On Becoming A Musician

To be a musician is to feel and express.

The human being needs music.  We are taught that we need food, shelter, and clothing, but in every culture past and present the evidence is strong that we also need music.  Most of us might not notice its absence on a daily basis the way we would the lack of these other basics, but the absence of music begins hardship and dwindling of the soul as the absence of the others affects the body.  Music brings comfort, a sense of community, identity, and a connection with the world of the spirit.

To learn to play music beautifully, so that the heart of the listener and the musician himself will be nourished, takes dedication to practice over many years.  Some instruments, certainly, make a tolerable sound with less work than others, but to turn sounds into music-making is another matter.  Many books have been written and many teachers have been trained to encourage the masterful technique of individual instruments and also the learning of how to practice.  Indeed, practice is “the art behind the art,” and one must become a master of good practice technique in order to play well technically. What sort of practice or technique can transform the adept player of an instrument into a true musician, one who through music can describe, nourish, and bring to greater peace the inner landscape of the human being?

Working with several quite advanced students recently, looking at the nature of their performances as they prepared for important performances, I confronted with a sense of shock the realization that even the most revered teaching and learning methods have either neglected or avoided the heart of the matter – that those who are learning to play instruments need to be taught how to be expressive.  Surely this very reason for the existence of music is not the province of just a few who are touched by some magical or divine source; it is there for everyone, by dint of being human.  Developing the skill of deep expression must  be approachable with the same sort of intention and skill as the physical technique of the instrument!  Yes, there are some who seem naturally endowed with the “feeling” aspect of playing; but even they require guidance in developing the expressive gift.  Some seem naturally able to acquire the physical technical skills of the instrument without as much effort as others, but this skill may or may not be accompanied by an innate ability to connect this technique with the language of the heart.

Sinichi Suzuki changed the way the world thinks about music by proclaiming that all children can learn to play music fluently given a home environment in which music is present as the native language is present.  Indeed, he demonstrated this in his own studio over many decades.  Frequently, however, the beauty of technical polish on an instrument is mistaken for the deep-soul connection that the human longs for in music.  Within “traditional” (i.e. catch-as-catch-can) music study as well as the Suzuki method, the concept of deep expression remains on the periphery, almost as a lucky side effect that a few might “catch” if they are fortunate.  Yet the Suzuki method is based upon the principle that every human being is deeply musical by nature.  If this is so, then access to truly moving musicianship must be there for everyone, and must be accessible through a few principles of practice just like the physical technique of the instrument.  Looking at the book of one of my favorite practice gurus recently, however, I found that although he identified the four areas of practice as “tone, rhythm, intonation, and emotional expression,” his book offered not one practice hint for working on expression!  Surely this is wrong.  Expression is not for the few who are gifted; expression is for everyone, and everyone is gifted.

To be a human is to feel.  Music lies within us, innate to our sentient, yearning, feeling existence.  To learn the Technique of Expression is within our grasp.  There is no member of my studio or any other who lacks depth of human feeling, made rich and luminous through the eons of inherited ancestral experience and cultural exploration.  Each of us is heir to all that our species has been, is, and might become; and all of this is accessible to us through musical expression.  Let us reach within and learn to pull from that deep well as players of our instruments, becoming true musicians.   

– Lisa Liske-Doorandish

February, 2012

First hints:improvise, exercise, sing, dance, feel and express with word and body, remember, experiment, imagine, envision