The earliest known writings on yoga date back around 2,500 years. The practice itself has many branches which include not only bodily exercise, but such things as meditation, breathing practices, concentration and moral practices. It can probably be summed up best as "stilling the mind."
This blog points at what I believe is the central aspect of violin playing and how practicing yoga has influenced me in this regard. So, let’s begin with Alexander Technique…
If I was being completely honest, the times when I have clearly deeply moved an audience with my violin playing are few and far between. I’m talking about when one is greeted with dead silence for a moment before applause, and one can even see the odd tear. Such music-making occurs when the body/mind is one integrated unit, unhindered by deeply held but patently false constructs, perfectly in the moment.
Those occasions have been mostly when an Alexander teacher is standing behind me and using the highly trained fingers to aid me find that place. Sadly, one cannot hire an AT teacher to stand behind oneself during concerts a) because of the expense and b) because it looks incredibly weird, to say the least.
It does, however, illustrate what I now believe is the most important thing violinists need to integrate into their journey with the instrument. Something that is rarely taught by private teachers and, in my experience, not at all at venerable music institutes: a truly well functioning mind/body (relative to who we are). That is, one cannot separate how the whole body/mind edifice is used and the technique of playing the violin. It is sooo much more than just using correct technique, as spelt out in the great books on violin playing that we rely on, although Simon Fischer at least clearly points to it in The Violin Lesson.
The reason I have come to this position in my life and would like to share it with everyone (sort of a last blog and testament) is that I am getting old :) Recently, after losing huge quantities of weight, I have become aware of the limitations that have been systematically built into my body by bad habits of usage and lifestyle, and how unnecessary they actually are.
Consultations and x-rays with specialists show not-too-serious damage, but misuse that has been causing aches and pains and threaten to make my real old age well, pretty nasty. The most dangerous thing as we get older, in my opinion, is what happens to the rib cage. The ribs are bones of course, but it is all too easy to forget that they are separated by cartilage/tissue/whatever which allows them to expand and contract with ease. If we become less active and start to sag by degrees as we age, then all this gets locked up, and our essential life force of breathing is severely hampered.
This fundamental damage occurs because of bad posture. The only way to prevent the generalized collapse of ones upper body (a condition which is not immediately obvious by any means) is to reactivate our core muscles, which we tend to ignore completely, at incredible cost to our health and longevity. By core muscles I mean the ones underneath the cute-looking six packs we had in our early 20s, which later become a one-pack. In the long-term I have found the solution to these issues through what I call my yoga journey.
I started following the Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube about a year ago to address these kinds of issues and for general exercises, since I no longer have any interest in weight training or other more mainstream calisthenics. This website is, as far as I can tell, the most compassionate, easy-to-follow and expert channel available. 10,000,000 followers must stand for something!
When I started, I discovered - to my horror - that my posture related muscles (and many others) were truly atrophied, so that even sitting upright cross-legged on a mat was hard. As I learned to reuse them, I noticed that I could sit easily with strong, relaxed posture for many hours in front of a computer and, more importantly, notice when I was sinking back into old habits and correct things.
The initial mild interest evolved into the realization of how profound an effect yoga has on the mind/body, and I really began to take it seriously. Of course, the primary purpose of Hatha yoga is to arrive at mental tranquility through physical practice, but the flexibility and sheer muscle mass I have been building up over this year soon began to permeate everything I do in daily life.
I found my violin-playing improved radically when my upper body was supported by muscles I had not previously been aware of. Also, the new ranges of movement from the stretching are adding a myriad of new possibilities to practice sessions. The sense of being in the moment one has on the mat also begins to cross over into performance, I think. When I notice a shift is off or something similar, I often find myself simply going back to working from my breathing, with energy lifting up my sternum and dropping my shoulders as it flows over them. The problem often just vanishes without further attention. Somehow, it makes the difficulties of playing without a shoulder rest disappear too!
If you are a young, up-and-coming, talented violinist, then perhaps this blog will not resonate with you. After all, everything seems to be going fine, so why waste 30 minutes of practice time when you are young and fit anyway? However, I would like to suggest this is just the time to start making yoga a lifetime habit, because the long term dividends are so great. Once you are sitting in that orchestra and the bodies around you are slumping though those long rehearsals, you will find yourself with a winning edge (if winning is what matters to you…)
I’ve completed my first 30-day Yoga with Adriene challenge in which one does, without fail, turn up on the mat for 20-30 minutes of yoga boot camp a day and am heading straight into my second one knowing that my violin playing and all aspects of my life are improving exponentially. The only down-side is the way my wife can just tie herself up like a pretzel without a moment’s thought. I know she is not more spiritual than me so it must be one of these wife thingummies I just don’t get.
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