Non-Doing Is In Itself Activity

Another technique that has transformed my work on the flute is the careful observation of my preparation to play. What happens (both in terms of muscular tension and movement) even before a sound is created? The preparing to play can be as simple as thinking about picking up the flute, visualizing creating a sound, or taking a breath with a particular phrase in mind. The exploration of my preparation to play has brought some physical habits to my attention with clarity of thought that standard playing obscured for many years.

Something about the inhalation and the thinking through the beginning of a phrase initiated the tension patterns. Why does my left ankle grip at the beginning of a phrase? Why are my abs tensing? Why is my left forearm gripping? Why am I locking my hip joints? Observing the preparation has allowed me to release tension before I play, and then keep that release as I play. This work is essentially the act of inhibiting unnecessary tension. In his book, Indirect Procedures, Pedro de Alcantara explains this process as “a strategy to break down all undesirable, automatic reactions”

In order to observe the kind of effort and amount of effort that was habitual in the preparation I used F.M. Alexander’s strategies and gave myself three choices:

#1. Prepare to play and do nothing. (I think of this as putting a fermata on my movement.)

#2. Prepare to play and do something else (pick up a pencil, walk a few steps, sit down, anything!)

#3. Prepare to play and play.

Logically, if I was just taking a breath and then doing nothing or picking up a pencil, it made no sense to take on those pre-playing habits of tensing abs, gripping forearms and locking hip joints. It was helpful for me to understand and recognize, though, that the “non-doing is, in itself, activity”. Inhibiting the habitual tension took 100% of my mental effort. Again, from Pedro de Alcantara’s Indirect Procedures “Inhibition consists not in doing something new, but in not doing something old”.

After some time, by retraining the preparation to play before #1. “doing nothing” and #2. “doing something else” I was able to remember how that felt and then was able to imitate it while I did #3., preparing to play and then playing. Eventually  I could recreate that freedom regardless of the activity. Preparing to play began to feel as carefree and unconcerned as any other activity.

I think one of the most important factors of this process was deciding at the very last second which to do (do nothing, do something else, or play). The decision was made after the breath and after establishing a clear musical intention of the phrase I was about to execute. I needed to be “thinking musically” in order for this work to be helpful.