by Andrea Kleesattel
As musicians, we are constantly working with the limitations of our own physical and mental self-control. Whether we are trying to coordinate our body movements, trying to increase our ability to focus, or dealing with the anxiety of performance, we are always trying to extend our capabilities and self-awareness. We seek to become more than we are.
However, over the course of living and playing an instrument for years, we all naturally establish habits. Some of these are intentional but others, many others, exist without our even knowing that they are there and can be damaging and limiting.
In order to break out of these habits we must exercise our self-awareness and ability to change. The more we come to know ourselves and the more adept we are at trying and assimilating new ideas, the easier it will be to learn new ways of playing that might be more efficient than the ones we are currently employing. In so doing, we can mitigate unnecessary stress on the body and hopefully save ourselves from injury, while at the same time opening ourselves to greater spontaneity and more choices for artistic expression.
One method that can be helpful in this process is the Feldenkrais Method, which exists in two different formats: Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration. In Awareness Through Movement, students are verbally guided through a series of slow movements which help them to increase awareness of their body and its integration. In Functional Integration, students work in a one-on-one session with a Feldenkrais practitioner who uses touch to help guide the body towards greater integrative awareness. (Awareness Through Movement lessons are available commercially in CD and DVD formats. One can also find a local Feldenkrais practitioner for Functional Integration lessons as well.)
Through moving slowly, it becomes possible to redirect a movement before it happens automatically. We can open a space in our actions that used to be closed to our awareness, allowing it to come within the sphere of our self-control. In the process, we can cultivate greater awareness of the body. Through these sessions, students become more aware of how the parts of the body work together as an integrated whole. And through this awareness, students can begin to move more efficiently and create more options for the movements they make.
You can start to exercise some of the Feldenkrais principles before you purchase a CD or find a teacher simply by observing your habits and slowly (and patiently) starting to change them. You can do this for everyday actions. Find a habit that you have in everyday life. Which tooth do you first start brushing? When you get dressed, which leg do you first put in your pants? How do you habitually cross your fingers? Is the right or the left thumb on top? How do you cross your legs when you sit cross-legged on the floor? Is there a specific way that you open your instrument case and take out your instrument? What is the first thing you do when you sit down to play? Think of any habit that you have. First see if you can observe it in the context in which it occurs. Next, see if you can stop yourself before you perform the habit and try doing it in a different way.
Try doing this for your playing. Are there certain physical habits that you have when you play that are independent of your playing? Perhaps you raise your eyebrows or close your eyes when you are doing something that is difficult. Perhaps your foot tenses in certain places, or you move your body in a certain pattern. Go slowly. Before you perform the habit, stop yourself and try something new in its place. Have a friend watch you as an outside observer. As you practice non-habitual behavior in place of the habits you have identified, see if other habits become more noticeable to you and easier to change.
You can also ask yourself questions about your body posture and usage. How does the position of your hips effect your neck and shoulders? If you put your weight on the front part of the pelvis while you are sitting on a chair, what does this do to the spine? How does this change if you move your weight to the back part of the pelvis? How is the body affected if you put the majority of your weight on one sitz bone or the other?
You can try these things with or without your instrument and can try them in different patterns or in isolation. Be curious, inventive, and playful in your exploration. Play lying down, or standing on one foot, or looking at the ceiling, and see how this changes things. Even if you don’t know what changes or how it is different, don’t be afraid to keep looking and asking. It’s not the answer, but what we learn in the search and the process.
We will always come up against the limitations of our own self-knowledge. There is no end to it. But we can become more and more comfortable with ourselves the more we seek and explore, and this can bring us closer and closer to the full self-expression that we desire. It is a process to be enjoyed.