Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Eloise Ristad: A Soprano on Her Head

Right-side-up reflections on life and other performances

Seems a bit silly to review a book about musicians’ mental blocks and performance anxiety on a book blog; but Eloise Ristad herself acknowledged her debt to The Centered Skier by Denise McCluggage and The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, and reading A Soprano on Her Head made me realise how much of everything in life is an ‘inner game’. Perfectionism and mental blocks raise their ugly heads in everything we do (or more often, don’t do), and I think we all need to be reminded ‘how often we put right keys into wrong locks, and wrong keys into right locks, and right keys into right locks without knowing about the slight twist to the left before the turn to the right’.

The title of the book comes from a pupil of Ristad’s, a singer who always tightened up and held back her voice until she tried singing standing on her head: she found her real, beautiful voice when she was no longer concentrating too hard on the singing itself. The book is full of similar case studies of perceptual problems, stage nerves, and learning patterns gone awry. What all of them had in common was that they kept reinforcing their errors precisely when they thought they were working hardest to correct them. Ristad highlights this notion of ‘dedication’ as punishment – work harder, work longer hours, and you’ll do better – and deplores our tendency to ‘gain status through suffering’. The result of the problem-oriented thinking is that the musicians went from hurdle to hurdle, problem to problem, often forgetting why they loved music in the first place. Ristad compares them to hikers who stare at their feet all the time. She asks, ‘What does your problem buy for you?’ Surprisingly many of Ristad’s pupils seemed to feel vulnerable without their problems; they tended to define themselves as someone who can’t memorise music, or someone who can’t do this or that. (How often do we define ourselves as someone who always procrastinates, someone who can’t speak in front of an audience, someone who can’t do mathematics?)

But even more interesting are the solutions that worked for these musicians: the standing-on-your-head part. If children learn best when they’re playing, why is it so hard to understand it might work for grown-ups as well? Laughter played a crucial role in helping these musicians – most of them unblocked their minds by creating characters, parodying themselves, or playing differently (in an ‘ugly way’, or else a sad piece lightheartedly or an upbeat one pathetically). Ristad points out some important things: one, how by-passing usual responses the musicians brought out unexpected subtleties in their music. Two, how much we improvise all the time: we don’t plan all our words and movements in advance; we’re only afraid of mis-steps when we’re doing something ‘important’. Three, how we often concentrate on what the things we do look or sound like even when nobody’s watching. She talks about ‘allowing randomness’ and how important a role the body plays in any such exploration. Even as the musicians were hyper-aware of what they were doing, they weren’t actually aware of their bodies – never noticing, for instance, when their shoulders tensed up and their jaws clenched involuntarily. (Ristad also points out that people have mental blocks about understanding different types of music, and she has a simple solution to this: when you feel like you don’t ‘get’ a certain genre, try dancing to it. Wildly, childishly, foolishly. Our bodies understand more than we know.)

A Soprano on Her Head is obviously about – and for – musicians first and foremost, and there are exercises for pianists specifically, but as a rather lousy beginning guitar player, an aspiring writer, and just an aspiring human being I got a tremendous amount of inspiration from this book. Ristad must have been a great teacher; she was certainly an inspiring writer. The book was written in 1982 after years of teaching experience, and by this time most of Ristad’s insights (like giving yourself permission to fail, finding your ‘inner child’, setting yourself up to fail by unrealistic demands, or that if we tell ourselves we can’t do something we’ll likely fail) probably are no longer quite so ground-breaking. But it’s amazing how easily even in our enlightened, pupil-oriented (?) times people are put off music, or mathematics, or any number of things, by having a bad teacher, or the wrong teacher, or a good teacher at the wrong time. I took piano lessons as a child and always thought I was ‘stupid’ about sight-reading and recognising pitches (or that these skills required a specific talent I simply didn’t have), which put me off music-making for good, until I began to teach myself to play the guitar a few months ago and suddenly realised I could tune my guitar without a reference pitch. In other words, instead of being ‘stupid’ or ‘tone deaf’ I’d actually had absolute pitch all along – but I had to unlock it my own way, not my old teacher’s way. And she was a good teacher: patient, kind. What about all the never-developed musicians or potentially talented physicists who are to this day convinced they can’t carry a tune or understand even basic maths? I believe we are all capable of learning almost anything if we learn to enjoy it first.

How about blogging on your head? Throughout typing this, I’ve been tapping my feet in an improvised rhythm and singing gibberish, occasionally standing up to do a little dance (with a suspicious dog staring at me from the living-room). I’ve never before written a blog post this quickly. It may or may not be a coincidence.

Real People Press  1982  paperback  203 pp.  ISBN: 0911226214

8 comments on “Eloise Ristad: A Soprano on Her Head

  1. Jackie
    July 27, 2008

    I like the sound of this book, it would be very liberating and applicable to many sorts of things. And your whimsical attitude producing a speedy post underlines the method. Just yesterday I was talking about how much I was in touch with my inner child as I was drinking from a dinosaur glass, so it’s amusing coincidence that this term is mentioned today. Interesting that so many of the concepts have now become part of the general lexicon, that shows how influential this book was/is.

  2. Trilby
    August 2, 2008

    Ooh, the bf would love this – thanks, Leena!

  3. Dovida Goodman
    May 1, 2009

    I just stumbled upon this page. Eloise Ristad was my friend and teacher. Yes – what she taught was applicable to everything. She went on retreat to write her second book and died in a freak boating accident while taking a break from writing. She has been very missed by all those who got to study with her.

  4. Jackie
    July 18, 2014

    Reblogged this on Vulpes Libris and commented:

    Revisiting a VL Classic.

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  8. Pingback: A Soprano on Her Head: Right-side-up reflections on life and other performances - Modern Musicology

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This entry was posted on July 27, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: music, Non-fiction: psychology and tagged , , , , , , .



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