The Physical Technique/The Body/Health

By Mike Vaccaro
(from Mike's Musings #3, our newsletter)

The body carries out the orders of the mind. So, how important is the body? Ponder long and hard on that question, my friends. What are you going to do about it?

A weakened body will tax the ability of the mind to react clearly. How important is that? It takes a lot of extra energy for the mind to work in the presence of pain and physical distraction.

Wilfred Kujalla, who had an unprecedented 48 year career as principal piccolo with the Chicago Symphony (retiring at the age of 76), was asked the secret of his longevity with that orchestra. His answer: “GOOD HEALTH”.

The body slowly weakens with age. To keep our skills at peak level for as long as possible, it is best to deal with this fact from as young an age as possible.

Each and every major injury we receive throughout our life will revisit us as we age.

So, my suggestion is to find some physical exercise, and some sort of game playing that we can continue to enjoy and modify as we age.

In short, take care of your physical health, and you will be able to play and
work longer and with ease.


If we practice a posture as “correct”, we tend to defend that posture in our mind, and thus lock ourselves to that model.

There are, however, certain basic postures that we should practice as ideals to be varied upon.

Look at your favorite musician, someone who plays the same instrument as you do. One of the reasons that that person sounds like they do, is what the posture and concept that created the posture bring to the approach.

A curved neck, a jaw jutted out, the finger position, even a tight little toe influences the sound. Erectness affects the flow of the air and what effect the solar plexus has on our sound.

Every subtle combination of tension and relaxation throughout
our whole body makes us sound like we do

For me, the approach has always been the middle ground: not too tight, not too loose, not with the instrument fully extended and not with the instrument held too close to the body.

I believe that if one can attain this balance of the physical approach, the movement to the more extreme approaches, when required, becomes more plausible.

With the exception of improvisation, which is a totally different subject, I believe this is why so few musicians can master the style transition from symphonic styled music to popular styled music. These are extremes in the musical world with different physical approaches.

In each case, the concept taught [accepted] has locked the body into an “ideal” that should not be violated. While useful to lock into an “ideal” to perform a certain type of music, it seems silly that one would have to live monogamously with that one way of playing, and even in some cases defend it.

Just do me a favor. Once. Every time you practice. Do something physically different. For those of you tight players, slouch and practice a couple of minutes of noise. For those of you loose musicians, be very erect and proper, and play a nice controlled mf long tone for as long as you dare.

The easiest way to play, of course, is when the body is not fighting itself. That is, when the muscles are not fighting each other. That is being relaxed!

 We must remember that long tones are the best time to study the body.

Long tones are the Zen meditation (or prayers if you prefer) of the musician. Our goal is to be mentally quiet, with our internal dialogue turned down or preferably off, and to feel each and every part of the body, observing how it effects our own personal sound.

Long tones should be a daily component of our practice schedule. Not just a warm-up for the barrage of notes to come, but instead, a centering, a withdrawal, from the (mundane/busy) thoughts of the day...a study of the physical, and how it effects all that we do with the instrument in our hands. Limit long tones to 3-10 minutes of a daily practice schedule unless there is something you are trying to cure. But do it every time you play.

There are certain physical rules that are irrefutable as far as my experience goes.

The number one rule? Keep the fingers round. For example: It is imperative that the fingers are round and relaxed when playing. The feeling is like the arms are hanging down to one's side, completely relaxed. When the arm is raised to the instrument the fingers do not “flex” to finger a note. The fingers automatically fit the instrument. If the fingers need to flex tighter or move in an unnatural way to finger a note, have an expert modify your instrument to fit your hand. In most instances that is not the case. Usually the reality is that the musician can, with some study, adjust to a natural approach to holding the instrument.

Many instrumentalists use too many movements when depressing a key. They depress the key, then depress the first joint. That's two movements. They lift the joint, and then lift the finger.  That's another two movements. That's a grand total of four finger movements for each note. In reality, it sould take one movement to depress the key and one to release the key, for a total of two movements.

A rounded finger, pressing and releasing from the top of the finger (the finger nail side) is two movements. It seems obvious that if we can eliminate the extra 2 movements that we have the potential to play twice as fast, or, twice as easily.

A simple physical exercise is to study the movements of just two isolated notes. How do the fingers function, look, and feel on just those 2 notes? For the beginner, this study will save hours of frustration and wasted practice time. For the advanced musician. who has not yet realized the folly of wasted motion, this drill should be quite a freeing experience.

The short answer is to pay attention to the body on a daily basis.

Finger/Tone Exercises

I have found that the following chromatic exercise of 5 notes repeated 3 or more times, with a long tone, is an excellent method to study the movements of the body and to focus on the correct support of the long tone.

Start these studies at a slow tempo, and repeat the first half of the exercise a minimum of 3 times. Take a slow quarter note rest and play the long tone. As you see and feel your fingers working correctly, increase the speed of the first half of the exercise until you can play the exercise very quickly. Do not be in a hurry to increase the speed, as the idea is not how fast you can play, but how correctly your fingers are working. Breathe at the phrase markings.

Practice example #1 until you can play it quickly with ease, with smooth fingers, and with great attacks and releases. Some of the key signatures are easier than others. Practice the difficult keys the most. Listen to the ending and note value and release of the last note. Give a nice amount of time to the rest. Then listen to the attack as you play a nice held-out long tone. Listen to the release of the long tone. FEEL YOUR BODY AND AIRFLOW THROUGHOUT.  As you get solid with the long tone, you can add crescendos to ff and decrescendos to niente. 

Learn example #1 in every key before going on to example #2.

Practice this chromatic exercise starting on every note. Begin the exercise starting on the lowest note of the instrument, and go up chromatically as high as you can. After that progression is comfortable, practice the exercise around the circle of 5ths.

There are other variations of the chromatic exercises, and in fact, you can devise your own exercises, based upon any combination of notes, chromatic or not.

The chromatic exercise is a valuable tool to revisit throughout our playing careers. I still practice these from time to time and find them valuable.

Remember that a finger that is holding down a key tightly is stopping the vibration of the instrument. So please, only use enough pressure to hold a key as is necessary.

Another finger concept I like to use, is press and let go (release). I prefer this concept to press and lift which requires the muscles to initiate two separate movements, and often makes the fingers lift up too high, thus wasting movement.

Remember that the act of practicing every day is more important than
the amount of time practiced.

Until the next Mike's Musings, here's wishing you all the best, and Happy New Year 2013!




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