Playing from the feet.

Sarah Sutton, Anne Mei’s viola teacher, gave a wonderful recital last Sunday, October 25, 2015, at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, along with pianist Edward Landin and mezzo-soprano Monica Soto-Gil.  For most of the recital Sarah filled the church with music by English composers resonating with her home in Suffolk.  The only exceptions were a Bach Sonata in D Major at the end of the first half, and Arvo Pärt’s meditative Spiegel im Spiegel in conclusion.  I am not equipped to analyze the artistry of Sarah and the other musicians, except to say that to my ear the music was flawless and moving.

Having sat through many of Anne Mei’s early violin lessons, my eyes did notice the structure of how Sarah held her instrument and how she moved.  Many young string players move their instrument or the arm holding the instrument, particularly in fast or emotionally exciting passages.  Many a time I heard a teacher say, “Don’t make your bow chase your strings.”  I’ve also seen teachers, not Sarah, break that rule when emphasizing aspects of a piece.  Instead of keeping the scroll at the end of the instrument aligned on the same vertical plane with the elbow and shoulder, some players move their instrument back and forth outside that plane, thinking to add expression to their performance.  Mostly they are just making more work for themselves.

Yet, some skilled musicians do move their bodies in response to the rhythms and emotions of the music they are playing, still maintaining their structure.  As Sarah was playing Sunday and moving with her music, it seemed at first that her movements came from the center of her body, but the more I looked I could see that what seemed to be swaying and swinging of her arms, shoulders, head and viola, really rose up from her feet through her body.

I looked around YouTube for examples of a string player chasing her instrument, but didn’t find any good ones.  I did find a video of Anne Sophie Mutter maintaining her structure while moving from within and below in her performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor.  Anne Sophie achieves this movement even though she’s wearing a tight fitting dress, which restricts her legs.  As an example of fluid footwork more like Sarah Sutton’s, here is a link to Sarah Chang playing the same Mendelssohn concerto.

It is more than a little unfair, but to contrast with moving from within and below I’m also posting a link to a brilliant six-year-old, Nathan Gendler, playing the same piece.  Even though he maintains good structure for the most part, he moves the upper third of his body, staying rigid below.  If he doesn’t listen to his teachers, he could grow up to play like David Garrett, also moving from his shoulders and neck, and full of himself to boot.

There is another reason why I am sensitive to moving from within and below: studying tai chi for the past thirteen years.  Tai chi moves fluidly, but only by giving structure to the body, a structure that allows internal energy to flow out.  A punch or a push does not depend on strong arms, but on energy rising from the feet through the center of one’s body mass, what the Chinese call the dān tián.  As a result, the tai chi practitioner can seem to wave her hands from side-to-side when it is entirely a matter of rotating the dān tián.  One of my favorite exercises in tai chi and qigong is called “waving hands like clouds,” or “cloud hands” for short.  This first video explains how the arms move and the body rotates in cloud hands.  This second video puts more emphasis on the up-down movement of the hands such that they don’t move far to the left or right of the body, even though they might appear to do so.

I do tai chi as a form of meditation, but it’s fundamentally a martial art.  Each of its moves can be interpreted in the context of fighting.  When we do cloud hands, for instance, each time we move our arms up and down we are blocking punches or kicks directed at us by one or more opponents.  As we rotate our body, our arms push the opponents’ arms or legs out of the way.  So, if we were really moving our arms away from the front of our body, we would be leaving ourselves open to the attack. Similarly, waving hands like clouds is not just a simile.  Our hands and arms need to be soft like clouds, with all their strength coming from within.  Our body core gives us much more strength and heft, than the muscles in our arms can.  I’m sure that a musician can give a similar explanation for the effect of proper structure of body and instrument on musical performance.

After years and years of practicing, analyzing and correcting, muscle memory allows the tai chi practitioner to wave hands like clouds without thinking about things like structure.  For similar reasons Sarah’s parting words to me on Sunday were “Tell Anne Mei to practice.”


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