Playing an instrument – The importance of basics

Follow Skinnerbox on their journey of discussing playing live electronic music.
Part 1: How to play your electronic music live: an introduction
Part 2: Structuring your live set (from the computer point of view)
Part 3: Playing live electronic music II – Improvisation and audience
Part 4: below

As I mentioned in the beginning, I play a synthesizer on stage. I do so because I want to express myself. When I listen to music I like somehow, I usually start tapping, singing or whistling along. In the context of electronic music these acoustic sounds might not always be appropriate. I therefore have a flexible instrument which has a broad spectrum of sonic possibilities. It enables me to produce the sounds I imagine.
An instrument is a tool. The purpose is to help an idea become reality. The better you know your tool the more precise your results will be. This again is a matter of practice. As playing music is more complex than crushing an egg with a stone the range of things to practice goes beyond “How to hold the stone in my hand?” and “How to swing my arm to hit the egg?”. But profound practice starts exactly with these kind of very basic questions.


Find the optimal position

Most instruments are played manually and digitally (with hands and fingers) so the first thing to consider when practicing or even just learning to play an instrument is to find the most natural and relaxing position your hand can have resting on the instrument and being ready to play at the same time. On the piano this starts with the right sitting position. Piano stools are adjustable in height and have no backrest. The best sitting position is when your legs are about 90° from your body, are standing a bit apart for good stability but can move freely if needed, so don’t sit too far back. Your back should be straight and your hands should be aligned with your arms (wrists straight). Finally adjust your sitting distance to the piano. Your hands should be able to rest on the keys without stress.
This might all sound a bit strict and old school and is specifically piano related but it should give you an idea what to focus your attention on. And it’s harder than you might think because it’s quite a lot to keep an eye on, always, besides eventual practices! The overall purpose of this is to keep your body as relaxed as possible. You need to figure out which muscles you need and which you don’t. For example if you practice something fast you might realise that your arms get tense and your shoulders lift up. As a result your hands and fingers lose their ease of movement and your actual goal moves out of reach. This is a very classic thing that happens to everyone. Just keep an eye on that, stop playing in case, relax, and then go on.


Keep movements small

Classical mechanics tell us: W=F*s – Work is the product of force and displacement. To translate this to our topic: The effort to press down a key is proportional to the force your muscles need to move your fingertip towards the keydown position and the distance your fingertip needs to travel. This means moving your entire arm instead of only the finger makes it less effective because you need more force (arm is heavier than finger, right?). As our force of muscles is limited, less effective means: “takes more time”, which equals to “speed is limited”. If you want to play fast you need to restrict your movements to the minimum necessary. Now it might become clearer to you why relaxing the muscles you don’t need is so crucial.
Besides just playing ridiculously fast and getting a lot of clicks on YouTube for a performance that is more acrobatic than musical, there is a much more important aspect of instrument play: Expression.
I will dig deeper into this topic in one of my following articles, where I will talk about aesthetics. For now I will just use one topic out of that, called “dynamics” to give an example for the application of relaxed musculature. Imagine the simple idea of playing 8th notes on a hand drum, bongos for instance, but it could also just be the table you are sitting on – music can happen everywhere. As I discussed before, you only want to use the muscles you really need to hit the drum: your fingers and maybe your hand if you want a bit more power. Your shoulder and upper arm don’t participate yet and are relaxed. Doing so can be quite boring after a while because it’s all the same which means it’s just a repetition of single sounds. If you want to spice it up a little you can simply give an accent to every 4th stroke. This, however, is not achieved by applying more force from your fingers and hands which are employed to take care of tight and steady 8th notes. It’s your upper arm parts now that will do the accent – just slightly lift it before and drop it with the beat you want to be accented. The extra force for the accent is produced independently from your hand this way.
My little example here illustrates how different parts of your extremity can cooperate in a very natural way. The lighter parts for the fast action and the heavier ones to generate higher patterns upon this.

Know your body

As a consequence a sensible training has very positive side effects. You start to differentiate between groups of muscles. You learn to independently use them. You probably start to expand this awareness to your entire body. This will accelerate the process of physical learning in the future. And last but not least, it’s fun!
That was just a very brief introduction to the wide field of training. I will include topic related practices in all my upcoming contributions here, to give you more specific training methods that will help you to realise you ideas.



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