Naturalness, the principle that informs the way I eat, move, and operate in the modern world, also influences the way I teach.
I was introduced to the philosophy of living by health coach and certified nutritionist Sid Garza-Hillman, who argues the natural state of the human body is to be happy and healthy. In his health mannifesto, Garza-Hillman discusses the the ways we moved beyond our adaptive natural state at the risk of our health and happiness. Much like zoo animals in artificial exhibits, we eat unnatural foods, live in engineered environments, and are addicted to synthetic pleasures.
Our bodies are designed to live in the wild, eat simple whole foods, move regularly to get that food, and enjoy unpolluted communal free time. Garza-Hillman acknowledges that this world no longer exists for our species, but argues we become healthier and happier by taking small steps toward that natural state.
His words deeply resonate with me. I regularly find myself frustrated with the overcomplicated scheduling, wasteful habits, and unhealthy compulsions I unknowingly participate in. Garza-Hillman’s observations of happiness reflected the joy I felt after changing a few of my habits such as maintaining a minimalist mindset, living waste free, and eating vegan. I was completely on board and began taking my own small steps toward the naturalness he describes.
But I was troubled by the inevitable question. “Is playing the violin actually natural?”
In what way is spending hours a day tweaking the resonance of horse hair on wires on a wooden box as natural as collecting food and moving outside? Are our bodies really naturaly adapted to do small, repetitive actions over and over again? And is the eventual goal to perhaps play in a professional orchestra or tour the world as a soloist a pursuit that follows our path to live in a healthy and happy way?
After months of deliberation, a came confidently to an answer. Violin, or at least the mastering of violin, is an endeavor utterly aligned with the approach of naturalness.
The physicality of the instrument–it’s hereness and nowness– brings our increasingly fractured attention back to present surroundings, a state of mind we would have always maintained in the wild.
Matthew Crawford wrote in The Wold Beyond Your Head, that our perpetual knowledge work in a virtual reality leaves us swimming in a sea of distance-less-ness. Constantly surrounded by the wash of distance-less-ness we loose the ability to decipher what is worth paying attention.
Violin mastery is mind training in the present. It uses the body, the senses, and the mind in a way that knowledge work can’t. Take the opportunity in lessons and practice to leave the electronics behind and prove to your students that life beyond the virtual world is possible, if not desirable.
Teach them also, through a natural approach, what they are capable of. Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA, Whole Body barefoot, and Movement Matters, has focused her life’s work on changing the way our society thinks about movement. She encourages us to dial in to the cellular level to understand how starved our bodies are for novel movement. Consider how much time your joints are locked in the sitting position, the last time you lifted your arms above your head, and if you can remember what it feels like the stand barefoot on the earth. Katy, along with Garza-Hillman and Wim Hoff, urges us to acknowledge the capability of the human body to do incredible things through simple, various movement. And though mastering violin does require mastering the use of only a fraction of those movements, the agency in movement mastery is what can inspire lifelong natural movement.
Another trait of our species, beyond natural movement, is the ability to build highly complex skills. Through our history, humans have developed valuable tools, methods, and skills that function in our society. The modern world is saturated with tools promising to reduce any friction you might experience. Need to go somewhere? Call an uber. Need food? Have it delivered. Need a question answered? Ask your phone (no button pressing required). But society doesn’t value the person with the least friction. It values the person who can dwell in friction long enough to understand a way to reduce it for others.
The skill-building doesn’t happen using others’ tools, but from building a unique set of ones’ own.
The workshop where the violin is mastered is the same as where problems are solved and tools are built. Your students, by doing the diligent and dangerous work of daily skill building, will return back to the state of being of our ancestors. Their mastered skills ensured survival, and by exercising our heredity advantage to build skills we unlock a primal, essential part of our genealogy.
Finally, our mastery of violin leads to a mastery of communication through self expression. Our ability to express is one unique to our and fundamental to being human. Joshua Waitzkin, author of The Art of Learning, recognizes through experience and coaching that each individual has a unique self that can and must be expressed when performing at the highest level. By tapping in to Waitzkin’s own warrior-like disposition he brought is individuality to the world of chess and dominated it. He finely calibrated his teaching method to recognize the individuality in each of his students. By listening, looking, and seeking his students’ natural selves, Waitzkin is able to start them on their individual path to greatness. We can do the same in our violin lessons by exploring the nature of our students (not clinging to our self identity or method), coaching them to have something to say, helping them articulate it, and giving them opportunities for expression.
What I love most about playing music is that it is unique to each individual, but ultimately a communal activity. As Brene Brown puts it, “we are hard wired for connection,” and that connection manifests through the communication methods we have. Art, throughout history, is used as a tool for communication. It particularly speaks in the way that some words cannot. By inviting your students into the world of art music, you give them the opportunity to communicate in a communal, wholesome environment. I have never felt like I belonged more than when sitting in a full orchestra in 7th grade. I was nearly overwhelmed by the group sense of purpose, togetherness, and scale. I want each of my students through the art and craft of music to live communally as natural beings would.
Through using mindfulness and attention, grounding our bodies physically, mastering skills and building tools, communicating, and living communally you can take small steps with your student to approach our ancient, natural state.