I feel lucky that often, going to work is a real treat. I was invited to give a Feldenkrais Workshop for Amateur String-players at their Summer Camp in Tonbridge in August. It is a course run by ELLSO- the East London Late Starters Orchestra– a group I had heard of many times, but never encountered in the flesh. People came from over 10 different countries, including the US, to join in the music-making.
Its one of the few groups out there for adults who have recently started, or returned to playing, and one member told me how she joined after having seen an advert asking “Would you like to Start the Violin? the advert listed a time and place, and she rocked up to the venue to find out what was going on. After watching a short concert those interested in playing were given a short ten minute lesson, after which time they were playing in the concert with the others on stage. Maggy told me how wonderful it was, and many years on, the wonder hasn’t ceased.
I was asked to give a workshop on Feldenkrais and how it can help music making. Playing an instrument requires great co-ordination, and the ability to produce a good sound hinges on the ability to play with relaxed shoulders and arms and use your body weight to make the sound, rather than force (which creates a ‘hard’ or ‘scratchy’ sound that one hears with most beginners as they gain skill and control).
What I see in many musicians, amateur or otherwise, is a difficulty to recognise a base layer of tension in the body, and isolate precise movements. So when a direction to relax the shoulder/arm/fingers etc is given to someone by a teacher, they want to change what they are doing, but often they simply can’t, because their knowledge of the area in their brain doesn’t include an awareness that their fingers (for example) are tensed already, or how they are being held. So if you like, there is a failure in communication between the body part and brain. Unless one understands/ feels their current level of tension it’s simply impossible to ‘relax’.
One sees this with professional musicians too, but it manifests differently. With amateurs, often they can’t produce the kind sound they would like to, whereas professionals mainly can, but the excess effort and tension comes out as pain either in the area itself, or referred pain elsewhere.
So the idea of Feldenkrais is to create cleaner and clear neural pathways which allow more ergonomic movement. After all neurons that wire together fire together, and we often include in the firing of an action unnecessary movements, which have become a habit.
To give an analogy- so if you imagine a strand of fine embroidery threads being wound together to make a hank, its as if we mix in a yellow thread into a strand which is supposed to only be blue. But its been there so long, we don’t see the yellow any more. By doing in Feldenkrais these unusual movements in particular patterns without effort we’re showing highlighting to the brain that there’s a yellow there, and actually we don’t need it- its been mixed in, but it doesn’t really fit. Once the brain is made aware of that, it can unwind the strands and take out the yellow ones that don’t need to be in there.
In an activity such as walking, getting rid of this extraneous effort, or what we would call parasitic movement, this can mean less constriction of the bones by the muscles, therefore less wear and tears on the joints, and greater flexibility and ease in quality of movement.
In playing an instrument, reducing effort (and therefore increasing body weight and relaxation of the self allows for greater vibration of the instrument, which then translates into a more sonorous, rounder sound with greater ease. Also dexterity tends to improve as the movement becomes more precise. Less tension and effort mean more energy left over, and therefore more stamina- if you don’t need as much energy you can play for longer.
Its always interesting for me the first time I meet a new group when teaching- Feldenkrais requires an open mind, not only to do the movements (some of them are pretty unusual, but also to follow directions from a stranger, when you have no idea of the outcome). A Feldenkrais lesson is like a 3D puzzle, but only the teacher is shown the whole picture. The process of the student working out the picture is part of the learning process (and one of the things that we can sometimes also find frustrating). And often people come to a Feldenkrais class not really knowing what it is.
The players at ELLSO were amazing- open and welcoming- I met people with a wide range of ages and movement capabilities. There were a few in their 80s and 90s, which was impressive.
We started with a scan of ourselves in standing, so they had a memory of how everyone felt in standing, and then stood on one leg to notice how wobbly or not we were.For musicians the easiest measure is how their instruments feel and sound, so I asked them to all play a little, so they had a few ‘snapshots of themselves to which they could then compare themselves to at the end of the workshop.
I asked them all to play at the same time, (so there was no worry about performance nerves) I have got pretty good at extracting sounds people are making to have my own picture of who does what how.
I taught a few different lessons – focussing on the hips, shoulders, and hands, and then at the end joining it up in a movement pattern to include the whole self in rolling from one side to the other- I always find those big joining-up-oneself movements fun myself, when else do we get to roll around the floor as an adult? It was challenging for them and me- for them to maintain the high level of concentration for two hours; and for me: people were in different positions due to their differing needs, so I had to adapt to that and give directions from the viewpoint of different orientations. Some people sitting, whilst others were lying. The lesson was one designed to be done on the side, but a few people were only comfortable on their backs. So I had to find a way to accommodate those variations and still teach the lessons with the movement patterns I wanted.
At the end of the two hour workshop I could see and feel a change of atmosphere in the room, and several people were noticeably taller and steadier on their feet.
The feedback varied from feeling more relaxed, to feeling straighter, taller, easier shoulders, more space across the chest, more grounded, invigorated. One colleague said she had come in with backache, and exhausted, but felt both less pain, and more energetic at the end of the session. One lady came to tell me she had had no idea her fingers were so tense, and another that she felt both more grounded and lighter at the same time. As people got their instruments out again the sound in the room was also very different- there were rounder, fuller sounds coming from the various instruments.
I love this work. Facilitating change for people is one of the best things about teaching Feldenkrais for me. It is self-empowering in a positive, strong way. Those ‘aha’ moments I see of people’s self-realisation that they can feel different are amazing: that it that wasn’t hard, that it is easy (with help and direction) to learn how to move differently, and therefore feel differently; and it isn’t just inevitable that we ‘fall apart’ as we get past 30, so we should just put up with it. But rather that if we put time and effort into investing into ourselves we can easily learn how to move smarter, and therefore live better, age more gracefully, whilst at the same time fulfilling the dreams we have. In ELLSO members case- of playing beautiful music together: having fun playing more easily and for longer with a better sound.