The Performer’s Inner Family

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bodykeepsthescoreI’ve recently finished reading The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Its primary focus is the treatment of trauma, a specialised pursuit that has no direct relevance to my personal or professional lives. But in the process of explaining the difficulties experienced by people who have been damaged by shock, tragedy or abuse, he gives many and varied insights into how our internal landscapes - our memories, our sense of self - work.

One chapter particularly resonated with an experience of musicianship I have observed in both others and myself and called out for some reflection. Chapter 17 deals with a form of treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy, and is predicated on the idea that the self isn’t a single, unitary entity, but rather a mosaic of different parts.

Depending on how you know me, for instance, you might be more familiar with the focused and professional intellectual Liz, or the frivolous brat Liz who can’t walk past a cheap joke. I have distinct vocabularies, and even accents, for if I’m talking with family or various different friendship groups. One of Jonathan’s virtues is that he has patience with the irritable or overwhelmed Liz that he sometimes has to live with. ‘Parts are not just feelings,’ writes Kolk, ‘but distinct ways of being, with their own beliefs, agendas, and roles in the overall ecology of our lives.’ (p 279-80)

In trauma patients, these parts can get radically dissociated, as a way of protecting those parts most hurt by the trauma from further damage, and much of the chapter discusses how to help people re-integrate their elements into a more productive and manageable relationship with each other.

But in those of us who don’t suffer this way, there is still this intriguing image of multiple elements of self, that, as Michael Gazzaniga puts it, ‘do not necessarily ‘converse’ with each other internally’ (p 280).

I have been thinking about this in terms of the development of musical skill, and the experience of ‘rubber-banding’ back to earlier stages of development. When this happens, it’s not just that one recently-acquired skill drops out (as happens regularly in the transition from conscious to unconscious competence). You see the entire musician change: stance, tone, rhythmic flow.

I have been noticing this in myself as a pianist, having played the piano regularly in 2022 for the first time in a good many years. Sometimes I feel myself heading into patterns of bodily tension that characterise the playing of young Liz, up to the age of 18 when I over-practised myself into a neck injury and breakdown with extreme performance anxiety. The right knee pulling inwards is the most reliable indicator that I am in habiting that musical self, and recognising it is my wake-up call to step off that path and go find the adult Liz pianist, which I rebuilt during my first two years at university, and who has a completely different relationship with the instrument.

What is interesting in the process of changing parts is that, whilst adult Liz pianist is a better player than young Liz, I can’t get to her by making young Liz practise more. I have to step back and start afresh. I set an alarm to make sure I physically stand up from the instrument every 12 minutes to reset, and taking the hands off the piano between each run of a passage is also key, even if the passage is only a few notes long. (The latter habit is one I learned from Chris Northam, my piano teach at university, and I thank him each time my hands leave the keys.)

And I know I’ve found the route ‘round the back’ (as I think of it) to the healthier pianist when I go through a minute or two where it sounds and feels like I can’t play the piano at all. Attempting even a simple sequence of notes produces nothing you’d recognise as music. But that’s when I know I’ve left the old motor patterns behind and can find my way to the new ones.

The process of rebuilding my pianistic self as a student was emotionally challenging, and retracing that process now is too as I get back into practise – though I have the experience of having done it before to reassure me and keep me true this time. But the sound is so much better, I’m always rewarded for taking on the challenge. And then, when I notice that, I can sometimes find my way to the healthier pianist by focusing on the sound quality and that takes me straight there.

The things I learn from this to use in my work helping singers is to recognise, first, that when people are operating at significantly below their current capabilities, this represents the emergence of an earlier self, one they have moved beyond on their journey, but who still lives inside them. And that earlier self indeed is what brought them up to the point where the newer, more accomplished self could develop.

The task of the conductor or coach at this moment is help the singers switch parts. It’s not just a matter of ‘fixing’ the less helpful habits on display as if the singers were still at that earlier stage of development and learning skills for the first time. Though focusing on an aspect of technique included in the current skill level might by a way to trigger the newer part to take over – awakening one characteristic motor pattern can bring the whole constellation alive.

Another route in may be to appeal to the artistic sensibilities. I have often been delighted to find how a focus on beauty and meaning can bring with it all kinds of technical improvements, radically cutting the to-do list of detailed work. Thinking about the performers’ internal families of musicians helps make sense of this magic.

But let’s also note that that moment when you’ve been working on something and it suddenly seems like everyone’s brains have fallen out: this might be the break-through moment on the journey, cherish it.

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