Become One With Your Instrument

Back when I was taking saxophone lessons in high school, I remember talking with my teacher about a problem I was having playing. I can’t remember what the issue was, but his advice included an explanation of the need to become “one” with my instrument. He told me I needed to know the instrument so well that it became an extension of myself. Whatever note I wanted to play, my fingers should go right there without question about where the note was. Whatever kind of sound I wanted to create, all the parts of my mouth should form the correct shape, and the instrument would respond immediately. I should know the instrument so well that it becomes part of my body, like another arm or leg. Of course, this takes practice. Practice does two things: it helps us learn the music, and it helps us learn the instrument.

I think about this advice almost every day, and have for years.

A while back, someone criticized me for not having a piece memorized and said I must not know it very well. (I have a lot of difficulty memorizing, but that’s for another post.) After feeling the sting for a bit, I realized, “I may not have that piece memorized, but I have the piano memorized.” In fact, when I am able to memorize a piece, I can play it with my eyes shut, even a piece by Bach, because I know the piano so well. The piano has become an extension of myself; I know the feel of all the keys and the distances between them.

I thought about this when my church got back to having in-person services and had to practice playing with a mask. That really interferes with some downward looking, and I could not see my hands at the keyboard the usual way. I had to rely much more on my physical familiarity with the piano while playing the hymns.

I think about this when I am teaching and making my students practice scales, chords, and arpeggios. I know they probably find it drudgery; I did when I was young. I do my best to explain how scales, chords, and arpeggios are beneficial, but it’s not really something you can fully understand until that day you come across them in a piece of music and your fingers fly across the keys in automation because you have practiced them thousands of times. It’s much easier to learn individual pieces when you’ve already mastered the building blocks.

I think about this in terms of composing, though it is only partly related to knowing the piano. It is even more about being attuned to my inner hearing, pitch and imagination, and be able to write that down. It is also being so familiar with technique that executing it can be done quickly. One time I was teaching on part-writing and going over an assignment with a student. It took him a couple of hours to do the assignment, and it took me five minutes to correct all his mistakes. I’ve done a lot of part-writing, so it has become automatic; it helps that I read it all the time playing hymns for church. I almost don’t have to think about it.

My family and I were discussing Bach yesterday and his incredible ability to improvise toccatas and fugues at the organ. That didn’t happen overnight. He wrote so much contrapuntal music that the understanding of how the notes interacted became intuitive and oozed out of him.

It’s all really a matter of practicing and drilling skills more than a stroke of genius. Inspiration does not guarantee those ideas will be well executed.

I thought about this the other day as I tried out my new-to-me keyboard accordion for the first time. I am not anywhere near close to “one” with the instrument, despite having some knowledge about how it works. I cognitively know where the notes are, and I know well the theory behind the organization of the left hand buttons, but before I can make use of that knowledge, I need to become intimately familiar with the feel of the instrument. My hands must know the location of each button – what my mind knows means nothing right now.

Time must be put in, there’s no way around it. If you want your music to ooze out, through your instrument, or through your composition, you must drill skills. Scales, chords, arpeggios, and compositional exercises are the musician’s version of “wax on, wax off.” Despite knowing well the benefits of all this drilling, I still find it’s always good to be reminded to keep at it.

(If you’d like to see a video of me trying out the accordion for the first time, click here.)

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