Is his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson explores artists’ abilities to portray “not only moti corporali, the motions of the body, but also how they related to what Da Vinci called “atti e moti mentali”, the attitudes and motions of the mind”.

In painting, displaying the connection between a thought and a gesture, according to Isaacson, had been discussed in artists’ pedagogies for centuries. He quotes 15th century Italian “Renaissance Man” Leon Battista Alberti, in his On Painting, who wrote “Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body”. This thoughtful treatment of how the body reacts to a thought is a missing piece of our pedagogy as instrumentalists.

It is ironic that the connection between thought and movement is central to visual artists’ pedagogies even though their final subjects have no actual movement, whereas it is ignored for musicians who are required to move to create sound and expression. Why don’t we allow for and teach those movements (both macro and micro) when playing an instrument? In many instruments’ traditional pedagogies, whole body movement is ignored. We may, as flutists, emphasize hand position or embouchure shape, but not notice hip joints pushed forward or a twisted torso, limiting freedom of the whole body and the movement of the breath.

There is an unusual polarity between the communication of expressive, musical gestures (or, as Da Vinci called them “the attitudes and motions of the mind“) and our habits of freezing muscles and, in many cases, actively inhibiting physical movement while practicing and performing. Freezing and inhibiting movement, as well as my lack of awareness that I was even doing it in the first place, was one of the things that got me into a destructive cycle of blocking out my physical response to my musical intention, leading, eventually, to a diagnosis of focal dystonia.

This is a call for language in our musical pedagogy to teach movement. We must balance feedback for our students by including movement information and not provide a hierarchy of feedback crowned with the auditory sense.

 

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