Mastery Without Pain: Musicians and the Feldenkrais Method
Musicians' Assistance Program
Volume CV, No. 3March, 2005
Playing is a complex process. It begins with a musical intention that is translated into a series of movements involving weight, speed, orientation in space, and relationship to gravity. When these movements are inefficient and not optimally organized, the result is excessive strain, unnecessary wear-and-tear on the muscular-skeletal system and unsatisfactory musical results. Magnified by long hours of practice, this wear-and-tear produces many of the playing-related injuries that are so common among performers.
The Feldenkrais Method, developed by Israeli physicist and engineer Moshe Feldenkrais, is recognized around the world as an elegant and effective way to improve performance and eliminate pain by changing the quality of the movements we do when we play.
Feldenkrais uses gentle, slow movements to awaken players’ awareness of how they use themselves and to allow them to feel minute differences in quality.
Using this increased awareness as a tool, new possibilities of movement are introduced and integrated into the musicians’ playing. The freedom and richness of this expanded repertoire of movement can heal and prevent injuries, and also allows for greater freedom of musical imagination.
A PERSONAL STORY
My involvement with Feldenkrais grew out of my own quest for better organization at the piano. I remember playing a Schubert impromptu at my lesson when I was about seven years old, unaware that my shoulders were up to my ears in my attempt to express the music I heard inside me.
My teacher kept putting her hands on my shoulders and telling me to relax. I tried to lower my shoulders, but after two minutes, they would creep back up and the cycle would begin again.
Over the years, as I practiced intensely and performed a lot, I became increasingly aware of these habitual gestures and dissatisfied with the sound I was producing, but I did not have the tools to make lasting changes.
At the suggestion of my teacher at the time, I attended a four-day workshop with Dr. Feldenkrais. It completely changed my idea of sound and how to use my body to produce it, and inspired me to undertake a four-year Feldenkrais professional training program.
Since my training, I have focused on integrating the Feldenkrais Method into the study of music in a way that recognizes the reciprocal relationship of physical freedom at the instrument with the realization of musical intention.
I work with musicians in two formats: private lessons, which are called Functional Integration, and group classes, which are called Awareness Through Movement.
In a private lesson, I ask the musician to play so that I can see how they organize themselves. I find out what they would like to do better and, if they are injured, how they feel their way of playing relates to the injury.
While observing them, I think about what kind of movements will enable the nervous system to make better choices and enlist parts of the body that are not being used enough.
I feel with my hands where the impediments are and guide the student with my hands, not verbally, through various movements, both in resting and in playing. Because it is totally unique to the student and to the moment, the work is very efficient.
In Awareness Through Movement, the students lie on the floor and do a series of verbally guided movements. I tailor the lesson to the needs of the people in the room.
The more advanced Awareness Through Movement lessons are complicated and demanding, at least as demanding as yoga, Pilates, or martial arts maneuvers, but the emphasis in Feldenkrais is on learning, on the process.
We do not teach by imitation, by endless repetition, or by pushing to the limits. Instead, we give the student the tools to harness the nervous system’s innate tendency to acquire new patterns. This allows the student to become independent, so that eventually they can find their own solutions for healthy, efficient use of self in playing.
In introductory workshops, I combine these two approaches to give the students an intense immersion and a leap in improvement.
802 member Paul Tobias, a cellist and teacher of cello at the Mannes School of Music says the following about his experience with the method:
“More than any kind of sessions that I’ve had in my life, the Feldenkrais lessons have the ability to simply open the windows to fresh air and the simplicity of being grounded and feeling right. Not by being taking apart and looked at and measured and reasoned, and not by being medicated and probed but just by being allowed to be simple and to be reminded of the pleasure of being whole and integrated. It opens the door back to all the freedom of childhood, to the time of being a youngster with a love of discovery, without any concept of limits and difficulties.”
Aliza Stewart is a pianist and Feldenkrais practitioner. For more information, see www.AlizaStewart.com. The terms “Feldenkrais Method,” “Functional Integration,” and “Awareness Through Movement” are all are service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild of North America.