Awareness as Practise- use of the Feldenkrais Method for Musicians

A little over a year ago, I gave two workshops at the Royal College of Music, after which the players filled in a questionnaire. I was hoping to do more, so I could produce a longer article, but here it is so far:

The workshop took three parts- starting with a classic lesson on flexors and extensors; a central exploratory more hands on session, working in pairs whilst playing; ending with a lesson whose themes were co-ordination of head, eyes, trunk movements.  I wanted the students to experience a direct corrollation between quality or movement, and ease of playing, and see an immediate relevance of what we were doing with Feldenkrais to their journey of perfecting the art of their instrumental playing. So I asked the students to play at the beginning and end of each lesson to compare any differences, and to notice whether the work they were doing with self-sensing made any small changes to their ease of playing/quality of sound.

The 25 students were a cross section of instrumentalists: brass, wind, strings and piano.

The exploratory work in playing in the first workshop included guided touch: experimentation of outlining the bony structure of each other’s spine, (on the back) shoulders, arms, hands and digits, whilst static, and then whilst playing. The students were mostly engaged and enthusiastic about this part of the workshop. They took the weight of instruments from each other where possible, and then changed to moving arms, hands, individual fingers and thumbs from different joints for each other, to experience movement as a more passive action in playing. In doing so, for many it was then clearer to sense some muscular activities which were superfluous, and making their task harder. Some of this they were able to let go of, having discovered it for themselves.

Other discoveries they found were:

Some of the string players hadn’t thought of the thumb having so much of a role in moving the bow across the strings. Others found that leading the movement from different parts of the fingers and hand made a difference to ease and speed of movement of the fingers. For some just the exploratory nature of what we were doing allowed lateral thinking- the sackbut player and trumpet had to think of ways to carry out the task of moving the arm- in the end they settled for one taking the weight of the moving arm, and the effect was that the instrument felt lighter after the person took back full control. .

As the teacher I noticed large differences, of increase in volume and quality/roundness of sound across the board. The string players talked of greater ease of bowing across the strings, and lightness of fingers, and wind/brass an increase in ease and support of the sounds they were creating, both low and high.

In all of wind and brass I noticed a large improvement to co-ordination, and support of the sound with the breath. Most were able to notice this themselves, but a few not, even though it was evident to myself and those listening.

             tension

As this was my first questionnaire some of the questions were a little repetitive, so I’ve missed out a few. I realised afterwards the “a little” or “a lot” answers should have been qualifiers from “yes”- I ended up with some students circling both yes and a little/a lot and some only circling one or the other. Where this happened I’ve included the a lot/ a little answer rather than yes, but all three answers are obviously yes. I felt most of the questions self explanatory.

   pain

    

I am concerned that two thirds of the group suffer pain during playing already, at the physical peak of their adult life, Although I know many colleagues in the profession suffer pain on a regular basis, I hadn’t expected it would show up so early in their careers.

   

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I was pleased by how enthusiastic they all were, even those who couldn’t recognise their own changes in playing. It was gratifying to see that they all felt they would benefit from further work, and that they really all felt it should be provided for them as an ongoing resource.

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The change that changes one’s mind.

Sometimes, it’s not what you’re doing, its who you’re doing it to. I was up visiting my sister and her family, and talking with my brother-in-law who’s a GP about studies. We were talking about how I might be able to, in time, get some studies going with Feldenkrais in order to faciliate it being offered on the NHS (one should think big right?). Anyway, I had 40 minutes before getting my train, and I offered to show him (my cynical also consultant doctor sister was sat on the sofa listening and playing with my nephew.)

My offer was declined as my brother-in-law didn’t fancy being touched that morning, but unsually, my sister proffered herself in his place. This is one of the most intelligent, but deeply cynical people I know. And I know she isn’t so interested in what I’ve been studying for the last four years. I was nervous- more nervous than when I had to work with my teacher for the first time.

So I thought I’d start with her feet.She’s on them a lot at work, and is a mother, so on them at home too! I had an audience, and not really enough space, but thought I’d just get on with it. At least I wasn’t worried about touching her feet- I’ve known them a long time, and she’s not very ticklish.

I started work, with regular questions from the GP on the sofa, about what I was doing- he commented that it all looked like diagnosis, and other questions about what I was looking for, we talked about how it was a conversation- that I was helping her feel herself, feel her own habits through the medium of the feedback from my touch, and the questions I asked.
Twenty minutes later, I asked her to get up and walk around. One foot looked wider, and flatter, and softer in reaching and leaving the floor. My brother-in-law noticed it too. At that point my sister was aware that it felt more relaxed, but not much more. Continue reading

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Feldenkrais and computer posture experiments

I started working with a colleague recently. (We’ll call him David. Names changed for obvious privacy purposes)

One of his concerns was shoulder and neck pain after working at the computer. He’d had problems with a frozen shoulder before, and wanted some help with his set up at the computer. After looking at how David sat at, and used the computer, I was able to make some suggestions of things he could try to make life easier. After two weeks he is now pain free!!

Some things we talked about and changed: The angle of your thighs into your pelvis joint is important:

Ideally your thighs should be at right angles to your pelvis or sloping down towards the floor. Your knees shouldn’t be higher than the seat you’re sitting on. You want to be sat on your sitting bones for support, rather than slumped backwards. If you are taller than average, you need a higher chair than average, and ideally one that is flat (i.e. does not slope backwards- hard to find these days! If necessary try a stool instead)

When you lean forwards your weight can then travel into your feet, so your feet are helping and sharing the work.

Having your pelvis lower than your legs creates a situation where your pelvis tends to tilt back making your lower back rounded. This makes the spine unable to support the head and shoulders higher up- making it more likely excess work is happening, and more likely to have back/shoulder/neck ache.

For your fingers to be supported in their actions the wrists need to stay in line:  bent wrists mean that the fingers start having to do the work of the arms- which isn’t great. A general principal is that strength comes from moving along the bones. When you use your fingers, you want  the weight of the arms to provide downwards “force” or weight, and the fingers to move as lightly and lazily as possible. That means your elbows should not be lower than your arms, the same idea as your knees not being higher than your pelvis in sitting. If they are, sit on a cushion! (ideally a hardish one, like a yoga block- they’re more supportive.) Then the weight can find an easier pathway to the keys. Continue reading

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