Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

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Closed Chain Vs. Open Chain Movements, Applied To Music

Kinetic chain image

Kinetic chain image

If you're into movement, you've probably heard of the concept of closed chain exercises vs. open chain exercises.  If not, here's a starter definition- the "chain" is your kinetic chain, which according to NASM "comprises the muscular, skeletal, and nervous system," which I realize is not the most helpful definition.  Let me continue though- movements can be open chain, meaning that appendages are free to move, or closed meaning hands/feet are in a fixed position.  A closed chain move might be a push up or down dog, in which hands and feet are stabilized.  An open chain movement would be a kettlebell swing or getup, or a simple chest press/overhead press, in which arms/hands are moving and not stabilized.  Let's broaden this definition and look at what parts of the body are contacting the floor, apparatus, or are free floating.  (Think pilates apparatus work, which limits range of motion and gives lots of proprioceptive feedback vs. pilates mat work in which hands and feet are often free).   Open chain movements can be more challenging in terms of knowing where your body is in space, because there is less feedback from the environment or apparatus. 

Here's Simon Fischer stabilizing a student's violin, closing the chain, perhaps to focus on a left hand concept, alignment, or bow concepts.

Here's Simon Fischer stabilizing a student's violin, closing the chain, perhaps to focus on a left hand concept, alignment, or bow concepts.

Let's apply this to musical teaching and performance now- in regards to your instrument, what parts are stable or contacting the floor (or chair) and which parts are free to move?  As a violist, my feet contact the earth, and my hands contact my instrument, but it's an open chain practice in many ways because my spine, hips, knees, elbows, fingers, and shoulders are free to move, as well as my hands and fingers.  A pianist however will have the contact of the feet, chair (underneath ischial tuberosities) and the contact of fingers and keyboard.  This leaves the spine, head, neck, and shoulders free.  A singer (or french horn player) will have significantly less environmental feedback from their instrument- they will be relying heavily on proprioception and interoception to assess their playing, breath, embouchure, etc.  Some instruments are more "open chain" than others, demanding more heightened external and internal bodily awareness.  What can we do to challenge this notion?  Close the chain when possible and give yourself new feedback opportunities.

Sit instead of stand (if possible) or vice versay to get an idea of the relationship between your pelvis, instrument, and chair.  Lean against a wall or the back of a chair to focus on the movement of the ribcage while breathing or to notice the relationship of the scapula while playing.  On violin, viola, cello, and bass, certain left hand positions are easier than others because of their relationship to the body of the instrument- for me, 5th position is strangely comfortable because of the feedback I get from the instrument.  For many students, third position is stable because of the proximity to the neck and body of the instrument.  The most obvious manifestation of these ideas is the usage of different tactile sensations in studying an instrument- many string students learn vibrato using a tictac container which creates a different kinesthetic experience away from the violin.  You can also hear the shake of the container as an aural cue, although this is still very much an open chain exercise in many ways.

Using a straw to create a bow barrier closes the chain, giving the student proprioceptive information about where the bow is (contact point) and whether or not is straight.

Using a straw to create a bow barrier closes the chain, giving the student proprioceptive information about where the bow is (contact point) and whether or not is straight.

When teaching or practicing, look for where you can open or close the chain to change sensation.  Different chairs offer opportunities to introvert your attention, different standing surfaces can tell you what your lower limb is doing (I sometimes stand on a wobble board to get a sense of if my quads are gripping and how my feet are interfacing with the environment), and there are now a multitude of different devices out there to "close the chain" for musicians, offering opportunities for new kinesthetic experiences.  If we think of the bow and instrument as appendages, making string playing an open chain experience, howcan we stabilize and then transition away from that?  And what can you or your student learn from that? How can you apply this to other instruments or other movement practices?  Just my early morning thoughts for a springtime morning.

Mindfulness and Music: On Practicing

Last week, I talked a little bit about the general principles behind mindfulness, which Thich Nhat Hanh defines as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality." Let's apply those general ideas more specifically towards practicing music.  If you've taught children, you know that practicing can be really tough for them.  They are spending time alone, specifically practicing towards an abstract goal, and often would rather do anything else.  Most teachers just wish their students practiced at all, because they are able to acquire skills in a lesson but not reiterate them throughout the week.  This happens for adults and young adults too, who are unable to focus on the specific task of practicing without distraction. 

Start by thinking of places where you practice efficiently-often in retreat settings, places other than your home, school practice rooms, etc.  When you choose a place away from your home to practice, you can often reduce your distractions and tell your brain that it's time to do work.  This is no different than a meditator or yoga student who finds that going elsewhere and being part of a community is more valuable than going it alone.  A community of people with a similar goal can help you stay on task.  You can also do the same thing in your home or apartment by creating a practice space or nook, even if it's a corner of your bedroom specifically for practicing.  This can tell your brain- this is the space for this task, let's do this!

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

Let's go back to the act of practicing, though.  When you were younger, you probably remember that no one taught you how to practice, and you ended up repeating things over and over, or running through the piece multiple times, or practicing while reading or watching TV.  Most teachers don't teach students how to practice, and how to look at an issue (technical, intonation, bow, breathing), diagnose it, and address it, because it's a difficult thing.  When you teach people to practice their instrument, you're essentially showing them how to teach themselves, and how to learn, which is a large undertaking.  We all know people who just mindlessly repeat things over and over to memorize and perfect pieces, and we also know people who practice minimally, but accomplish great things because of their attention, focus, and specificity.   

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

Here are some things to ask yourself in the practice process: Why am I doing this- what is my desired goal in practicing this?  Is what I'm doing right now bringing me closer to my desired technical/musical/physical goal?  What are 3 issues that I need to address in this piece/excerpt?  And when you're practicing, also ask the questions: how does it sound, how does it look (i.e. if I look in a mirror, is my bow straight, am I moving oddly, lifting shoulders up.,etc) , and how does it feel?  Most of us focus exclusively on how it sounds, which is obviously a necessity, but addressing the feeling in your physical body is essential, especially for injury prevention, performance anxiety management, changing technical habits, and building a stronger understanding of musicianship.   These are all excellent questions to ask students, especially if they are apathetic or slow to change ingrained habits.  If you make a technical adjustment to a student's setup, asking them how it feels can be profoundly helpful, especially if they are not the most embodied of people.  Also asking them to describe the new sensations can also be extremely helpful.  Recording video or audio of yourself can also be a great way to ask those questions after the fact, after a run through of a piece or passage of music.  You can then ask how it sounded in relation to how it felt or how it looks on video.

If I find yourself distracted by my to-do list, emails, cleaning, homework, errands, etc., I find it helpful to write down all of those things before I practice, and then trust that I will deal with those things later.  Rather than worrying about what future you needs to do, focus on what needs to be done now, like warming up, practicing orchestra music, etc.  Lastly, I always recommend using a timer to stay on task, especially if you're easily distracted (like I've been lately).  It might also be useful to turn your phone onto airplane mode!  Timers can be an excellent way to focus wholeheartedly on the task in front of you, and practice mindful attention with your instrument. 

You Can't Actually Sit Still After All

If you teach children, either sitting or standing, you know that they are fidgety and constantly moving.  Our adult response is usually "sit still," "stand still," or "Stop moving."  Yet, the body can't actually be truly still while standing.  Something called Postural Sway keeps the body constantly adjusting to the effects of gravity in relationship to the body's base.  If you've ever taken a picture in low-light and noticed how much you shake (AKA blurry picture), you've experienced your own postural sway.  As you also know, stability is one of the greatest challenges of older clients/friends/people- many people over 65 are at high risk of falling, which then sets them up for the potential to have broken limbs/surgeries/etc, which they have a harder time recovering from.  What governs these elements of balance?

Your eyes, inner ear, and proprioceptors send signals to the brain about movement, stability, and balance, whether in an athletic context or day to day movements and actions.

Your eyes, inner ear, and proprioceptors send signals to the brain about movement, stability, and balance, whether in an athletic context or day to day movements and actions.

1. Vestibular system- These are your sense organs in your inner ear, located in the vestibulum.  This is the system that gives feedback about balance and keeping the body upright, or maintaining equilibrium. 

2. Somatosensory system- This is your body's ability to know where you are in space.  Sometimes called proprioception, these is sensed by special proprioceptors in joints.  (A wind player's ability to propriocept his or her diaphraghm will be most likely be superior to a desk worker's awareness of his diaphraghm.  A string player or pianist will have much more awareness in the hands or fingers then a singer.)  In relation to balance, your ability to propriocept the body affects how you respond to imbalance, like walking over unstable ground.

3. Visual system- Visual input to the brain about instability is the third piece of the puzzle here-the information from your eyes goes to your brain and helps shape the possible solutions to the imbalance or situation.  (Motion sickness is when there is a disconnect between what is felt in the body (movement), and what is seen (in an airplane/car, lots of outside motion).

If you want to get fancy with finding postural sway in balance, try lifting a leg while standing, perhaps into the yoga pose of tree.  Notice the postural sway in the body and how you're constantly adjusting in the ankle, foot, and lower leg.  Now try that with your eyes closed-much more difficult!  In addition, if you're on less flat terrain, say on grass or on a squishy surface, your proprioceptors are working extra hard to keep you upright.  Try both legs and notice the difference between sides.  At the end of the day, posture, standing, sitting, and balancing are dynamic processes- our body is always moving!

One Last Hypermobility Chat: The Knees

Picture is referenced in KatySays.com, amongst many other blogs as well.  Can you see the woman's knee position on the right?

Picture is referenced in KatySays.com, amongst many other blogs as well.  Can you see the woman's knee position on the right?

In my first post, I talked about what hypermobility is, and in my second post, how it relates to music, fingers, etc.  However, your mobile knees (or your student's) also affect your posture, your standing, and your spine.  If you're a regular reader, you may remember a series of posts about standing, stance, high heels, etc., and hypermobile knees are a part of that equation. 

Let's take a look at this picture, which is from a few months back when I initially wrote about heels and standing.  Can you see how the woman on the right has hyperextended her knees and thus forced her spine into an excessive curvature?  She's basically exaggerating the curves of her spine and forcing her head forward.  You don't have to be wearing heels to have this phenomena though, take a look here.

So this gender neutral character has slightly hyperextended knees, which then forces an exaggerated curve of the spine, and the belly is forward.  This can be in combination with soft tissue issues as we see on the right, but hyperextending the knees is definitely part of the problem here.

So this gender neutral character has slightly hyperextended knees, which then forces an exaggerated curve of the spine, and the belly is forward.  This can be in combination with soft tissue issues as we see on the right, but hyperextending the knees is definitely part of the problem here.

So what's the solution?  For me, (I have one hypermobile knee) it comes down to a few steps.

1.  Bring the feet parallel (or very close to parallel) when standing, walking, etc.  When the feet turn out a lot, it makes it easier to tuck the pelvis and hyperextend the knees.

2. Slightly bend the knees to try to find a non-hyperextended position.

3.  Bring the pelvis to neutral, either un-tucking your pelvis or the opposite, lengthening your tailbone down if you have an anterior tilt.  The second image is of someone with an over-tucked pelvis or posterior tilt.

4.  When standing, try to externally rotate your thighs (but don't actually move your legs at all) and feel your glutes turn on.  This basically means that your right thigh wants to rotate clockwise and your left thigh wants to rotate counterclockwise, but you don't move your legs at all. 

If you teach children (who often hyperextend their knees unknowingly), suggest that they slightly bend their knees and bring their feet to parallel.  The more subtle cues may not work for them right away, but helping their lower body find neutral is definitely a start.

***A Cautionary note:  If you regularly practice yoga or any form of stretching, please DON'T hyperextend your knees in that practice.  Watch out in forward folds, triangle, warrior II, etc.  It's not great for your knees and not great for your spine.***



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