Somatic Education for Musicians10 min read
“To make the impossible, possible, the possible easy, and the easy, elegant”-Moshe Feldenkrais
These words could well describe a musician’s goals in using technique to realize musical inspiration, whether it be refining a compositional idea or perfecting a demanding instrumental passage. Yet they were written to describe the goals of a Sensory -Motor learning method that uses gentle movement and directed attention to increase ease and range of motion, improve flexibility and coordination, and prevent and treat many common overuse and misuse injuries musicians encounter.
Tendonitis, Repetitive Stress Syndrome, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, sore backs, necks, shoulders, etc. are all too common among musicians. Many conditions require medical attention and it is wise to consult a doctor when pain or discomfort alerts you to a problem. But treating the symptom may not get at the cause. Fortunately, there exist a number of methods oriented toward the development of body awareness in movement which can be used to prevent these injuries and, where they already exist, apply non-medical approaches to improving our functioning. Grouped together under the name “Somatic Education,” these methods address postural and movement issues extremely relevant to musicians but often neglected in the pursuit of instrumental skills.
Its not surprising that movement education is of value to musicians. All music production involves movement, and it follows that paying attention to the way we move to make music will affect the music we make. Exploring this simple connection can have profound affects on biomechanical health as well as developing sensitivity and power in music production.
Somatic (from the Greek work Soma, meaning “living body”) education might be thought of as a physical education that does not separate mind and body. The roots of the Somatic approach go back to the Gymnastik movement of Northern Europe and the Eastern U.S. during the late 1800’s. These teachers shared ideas about posture and movement, which were at odds with dominant models in classical ballet, physical education, religion and medicine. Gymnastik pioneers rejected the separation of mind and spirit from a mechanistically conceived body, encouraged self-developed values over conforming to an ideal, and approached physical education as a unity of movement, body structure, and psycho-spiritual health. Following the disruptions of two world wars, strands of this shared vision came together as old pioneers and new methods established schools and spread their work. Today thousands of educators practice methods such as Sensory Awareness, the Alexander Technique, Ida Rolf’s Structural Integration, Moshe Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration, Gerda Alexander’s Eutony, as well as Aston-Patterning, Body-Mind Centering, Trager Work and others. After exploring a few common threads running through these approaches, we’ll look at the two most commonly used with musicians: The Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method®.
Importance of Movement & Awareness
Musicians are familiar with the notion of our instrument being an extension of ourselves; and in a way, the primary instrument is the self. A pinnacle in our species’ evolution of motor skills, playing an instrument demands a highly complex use of the neuromuscular apparatus. But precious little of a musician’s training involves refining one’s ability to move efficiently, sense strains, and attend to more of oneself while making music. Without this training, we unwittingly develop neuromuscular habits that are physically stressful and increase our vulnerability to injury. When the movement is poorly organized, forces are created that generate unnecessary heat in the joints, with shearing and other stresses in the connective tissue and muscles. Done repeatedly over time, damage and injury are more likely to occur. Postural problems from sitting and standing for long periods, instrument-specific problems (such as pain in a picking hand) and simple tension leading to unnecessary muscular contraction are common results of inefficient movement patterns.
The first step to recognizing harmful habits is to find out what we do already, that is, become aware of our movement. When we exert a lot of muscular effort, it is impossible for our brain to make the sensory distinctions needed to improve our neuromuscular organization. With this in mind, many Somatic methods use gentleness, delicacy and slowness of movement to notice what is actually happening. It is analogous to the way a slow ballad tends to reveal many nuances of the sound: tone, intonation, and time all become easy to notice when we slow everything down. In the same way, paying attention to subtle distinctions becomes easier when we slow our movement and avoid excess effort and strain.
Mind, Body And Environment-A Functional Whole
Movement occurs through an information feedback process between our senses, muscles and central nervous system. As we move, our senses of touch, balance, sight and sound send our brain information about our position and muscular activity and it responds by modifying the outgoing messages to our muscles. All this occurs in response to the challenges of our environment. You play a note, hear the sound, and make changes or adjustments for the next attack, all while considering the environment or context (the style of the music, the room or audience, other musicians). These elements exist as a functional whole–one never occurs in the absence of the others.
Similarly, the source of a given problem is often a combination of a physical limitation, mental, or emotional attitude, and the special challenges of the instrument itself. Each element may contribute and working in one area will have results in another. The pianist’s sore wrist may be related to one or more of the following: a shoulder that does not move freely, a mental attitude that results in practicing too long without breaks and/or a bench height preventing comfortable arm position. Treatments that focus on one of these elements to the exclusion of the others are often limited in effectiveness.
The holistic approach recognizes that difficulties are often part of a general underlying dysfunctional movement pattern. The manifestation of the problem may be far from its source and improving the general pattern often improves specific complaint.
Finding Our Own Way
Just as different styles of music call for different instrumentation, aesthetic choices, and musical values, somatic educators recognize that context and individuality play a significant role in determining appropriate action. For this reason, Somatic educators avoid general prescriptions for all to follow. Rather than espousing any one ‘right’ way of doing something they encourage individuals’ in developing the ability to sense, discover, and decide what is best for themselves. They promote our ability to trust our subjective and immediate perceptions of ourselves and cultivate the capacity to distinguish between acting to conform to an “external ideal,” and spontaneous natural action born of knowing oneself.
Let’s look at these principles in action in the work of two towering figures in modern education, F.M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais.
F. Mathias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian-born actor who found himself losing his voice during performances. After doctors were unable to offer anything but rest as a treatment he began a thorough study of himself which continued over a ten-year period. This study revealed that he pulled his head back when speaking which led to pressure on the larynx, and vocal chords and resulting hoarseness. This head and neck position also caused him to lift his chest, narrow his back and grip the floor with his feet. He thereby realized his speech organs were influenced by misusing his whole self. Alexander went on to refine these insights into a more efficient use which he called “primary control”. This consisted of having his head forward and up in conjunction with lengthening and widening his back. Yet in spite of having found a more efficient organization he confronted an obstacle: overcoming the force of habit that continually reinstated movement patterns deep in the nervous system. He saw that focusing on the end result was obscuring the “means whereby” his movement took place. Alexander went on to refine a technique of “inhibiting” all automatic impulses just at the moment of movement and replacing this with “conscious constructive control.” He overcame his habitual wrong use and not only his voice problem but his nasal and respiratory difficulties vanished too. The end of his experiment was the beginning of a lifetime’s work refining and teaching his technique first in Britain and later all over the world. Endorsed and supported by such influential people as Aldous Huxley, John Dewey, and George Bernard Shaw, the Alexander technique proved especially valuable to vocalists (and has been on the curriculum of acting schools and music conservatories for decades.) In a typical Alexander session, the teacher uses gentle manual guidance to increase the student’s physical awareness in basic movements such as sitting-to- standing, and walking. Students will be trained to inhibit habitual patterns and recognize good coordination of the head, neck and trunk.
Gary Burton and the Alexander Technique Berklee College of Music Executive Vice President and vibraphonist Gary Burton credits an injury-free musical career to attention to his own biomechanics and lessons with an Alexander teacher. His interest in these matters came early in his development: “In my teens and early 20s,” Burton states, “when I practiced, I did a lot of thinking about how I was moving and what was moving and noticing tension. Over the years, I made changes as I became more aware of what was involved physically.” After a year of studying the Alexander technique, Burton developed a sense of how to hold his neck and head which felt correct. He developed a lasting body awareness and new habits yielding benefits that go beyond playing the vibraphone. “I’ve always had the unprovable assumption,” he says, “that the reason I’ve never had any back problems, after years of lugging a vibraphone around, lifting it in and out of car trunks, is because I’m quite aware how I move, when I pick something up where the pulls and strains are, and how to do it carefully.”
The Feldenkrais Method®
Moshe Feldenkrais was a Russian-born engineer, physicist and athlete who worked with Nobel Prize winner Joliot-Curie in early nuclear research. As one of the first Europeans to earn a Black Belt in Judo (1936) he introduced this Martial Art to the West through his teaching and five books on the subject. In the early 1940’s, after suffering a series of crippling sports-related knee injuries, he was given a 50- percent chance that surgery could repair his knees. But the doctors warned that if the surgery failed, he might end up with crutches or in a wheelchair. Feldenkrais chose not to undergo the proposed surgery and instead be began to study neurology, anatomy, biomechanics, human movement development, and systems theory. Using his own body as his laboratory , after two years of research and experimentation, he taught himself to walk again. Feldenkrais continued his studies and tested his ideas with friends and colleagues, treating their aches and pains, muscle and joint problems, and even serious neurological conditions. By accessing the power of the central nervous system and our extraordinary ability to learn, he found he could achieve improvement in people where many other approaches had failed. He continued to refine his ideas into a system known as the Feldenkrais Method, eventually training practitioners in Israel and the U.S. Today, there are thousands of practitioners worldwide and the Feldenkrais Method is taught in numerous physical rehabilitation centers, universities, theater and music programs and community education centers.
While Alexander had focused on the head-neck relationship, Feldenkrais– with his background as a Judo master–was especially interested in how the central, powerful muscles surrounding our pelvis and trunk properly do the hard work while the extremities fine-tune our movement. When, due to rigidities in trunk and pelvis, the smaller muscles are forced to take over work more efficiently done at our center, strain and injury often follow.
The Feldenkrais Method is taught in two formats. In group classes, called Awareness Through Movement®, the Feldenkrais teacher verbally leads students through movements which gradually increase in range and complexity. Based on developmental movements, ordinary activities, or more abstract explorations of joint, muscle, and postural relationships, the emphasis is on learning which movements work better and noticing the changes in your body. As students become more aware of their habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities, they develop new alternatives with improved flexibility and coordination the result.
Private Feldenkrais lessons, called Functional Integration®, are tailored to each student’s individual learning needs. Performed with the student fully clothed (usually lying on a table or in sitting or standing positions) the practitioner, through gentle touching and movement, communicates how you organize yourself physically and the student learns how to reorganize his or her body and behavior in more expanded functional motor patterns.
Learning Not Healing
While there are clearly therapeutic benefits to both the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method, they are educational in nature and achieve their results by tapping our vast potential for self-awareness and self-direction. The learning process used is not goal-oriented but exploratory, and works much like the way we learned as infants to sit, stand and walk–essential abilities that we all learned without a teacher. Without the idea of achievement (and the judgmental activity that accompanies it,) students are free to discover what they are doing (not what they are “supposed to be” doing) and from there explore other possibilities.
Learning this way reduces compulsive, self-destructive movement patterns. Practitioner Paul Linden’s comment shows the results: “he didn’t feel that he had learned a static formula which dictated the right way to play, but that he had increased his awareness so he was better at reading the cues his body and the sound of the music were giving him.”
Both Feldenkrais and Alexander refused to accept the opinion of experts and rejected the Western cultural emphasis on one correct way for everyone. Rather, by paying careful attention to their movement, they learned what they needed to improve their use of themselves. Through the methods they founded they demonstrated their implicit trust in the individuals’ ability to find his or her own way to better coordination.
Any program of treatment for overuse and misuse injuries should take advantage of the power of Somatic Education which is the power of learning that is every person’s birthright.
1 Don Hanlon Johnson, Body 2 Paul Linden Body Awareness Education for Musicians: A Case Study Illustrating Basic Exercises and Principles
Copyright © 1996 by Richard Ehrman