Shifting consciousness and musical motor functions in performance.

29 Mar 21

There is a phenomena that many music students, especially adult students can probably relate to. You have your lesson, you spend time practicing at your instrument, you get to a point where you feel pretty good about the music you've been learning, you arrive at the lesson, you sit down... and BAM the nerves kick in, your music falls apart, you feel frustrated and annoyed, you say 'but I could play this at home'!  

Trust me, I believe you - I know all about this, because at some point every professional musician has been there.  

So I wanted to try to make sense of this of common phenomena, because understanding something is key to knowing how to deal with it. 

Firstly, and this is important, your nerves will always be there. You may get to a point where they are less, but sometimes they just decide to arrive without warning, and sometimes they suprise you by not being there. 

So why does it happen? 

The change occurs when we are being observed- maybe a teacher, a friend, a partner, an audience. Suddenly we feel vulnerable, like our bike has unexpectedly lost its stabilisers. We loose our power, we loose our ownership. No matter how few or many observers, our consciousness can shift dramatically and suddenly into an altered state. We feel our bodies move into a completely sensual experience,  with our hightened senses taking over our logical and rational mind. The most present thing becomes the present. 

If our motor responses and fluid motion can't pull out the goods when we need, then it is difficult to play musically when our nerves kick in. Whatever happens we need to learn to flow when we want. 

So what to do about it?

The first thing to say is that these instincts are the same instincts that bring sparkle to your music. Becoming aquainted with these instincts bring sparkle, and becoming aquainted with the actual music, brings depth. Depth and sparkle = great music. We accept that we will have to visit outside of our comfort zone, but perhaps our logical mind can tell us it's safe to do this. 

The mind is complex and fascinating, and speaking personally these experiences and challenges have been invaluable in my life. The effort and the challenge has always been worth it for the experience and skill gained.Through musical practice and performance you can deal with the massive and the minute. You can deal with your human responses, from your intellectual mind to your purely instinctive mind. Finding a balance is a lifetime of changing practice and thought. You may find it is like sand through the fingers, somedays you can hold onto it, and some days it is elusive as the shifting clouds. 

As a teacher when I suggest a new piece of music for a student, there are various factors I must consider. What level of challenge and what sort of music does the student want at this moment in their musical life? This can vary enormously depending on what is going on in their lives and knowing how much they will give to practice. Finding a good balance between nurturing progress and relentless challenge is a skill. Giving a student a surmountable and ultimately satisfying challenge is vital. 

Moving onto motor function then....this means that from piece to piece it takes an amount of commitment to learn the music. There is no moving away from the fact that the more practice you do, the more developed your skills will become. When I say 'your skills' I mean exactly this, because to compare it to anyone else is really pointless. Being inspired by someone else is totally different. It is wonderful to feel inspired by listening to someone play, it is a wonderful driving sensation to feel inspired and fired up, but comparision is not, because we are not them, and you have your skills and not theirs. 

The thing about motor functions is that they take a really long time to develop. Of course it is different from student to student, and from piece to piece. Students find their forte. However this is the thing we need to master in order to perform well, and gain control over....  our nerves.  

Musical development builds up over the years, but within those years we can break it down to the months, the weeks, the days, the hours, the minutes, the seconds.  

When we get nervous and our hightened senses take over, if the motor functions have not been fully processed in the part of the brain reponsible for fluid movement, then we make mistakes, which likely ruins the flow. Some pieces of music, may take several weeks. As we develop, so does our capacity for practice, and as the pieces get bigger, then we'll probably find ourselves learning some music for months, but it's always balanced with keeping it interesting and motivating.  

When music falls apart in a lesson this is ok because we can learn from it. It informs us, that the music is not fully 'cooked' yet, it's not had time to 'ripen' and there is still more practice to be done. It also informs us on the type of practice we still need to do. Which means that to play how we want to play finally, we must practice and we must practice as we want to play!  

All this talk of motor functions doesn't sound particularly musical does it? 

This is where practice comes in. How we practice is really crucial. The most effective way our bodies react to fluid motor function is through sensory experience. Our bodies react physically to the sensation of good music, this means when we practice we should always play musically - because behind the scenes your ears and all your instincts are listening and feeling and taking it in! 

 Any practice strategies you may use, repetition, slow finger work, fast finger work, rhythmical, notational, intellectual-  needs always to be combined with instinctive playing, listening and feeling what you are doing. 

When it comes to performance time (lesson or otherwise) and your music is ready, then when the nerves put your body into sensual over-drive, maybe you can let the senses take over knowing that your fluid motion works. You might find that because you can let your senses take over, you play in a way that you didn't think was possible. Maybe the rush of instincts will take your music to a place that you haven't heard or felt before. The music may take on a life of its own. You might find it doesn't feel like you playing, the notes might simply flow from your fingers...... 

The bottom line as always, is it's all about the practice, how you practice, what you practice, how much you practice. How deep can your thoughts go? 

Happy practicing, keep inspired!! 



The magical sound of spring

09 Mar 21

I don't know about you but there is definitely an optimistic feel in the air. I always feel this in Spring time, when the trees become alive with birds competing to sing the most beautiful song. It inspires me to think about my own song and what I will sing about this year. It also reassures me, and fills me with tranquility. 

Often we think about music as an exclusively human activity, but this is not so, birds are the masters of song. If you actively listen- and music is all about listening- you start to make sense of the incredible array of vocalisations, pitch and rhythm...a dizzying repetoire. One of my favourites is the song thrush, it is truely mesmerising and exotic.   

2020 was a troubling year, and now exactly one year on from the first lockdown, Spring 2021 offers hope because it is the season of rebirth and new beginnings. My teaching room is also beginning to open up again, and I hope to take on new students.

For the best part of a year, I have taken my piano teaching and my Georgian choir sessions online, it's been demanding altering how I teach to fit with the technology available. It has been demanding for the student altering how they learn, and having to be more independant- taking practice notes themselves, writing in fingering on sheet music. These are the positive aspects. However music is about active listening, feeling, and engaging your senses as much as intellectual thought. The thing about being in a room together is that these things become more alive. I have described zoom as the equivalent of squinting, not with your eyes but with your ears. 

I like so many others are missing live performance, not just on the stage, but my piano students performing their pieces and tunes to me. I miss the performance of working live with my Zarebi choir members. I miss performing on stage myself- it feels like another world, I have no idea when I might next stand on a stage in front of an audience.

Hearing the birdsong is like having a concert in your own backyard. It is simple and clear and perfect, it is the perfect antidote to technology. Therefore I recommend that this Spring you take advantage of the concert from your windows! Happy listening everyone x


Time for an unusual Christmas present?

02 Dec 20

It's the 2nd of December and once again we have the green light from the government that allows us to teach in person. It seems there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel! At this time of year we are usually gearing up thinking about gifts for our loved ones, and organising Christmas get togethers- yet this year is different. This year has been unusual and challenging, and yet for many, without as much access to material gains, its also been a time for perspective. There is a feeling of a shift from the importance of the material to the experience, a growing awareness of our precious climate, an awareness to the value of community and how we support each other. Yesterday (the 1st December) on our local facebook page is the day when local businesses can advertise themselves. Its a delight so close to Christmas to see these local places, and I feel a natural inclination to support them. I also feel a natural inclination to get more creative this Christmas, by making handmade gifts and cards, and look for presents that are more of an 'experience'. Therefore I also wanted to put it out there that piano lessons could make a lovely and inspirational gift.

Playing the piano has been a constant in my life, since my first ever piano lesson and learning my middle C's, I knew even then without consciously thinking about it that music was what I was going 'to do'. Playing music has given me an enormous of pleasure over the years, I also feel how much it has improved my cognitive and mental abilities. Playing music is one of the most powerful ways to literally 'grow' your brain (hence the inspiration for the cover photo) Music develops your neuroplasticity (for adults as well as children) - this is the ability to rewire, train, learn through growth by making new connections, and therefore having amazing implications for neural development, learning, memory and restoration. When I sit and play the piano, sing or play percussion- I feel many things, a sense of calmness, a sense of achievement, a sense of well-being, a sense of the phrase 'music to the ears', I feel restored and inspired. I keep my motivation alive by listening to the amazing music that is out there in the world- both ancient and new. It is well to remember that Music is after all the language of emotions...... and  so if you are thinking about an alternative Christmas present this year.... stay local and get in touch! 

Return to in person lessons

28 Aug 20

Finally the news has arrived that I have been waiting for! I can finally welcome my students back to my teaching room. This last week I have been preparing and emailing my piano students, to let them know what safety measures I will have in place. Its a new phase for everyone, as I enter into a routine to keep everyone safe and happy, and most importantly - relaxed and in a good place to learn. 

Zoom has been a friend to us teachers and group leaders during the pandemic, there are some things that simply are not possible and we have to think creatively (which is what we are good at after all!)  It worked better than I thought it would and I am ever ready to return to it if needs be. 

I am also leaving an online option available for people who don't feel ready to return to in person lessons, and this is of course fine. 

Gradually music is opening up again, but I feel it is with baby steps. I feel we must tread with care and responsibility while enjoying what these new freedoms have to offer. 

That said, I am so looking forward to this new stage. My music room is primed and ready to recieve!! 

Helen's lockdown performance - Live at The Vale

07 Jul 20

This blog is a little late coming... however its been a strange time for many of us, staying and working at home, teaching via zoom and as it turns out, performing on facebook live. In April I was approached by The Vale Live (an arts centre based in Mossley and home to some of the most creative minds in the UK) to put together a solo live performance online. The date chosen was the 3rd of May, which was significant as this would have been my wedding day, now postponed until next year.

The performance presented a somewhat unique opportunity to me as I knew I'd be playing to a much wider audience from varied backgrounds. This gave me the freedom to choose repetoire that I might not normally put togther in the same performance.I crafted a carefully considered set of music from Chopin to contemporary, I also played original music, Cuban music, Bulgarian music and improvisations. The performance on facebook live had an amazing reception, with so many viewers and heartwarming comments flooding in as the performance went on. By the third day the facebook video had almost 3000 views! Unfortunately I can only put the youtube video here with not so many views, but this seemed a good option to be able to share it on for example my website blog. Enjoy! 


Helen Curtis Music in 2020!

05 Jan 20

Phew, well that was a fantastic festive 2 weeks!  From family time around the piano on Christmas Eve to proudly watching my sister (and other half of Sätteli) cracking out a fantastic DJ set on New Years Eve. Now, rested and restocked I am ready to stir life back in to music making, teaching and planning  ahead for coming adventures in 2020. 

I have designed a new Helen Curtis Music business card, which at least to me is very exciting. I feel it conveys clearly what I do and lists in a quirky way everything here on my website.... Sätteli, Orixá Bloco, Georgian Song, Piano and percussion tuition, workshops, Charanga Del Norte and accompaniment. 

This year I want to celebrate creativity and growth. This creativity comes from and is essential to all conscious beings, and I am proud to be able to set up opportunities in music making in my local area Hebden Bridge, as well as beyond. I can afford to be proud about 2019 and I am excited about what this year 2020 will bring.... check the events page for opportunities, workshops and performances !