Tuesday, 19 March 2013

teachers and technique

This is K.P. Vijayakumaran, director of the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi. I would love to study Indian music with him. My teachers Kath Burlinson and Paul Oertel have changed the way I experience the world, the way I experience myself.

But I've been confused and reactive about teachers for a very long time. When I first tried to pick up my violin again at the age of 19, I found a violin teacher. I went two or three times, but soon got dispirited by the classical approach. I was also shocked to hear that he knew the violin teacher I had when I was 9, who said that I was 'very talented' or some such. I was furious, because at 19 I believed it was already too late to become a musician - furious that nothing about the way my teacher had interacted me had led me to believe that there was anything in my approach worth nurturing.

The lack of the right kind of teaching fed into the stuckness I got into so often over the years. When I picked the violin up again at about 23, I really had no idea about how to learn anything (having left school at 16, after many years of bemusement, largely caused by changing schools a lot...). I had heard that you just had to practice a lot, so I thought that if I just kept playing over and over, things would improve. Which they did, in a way. But as I was trying to learn to improvise, I quickly got trapped in repetitious and limited patterns that frustrated me because I could see that I wasn't really developing.

When I started violin again about nine years ago (having done a few qualifications and become an education lecturer meanwhile) I decided that I was not going to be beaten this time by not knowing how to study, and set about trying to work my way into Jamie Aebersold jazz books. I went to jazz courses in Edinburgh and Glasgow, though I soon found out that I had bitten off something almost entirely indigestible - 'beginners' jazz classes turned out to be peopled by players who were grade eight on their instruments, and theory, and not really even beginners to jazz. I had about grade 2 level skills.

My lack of technique was a continual frustration to me. I tried a few one-to-ones with some top Scottish jazz musicians. They were brilliant, but I don't think they really understood that I had no theory, and wasn't in any way in command of my instrument. Then one day one of them said, 'I think you're one of these perfectionist people, you should read Kenny Werner's 'Effortless Mastery''.

I've written about the insights in that book quite often here. My memory of the basic idea of it is that you can be a top jazz musician, 'burning' away with your awesome solos, and still not be really playing music. There's something else in music, something that isn't about technique and facility. Acknowledging that something else became the focus of my approach - calming right down about what I could hear in my head but couldn't play, focussing instead on the quality of the sound that I could play.

I'm still in the business of exploring the 'something else', which perhaps might be articulated as a kind of inner connection - a playing from yourself, from your body, from where you are - rather than from your idea about where you might like to be, from your head, from where you aren't.

On the some of the workshops I've done with Kath and Paul, I've been recommended by people who have been through years of training not to go near a singing teacher, for example, if I want to develop my singing. And I know, now, exactly what they mean. When I told someone the other day that I had started singing lessons, they looked at me hard and said, 'and are you learning to find your voice, or some other idea about what a voice should be?' Spot on. I'm now very wary of the focus on technique, not least because friends who have done singing lessons seem to become obsessed with thinking about their abdomens, and their throats, and projection, and breathing, all at the same time, and seem to end up thoroughly confused by all that head work when they're trying to sing from their bodies and their hearts.

However, the advice from people who have been through years of formal training 'not to go near teachers' (and of course I would say exactly the same thing about art colleges) can also be very limiting. Because there are technical issues, and it can revolutionise what you're doing to learn some of them (may I say in my defence that one of the reasons I would tell you not to go near an art college if you want to learn the technical aspects of art is that you're unlikely to be taught any there....) . If you want to draw what you see in front of you, the simple idea of 'negative space' can change your drawing capacities almost instantly (that's an interesting one in itself, as Betty Edwards shows - we're so sure that everything needs years and years of practice, and yet sometimes a teacher can show you something and the results can be pretty much instant...).

If you want your voice to sound stronger and fuller, getting feedback on how it sounds at the moment and how your body is working to produce that weaker, thinner sound, is something that you can't really give yourself. You can read about 'abdominal breathing' for ever, but because you're locked in your own limited view of what that might mean, you're stuck in the very thing that's stopping you from being able to actually be able to breath from your abdomen - the limited nature of your own experience. So it's very tricky.

I recently started having singing lessons. It's hard to know what negative self-consciousnesses and head tricks I might be about to learn, but I have to say that with this teacher, who does seem to be focussed on getting my voice out, rather than constructing some idea of a voice, there seems to be hope. My voice already sounds much stronger. It's all very well saying, 'you don't need technique', but you can hear when the sound quality is wrong, you can hear the out of tune note, or the harsh bow stroke, and without technical information you can only go so far on your own to rectifying that. You can 'practice' until the cows come home, but as you don't know how to change the thing that's annoying you, you just engrave it deeper and deeper into your playing/singing, because you know no other way.

So I say, blessings be upon the real teacher, as I define this for myself. The person who is standing above you on a step you were not even aware was there. The person who can see the wide, wide plains of what the whole thing is about, at the same time as knowing that what it's ultimately about for you is not something that they can see.....who knows all the small details, and how they might be acquired/explored, but who also always sees those details as part of a whole, part of which will always be obscured....

I always remember the first time I learnt that the Sanskrit word guru, as an adjective, meant 'heavy', heavy with knowledge:

The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
— Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5

Well, there's debate about the etymology, of course, but I like this idea.


No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...