Musicians' Health Collective

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

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The Intersection of Dance, Pilates, and Music: An Interview with Cicely Nelson

Cicely Nelson.jpg

Cicely Nelson is a violinist, educator, pilates teacher, dancer, and general somatic adventurer.  With a wide range of educational and artistic experiences, as well as having lived a number of places, she brings a unique perspective to all that she does.  She's also a recent Canadian transplant in Los Angeles, which is a new chapter in her career.  I am impressed by all that she does and I can't wait to meet up with her and move the next time I'm in LA.

K: Tell us a little about your varied career. You have a wide range of interests and training, and a blended career in multiple fields of education, somatic teaching, and music performance. (and a liberal arts degree too!) You also just moved to LA...
C: My parents are very musical and music was a constant in my house growing up. Dancing was really my first artistic outlet - I danced seriously (attending professional schools in Canada) and professionally until my early twenties (I am back to dancing now, after some time off, but not as much ballet). Dancing is a tough career though, and I think, in many ways, I was emotionally unprepared for it, and I found healing and strength in returning to therapeutic bodywork as a career while at university in New York. Music kind of slowly blossomed alongside that. So I'm not sure I even noticed at the time how helpful both conditioning and somatic work was for my playing! That I maintained my physical health was always kind of a given. Later, encountering so many musicians with physical issues, I really realized the value of the work I do! In New York I used to teach pilates to a big-name violinist. I'll never forget the day he asked me for a violin lesson – for the sake of his alignment of course, my head exploded nevertheless!

Cicely here in the early days of studying ballet

Cicely here in the early days of studying ballet

K: When did you start music study as a child, as well as dance, and how did studying those two performing arts concurrently affect you then and now?  
C: Like I said, dance was very much primary, but music always alongside. I don't think musicians always think of dancers as musicians (but of course they are) - and, similarly musicians do have far greater command of their coordination and propriocention than they realize! My bodywork makes me super keenly aware of the physicality of playing - to the extent that it can occasionally be difficult to get into a state of flow where I'm just thinking of the music. But generally body awareness really helps my playing.

K: How does the liberal arts degree factor into things?  
C: I didn't have much of a high school experience (due to ballet school), so college was really about studying anything and everything! Thankfully, I went to college in New York City so it was a tremendously stimulating place to kind of reroute my passions after the ballet career and, while I dabbled in premed and even contemplated going a more academic direction, I don't think it was really ever a question that I could stay away from the arts.

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K: You additionally have training in Suzuki- when did you start that?                                               C: I was made aware of the really excellent Suzuki teacher training program at the school for strings in NYC after I finished my undergraduate degree. In all honesty, the program's approach sounded so similar to Pilates! The school really emphasizes creatively finding a slow, steady, systematic path for every single student, regardless of ability or learning style. The skills that I had gained in training people to move came in really handy in teaching children to play. It's really such a great program! Incredible teachers – I think of them every day that I teach, not only the amazing violinistic tips but their humanity – how they really prioritized developing the whole child as opposed to just a little prodigies, how art for them wasn't just about creativity and achievement but also about emotional health. This resonated with me as it wasn't a balance that was particularly well struck during my own childhood.

K: How does have a somatic background affect the way you work with beginners and children? C: Oh wow, it's huge! Kids are so much more in touch with their emotions than adults, for a variety of reasons. Of course, they're not always able to understand or verbalize their feelings, but my awareness of how emotions manifest physically enables me to guide both their learning and performing experiences with extra sensitivity, I think.

K: Who have some of your biggest teachers/mentors been, either in movement or music?            C: I've been fortunate to study with some incredible mentors - in all of my endeavors. I've always sought answers very avidly and, for better or worse, impatiently - so, if one my mentors wasn't getting through to me, I would seek another answer. Of course the downside to this is that I have been a somewhat of a fickle student. 

In New York, I studied violin with Joey Corpus, who is just a total savant. He extremely creative about solving violinistic issues - he has no set system, his eye just seems to see. Also, somewhat ironically for a paraplegic, his instructions are extremely kinetic, an approach that resonated with me. 

In terms of bodywork, I absolutely adore Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Her work on embodied anatomy, living in our bodies instead of our minds, was and remains a game changer for me. 

Cicely doing swan on the ladder barrel

Cicely doing swan on the ladder barrel

Erika Bloom has been an incredible Pilates colleague and mentor. We met up in New York in 2006, where I was a member of the team that opened her first studio. It was so refreshing to work with someone who prioritized education and truly kept themselves and their team abreast of current anatomical and neuromuscular scholarship. I think that's becoming a more common model now, but not as much 10 years ago. I continue to work for her now, having moved to LA to open her first West Coast studio last January.

K: What has the intersection of movement and music done for you?  
C: They are the same to me. Vehicles of expression that demand massive amounts of devotion, drilling, sacrifice, and self care. But pursuits that are more rewarding than anything under the sun. Being a musician makes me a better dancer and vice versa. Pilates, yoga, and bodywork are truly my therapeutic recourse personally, but also teaching is both something that fills me up and enables me to give back in a really tangible way. Of course performing arts make people's lives better, but that can sometimes feel somewhat abstract? In teaching Pilates I feel I can make people's lives better in the moment, which provides a nice counterbalance to the occasional loneliness of artistic pursuits.

K: What are you currently fascinated with in your own movement practice and what do you want to learn more about?                                                                                                                            C: Oh that's such a great question. Last year, after a fairly stressful couple of years, I was working in the Caribbean and I had lots of extra time. My obsession then was limits – that I had always been focused on finding and pushing my boundaries and limits, but I wanted to take that time to find a real comfort zone – not pushing boundaries and leaning into ligaments, but really making my muscles stronger and becoming fluid and confident within my own skeleton. That was a really helpful direction to take and I do feel much more grounded now. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's work has been really influential recently, especially her studies on how we somatize emotion and, similarly, how movement is far more than a physical therapy, but also tremendously impactful on emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual levels.

K: What are some upcoming projects?                                                                                                C: Playing-wise, I am getting in shape for orchestra auditions. Given the variety of my interests, even if I could win a full time orchestra job, that wouldn't so much be my ideal life, I'm more focusing on getting in better shape to that I can play with better pick-up orchestras? My dream is to meet some local chamber musicians, that is of course my favorite thing. I had that in New York - people with whom you play for fun but people who are serious and professional so that a bunch of gigs came our way and we actually did quite well in the classical nightlife scene there for a few years! 

In terms of dance, I continue to dance here in Los Angeles, mostly studying with both visiting and local Flamenco artists and performing a little bit, just casually. I'm still pretty new to Flamenco, so there is so much to learn! But what I especially love in this art form is that the dancer is the musician.

I'm probably most deeply involved right now in getting Erika Bloom's studio up and running in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. I'm really excited for what our studio can bring to this city! In my experience here thus far, Pilates is usually lumped in with fitness and the whole magic bullet/vanity industry, which of course it can be, but we offer so much more than that - a really holistic approach to wellness, movement, and fitness that is about so much more than this typically-LA obsession with looking good - and an approach that is directed by arguably the best education available in the industry at the moment.

K: Thanks so much, Cicely!

For more on Cicely, visit her website at www.cicelynelson.com

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.

Helping Your Levator Scapulae

On Wednesday, we looked at what exactly the Levator Scapulae are.  When do you use them?  When you lift your shoulders, flex your head to one side, rotate your head...all things that many musicians do frequently, often without awareness.  You will also elevate your levator scapulae when you carry bags, either on one side or both sides, which many of us do to carry our instruments everywhere.  If your levator scapulae cause you some discomfort, here are some suggestions:

The levator scapulae are just two of many, many different deep muscles of the upper back and neck, which all work together to create movement in the neck and upper back.  To find them on your own body, palpate the superior angle of your scapula (the innermost corner of your shoulder blade) and look for a muscle that runs diagonally to the lateral sides of the neck.  Try lifting and lowering your shoulder blades and see if a muscle jumps underneath your fingers.  You will definitely feel the middle fibers of the trapezius, which are superficial to the LS, but feel around with more pressure and see what you notice.  What is the quality of the tissue?  How does it feel underneath your fingers?  Do you have pain or lack of sensation?  Are there adhesions?    

The levator scapulae are just two of many, many different deep muscles of the upper back and neck, which all work together to create movement in the neck and upper back.  To find them on your own body, palpate the superior angle of your scapula (the innermost corner of your shoulder blade) and look for a muscle that runs diagonally to the lateral sides of the neck.  Try lifting and lowering your shoulder blades and see if a muscle jumps underneath your fingers.  You will definitely feel the middle fibers of the trapezius, which are superficial to the LS, but feel around with more pressure and see what you notice.  What is the quality of the tissue?  How does it feel underneath your fingers?  Do you have pain or lack of sensation?  Are there adhesions?    

1.  Manual Therapy: Massage is a critical part of self care and soft tissue health, yet few musicians can afford to get massage as regularly as they might need it.  As a teacher of self massage techniques and Yoga Tune Up, I think self-massage can enhance proprioception and overall awareness of the body, while also supporting  regular (or less frequent) bodywork.  It's not meant to replace manual therapy, but merely give the practitioner an opportunity to continue the self-treatment beyond a session. I prefer soft, pliable stress transfer mediums (squishy balls over lacrosse balls or wooden or plastic implements) and for more information on self-massage, read here.  My favorite sequences target the upper back musculature, the latissimus attachment sites, and the tempermental trapezius.    Here’s a great video of YTU teacher Holli Rabishaw demonstrating “zombie with a twist" which is one of my favorite moves to do on the wall.

2.  Observation and retraining: For upper string players, working with an Alexander Technique teacher, Feldenkrais teacher, body mapping instructor, or other somatic practitioner can not only help one find more freedom without one’s instrument, but also tweak mechanical instrumental setup to better suit one’s individual body.  There are a myriad of different ergonomic products being developed to improve instrumental setup and alignment for all musicians, and more than ever, there are options for every body.  (Gone are the days of one chin rest and one shoulder rest fits all).    For upper string players, lessons can enhance overall awareness of the upper body and neck, find freedom throughout the neck, upper back, and shoulders, and an observation of less than optimal habits.  Having another set of trained eyes can help a student find a more optimal setup, regardless of instrument, but also more carefully examine the movement choices that may be hindering freedom.  There isn't a fixed position that will solve all issues, but looking at mechanical gear with the help of another can greatly aid students or professionals working to find more freedom.  *Side note-I personally have found that the teacher matters more than the particular methodology being taught, in regards to movement teachers, exercise instruction, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, etc.  A method that is taught safely, conscientiously, and with sensitivity towards the student, has the potential to be beneficial.*

 

When working with the neck, gentle movements are paramount!  This illustration shows a simple lateral flexion exercise, though adding the weight of the arm can be too intense, and please don't PULL on your neck!  The weight of the arm here is passive and ultimately optional

When working with the neck, gentle movements are paramount!  This illustration shows a simple lateral flexion exercise, though adding the weight of the arm can be too intense, and please don't PULL on your neck!  The weight of the arm here is passive and ultimately optional

3. Neck mobility: Make sure that you’re bringing your neck through a wide range of motions, especially if you play an asymmetrical instrument.  With the advent of technology, cell phones, driving...etc, most of us keep our head and neck in a very static position for hours a day.  With all neck movement, slow gentle movement is critical, as opposed to violent cracking and popping.  Neck circles can help, as well as lateral neck flexion coupled with rotation at different angles.  If there is repetitive clicking or popping in the cervical vertebrae, stop  the motion.  Many physical therapists and movement teachers will instruct a neck mobility sequence- I don't have a video that I particularly love, but there are tons of resources available in books, in person, and on the web.

4. Dynamic shoulder movements: Along with daily mobilization of the neck, dynamic shoulder warmups can help increase bloodflow, maintain healthy ranges of motion, and warmup the upper body before or after playing.  There is an infinite amount of movement possible at the shoulder, yet most of us only explore a fraction of what's possible in our day to day lives.  Shoulder shrugs, shoulder circles, overhead motions, circumduction...anything that helps to move your humerus, clavicle, and scapula will help bring some movement to this area.  Make shoulder movement a part of daily maintenance, not just something you do in your yoga class or lap swim.  Here's one of my teachers, Jill Miller, demonstrating a brief warmup.

5. Self-examination: What are your habits?  Do you carry a one sided purse or case and do you always use one shoulder in particular?  Are you satisfied with your overall instrument setup?   Can you carry less music in your case or bring a lighter bag with you ?  Do you hold your cellphone with your shoulder?  Do you always sleep on one side of the body or flex the head and neck while sleeping?  Are the movements you've adopted while playing serving the technical and musical goals?  Or are they hindering you?  Consider video taping yourself playing or performing  to observe what your tendencies are.  When you are inquisitive  with your assumed habits, both in playing and in the life, you can often find solutions to musical issues within your own body, as well as a new embodied awareness of what may (or may not) be serving you.

Remember that when changing movement habits, your soft tissues need time to adapt to a new setup, case strap situation, exercise, or chin rest!  Gradual change trumps extreme changes every time, especially when a pattern has been sustained for years at a time. 

 

This guy is using his LS to carry his cello, although he has a waist strap to try to distribute the weight better throughout the upper body.  Although carrying a backpack will even out out the load between the shoulders (assuming the straps are the same length), both Levator Scapulae are working to hold the object in a fixed position.

This guy is using his LS to carry his cello, although he has a waist strap to try to distribute the weight better throughout the upper body.  Although carrying a backpack will even out out the load between the shoulders (assuming the straps are the same length), both Levator Scapulae are working to hold the object in a fixed position.


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