Coaching for musicians.
Allowing music to express itself through you.
“With great musicians, I never feel like their music is separate from their lives. I believe that their souls, spirits, daily lives and music are intertwined. They are inseparable. Therein lies the mystery.”
María Joao Pires.
It’s no coincidence that these words are cited by María de Marcos, an expert in Ontological Coaching and the Alexander Technique, nor that they formed the basis for the creation of her coaching program for musicians. Several days ago, we discussed this subject with her in a conversation which summarizes the essence of her work perfectly. We’ve decided to share the most relevant aspects of the interview here.
– María, could you tell us a little about how our daily lives are involved in music? Are we aware of the way in which our thoughts, our emotions and our entire bodies are a part of what we do?
From a very young age, musical training focuses all the attention of the person on their technique, on the instrument, and on music itself. I’d say that’s the correct order. In the case of music, learning the technique is a costly process, and without it the results do not live up to our expectations and disappoint us. In this way, the technique as ‘a means to’ becomes an end in itself, and the musical part is approached with that same discipline. Years of learning are required in this area. Perhaps this is fundamental. But it’s a shame that the overall experience is marked by this way of approaching the process.
Even if it is technically brilliant, a performance can be cold and mechanical. You can tell from the sound that there’s a disconnection. And I believe that disconnection comes from the person playing and his or her experience while playing. It’s incredible how the sound changes when a person plays and creates music through their body and in connection with it. Musicians are often amazed when they realize that that ‘zoom out’ which ‘takes them away from’ the score, the piece, the instrument, the technique, actually brings them much ‘closer’ to the result they seek: communication, feeling, expression, flow.
So, to answer your question, no, we are not aware of it, or perhaps we are, but in a very small way. We’re aware of the parts of our bodies which are directly involved –our hands, our mouth, our shoulders, our breathing, all depending on the instrument–, but we isolate them from the rest of our body, losing unity and overall performance. This creates a lot of tension, alters the performance and requires a significant extra effort. And the result is perceived in the sound, of course, but also by the body, appearing in the form of injury, fatigue and muscle strain.
The same is true of our emotions. On stage, it’s difficult to let yourself go. Because letting yourself go requires you to relax, open yourself up and accept that the grand fantasy of having everything under control is nothing more than a fantasy. Something similar occurs in our way of looking at things. Musicians carry around a series of ideas regarding perfection, strictness, control, guilt, responsibility, what’s normal and what’s not, and it’s a good idea to review this at some point.
– Is this idea of letting yourself go and allowing things to flow linked to the need to “know your body, educate your brain and manage your emotions”, which you emphasize in the program? Moreover, does this mean that we usually “fight” them instead of turning them our allies?
Listen, the heart of the problem is clear in the very way that you asked that question. The body, the brain, our emotions, they are not our allies: we are body, brain and emotions. They’re not something apart from us, something that we manage. They are part of us. It’s difficult to talk about them, because by naming them we inevitably separate and distance ourselves from them. But for me this has been very important because it has taken me from a struggle to a more gentle space. In it, acceptance and self-respect are the starting point. That’s what I try to do with my trainees: transform the experience of estrangement, of being ‘detached from’ into a sense of ‘I am’. When they eventually reach that point, an extensive internal reorganization takes place. The feeling of being a single thing, with everything connected, and keeping that connection active. Can you imagine how significant that is while you’re performing? I suppose you can. I often have the same experience when I’m teaching. Everything ‘is’, and you can let yourself be while you are and do. It’s wonderful.
– So when we finally succeed in experiencing ourselves as a whole connected to what we are doing, how does our music change?
Oprah Winfrey’s phrase “Being fuels doing” sums it up very well. What you do is driven by who you are. And in turn, what you do builds who you are. It’s not easy to separate the two. This is a distinction that we work on each year in the Controlling Stage Fright program. We do so for two reasons. Firstly, because content and tools are considered so important that it actually seems like they’ll produce the same result regardless of whether it is you or I who are playing, and that obviously isn’t the case. What’s the difference? You and I, every individual, we are all unique. And I think it’s incredibly important that we realize how valuable we all are and how that makes our work unique.
The second reason is that when you only value the results of what you do, your self-esteem is like a roller coaster: if you like the results –or rather others like them–, you feel great; if not, you come crashing down. It’s good to understand that there is a difference between who you are and what you do. This is fundamental for musicians. To learn not to confuse an opinion on their performance with an opinion on them as a person. Personally, this has caused many, many problems for me, and it has limited my self-expression for years.
– And speaking of self-expression, could you say that a musician is a constant, living source of creation and inspiration? What happens when that creative self-expression becomes blocked?
Are you in a state of constant, living creativity? I’m certainly not. And we lead creative lives too; we don’t create music, but you create through your writing, as do I with my classes, and sometimes we create in other areas: in the bedroom, the kitchen, the neighborhood. I like to think more in terms of creative attitude than creative activities. I say this in part to relieve the burden borne by musicians. They impose quite brutal schedules on themselves. All those hours of study, rehearsal, concerts and travelling. When I ask them if they’re going to relax at the end of an exhausting course, they answer determinedly: “Of course! For a week.” And then they start telling me about their exhausting schedules. This varies with their age and stage of life, of course. But I believe that, in general, musicians forget to take care of their souls. Souls feed off silence, stillness, ‘doing nothing’, contact with nature, the rhythm of the day, caring for daily life. And it’s surprising that people who create using sound and silence, using rhythm, have lives that are so devoid of silence and rest. In part, my work consists in helping them with this silence and this rest, which is something that often scares them.
At the end of a course, a trainee said to me: “You’ve made me think about things that I didn’t want to consider before because they scared me. Since I’ve asked myself those questions, I feel more at peace”. Those questions emerge from silence and from rhythm.
– We’ve talked about a transformation which substantially improves musicians’ professional work, but that also –most importantly– has a profound impact on all areas of their lives and on their relationships. In this regard, have you received any feedback from your trainees that you found rewarding or surprising, or that motivated you to continue doing what you do and to improve each day?
Wow! Lots of it. I work with musicians of different ages and at different professional stages. I apply everything that I experience personally, what I learn in the business world and from working with other professionals, to my classes, and vice versa. The bridge between different worlds is important: it normalizes, inspires and provides tools for professional development. Young musicians who are still at the training stage are concerned with access to the labor market and their ability to make a living doing what they enjoy. Not many people talk about the importance of personal qualities to achieve this. I make sure I do. I provoke them, they provoke me, we have long discussions, we look deeply into our experiences, and they learn to make their own decisions, regardless of the opinions of their teachers – and of my opinions, of course. At other stages, the problems are related to the body, fatigue, and lack of time for themselves and for their families. Or the difficulties inherent to the profession which nobody prepares you for: management, communication, organization, dealing with very different people. And at a final stage, the unpredictable twists of life: divorce, family, relocation, etc.
Lately, I’ve been very inspired by classes in orchestra conducting because of the similarities with my own work. I was very excited to create and to teach people to create, to move energy in their own bodies, and in the body of the orchestra and the audience.
What really moves me and motivates me are the ‘ah-ha! moments’, when someone’s face lights up and their body opens up and the sound does too, and they laugh and say: “Great! I’d been searching for this for years, and here it is! It was so easy!” And they leave happy. Later on, they write to me to say that their musical instrument teacher noticed, that they performed better at the competition, that they’ve stopped feeling pain in the pit and/or that they’ve begun to enjoy playing again.
– Those ‘ah-ha! moments’- as you describe them- must drive you to keep doing more and better things. To finish the interview, I’d like to ask you in what way does all this influence your participation in the coaching program for musicians?
What I try to do in all my work is to look for that connection which allows someone to be receptive and to act as an amplifying channel for the music –or for whatever it is that they are creating. To do this, it’s important to listen, be attentive, be bold, be playful, let yourself go, allow yourself to be surprised, be humble. To keep your eyes open to the magic of life. Ontological Coaching and the Alexander Technique go hand in hand: both are based on listening, trust, openness, autonomy and growth. They go well together, and I work well with them. I also generously share my own life experiences. I’m sort of like an unblocker and a bridge. I connect ideas, people, projects. I challenge. I love learning, and that makes me feel alive. Broadly speaking, I like unique people who want to leave a better world behind them than the one they came into.