My teacher, Jean Ferrandis, said this to us all the time.
Stay on you. Be on you. On you.
There was a lot of meaning behind those small words. He was conveying many of the complex aspects of making music.
Stay true to yourself. There's no need to try too hard, to try SO hard. Physically, be present to yourself and stay in a neutral posture. Be in the moment.
Like many advanced aspects of making music, staying "on you" requires physical and mental aptitude, sharpened and precise physical and mental skills. It also requires you to stay neutral and to be in the moment.
It took me a long time to fully understand this concept, and even longer to begin to integrate it so that I could, sometimes, stay on me when I was playing the flute. (Until I became distracted or started trying way too hard again).
Not surprisingly, although eventually I was able to understand and begin embodying this instruction, as I've matured and continued to grow as a musician I have found new meaning and new layers to staying on me.
This concept is mental - it asks us to create a very detailed and clear picture of what the music is going to do, exactly how it will sound, and where it is headed. It is in many ways, an advanced visualization exercise. You must spend the time and effort to know what you want from the music and how you will sound when you play it. Then, to fully execute this visualization you must continue to think ahead as you are playing - what is coming next? How will it sound?
*You can try this as a long tone exercise.:
Doing this well takes a lot of mental training. To be able to be in the moment and ahead of it is not necessarily an inherent skill.
This concept of remaining on you is also physical - it asks us to stay neutral in our stance, in our posture, and in the way we hold our instrument. Have you ever really watched a classical musician prepare to play? Many take a lot of extra and unnecessary movements which ultimately create a lot of tension. Even more take an aggressive forward stance or shift their weight so it becomes uneven. It's almost like we're preparing for a fight.
*You can experiment with this in a simple way:
Both of these exercises bring us much closer to staying on ourselves as we play, in mindset and in the physicality of playing. This is how I began to understand Jean's instruction.
The other meaning he intended was to encourage us to use our own voice - to not only imitate or feel pressured to be or sound like anyone else.
But, I don't think that this instruction stops after these three major points. As I mentioned, I continue to find ways to explore this concept.
One of the great things about playing an instrument is the way we can tie it in to other interests we have, or that we can bring outside interests into our music and practice. An obvious example for me is my interest in yoga and meditation. There are unending ways I can use what I am learning about these pursuits in my flute playing.
Recently, I was doing a guided meditation where the teacher emphasized that it's important to make sure that you are truly feeling physical sensations, not just thinking about them.
How often do we do this playing our instruments? I know that, personally, I overanalyze many of the physical aspects of playing, even the ones that I have practiced into subconscious ability. I'm sure that my brain is in overdrive when I perform and practice in many unnecessary ways.
Think about your own practice:
Often, by trusting ourselves and immersing ourself in the sensations we can find solutions to our problems, become more fluid, or create a better phrase. There are many applications of this approach.
Staying on you when you play your instrument asks a lot of you. It asks you to stay mentally engaged in the current moment, to visualize in detail what is coming, to physically remain neutral, not overexert in mind or action, and yet to stay engaged in the physical sensation of what you are doing.
Listed like this, these concepts can seem complex and daunting. However, when you break them down you'll find that by staying on you you are simplifying your actions and pulling away layers of unnecessary habits you have built as you tried to be a better musician. There's nothing wrong with what you did previously, but maybe those habits are not serving you anymore.
The only way to truly share your music is to be on you.