Can you laugh without smiling? While not impossible, it is very difficult and very strange. Can you create joyful music with a scowl and your shoulders slouched? Maybe, but it won’t feel quite right. Smile (with just your eyes if you are playing a wind or brass instrument) and you will find laughing or playing joyful music to be much more natural and effortless. The way we use our bodies through facial expression, posture, and movement has a profound effect on the way we can make music.
We normally think of emotions originating internally and being expressed externally. If you feel happy, you may smile. If you feel angry, you may scowl. Less well known is that external expressions strongly influence internal feelings. If you smile, you may feel happy. If you scowl, you may feel angry. Our feelings and the way we use our bodies influence each other.
For musicians, this is extremely important. Your ability to express and communicate emotions through music is intimately connected to your feelings, and your feelings are influenced by the way you use your body. Your facial expressions and posture can change the way you feel and the way you make music.
If all of these parts are aligned, they support and reinforce each other. If these parts are not aligned, they work against each other.
Too often, our facial expressions and posture reflect the technical challenges in playing our instrument instead of our musical intention. Playing precisely in tune and in time is difficult, and often our brows furrow with deep concentration and our bodies tense with great effort. A furrowed brow and rigid posture can color the music with a seriousness and severity that is not usually the expressive goal. Learn to align your facial expression, posture, and movement with your expressive intention and your music will be more effective.
Here are some ideas and exercises that will help you achieve more alignment between what you feel and the way you use your body. These techniques for daily life, practice, and performance will improve your ability to be expressive with your body, deepen your understanding and experience of emotions, and enhance your ability to communicate effectively through your music.
In Daily Life:
1) Pay attention to your facial expressions, postures, and movements in everyday life. Through many daily activities we unconsciously use our bodies in ways that can color our experience of the world. By becoming more conscious of these expressions, you can gain more understanding and control of your body and feelings.
Do you scowl in the sun? Does it affect your mood? When you are feeling impatient, how is that expressed in your body? Can you regain patience by changing your breathing and posture? Does your posture change when you are around different people? How does changing your posture affect how you feel? Do you think better with certain postures or positions? How does the way you walk change with different moods and feelings? Can you change your mood by changing the way you walk? Does your breathing differ with mood? Can you change your mood by changing your breathing?
The more you can be aware of and control your facial expressions, postures, and movements in everyday life, the more you will be able to control them as you are making music.
2) Develop a blank canvas. Any facial expression can color the way you experience the world. This coloring can be helpful or unwelcome depending on if it is aligned with what you want. If you scowl, it can reinforce feelings of anger, but it can also inhibit any feeling that is not anger. A neutral facial expression can be a blank canvas that allows you to be more receptive and more poised to express any emotion.
When you are walking, waiting in line, brushing your teeth, playing scales, playing long tones, or any non-expressive activity throughout your day, relax your face. You will likely find your face reverting back to a non-relaxed position if you aren’t paying attention. When this happens, gently acknowledge the change and restore your attention towards relaxing your face.
If you find yourself stuck intellectually or emotionally, notice your posture and facial expression. You will probably find yourself physically stuck in some way. Allow your body to return to a neutral position, and you may feel more open and free.
3) Develop ideas about what you want to communicate. Communication does not happen by accident. If you don't have a clear idea of what you want to say, you won't say anything clearly.
Study the emotional intent of the music you play. What is the composer saying? What do you want to say? What do you want the audience to experience? Be as specific as possible. For example, a good first step is to determine that a piece of music may feel happy, but because happy is such a generic description, it is not very evocative or impactful. It is better to be more specific. If you determine the music should be ecstatic or peaceful or cheerful, or even a mixed feeling like wistful or bittersweet, you have a much clearer goal to work towards. The more specific you are in your intentions and the more vivid your feelings, the greater the possibility you will communicate something clearly.
4) Be an actor and a dancer. As musicians we primarily pay attention to how emotions sound and feel. It is also important to understand how emotions look and move. Learn how to use your posture and movement in expressive ways.
If you intend to play a phrase calmly and peacefully, how can you create that expression with your eyes? How should the shoulders be positioned? How does your breath move? If you were to move your body, how would you do that? Are your hands and fingers moving calmly and peacefully? Each part of the body has the potential to help or hinder the expressiveness of your music. It is one thing to recognize these nuances, but can you create them on demand? Practice making each facial expression, posture, and movement a part of your expressive vocabulary.
Just as you need to be specific in your intention, you need also to be specific in posture and movements. There are virtually infinite variations in a smile, or any other expression. The more closely you can align your body with your intended expression, the more effective your performance will be.
5) Breathe expressively. The way you breathe can change your heart rate, blood pressure, and the way you think and feel. Obviously the way you blow air through your instrument shapes the music you make, but the way you inhale can also enormously influence your music. The way you take in a breath can change your mood, outlook, and the music you are about to make.
Take in a breath in a manner that reflects the way you want to use it. If you want to play a powerfully accented entrance, take in a powerful, deep, quick breath. If you want to play a slow and delicate entrance, take in a slow, graceful breath. Taking in a breath is not just about getting enough air; it is an opportunity to align yourself with the music you are about to play.
6) Video-record your practice and performance. Do your facial expressions line up with the expressions in your music? Do your movements enhance or detract from your performance? Are you actually doing what you think you are doing?
Again, be as specific as possible. Every time you record yourself, play with a clear intention (see #3.) Then when you review the recording, determine how successful you were. Determine which changes can be made to improve the performance, and repeat the process of recording and reviewing.
7) Calm your nerves. If you are nervous before a performance, you might look like it. You might have tension in your forehead, a stiff posture, and shallow and rapid breathing. Relax your face (see #2), stretch out your posture, and breathe deeper and slower. These changes on the outside will help your feelings on the inside.
8) Practice the power poses described by Amy Cuddy. The expansive, bold poses Ms. Cuddy describes are a fantastic way to increase your feeling of confidence. Using them especially before performances can help you play with more confidence and conviction.
9) Play for the audience. Your posture, movements, and facial expressions have a profound impact on how the audience will experience your performance. If your body is not in alignment with the music you are attempting to create, the audience’s experience is diminished. If your body is in alignment with your music, then your musical message will be better communicated to the audience.
Sometimes ideas can be communicated directly. Using The Wind-o can teach you more about embouchure than days full of words.
Sometimes ideas need time and space to be examined and explored. This blog is an opportunity to explore important musical ideas with more breadth and depth than a lesson can allow.
Sound is vibration. The way something vibrates determines the way it sounds. For example, the frequency of vibration determines the pitch, and the amplitude of vibration determines the loudness. When we play any instrument, the vibrations we create determine every aspect of the sound that is produced.
When you play your instrument, the vibrations (sounds) are not just created from your lips and your instrument. Vibrations are created and projected by the interaction of your instrument and your whole body. The way your mouth, face, head, neck, and the rest of your body vibrate, are all important in creating your best sound.
As woodwind and brass instrumentalists, we have a lot to learn from vocalists. For great singers, there is no doubt that the whole body is the instrument. When they sing, singers don't just vibrate with their vocal cords; they vibrate with as much of the body as possible. By allowing and encouraging resonance in different parts of the body, singers are able to create different colors in their voices, project their voices more efficiently, and have more expressive possibilities in their music. Similarly, when you play your instrument, the more your body is allowed to vibrate, the more you will be able to create a unique, colorful, and expressive sound.
We usually think of vibrations as something felt, and sound as something heard, but they are really just different ways of experiencing the same thing. Build your ability to feel vibrations, and you will deepen your understanding and sensitivity to sound. Here are seven ways to become aware of, and control your body's vibrations, so you can sound your best.
Start with the embouchure. Whatever instrument you play, your embouchure is where vibrations originate. Numbers 1-4 describe how to become aware of vibrations in your embouchure:
1. Feel changes in the size of vibration, or amplitude. The amplitude is how far the vibrating lips or reed(s) travel from their starting position. (Larger amplitude vibrations create louder sounds and smaller amplitude vibrations create softer sounds.)
Hold a long tone in the lower register of your instrument. As you hold the tone, pinpoint the exact location where vibrations originate in your lips. Bring your attention to this location as you hold the note, and feel the buzz of vibrations. As you hold the note, gradually increase the volume, and you will feel a change in the vibration. The amplitude of the vibration increases as you increase the volume of the note, so you should feel the sensation of the vibrations intensifying or increasing in size. Decrease the volume of the note, and you will feel a decrease in the amplitude of the vibration. Don't seek to control the changes in vibration with your embouchure, just bring your attention to the changes. Practice feeling vibrations in all dynamics, and practice feeling the smallest changes in sensation.
2. Feel changes in the rate of vibration, or frequency. The frequency is the number of vibrations per second. (Higher frequency vibrations create higher pitched sounds and lower frequency vibrations create lower pitched sounds.)
Create and sustain a tone in a comfortable register and dynamic. Bring your attention to the vibrations in your lips. With your attention on the vibrations, slur to a higher note, and feel the frequency of the vibration increase. Slur back to the original note, and feel the vibrations return to the original frequency. Special attention should be brought to the vibrations in the moments as you are changing notes. Practice remaining in touch with the vibrations in between the notes. As the frequency of the vibrations increase, the sensation of vibrations becomes less obvious. Practice feeling the vibrations throughout the whole range of your instrument.
3. Clarify the feeling of vibrations in your lips by exaggerating the sensation. Some woodwind musicians can have difficulty feeling the vibrations in a strong way in their lips. This is because the vibrations originate in the reed, and the lips are only in contact with the reed.
Without your instrument, position your lips as you do with your embouchure. With only a small opening between your lips, sing. Focus on how your lips vibrate with the sound of your voice. Notice how the vibrations change with differences in the volume and pitch of your voice (See numbers 1 and 2). Sing at a specific pitch and volume and feel the vibrations in the lips, then play the same pitch and volume on your instrument and feel the same vibrations. Repeat the process of singing, then playing, until you feel the sensation of vibrations in your lips when playing your instrument.
4. Feel the connection between embouchure pressure and the sensation of vibration. Allowing good vibrations in your lips is a balancing act. Too much pressure in or on the lips, and you gain an illusion of control but limit vibrations. Too little pressure in or on the lips and you gain vibrations but lose control over them. The right amount of pressure provides a balance of vibration and control, allowing you to produce your best sound.
Create and sustain the most beautiful tone you can. Bring your attention to the vibrations. If the sound is good, the vibrations will be plentiful and they will be achieved without physical strain. As you hold the tone, increase the amount of embouchure pressure by a tiny amount. With the extra embouchure pressure, feel how the sensation of vibrations becomes more limited. Start again from a beautiful tone, and then decrease the amount of embouchure pressure by a tiny amount. With the lack of embouchure pressure, feel how your control over the vibrations becomes more limited. Learn to recognize and connect changes in pressure with changes in vibration.
Almost everybody errs on the side of more control, and therefore limits the amount of vibration. If you notice this, saying, "don't bite" or "relax," won't help you much. Instead, seek the feeling of vibrations. If you can maximize the feeling of vibrations without losing control of the sound, then you will be using the appropriate amount of pressure.
5. To expand beyond feeling vibrations in your embouchure, think of your body as a conductor (not the kind of conductor that stands in front of your orchestra.) A conductor is a material that electricity can flow through easily, such as the metal wire in an electric cord. The opposite of a conductor is an insulator, which prevents the flow of electricity, such as the rubber casing around the metal wire in an electric cord. Instead of electricity, think of your body as a conductor through which vibrations can flow.
Hold a long tone in the lower register of your instrument. After you have developed a healthy sense of vibrations in the lips, feel the vibrations spread to the area directly surrounding your lips. The buzz that you feel in your lips should be felt (to a lesser extent) in the part of your face around your lips. When you become more aware of vibrations in the area around your lips, feel the vibrations spread to your nose. Feel the air inside of the nasal cavity vibrate. Let the feeling of vibrations in your nose spread to your eyes and forehead. Feel your forehead vibrating with the rest of your face. Continue the pattern of cultivating a strong sense of vibrations in one part of the body, then feeling them spread to a directly adjacent part of the body.
If any part of the body is too rigid or too floppy, vibrations will not be conducted efficiently through it. To optimally conduct vibrations, the body cannot have any extra tension, and must also be stable, balanced, and ready to move. This state can be described as poise.
Practicing feeling vibrations throughout your body is a good way to be aware of and control tension in your body. The better your body is positioned and poised, the better you will be able to feel the vibrations.
You might find yourself making adjustments to your posture, voicing, or air to maximize the vibratory sensations. As long as none of these adjustments are forced or extreme, bring your awareness to the changes and let them happen.
When we play our instruments, we create vibrations with our lips or reed(s), and attempt to create resonance in other parts of our body. We can clarify the feeling of vibrations by working backwards: creating vibrations in other parts of our body. Numbers 6 and 7 describe how singing and humming can help you understand the feeling of vibration in different parts of your body.
6. Feel vibrations in your throat, mouth, neck, and chest when you sing.
Set up the instrument with your embouchure exactly in place as if you are going to play, but instead, sing through the instrument with your voice. Sing a comfortable note while using the correct fingering for that note. Feel the vibrations in your throat and neck. When you have a good sense of the vibrations in your throat and neck, feel the vibrations spread to the air inside of your mouth. Feel the air inside your mouth vibrate, and if your embouchure is poised, you will feel your lips vibrate slightly. Without changing the positioning of your body, play the same note on your instrument and try to recreate all of those sensations. Repeat the process of singing, then playing, until the throat is comfortably vibrating when you play your instrument.
7. Feel vibrations in your nose, nasal cavity, forehead, and throat when you hum.
Hum. While you are humming, feel the vibrations especially in the nose. While you are humming, touch your nose, and you will feel vibrations on the surface. Feel how the air inside of your nasal cavity vibrates, and how the sound is projected out of your nose when you hum. When you play your instrument, try to recreate these physical feelings. Repeat the process of humming, then playing, until you can feel your nose vibrating when you play your instrument.
As you become more in touch with vibrations, continually connect what is felt with what is heard. Learn to connect certain sounds with certain kinds of vibrations. Use your feeling of vibrations to improve your ears' sensitivity to sound, and use what you hear to improve your body's awareness of vibrations. Connect your feeling of vibrations with your experience of sound, and you will be able to produce a sound that is colorful, expressive, and unique.
© 2015 Chris Stoutenborough - All Rights Reserved