Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tools of the trade, trading tools

Watch this video! Then watch it again!

A Man Effortlessly Paints the Symbol of a Person in a Wheelchair on a Handicap Parking Space, video on www.laughingsquid.com, posted September 12, 2017. (Go to About and scroll down to the search box.)

Up until I saw this video shared on Facebook, I assumed that all handicap symbols were made by stencils. Many are, I learned by further searches. But in this case, a perfect symbol was made by one man who knew exactly how to complete the shape with one roller full of paint. Without self-consciousness, he completed his task artfully, despite someone watching in the background and someone making the video in the foreground.

As one of my friends so wisely observed, this man knows his tools. He knows how much paint it will take, he knows how to place the rollers on the pavement, he knows the shapes and angles, and he knows not to step in the wet paint at the end of the design. So much knowledge and so much ease.

When F.M. Alexander was making his discoveries about human movement and awareness, long before the advent of handicap symbols, he summed it all up as getting out of your own way. More recent references to finding focus and ease include being in the zone, being in the moment, and being mindful. The challenge remains, regardless of the label, to be one with the tools and the task.

If we think of our instruments as tools, the mindset changes from something to act upon to something to act with.  For pianists, this can be a particular challenge when faced with working with an unfamiliar tool. How quickly we can adjust to another instrument can determine our success with someone else's tool. Our motor plan is trained not only to play the right notes at the right time, but also to the responsiveness of the instrument we play most often.

What do we need to adjust to in order to make an unfamiliar instrument work? Speed of key descent, speed of key ascent, pedal depth and response, overall evenness of action, sound of the hammers both with and without soft pedal, and the presence or absence of a sostenuto pedal. In other words, a lot.

Yet each of us has no doubt learned to improvise with an unfamiliar tool in other settings. When you can't find the right screwdriver, a coin may do as well. When a needle and thread are unavailable, there just may be some tape nearby. Maybe not ideal, but the quick fix just may work.

Keep in mind that we learn by contrast, and that we have very highly developed kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses. We can adjust without blaming the tool. And if we find ease in our bodies rather than tensing against the instrument, we can do it more quickly and efficiently.

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