Sunday, December 23, 2018

Playing by Empathy: Incorporation of Musical Instruments into the Body Schema

For a tennis player, the racket becomes part of his or her body, and movements of it rapidly become as unconscious as to move an arm. Some research shows that the tools which we use are mapped inside our brains as though these were part of us, and this seems logical. Once we wear clothes, for example, these quickly become ignored by us and considered to be part of us, a new skin.

I realised that, when playing the piano, this also occurs; that I feel that the instrument is part of me and that I merely speak my feelings and thoughts with its voice, in the same way that I use my real voice and expressions, and in the same way that I'm using these words now. This discovery led to me to a new method of learning to play instruments and a new composition method too.

The essence of this method is empathy with the instrument. It's something that most musicians have anyway, and many great musicians talk of a love of a particular instrument, or piano stool, or outfit. These all become components of the artist's body. Once this is understood, learning to play an instrument is not a matter of technical exercises, but a physical therapy, like a patient with paralysis learning to move a damaged limb, or a child learning to walk.

What one calls the ability to play is not the mastery of technique, but an understanding of the full gamut of the instrument's capabilities, and the nerve control to express that gamut. As a player, your goal is to make the instrument move all of its parts, sounding each possible note with each possible timbre.

So to learn using this method, one must embrace and love the instrument totally, feeling it as though it were an extension of your body. To play is not to use a tool, but to speak with a new voice that becomes part of your body. To play is as simple as to feel and to express your feelings, shout or whisper them with this new voice. The mastery of playing is not technical, but as physical as a growth of connection to this new limb.

All of this means that there is no such thing as being able to play or not being able to play an instrument, but that everything is a gradient of ability. It also implies that most of the learning will take place between the instrument and player alone, and that a third presence, a teacher, might be disruptive. The theory here is that empathy works most powerfully between two people, and the emotions of a third presence will disrupt on some level. If so, then solo pupil and solo teacher, followed by solo pupil and solo instrument might be more effective as a teaching method that having the instrument present with pupil and teacher. As evidence of this, it seems to be a common trait that expert instrumentalists spend the majority of their training alone with the instrument, seeing their teacher for shorter periods.

Like speaking or writing, there is art in this expression, but this opens up a new way to compose: an instantaneous transliteration of feelings by simply playing. This is what is called improvising, but that word often has an element of sketch or light-weight quality to it. Players who improvise or 'jam' are not thought of as composing, except perhaps by a traditional surrealist. Yet, this 'Body Schema' theory of music performance suddenly makes live playing as important, certainly more authentic, as any detailed study or practised composition.

Of course, like any speech that is spontaneously spoken, it doesn't mean that every creation is a great work, but a great work perhaps works on many levels. Art is about emotional communication; it's a dialogue, and each performance is unique because each circumstance is unique. By using the instrument as a body extension, this gives the artist the power to change the message for each circumstance, so perhaps a live performance can be great in a way that a recording cannot. A composer that creates in this way when there is no audience present, is broadcasting feelings to an invisible audience.

I will end with a romantic notion, that perhaps a deaf or dumb performer would seek to speak more powerfully, and so perhaps a musician with no voice except for his or her instrument, is destined to speak the most beautiful words.