Let’s remember to actually *play* when we play music!
Let’s pretend, imagine, wonder, be curious and experiment.
Let’s be silly and have fun.
And let the music-learning spring naturally from our playfulness.
I was watching a wildlife TV programme the other day, with a spot devoted to a couple of polar bear cubs and their mother. The cubs were so cute, and looked to be having a great time: wrestling, chasing, jumping on each other, half-biting and lightly gnawing, and generally getting on Mum’s nerves.
As the show’s narrator pointed out, the cubs were rather content - happy, even - in their mischief. They were playing with each other and having quite a bit of fun. But we were also reminded that the cubs were learning throughout the experience: testing-out and cultivating a variety of skills that would be essential for life as an adult bear and a fully-grown master hunter: spotting their ‘prey’, catching it, pinning it down, biting, and chewing.
The acquiring and training of these skills were completely integrated into the bears’ playtime. It’s something we see throughout the animal kingdom, as well as in ourselves.
When we play games in the garden, the park, on the beach, in the sea, or even during board or video games, we’re also expanding our mental, physical and emotion horizons. We’re developing our ability to imagine and plan our actions. There are opportunities aplenty to fine-tune our mental and physical coordination, agility and strength, depending on the kind of play we’re involved in. We even get to experience a range of emotions when things go happily right or horribly wrong.
Through our playtime, we broaden our sense of self and lay foundations for greater confidence in our being as it is right now, and our future potential to rise to a challenge. We learn to trust that, over time, our bodies and minds can accomplish the movements, activities or tasks that initially began in our imagination: catching a ball in mid-air, winning a game, understanding the complex rules of a sport…
… or being able to play or sing a piece of music.
Yes, music-making is a really good example of a playtime activity through which we learn about, harness and enhance our physical, mental and emotional capacities.
And yet, when it comes to ‘doing music practice’, we have a tendency of taking it far too seriously. As instrumental or vocal tutors, conscientious parents of students, or amateurs at home, we can end up cutting short - or bypassing altogether - the moments of playfulness in order to ‘focus’ on completing the task in hand.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this attitude makes the practice - literally, the ‘doing’ - of music potentially rather dull. In our efforts to take it ‘seriously’, we can easily become tunnel-visioned in our minds and rigid in our bodies: Think of how you feel when you imagine someone telling you to “Sit still and concentrate.” There is a tightness in our being that can be unpleasant. It has certainly been like that for me when I’ve succumbed to the ‘this is work’ mind-set.
The ‘fear of playfulness’ also inhibits some or all of potential testing-of or expanding-of our physical and mental boundaries. We can become ‘narrow’ in our music-making, only sticking to a certain mode, style or manner, limiting the dynamic quality of the music and therefore playing, singing or writing with much less expression.
So let’s actually do the thing we set out to do with music: let’s play!
This is not so much about connecting with our ‘inner-child’ so much as connecting with a playful, silly, fun, imaginative side of us that is always there throughout our lives; a side of us that helps us to find and cultivate happiness in what we do, but also aids our learning. Just like those polar bear cubs.
Let’s imagine… that a sound is a colour, or a picture, or a character… that a musical phrase is a scene in a film, or is telling a story… that we are on stage performing in full-costume… or taking part in a carnival parade or festival … Let’s go on an adventure with our music and see where we end up.
Let’s be curious… and wonder what would happen if we played or sang like this or that… back-to-front… upside-down… in a different order … Or see what is sounds like to play these sounds in one way and those sounds in another way…
Let’s - gently :-) … wrestle with the music! Let’s dart around, make a big splash, or sing at the top of our voices… or make a really strange twang… lets experiment and explore … and juggle with the sounds… make a real game of it.
Let’s be silly… and muck around with the rhythms… play too quietly or too loudly… play like a robot so the music sounds really mechanical … or play like a rag doll so that the notes flop or blur into one another and the articulation is foggy…
Let’s practise like we’re learning to play beach volleyball… going into with the attitude of “a great time down at the beach”. Can we take an “I wonder if I’ll catch the ball this time?” approach to the repetition required in gaining music skills. Can we laugh at ourselves when we fall over in the sand, or play or sing a dud note?
Crucially, let’s do all of this while we practise the music we’re ‘working on’.
My experience is that we’ll often do much more practice in a ‘play mind set’, that our music can really come alive through our playfulness, and that it’s this very combination of doing more and being more alive in the moment that leads to mastery and brilliance.
Try it for youself and see if it works for you.
I wish you a happy music practice.
© Robert Szymanek 2020