Vera’ – a musician re-discovers herself
by Emma Alter (as written for the FGUK newsletter)
Musicians (with some exceptions) spend their life moving their fingers very precisely, whilst often contorting themselves in very unnatural ways. We often start when we are very young, and before we are really aware of the effects of repetitive movements on the body, or indeed our physical self. The focus is on the performance, and how one physically gets there can often very much be in the background.
Because such precision is needed, and the movements are repeated hundreds of thousands of times, how we use ourselves whilst playing is of utmost importance – not only for the performance, but our long term physical health. Vera came to me for problems with her viola-playing, she had shoulder and back pain whilst playing, and needed something to change. She had been seeing other professionals: including a physio and an osteopath, but didn’t feel it was helping, and was feeling a little at the end of the line.
In the beginning I watched her perform. A clear place to start was her set-up: the positioning of the instrument. The viola was quite unsupported and she held it out to the side. I suggested swinging the viola inwards: so both her elbows were closer to the same distance from her centre-line. If the upper arms can be symmetrical (or thereabouts) then it’s easier for the shoulders and spine to stay mobile whilst playing. Starting playing with the thoracic spine twisted is not a good idea: it not only reduces mobility, but also power. We talked about her positioning of her thumbs, starting with the idea that they don’t need to be fixed, and that my solution for her pain would be to help her find possibilities for movement she couldn’t see by herself, within the constraints of playing the instrument.
We then moved to the table, and hands-on work (or Functional Integration). What I had also observed in her whilst she was playing was a rigidity across the chest, back and neck. There was clearly an excessive amount of muscular tension, and it was inhibiting Vera’s ability to make a good sound. It turned out that much of the problem was a gap in Vera’s perception and in her ability to feel herself, hence why she couldn’t change anything to the better. She was unable to notice if a part of herself has just been moving, or identify which part it was: and this included her pelvis, so fairly large parts of herself! By working with separating and re-integrating the different parts of her in different movement patterns, using Feldenkrais, we were able to wake up her kinaesthetic ability.
After some sessions together Vera was able to play and move with more awareness of herself. She regained some of her former flexibility- which translated into relief from the back and shoulder-pain she had been enduring, and more energy and stamina (as she wasn’t having to support herself muscularly in the same way). She reported being able to turn her head round to see behind her whilst driving which she “hadn’t done for years”, walk with more pleasure, as well as hear a noticeable change in sound quality and ease of playing.
When we focus on playing an instrument often our sense of our physical self can fade right into the wallpaper, leaving only the fingers, arms, head (if we’re lucky) and music in the foreground. The problem of this is that we simply don’t notice what we’re doing until it’s too late, and we’re in pain. Its the same sort of thing as one doesn’t notice a shoe rubbing our toe, until we have a blister. My role, if you like, is to help the person notice what their movement habits are, and help them bring all of themself back into focus, so they can stop inhibiting their full ability to move, and for musicians therefore play more freely and expressively.
Some of the effects in my longer term clients notice (over ten sessions or so) are a clear change of posture and way of carrying themselves. This was certainly true for Vera. I often also see a rise in self esteem: which sometimes even comes out as change in dress and hair style as they transform themselves through our work together. Who knew Feldenkrais could change one’s wardrobe!
Emma Alter is a Feldenkrais practitioner who has particular expertise in working with professional musicians. She has been one herself for the last 22 years, and is based in King’s Cross, central London. See Emma’s website,
themovingbrain.com, for more information.
‘Vera’ is not a real person, but a composite example for illustrative purposes of Emma’s work with several musicians.
Photo of Emma Alter, © Thomas S. G. Farnetti