Note from Josh: I am honored to be involved in organizing the upcoming Boston Feldenkrais Training, slated to begin in August 2016. I am especially excited about this training because it will be directed by Aliza, who, like me, specializes in working with musicians. Over the next few weeks and months I will be posting on my blog a series of articles by and about Aliza and her approach to teaching the Feldenkrais Method.
Making Music in the Field of Gravity
By Aliza Stewart, GCFP
Musical performance begins with a musical intention, which is translated into a series of movements involving weight, speed, orientation in space, and relationship to gravity. For the music to soar freely, without causing injuries, you, the musician, need to experience the joy of efficient, elegant movement in gravity. This experience will not only protect you from injuries, it will inform and influence your phrasing, your rhythm, and your palette of sound.
The challenge of realizing our intentions
Properties of sound – time, space, weight, rhythmical impulse, gesture, momentum towards an action (a leap against gravity), process of speeding gradually and slowing down gradually – are all properties of movement. When, for a musician, these properties are not experienced in their movement, two things happen – the brain does not have the appropriate image of the action needed for the musical gesture, and it cannot send the right impulses to the muscles. The action is then clumsy and can result in injuries. Also, the hesitation that is introduced to movements that need to be spontaneous, sends a conflicting message to the muscle to contract and not contract at the same time. It creates paralysis in the muscles that can only be over ridden by forcing the movement.
The Feldenkrais Method, with its Focus on Movement, is a Path to Realizing our Musical Intentions
We derive meaning from music as we connect one sound or note to another. The flow and movement of the notes as they relate to one another create our sense of music. A note standing alone is difficult to perceive as music. Feldenkrais releases the resistant forces in limbs, joints, and body to provide more nuanced movement. Just as the flow from one note to another creates our sense of music, the more nuanced flow from one physical movement to another provided by Feldenkrais can greatly improve musical performance.
Feldenkrais can improve the “how” and “why” of playing by providing new options for movement, removing resistant forces, and getting back to the internal movement of the music.
“When audiences are deeply touched by a piece of music, they report, “It moved me.” Why do they say that? Music and movement are deeply connected.”
It is said that when two martial artists of different traditions fight, the winner does not prove the superiority of his martial art, but merely the superiority of his own kung fu, or fighting ability.
Similarly, when you are on stage, the audience doesn’t care what degrees you have, who you studied with, how many hours you practice a day, or even how good your chops are. Your audience wants to be moved. They want to feel a connection with you and with the music you are presenting. How well you do reflects your ‘musical kung fu’ – your ability to perform and convey the music behind the notes.
‘Play the Pipa’
Playing the Pipa
As it turns out, we musicians have much in common with martial artists. My own vocal and instrumental technique is full of lessons I learned in my years studying tai chi, not to mention the lessons I’ve learned from the Feldenkrais Method. And did you know Moshe Feldenkrais was a Judo master? In fact, much of the method is based on Judo.
Here are just a few concepts martial artists and musicians have in common, as well as some lessons certain martial arts have to teach musicians:
1. Execution transcends technique (the ‘kung fu’ principle)
You’re doing something highly physical and highly refined; you’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours rehearsing specific movements, planned and refined to the last subtle detail, which you then execute in a short “moment of truth” requiring not only perfect execution, but creativity and adaptability.
2. Practice slow, execute fast.
Those old people practicing slow-motion tai chi in the park are, in fact, practicing a real martial art that can be executed very quickly when necessary. Every musician knows that the only way to execute a fast or complex musical passage is to practice it slowly first. The challenge is how to translate the slow version of the passage into the fast one, and I’ll save that for a different blog post.
3. Follow the logic of human form to achieve seemingly inhuman results
Martial arts are famous for elegant movements based on deep understanding of anatomy, as well as seemingly inhuman feats of power and dexterity. It was a great insight for me when I realized that my instrument simply isn’t ergonomic, and I shouldn’t expect it to be. Instead, my job was to develop the skill to play it as if it was.
4. Power comes from the earth, is carried through the skeleton, and is merely directed by the muscles.
My tai chi teachers used to say that one should seek to align one’s bones so that when one’s hand makes contact with an opponent, the opponent should feel as if they were hit by the floor. No matter the circuitous route, from the hand to foot, the force should travel from bone to bone to bone, without relying on the power of muscles. This is how small elderly tai chi masters throw people effortlessly across the room.*
*I’ll always remember watching a petite friend of mine throwing large men around in Aikido practice. Another important principle at play there was the power of circular movement, but we won’t get into that here.
5. Knowing your physical center and being mentally centered come hand in hand
It’s really true that if you cultivate a sense of your physical and mental center so you will be able keep calm and grounded under performance pressure.
6. There is power in skillful breath
Nowhere is the power of breath more evident in a well-executed “kiai.” Singers and wind players know all about “breath support,” but a deeper study of breath and how it interacts with the rest of movement will reveal that it’s just as important for instrumentalists.
7. Cultivate a soft focus to become aware simultaneously of the littlest details and the big picture.
The martial artist needs to be aware of the slightest movement of their own body, as well as the movements of opponents caught out of the corner of the eye. The musician needs to be in control of the shape of a single note within the context of the harmony and the phrase.
Less obvious is the fact that musicians need to attend to their environment every bit as much as fighters do. Not only do you need to catch the cue of a conductor or a colleague out of the corner of your eye, but the sense of awareness of yourself in space will reduce the hyper-focused, fight-or-flight intensity that leads to excess tension and gets in the way of musical expression.
I could go on and on: Practice, practice, practice, so you won’t have to think about the details when the chips are down; the intention leads the action;Less is More…
Maybe I’ll finish the list sometime, but for now, if you have anything to add, please share it in the comments!
How do you physically feel when you see these images?
Last week was a hard one for me and pretty much everyone I know. The mere mention of the name “Kavanaugh” seems to be enough to make people visibly cringe, like they were sick to their stomach or tasted something bitter. I personally spent that week mostly in bed with a nasty cold, listening to the news, spending way too much time on Facebook, and watching so many of my friends get truly rattled, shaken, knocked off balance.
Maybe you can see where I’m going here, but bear with me. I’ve been thinking about this since the 2016 election, when I was trying to support a friend who was completely distraught at the result. “Don’t tell me it’ll be ok,” they said, “because it won’t be!” I couldn’t argue with that then, and I can’t now. The confirmation of Kavanaugh to the supreme court, like the election of Trump, will have a real impact on both the laws of our land and the character of our culture for some time to come. So if you feel as my friend did, I won’t tell you that it will be ok, because you are right — it won’t. But what I’d like to suggest you — you who are rattled, who feel knocked down, who feel like you are running on reserves of rage — what I’d like to invite you to consider is that maybe you can be ok. Maybe you can take care of yourself without giving up the fight. Maybe the best thing you can do, for yourself and for what good you can do in the world, is to calm your rattled nerves and find a quiet center of integrity from which to act.
Russell Delman teaching
More easily said than done, isn’t it? I remember the first time someone suggested I “ground and center” myself I had absolutely no idea what they meant. It sounded so esoteric, as if I was supposed to do something with my “energy,” to ground it like grounding an electric circuit. It took a while before I realized that all it means is to literally feel the solid ground on which I am standing or sitting, simply noticing that it is holding me up, and I can rest my weight on it. To that I can add a physical awareness of the center of my belly, and an awareness of myself in the space around me, and as I do, I find it more possible to let go of some of the fight or flight tension in my body and the holding of my breath of which I wasn’t even aware. In this state I am no longer rattled, knocked off balance, but grounded and centered, and able to look at the situation I’m in and make better choices about my life.
I was having a hard time personally a few years ago, and during the 2016 election and its aftermath it was all I could do to practice this for myself to navigate my own life. I’m thankfully in a better place now, and finally able to share these ideas with you. Here’s a bit of audio with a very basic form of this practice which I learned from Russell Delman. The recording is only about 5 minutes long, and the practice itself can be done in as little as 30 seconds.
These claims are made by Feldenkrais teachers (including myself), as well as by teachers of other mindfulness-based approaches to self-improvement. But how exactly is it supposed to happen?
Here’s how it works in the Feldenkrais Method®.
Less effort = more awareness
Imagine yourself at a train station, trying to hear someone speak while a train goes by. Now imagine that you are holding the same conversation by a quiet lake. Your nervous system will have a much easier time taking in your friend’s words in the quieter environment.
The same holds true when the “noise” is your own effort, and the “words” you are attending to are the sensations in your body. Here’s an experiment I often use as a demonstration in my Less is More workshops, which you can do yourself right now:
Pick up a small, light object, such as a pen or envelope. Notice that in addition to its shape and texture, you can also feel its weight. Your hand feels slightly heavier holding this small object, doesn’t it? (If it doesn’t, choose a slightly more substantial object).
Now pick up a heavier object, such as a chair or large book. Notice its weight.
Add the small object on top of the larger one. Can you feel the change in weight?
Even if your objects were close enough in weight (or your nervous system sufficiently sensitive) that you could feel the difference in step 3, you certainly could not feel it with same detail and clarity as you could in step 1.
In the Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, we intentionally reduce the effort as we move to a minimum so that we can gain the most awareness of what we are doing as we move.
More awareness = more choice and more freedom
Moshe Feldenkrais was fond of saying (in various ways): “when you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”
When we act or move “on auto-pilot” we are not making choices. Destructive patterns of which we are unaware are set in motion before we even know what we’re doing. When we slow down our movements and reduce our effort we can become aware of the elements of a pattern, such the way we brace ourselves or hold our breath. Only then can we begin to inhibit the unnecessary (or “parasitic”) effort, and discover ways to move and act more freely.
Another thing Moshe Feldenkrais liked to say on the topic, was that if you have only one way to respond to a certain stimulus (and this stimulus could be something as simple as an intention to, say, lift your hand), then you are experiencing a compulsion.
Once you begin to become aware, you may be able to inhibit that compulsion. You might learn one way to, say, lift your hand, that is more satisfactory. But you are still not entirely free. What you have now is a dilemma: do I do it the old way, or the new way? What if the new way doesn’t work in a particular new situation?
You are only free once you have several satisfactory ways of carrying out a certain action.
More choices = all the other benefits
Well, once you can do what you want, the question becomes simple: what do you want to do?
The Feldenkrais Method supplies musicians with the missing links that allow them to make the leap from good playing to remarkable playing. These missing links are self-awareness and effective movement patterns at the instrument.
Dr Feldenkrais said that in order to do what you want to do physically, you have to understand what you’re already doing that gets in the way. He developed movement “lessons” which shine light and potency into the “blind spots” of our self-understanding. These gentle but enormously effective lessons, create new neural pathways to make everything easier. They help musicians take the pain, effort and sense of limitation out of making music.
Seth Knopp, musical director of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, discusses Aliza Stewart’s work with musicians:
Seth Knopp discusses Aliza Stewart and Feldenkrais for Musicians - YouTube
“At the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival Aliza Stewart became something of a phenomena. Her deep knowledge of the Feldenkrais Method and her remarkable instincts for reading a musician physical tendencies made her constantly in demand. “A musician in her own right, she is not only a practitioner capable of preventing and healing pain, but a partner in a search for greater freedom in how one makes music”.
When my friend and colleague Buffy Owens of ConsciousMovements.com asked me if I’d contribute to her new project, I began to prepare myself to resist the temptation and offer my regrets. After all, there are only so many good projects I can work on at any given time. But once I found out that the theme was “how Feldenkrais moves me” I knew I had to say yes.
Here’s the result of our collaboration – just under 90 seconds on why and how I am moved to practice and teach Feldenkrais for musicians.
Words and music by me, technical, visuals, and vision by Buffy:
Feldenkrais Moves Me | Josh & Music - YouTube
Here’s the text from the video – in case you’d rather read than listen right now. (The music, by the way, is a selection from the Narcissus Marsh Lyra Book: #18 in High Harp-way Flatt. The recording is from a live performance with Seven Times Salt back in 2008).
My name is Josh and I am a musician and a Feldenkrais teacher.
This is why I am moved by the Feldenkrais method.
In my early 20s I worked so hard at school and playing music that I hurt my hands and I was unable to play for close to a decade.
Now I have a master’s degree in music (that’s me you’re hearing in the background)
and I teach the Feldenkrais Method to other musicians
Time and again, I have seen this work help musicians:
play without pain
play from their hearts
and connect to their audience
This work moves me
it moves my students
And it moves those who hear us too.
Looking at the text now, I realize there’s just one thing I’d change. I talk about how I’ve seen this work help musicians “play,” and of course I mean “make music,” because of course this work is every bit as powerful for singers. What I’ve seen happen with this work is that musicians find their voice, expressing with the direct simplicity which instrumentalists associate with singing, and which singers find elusive under their layers of carefully crafted technique.
At the very end of the video there is a short clip from a workshop I taught for Buffy at her studio in Albany, NY. It’s from the end of the workshop, when the random assortment of musicians who came are trying out the effect of the experience on their music. You see this smile come across my face, as the magic of that musical simplicity ‘clicks in.’ They’re just jamming at random, but the sound quality, the shapes of the phrases and the way they hear and respond to each other is just beautiful. Sure, I do this work for a living, but experiencing that magic is the true reward of my work.
p.s. The video is just one of a series Buffy has made. Here are a few more which you might find interesting. (I had the pleasure of working with Bruce, the speaker in the video on the right, when I was in Albany. He’s the guitarist at the end of my video).
Feldenkrais Moves Me | Ilona on Fully Living - YouTube
Feldenkrais Moves Me | Bruce & Chronic Pain - YouTube
One of the most frequent requests I get in my private Functional Integration® lessons is for help with sitting. My students tell me they have trouble finding a comfortable position to sit in, or that they can’t make it through a work day or meditation session without discomfort. They have lower back pain or RSI, hand pain, tight neck and shoulders… you get the idea. We all sit a lot, and we all face these challenges.
“I know I have terrible posture,” they often say. Or else “I try to sit up straight, but I get tired,” or “I keep reminding myself to sit up, but the next time I check, I’m slouching again.” Often their idea of “good posture” is to stiffly pull the shoulders back and tighten their belly, which is usually counter-productive. They are coming to me to help them find a better way.
While private FI lessons are well-suited to addressing this sort of question, I thought it would be useful to spend some time exploring the topic of sitting in my classes and workshops. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that we will be looking for solutions to the problem that have to do with movement and awareness, rather than the usual approaches of proper alignment, ergonomics, and core strength.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so for this blog post I am going to make my case with the help of google Images.
We’re all pretty familiar with this problem:
Or, put another way:
We certainly did not evolve to be sitting creatures, especially not sitting in chairs and staring at a computer screen. Yet so many of us spend so much of our time doing just that, and most of us know that we don’t do it in an optimal way. We don’t need a physical therapist or a mom to tell us that our posture is all wrong, we can feel it in our aching backs and sore shoulders and necks. (That said, we may need a professional to point out to us that our so-called repetitive strain injuries are also linked to the way we work at our computers).
So, is this the solution?
I’m not about to say that there’s anything wrong with investing in an ergonomic workstation (or, better yet, getting your employer to make the investment), or that common descriptions of good posture are necessarily inaccurate. But can you imagine getting anything done sitting like that? More to the point, an ergonomic set-up won’t help much if you hold your breath when you work, and neither will trying to sit with your hips and elbows at 90º.
Here’s what Moshe Feldenkrais had to say about the effort to achieve proper posture:
If you watch a child or an adult who has been told to sit or stand straight, it is evident that he agrees that there is something wrong with the way he is managing his body, and he will quickly try to straighten his back or raise his head. He will do this thinking that he has thereby achieved the proper posture; but he cannot maintain this “correct” position without a continuous effort. As soon as his attention shifts to some activity that is either necessary, urgent, or interesting, he will slump back to his original posture.
Awareness Through Movement, p.66
So what should we do? Let’s look at some more pictures.
I think we can all agree this guy has pretty good posture. What’s the difference between these pictures and the ones above?
The key to Yoyo Ma’s excellent posture is that he figured it out in order to play his instrument. In other words, his is an active posture, learned in the pursuit of excellence in action, not a position studied and held as ‘correct’. You can see in these still photos that he is in living motion as he sits.
Another common approach to posture (whether sitting or otherwise) is that one should have strong core muscles. Here’s my counter-argument:
As a student of mine once observed, if core strength were necessary to avoid back injury, all babies would be in pain. (By the way, notice the action involved: the baby’s whole being is focused on whatever it is that he is doing with his right hand!)
Here’s another guy with pretty good sitting posture. We’ve heard from him a bit already:
Moshe Feldenkrais was reputedly fond of saying: “posture is for posts!” and proposed that a better term might be “acture,” to direct our attention not at position, but at the way we organize ourselves for action. In his book Awareness Through Movement,in the chapter “What is Good Posture,” Feldenkrais stated that
… any posture is acceptable in itself as long as it does not conflict with the law of nature, which is that the skeletal structure should counteract the pull of gravity, leaving the muscles free for movement.
Awareness Through Movement, p.68
His emphasis is neither on the position and alignment of the body, nor on the action and strength of the muscles, but rather on what one doeswith one’s bones and muscles.
Hopefully I’ve made the case that ultimately, the solution to the challenge of our over-sedentary lifestyle lies not in ergonomics, not in ‘proper alignment, not in core strength, but rather in how we do whatever it is we are doing as we sit. The question still remains: if we will not be helped by buying an ergonomic set-up, sitting up straight, or strengthening our core, what can we do to change how we move and act? I believe the answer to that question is: become aware of what we’re doing. And for that, thankfully, we have Awareness Though Movement®