Violinists and Shoulders


I have a had various clients in the last few years who have been professional violinists. Some come hours before a concert, wanting me to fix them so they can play the concert without excruciating pain. Others come because they have had an issue for a while that they haven’t managed to deal with on their own, and want to improve.

One of last violinists came to see me because she had pain across her back whilst playing. I like to start with a musician playing their instrument, but at some point its important to realise the habits that cause a problem whilst playing are probably showing up whilst not playing too.

Another analogy – I have an uncle who used to always sit on his armed chair, leaning one way. One of the arms was squished beyond help, and the other was fine. Which doesn’t matter in itself if one leans one way some of the time, but when its day in, day out for many years – well, let’s just say it was absolutely no surprise to me that he suffered back pain. He was shortening himself on one side so often and so regularly that his brain stopped noticing.

This idea of noticing is paramount. Its when we are aware of something, or become aware of it that we can change it. Awareness is a tool in our “Improve It toolbox,” if you like. Perhaps when I sit to play I have more weight on one buttock than the other. Over time, those small compromises the rest of the body has to make to make that work on a daily basis may well be a compromise too far, and manifest as discomfort.

When we have weight evenly distributed it can support both sides of the body. Try it! An easy way to feel this is to stand up, and stretch both arms at shoulder’s height straight out to the sides. Then stand on one leg. Notice if one arm feels lighter/heavier or more/less supported than the other. (Clue: it will!) When we do this in playing it affects how the arms can function, and in string playing, the quality of sound or ease of left hand dexterity.

I like upper string players. I am one, so am uniquely positioned to understand and get where they’re coming from. We need our shoulders to work, and often they don’t. Over-use in cold, damp conditions when we’re tired and/or hungry does little to help our physical conditions- We’re athletes of the Tiny Muscles, but rarely do we give ourselves the treatment and attention that world class athletes demand.

I did one concert in a church whose affectionate nickname was “the Fridge”. But no-one thought to tell us. It was so cold the rosin wouldn’t melt with the friction of the bow, and we were reduced to 1/2 volume. I had to buy an extra layer in my break so I could still perform. I say this, not to complain (well, maybe a little), but to explain how as a musician the focus is on the end result, and often not the cause. And the effect can often be pain and stiffness after one of these kind of gigs.

Baby upright.

So how can Feldenkrais help? By heightening our awareness of what we are doing, we can improve both the quality and range of motion of our movements. We all have this innate ability to learn movement, and we learn best when this is not goal oriented- think of a baby learning to roll over- its a stream of moving explorations that move the child to a different position- in the beginning the rolling is almost an accident. Its only later when the movement pattern has become clearer that it becomes a planned action. In the same way we can take complex movements apart again, and try new things out.

Here’s a short 20 minute lesson for you to try out for yourself. Find a chair with a hard-ish surface. Put both feet on the floor. Keep the movements within your comfortable range, don’t strain. Move slowly, and if its uncomfortable, do less: move smaller and slower. If its still uncomfortable, imagine the movements, it will still have a positive effect.

Freeing Shoulders in Sitting

And, if you’re London based, and would like to come to a class, I am starting a new class “Feldenkrais Happy Hour!” on Saturdays, 6-7pm, at St Pancras Church House, Lancing St, NW1 1NA (opposite Euston Station. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Pictures: Thomas Farnetti ; Jonathan Borba Unsplash

Reduce the effort…

One of the things I remember from some of my first Feldenkrais lessons was to “do less”. Which in the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to do. But over time, I learnt to require less of myself, in a movement sense to find the skeletal path.

Try it:

Pick up a pen or pencil.  Hold the pencil tightly. Write a sentence or two, clearly and firmly.

And then, imagine just the bones of your hands holding the pencil. How gently can you hold the pencil before it drops? Hold it as lightly as you can. Rest part of your arm/wrist on the table, if that’s comfortable for you, and have the sense of your skeleton writing the words. Write your sentences again.

Which was easier for you? More enjoyable? Perhaps even felt as if the words flowed more?

One of Feldenkrais later books was entitled the Elusive Obvious. To do less whilst achieving more is obvious goal. And yet few of us think about it in regards to our daily life, our everyday movements.

When we try less hard we do things more efficiently: maximum output, minimum input.

In the beginning this needs our cerebral power firmly on: brains on, effort off; not the other way round.

What might you gain in taking the foot off your self-imposed gas pedal? Let me know in the comments below!

For me some of these gains include:

a) more playfulness- its hard to find fun and pleasure when we’re trying so hard

b) More sense of feeling comfortable in one’s own skin- its enough to be, without always needing to find our self worth in what we do, and the amount of work we put into that.

c) And physically? Better, clearer co-ordination; more stamina; less restriction of movement; ease of moving around; even to being comfortable climbing up and down climbing frames, at my ripe middle age of 45. I move better than many people I know who are younger than me, and didn’t start with the physical disadvantages I did.


So, make 2020 a year of clear vision- of looking at how you’re doing things, and seeing if there’s a way of doing it a little more easily, and with less effort.

Happy New Year!

Workshops, Lessons, and Classes:

WORKSHOPS:
I’m delighted to have been asked to continue my monthly Feldenkrais workshops for Musicians in 2020, after 6 sold out sessions last year.

Sign up information, and dates to come soon…

INDIVIDUAL LESSONS:
I teach one-to-one lessons from my studio in Kings Cross/ Russell Square.
These lessons are able to focus on your specific needs. Starting from where you are, I use my expertise help you learn which movement habits are holding you back, how to let go of patterns which are unhelpful or no longer constructive, and build new ones in their place.

WEEKLY CLASSES:

Wednesdays at 7-8 pm
The Crypt, St Peter’s de Beauvoir
Northchurch Terrace
N1 4DA

The Spring 2020 Term runs from the 15th January through to the 1st April inclusive (excepting the 26th of February, when there is no class).

If you have not been to one of my classes before, please get in touch first: themovingbrain@fastmail.fm

Pricing:
Drop in £13.00;
6 classes in advance: £65.00 (valid for 3 months) ;
The whole 11 week term in advance: £100.

If the shoe fits…

Often, at some point when my clients come to see me, we talk about shoes. We don’t think about shoes causing or preventing back pain, but when our feet and ankles can’t perform as intended, the strain gets transferred up the skeleton to the knees, hips and/or back and neck.

Sadly, most shoes aren’t fit for purpose- they don’t fit the form of our feet, and often deform it. I wonder when there will be a class action against the high heel makers of the world, beautiful on the outside, and wrong on the inside. Will we look back on Louboutins and Jimmy Choos as we do Chinese foot binders? Our feet are not made to be squashed into shoes, toes mashed together, and be up at any height, let alone vertiginously- it upsets the balance of our skeleton, and can be one of the factors in back pain.

But its tricky, some of us gain part of our self worth, or our ‘sexiness’ by how we feel in the shoes society thinks we women (and men) should strut in. And if we change our foot wear, some of us have to reassess this. I had one client who was wedded to her high heels, they were part of her self-image of the vitality and elegance of herself, and she was in denial to her choice of shoes being part of the solution for her back pain. She was adamant there was no science behind high heels being related to back pain: a flat-earther of the shoe world. I tease, but I do realise how difficult that is, to change a deeply held habit. In the end, she decided it was too big a step, reassessing how she could feel her own vitality or sexuality without heels wasn’t something she was ready for. And its not only a female issue- a male client took some months to brave a more flexible shoe as he was concerned about standing out at the office: that his own comfort was more important than whether his peers would notice or care.

We are amazingly designed so that our feet can spread our load, and take great weight, whilst remaining incredibly sensitive. And we need to treat them with respect if we still want to be walking in our 80s. Our toes need to be able to spread outwards (think of your hands and fingers) as you lean weight forwards, and our lower leg to foot angle at c90 degrees.

We have a tripod base of support in the foot- the base of the big and little toes, and the heel. Having pointy shoes (now a unisex problem) that push the toes inwards at any part of the step prevents this system working properly (and is a direct line to foot deformation). The less a role our toes can play the more our knees and hips will twist out of alignment as they take the strain.

You can think of them as the foot-soldiers of of the foot world- small but indispensable.

For me, it was a gentle journey. I began my Feldenkrais Professional Training, and as my very narrow feet gradually changed length and width as I spent more time exploring their possibilities, I realised I felt better in shoes that allowed my feet to not only breathe, but move, and for my soles to be able to respond to the changing surfaces of the world beneath me.

Recently, one of my clients asked me if I would write a list of the shoes I wear and might recommend. So, here it is, (to be updated as I discover more). FYI I don’t receive anything from any link I’ve added here- its just my unvarnished opinion.

What am I looking for? A shoe that allows room for my toes, and has space for them to splay outwards as I weight the foot onto the toes; a sole that is flexible so my muscles in the foot have to work as they are intended, and also that I are able to feel the floor. And one that holds my foot firmly enough that I am not using excess muscles to hold the shoe on in any way.

Ideally we would all be walking barefoot, (unless there is a medical reason) and with enough padding to protect our feet without flattening out the experience, and with no heels. One client, she didn’t wear heels, but a lot of platform shoes, and her feet were like solid blocks of wood after years of her feet lacking anything to respond to. She did a lot of yoga, and so was pretty active, but came to me for her back pain, which she had had for many years. Her feet had forgotten the layers and webbing of muscles that allows them to sense details and changes in the floor. I worked with her one-on-one, hands-on, slowly coaxing her feet back to life, finding their suppleness over the course of an hour, and relieving her long term back pain in the process.

Shoes! What do I wear?

I’ll start at the cheap end. I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with Feiyue. They’re a Chinese plimsoll brand, worn by the Shaolin monks, and parkour runners. I found their tiny shop whilst in Shanghai on tour in 2009, and was overwhelmed by choice, and the price- at the time they worked out at £3 a pair! In the end I could only fit a few pairs into my already overladen suitcase.

You’ll need to check that they are authentic- there are lots of fakes out there, that don’t have the same soles. There are two soles- padded (with a red circle on the sole) and unpadded (with a green triangle). Try both! I have been buying online from www.yellowmountain.co.uk/ since my China tour, and they’re one of the best prices around, as well as genuine. With all of these shoes, you’ll need to wear them in- if you’re not used to them wear them a few hours a day, and slowly extend the time, or your under used muscles will start to complain pretty loudly.

They are plimsolls, so not so cosy for the winter. In the winter, I wear Furoshiki, which come under the Vibram umbrella. I can’t remember how I came across these, but I bought a pair of the shoes online 2 or 3 years ago, (also pretty cosy despite their lightness) and when I was on tour in Spain made a large detour encouraged by colleagues to try out the boots in a specialist shop – at the time they weren’t available in the UK. I have been wearing them as soon as the temperature drops ever since. They are warm, the stretch tabs on the side mean they fit even my mis-matched pair of feet, and the soles are still flexible enough that my soles don’t get bored. There is now a branch in London, in City Rd.

They also make the 5 Fingers/Toes shoes, which although I was up for trying didn’t work for me as I have long 2nd toes (a sign of intelligence I was always told!). I have running friends who swear by them, but you have have a personality comfortable with standing out.

https://eu.vibram.com/en/shop/furoshiki/

There is of course what is now the doyenne of minimal shoes- Vivobarefoot. These are great shoes, expensive, but they last well. I only have one pair as my feet shape sit between sizes sadly, and are long and thin, and they have lots of room for toes. The soles are flexible, they have a range of soles and upper types available and a range of styles- definitely shoes you can wear to work. https://www.vivobarefoot.com/uk

I would also recommend the ‘Sole of Africa’ Desert Boot. A leather upper, wide toe box, and a flexible rubbery sole. Whilst I don’t know if they intended to be minimalist, my experience with these was excellent, and I wished I had bought more pairs. Super comfortable- worth looking at their website, although when I checked they had just one style, more of a sneaker than desert boot: https://soulofafrica.com/

I am still waiting for a beautiful evening shoe which has a secret flexible sole, but perhaps I’ll nip along to City Rd to have a chat with the sole-specialists to see if they’re up for designing something different!

Photos:  How-Soon Ngu,  Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

Peace of mind & Feldenkrais:

Mediterranean Sunset (photo: E.Alter 2019)

Most people, if they know a little about Feldenkrais think about it about becoming flexible, or moving more easily, and its true, and an important part of what Feldenkrais can do that you might find useful in your life.

But its more than that. Feldenkrais famously wrote:

“What I’m after is not flexible bodies, but flexible minds”

But what does that have to do with peace of mind? There are various reasons I would say it brings peace of mind. When you take time to get to know a part of yourself in depth, focussing on the structure- the skeleton- it brings us to the simplest and most solid physical form of ourselves. Feeling our deep core, (which has both solidity and lightness-bone isn’t completely solid all the way through) gives us a sense of grounding and security.

Meditation is allowing thoughts in and out without judgement, and in Feldenkrais lessons we do that too: learning to watch ourselves moving, learning to notice differences without criticising or judging. Part of many people’s anxiety is this sense that we might not be enough, or there’s something wrong with us. But, as we practise Feldenkrais we can begin to practise non- (or less to start) judgement in the lesson, and with it, acceptance of our whole self in other areas of our lives, off the mat.

Within practice of Feldenkrais is partially the art of slowing down, of paying attention to oneself in a non-goal oriented way- which gives us both space to learn, and to slow our breathing, which slows the heart rate, and encourages us into our para-sympathetic healing state. People often talk to me about the lessons as being a space of calm.

When we do anything in life, four things happen when we move: thinking, sensing, feeling and movement/action. When we reduce tension in our physical self it has an effect on mental space. The better oxygen can reach our cells, the clearer our ability to think calmly and rationally. The opposite of the tunnel vision we all get whilst under stress or duress.

We can’t have any strong emotion without a embodied response, (heightened emotion usually means heightened muscle tone). We can dial down the emotional tone by releasing in our bodies. For many I have taught it seems an emotional therapy from the inside out. Feldenkrais immodestly said (I paraphrase) that the best thing Freud had invented was the couch. By putting people in a horizontal position he was helping them physically to be in a position where they have most support from the Earth, and need to do the least to support themselves. When we are supported, when we feel safe, we have greater freedom to experiment, and less fear in moving out of our comfort zone; similar to a small child exploring, returning to their mother, and then zipping off to explore some more. When we can feel safe in ourselves, in our own body, then we can be open to the opportunities of challenges in our lives.

We can’t always access our thoughts about difficult subjects, and we don’t always want to, but we can move a leg, or hand. And within movements of a Feldenkrais session when we are taking care of ourselves is space. Space to pause, to think, or stop thinking. Time to connect all ourself together. The old song, the knee-bone’s connected to the thigh-bone (etc) is a familiar idea to a Feldenkrais teacher, but often our students can’t mentally connect their parts- and how can you ‘stand on your own two feet’ if you can’t feel how your feet connect up through the ankles, the legs, hips to the spine all the way to your head?

So that’s something we aim to do- to help people reconnect with themselves, through the physical, through to other parts of themselves. And when they start to do this, that’s where greater peace of mind can come from, and when we feel more connected, more joined up, safer in our greater self-knowledge, that’s often when other dreams, hopes and aspirations have space to come out.

My autumn term’s classes start on Wednesday the 4th, 7-8 in Highbury (email me for more details)

I’m running monthly Feldenkrais workshops for Musicians in conjunction with the Musicians’ Union. To sign up and more information, follow this link:

https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/Events/2019/Sep/Feldenkrais-Workshop-(1)

Tension and Feldenkrais

I had an urgent phone call from a friend whose physio had given up on him. Literally, whilst he was on her table. She said she couldn’t do anything whilst he was so tense. She had told him to do something to help him relax, and he thought of me.
He had a diagnosis of a slipped disc in his lower back, and trapped femoral nerve (apparently quite rare, but excruciating. Not a happy camper. Inching up the stairs in pain and feeling really morose he looked very sorry for himself.

He gingerly got on the table and I started gently feeling along his spine. The musculature up and down his whole spine was in spasm- it was working so hard. I told him I wouldn’t be touching the slipped disc immediate area as he was in too much pain, and I didn’t want to exacerbate it.

Gradually, through little movements we freed up the spasms, and as I’d avoided the difficult area to start his nervous system had been able to relax enough to allow me to then work there usefully by halfway through the session.

Part of Feldenkrais’ power is in its gentleness. When we press hard in an area which is already sensitised we trigger protection responses, which usually involve contraction. Which if we’re aiming to free areas of pain and tension, is somewhat counterproductive. By working gently, slowly, and even avoiding a painful area we avoid triggering our physical safety mechanism of increased contraction, and ease the parasympathic system into action: where healing can take place.

I’m pleased to say he got off the table feeling both better physically and emotionally. Pain triggers a fear response in most of us, the fear of not getting better. When we’re shown that our issue doesn’t have to be permanent, that it can change, it changes how we respond. Even if it returns, so that we’re not adding so much fear (and usually the physical tension that goes with) into the picture.

I’d like to echo Feldenkrais’ words here- “its not flexible bodies I’m after, but flexible minds”. What we think and feel emotionally has a direct effect on how we hold ourselves physically. So working with the physicality is a way in to how we think, without having to talk about it, as well as working together with the person on the table to help them ‘organise’ themselves better so they can move the way they want, with less or no pain.

Change begins with small things.

The other day I bought some nail varnish, (in a sparkly purple, for those interested in the details). Obviously not such a notable event, except I don’t wear nail varnish. Well very rarely.

In my childhood, nail varnish wasn’t something we did at home. My mother came from the generation where “nice girls” didn’t paint their nails, so it wasn’t something she introduced us to. And the few times I have worn it in my life, usually encouraged on by friends, I have always had the feeling my fingertips are suffocating, so it never lasts long.

Anyway, the point: I’m getting there: having colour at the ends of your fingers affected my perception in ways I didn’t realise: how long the fingers feel, how wide they look, how much they dominate one’s visual field, how I carry my hands, and how I think of them: they look more ornamental (something I have never associated my hands with). It’s fascinating (albeit in a navel gazing kind of way), novel, and yet deeply discomforting at the same time.

That such a small change in self-image can change our self-perception of an important part of ourselves is part of what I love about Feldenkrais. In looking together with a client at how they function, by altering their perception of that part through movement and awareness we can build new pictures of possibilites.

And once we have proved that one area of oneself is able to shift in an easy way in a relatively short space of time, then it’s not a giant leap to realising other self-perceptions are changeable, that we are more adaptable and therefore more open, resilient and stronger than many of us think.

‘Vera’  – a musician re-discovers herself

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.

Emma Alter-Farnetti
Emma Alter photo: TSG.Farnetti

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

ELLSO- Feldenkrais for Amateur Musicians

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.

FeldenkraisforMusiciansELLSO2018.jpg

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.

turninglightbublbELLSO2018.jpg

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.

 

 

Change and Comfort

I was asked by client recently about how one can be comfortable in a state of change.

For her, one facet of this was about being more aware of people looking at her as she walked around, now that she was more upright and open in her posture, and not finding it easy.  She wasn’t used to being looked at, and couldn’t immediately place an intention as to why she was being of interest.

Other clients I have had, have talked about feeling vulnerable in discovering postures that are more open or freer, and although they liked it, it felt foreign. It took time before they could own the sensation of having more space across the chest, or no longer rounding their shoulders. And that’s certainly something that resonates with my own experience.

With all of these clients the way they held themselves has changed and their posture has improved markedly as a result of our sessions together. But even if one feels better physically, sometimes we have to take time for the rest of us to catch up.

I think any change of awareness or in self-perception means the recognition of a habit, and with that can come temporary discomfort, or frustration. Once we are aware of what we’re doing then we can shift up a gear, but that phase of learning can begin with a period of dis-ease whilst we’re becoming clearer about something, which can be confronting.

Our lives are uncertain, and many of us like to create an aura of stability by staying stuck in our ways, imagining that habit and definitiveness creates security. But if our habits don’t allow for evolution then staying stuck can become more and more uncomfortable.

Perhaps for my clients it’s what brought them to my lessons…for myself that was certainly why I came to Feldenkrais.

toa-heftiba-lobster

There’s a great video online where Abraham Twerski talks about lobsters. How as they grow, their shell doesn’t, and slowly becomes too small. At a certain point they have to go underneath a rock for a while to get rid of their old shell, and wait for a new one to grow.  Not the nicest of experience, until that moment where the new shell is grown and they can come out from underneath the rock again. This feeling of discomfort is the signaller that change is necessary. I think its a little the same for us.

Learning and seeing ourselves in entirety can be uncomfortable in the beginning, as we have to accept both good and bad. And in Feldenkrais lessons we spend lots of the time thinking about how we can rewire the brain to feel more as one entity, and accept ourselves as we are in all our glorious asymmetry.  It is at the moment of self acceptance where change is able to take place. In that space of self-acceptance we can be open to and more comfortable with change, and kinder about noticing habits/things about ourselves we would like to alter in some way.

 

Feldenkrais, for me, is not only about learning how we can be more physically flexible, but also how can we mentally find greater resilience and adaptability, whilst staying
grounded and ourselves? How can we choose new physical and mental habits that serve us better in our needs and desire, and be kind to ourselves in the process.

One of my favourite Moshe Feldenkrais quotes is “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

 

I look forward to your feedback.

 

Cyclops and sight…

A few weeks ago I had a minor eye procedure. Unpleasant, as such things usually are, but what I hadn’t counted on was how much my world would shift as I was wheeled out with a white pirate patch shutting out the world on my left side.

Looking out of only one eye created a whole new picture of the world for my brain, and only on half a side. Obvious theoretically, as I write it, but the actual experience was unbelievably strange.

Eye-victor-freitas-unsplash

Who knew it would feel so peculiar to not see my left hand? I had to swivel my head round to the left, and seeing it with the right eye meant it felt like someone else’s hand and arm for ten minutes whilst my brain adjusted. (Close one eye and try it yourself!) As the pad was pressed against a swollen left eye, there was this extraordinary fluorescent lilac colour imprinted on my left retina, so if I relaxed my right it superimposed its purple pulsating swirling on the outside world: my inner and outer worlds colliding.

Finding my way home involved much head swivelling, to the point I felt like a Cyclops, my right eye literally taking centre stage. I realised my stance had lowered and widened, I felt like a cross between a cowboy with low slung hips and a horse rider with wider apart feet. Not my usual mode of moving. The lowness of my chassis felt both strange, but firm. Given the lack of vision, clearly my brain decided to lower my centre of gravity.

I waited for the cab to pick me up, but it cancelled. How could he not find the hospital entrance with two eyes and a GPS when I could with one eye!

Irritated, I decided to abandon taxis and get the Underground home instead.

Which was fine, until I started my descent down to the underground station. There’s no depth of field with one eye! I couldn’t see how far away the step was from my feet; I could barely work our how far my feet were away from me and I could both see and feel them! Grasping the handrail I made a slow descent, feeling with my feet to check what my eye was seeing.

I found a cafe to have something to eat, only to realise I couldn’t judge where the till lady’s hand was in order to put money into. By the time I got home, having to pick up a few more things en route, I’d developed the adaptive behaviour of just sticking my hand out for change to be put into.

By the next morning I felt more in control of moving round my Cyclops- world, but was very grateful to take the eye patch off and have my two sided world back.

In many ways we all make these adaptive changes when something untoward happens to part of us. Our adaptive behaviour to form a new habit of moving is necessary at the time, but often our brain continues in the new habit, even though it’s no longer useful. Add a few years of these habits on top of each other and at a certain point we stop moving in all the ways that are possible, and limit ourselves more than necessary. Neurological ‘real estate’ is taken over incredibly fast by neighbouring brain areas, so the part of ourselves that has had a ‘rest’ has to work a little harder to take back its space in the brain.

For me, Feldenkrais is a way or unpicking these outdated movement habits in order to find a simpler, clearer way of moving and being. Taking time in a lesson to explore one part of ourselves, and how it connects to the whole is a way of retaking space in the brain for a little more clarity of what is really there. A sort of brain self realisation and acceptance.