Training to be a Sensitive Musician

The things we love about music - that draw us in closer, that compel us to want to learn to play or sing - are all too often left out, put aside or forgotten in the actual process of training or studying. The way the music carries us, lifts us or changes our mood, takes us over, or ignites our imagination... : somehow we remove ourselves from much of that when it comes to the practice itself. In doing so, we leave out a valuable aspect of learning music and the arts at large, which is to allow us an opportunity to transcend our day-to-day existence, discover new ways of seeing and being, and bring all of that back to the other parts of our lives. It is also easy to focus on 'the notes' or 'technique' as if they are autonomous and independent from the rest of our human (and musical) experience. My understanding through performing, composing and teaching, however, is that the cognitive aspect of music is very much interwoven with our emotions, associations and physical experience, and that a better comprehension of these aspects of ourselves can greatly inform and improve our conceptual and technical ability. ​ To 'train as a sensitive musician' is to consciously include our whole being - mind, body and heart - within our practice, and to then experience the benefits for our music, our selves and each other. ​ *** As human beings, we are sensitive in myriad ways, beyond the five traditionally recognised senses. We have a sense of where our body is in space (proprioception), as well as what is happening inside us (interoception). In addition, we have a sense of balance (equilibrioception), temperature (thermoception), pain (nociception), and many other modes of processing information. More loosely, we also 'make sense' or 'have a sense' of everything we encounter in our lives; sometimes clear, sometimes vague, but still valuable. This includes our selves - our bodies, our minds, emotions, ideas, intuitions - as well as other people, places, animals, situations, and so on. Whether we consciously recognise it or not, we are more-or-less constantly 'seeing' or 'listening' in a global way, trying to 'figure out' the world around and inside us. As musicians, whether absolute beginner, advanced student, experienced amateur or professional, we can harness, cultivate and fine-tune this innate sensitivity to enrich and elevate our musicianship. We already do this quite naturally to a greater or lesser extent. We are all human afterall. In developing our musicianship, we hear sounds, we touch our instruments, feel what's going on in our bodies, sense our movements and emotions, and those of others. My experience, however, is that we rarely talk about and employ our full sensitivity enough. Unfortunately, our capacity to be sensitive is often repressed by the ideology and stresses of modern society. We have a collective fear and/or misunderstanding of the body, emotions and the unconscious, consigning them as secondary - or even dangerous - compared with the perceived higher order of our conceptual minds. As a result, we do not properly know how to talk about them on a day-to-day basis. Phrases like 'the feeling in my body' or 'my emotions' often feel awkward or taboo in general conversation, and describing a person as 'sensitive' still carries negative connotations. All of this has fed into our assumptions about what music education and training should and shuold not be about. By-and-large, the body, emotions and unconscious, the other-worldliness, the transcendant, and our inter-connectedness, are ignored. They are seen as unnecessary or unworthy of our attention. It also feels 'safer' - or even normal - not to include these enigmatic - 'wild' - qualities in our learning of music. So music training therefore primarily focuses on 'technique' and 'theory', with our emotions hidden behind the more acceptable banner of 'interpretation'. For different reasons, many students struggle in their training or give up their practice. It is impossible to say exactly why this is in all circumstances, but I think the lack of feeling in the way we generally go about music education has something to do with it in many cases. There are also many reports of professional musicians unable to cope with the emotional and physical demands of their work in the spotlight. Low self-esteem, doubt, perfectionism, creative blocks and anxiety are common to people studing or working in music. Maybe this is because of a lack of training musicians receive in all-round well-being as people, body and mind. Interestingly, all of this is in great contrast to the experiences of music that the vast majority of us have had. In listening to recordings, attending concerts and festivals, and even making our own music at home, we all know the powerful affect music has on our bodies, minds and emotions. Many people love to connect with their 'wild side' through music. But as a society, we seem to compartmentalise emotions and put them at arm's length. The screen and stage are spaces in which we can explore our inner world vicariously through the artists in front of us. This is one of the incredibly beneficial and important functions of art in our society. But generally we still remain unable to talk through those experiences in everyday life, which can lead to many of the problems for in music training and work described. We can, however, change the situation, unlock our sensitive capacities and flourish as musicians. While music training of course involves conceptual thinking and theory, there is so much more to be gained when we include the whole body and mind learning to play, sing and create. What's more, this process can start from the outset, be integrated within standard techniques, and adapted for all of us, rather than being thought of as an advanced, separate or niche practice. I have also found that our conceptual minds are greatly enhanced through working with the body and emotions. The phrase 'training to be a sensitive musician' needn't be about declaring ourselves as 'sensitive musicians' as separate from 'musicians' per se. We are all really one and the same. Rather, it can be a simple reminder to use our whole sensitivty within our training and practice. That is how I work with it. This kind of training is about thoroughly exploring and knowing our mind, body, relationships and environment in the act of making or thinking about music, sensing our inner and external worlds with evermore subtlety, having insight into how they affect our musicianship, and then applying that insight to our music practice. It is about learning to be a whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-minded musician. Indeed, a whole human being in music. Training in musical sensitivity is also to consciously swim - gently - against the tide for the benefit of us all. For too long as a society, we have not properly acknowledged, valued or appreciated our fully sensitive nature as human beings. We have disconnected from what is happening inside us and our environment. Consequently, we have become less able to recognise, understand and manage our emotional state. We have increasingly lost the ability to feel intimacy with ourselves and each other, and lack the sense of belonging and togetherness that are important aspects of what it is to be human. Issues with stress, anxiety and depression follow suit, which is exactly what we are witnessing - at crisis levels - in our supposedly 'advanced' civilisation. Furthermore, our reduced or suppressed sensitivity has distanced us from our natural world. We cannot really care for the planet if we cannot properly connect with other living things on a physical level. We do not need to look far to observe the damage this is causing to the very place that is our home. But we can be the change as musicians, music learners and teachers. We can be brave and talk about our sensitivity, emotion, intuition and passion. We can bring it to the forefront of our music-making: our learning, playing, singing, creating and teaching. We can develop and fine-tune our sensitive capacities to advance our musical ability and enjoyment of music practice. We can connect more with inner lives and discover the sense of intimacy with ourselves that we have been looking for. We can engage our self-compassion, forgiveness and empathy. We can let this gradually ripple out to each other and the world around us. We can feel that greater sense of belonging that makes us feel good. And we can unlock our wish to do more to help each other and the environment, which is at the heart of who we are. That is the power of our innate sensitivity as people.