selected qigong exercises takes him into a noticable relaxed posture and mind, with sharpened attention. In this relaxed and attentive state he seems to be able to more often sing ’in tune’, which is his wish.

It’s so good to hear that this also goes for yoga and violin playing, it tells me and confirms again that body and mind - or body, soul and spirit, if you like – is of one marvellous piece, always interacting and affecting ’each other’. And what is smart, is to make use of it!

Happy advent from
Kirsten Wiingaard Grønn
Music therapist & teacher, qigong instructor.

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