Learning to learn again

rediscoverAlexander Technique, Learning process, Musician's health, Musician's wellbeing, Visual memory, Wrist pain

A few years ago I embarked on a long time dream and committed to learning the oud. My aim was to discover new ways to meet music and try to be as much a beginner as possible and not rely on any guitar knowledge. Oud represented a continuously new black slate, full of endless potential. From the beginning I knew that the challenges in the initial stages of learning this new instrument (as a continuing process) would encompass two types of paradigms:

Time and it’s near cousin…

Firstly, lets look at time:

  • Enough time to practice
  • Different kind of time-feel for focusing on different style of music
  • Movement coordination of a new type of plectrum and left hand positioning
  • Time to remember my whole body in the moments of engagement, which seem to take up all available attention

And for space, there was some expected and unexpected paradigms that I’m meeting under this heading:

  • The width of the instrument’s body in relation to length of my arms
  • Breathing space; although a string instrument, the sheer physicality required makes interesting demands on the ease and efficiency of my breathing
  • The space between every point of contact makes a real noticeable difference in ease of holding the instrument

After figuring out how to hold the instrument so that it doesn’t slip off my torso and playing around with foot stools and chairs of variable heights or sitting on the ground to practice, I realised that a variety of ways of holding the instrument to cycle through is the best way forward in learning to live with oud’s time and space challenges.

Something that might be useful for all instrumentalists that I am finding very helpful is visual memory.

As I aim to memorise pieces of music, I am realising that being my sense of visual memory which has gotten a lot of practice with Alexander Technique, does come in handy.

Although it is not easy to use written or spoken language to relate what I mean by ‘visual memory’ and how it’s helping me with oud challenges, it is still something that is attemptable and hopefully helpful to solving instrument and body challenges of musicians.

  • Figure out where your points of contact with an instrument are name them for yourself. For oud the top of my leg, front of torso and inside of right arm come to mind
  • Figure out how these points of contact ‘speak’ to each other through the rest of your body; as much as possible think about balance of weight in relation to instrument, chair, ground etc.
  • Figure out how your skeleton (not a gym or doctor’s office picture, but how you actually sense your bones under your skin and muscle etc.) interact with the relationships between the points of contact.

If you have any experience with drawing or doodling, use this to draw a simple picture in relation to this process. This process may provide a clue for visually remembering your body in time and space as you are practicing, rehearsing or performing.

I am wondering if our visual memory also has a ‘muscle’ and with practice it can grow and help to expand our available attention or ‘working memory’ while our attention is also on the demands and challenges and joys of learning to learn and learning to refine.

That’s what musicians do and it’s a hugely valuable skills for ourselves and for others too.