Variety – The Spice of Life (and Movement and Music)

The full quotation “Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour” comes from the English poet William Cowper (1731–1800) in The Task (1785). Variety is good for us and our brains crave it in many different forms.

As musicians, we know about the importance of variety in musical performance. For example, if we have a repeated figure four times in a row, it’s boring if we play it the same way each time. Our listeners want variety. It’s also boring if there is minimal dynamic contrast, if vibrato happens only at one speed or intensity, or if there’s no shape to our phrases. We can only have loud in relation to soft—the context and variety matter.

As teachers, we know that there is a huge variety of ways we can have students practice scales, arpeggios, articulations, and every other technical skill. There’s never just one way, is there? Master teachers and coaches come up with lots of different ways to teach the same skill. Sometimes, students don’t even realizing that they’re working on the same concept but with a slightly different spin.

As movers, our bodies also crave variety. We set ourselves up for potential problems when we do a task the same way, every time, all day long, day after day, for years and years. Repetitive movers keep manual therapists like me in business! Musicians are doing the same things, all day long, for years and years. The challenge is to figure out where we can create some variety. 

Obviously, we cannot play the flute left handed, for example, at least not with its current construction. We can. however, take advantage of the fact that we can stand up and sit down while playing and we have movement choices available to us in both of these positions.

Consider all the different ways you could position yourself to type on your laptop. You could have a standing desk. You could sit in your chair at your desk. You could have your foot up on the desk, while sitting in the chair. You could squat in the chair while typing, if you have this range of motion, strength and balance available to you. You could sit on the floor with your legs crossed and laptop on your lap. You could lie on stomach, propped up on elbows and work with the laptop on the floor. You could sit on the floor and type on the coffee table. You could slouch against the wall while sprawled out on the bed in your dorm room. The idea is to find as many ways as possible to do the task and then rotate between them. Set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes and switch to a new position when it goes off. This strategy worked incredibly well for my students last year when they were stuck in dorm rooms doing all their classwork on Zoom. They were not allowed to be in the same position for two Zoom classes in a row. They were happy when they realized that much of their discomfort was eliminated by simply not getting stuck for hours and hours in any one position.

Consider all the different ways you could watch TV. Standing up (yelling at the screen if it’s a sporting event and that’s how you roll). Sitting on the couch. Lying on the couch. Sitting on the floor. Kneeling on the floor. Lying down on your back on the floor. Lying on your stomach. How many different ways are there to sit on the floor? Lots and lots of VARIETY here. Watch toddlers playing. They happily play on the floor for hours and hours, moving frequently.

Back to the flute – how do we get access to variety here?

My first suggestion is to alternate between standing and sitting while playing/teaching. The next suggestion is to consider that both standing and sitting can be dynamic positions. When standing, you can choose to shift weight between feet. You can walk around. You can choose to do subtle circular movements at hip joints. For seated playing, you can choose a variety of surfaces including chair, physio ball, stool or piano bench. You can shift weight between your rocker bones. You can change the way your feet are interacting with the ground.

At the end of the day, though, flute playing happens with arms in front. It makes sense to do some movement that takes arms behind you to offset all the time in front. It also makes sense to take your arms to your left, since you spend hours and hours with arms to right when flute is in your hands.

Sitting has gotten lots of negative coverage in the press lately. Sitting, by itself, isn’t the problem. It’s always sitting in the same way. Getting a standing desk doesn’t solve the problem necessarily. Standing still in one position is no different than sitting just one way. The important piece is the variety – the changing from one way of interacting with the world to another. Variety is about taking advantage of all the possibilities for change. 

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