The Feldenkrais Method supplies musicians with the missing links that allow them to make the leap from good playing to remarkable playing. These missing links are self-awareness and effective movement patterns at the instrument.
Dr Feldenkrais said that in order to do what you want to do physically, you have to understand what you’re already doing that gets in the way. He developed movement “lessons” which shine light and potency into the “blind spots” of our self-understanding. These gentle but enormously effective lessons, create new neural pathways to make everything easier. They help musicians take the pain, effort and sense of limitation out of making music.
It is said that when two martial artists of different traditions fight, the winner does not prove the superiority of his martial art, but merely the superiority of his own kung fu, or fighting ability.
Similarly, when you are on stage, the audience doesn’t care what degrees you have, who you studied with, how many hours you practice a day, or even how good your chops are. Your audience wants to be moved. They want to feel a connection with you and with the music you are presenting. How well you do reflects your ‘musical kung fu’ – your ability to perform and convey the music behind the notes.
As it turns out, we musicians have much in common with martial artists. My own vocal and instrumental technique is full of lessons I learned in my years studying tai chi, not to mention the lessons I’ve learned from the Feldenkrais Method. And did you know Moshe Feldenkrais was a Judo master? In fact, much of the method is based on Judo.
Here are just a few concepts martial artists and musicians have in common, as well as some lessons certain martial arts have to teach musicians…
I believe we become musicians because of a vision we have of what we could do – of the music we could make. We might have fallen in love with the sound of the instrument as played by a teacher or on a recording, or we might have been drawn to the simple idea of being a musician. This vision, whatever it is, sustains us through those difficult first steps of learning to make a sound – any sound at all at first, and then a (let’s face it) tolerable sound, and eventually, we hope, a sound which we find satisfying. As we master our art, our sense of what’s possible evolves, the vision evolves, and we can always see a ‘next step’ for our skill.
What’s preventing you right now from realizing your vision? What’s preventing you from reaching your next step?
Injury? Tension? Posture? Anxiety? A lack of flow and ease? Lack of inspiration, of connection to the vision, to the music itself?
All of these impediments to your art are bound up in your most basic habitual movement patterns: from the habits you use to hold yourself up and move around, to those you use to interact with other people, to the very patterns you use to make music….
If you’re Jewish, and you take the High Holidays seriously, you might have had the experience that, as the Days of Awe progress, you’re just beginning to touch something, just beginning to see and feel your life for what it really is, just beginning to realize what it is that you need to do to really turn over a new leaf in the new year… and… then it’s all over. the final shofar blows, and … you feel lighter! The Holidays have worked their magic once again.
But what of that glimpse? What was that possibility of redemption? Of transformation? Of some fundamental shift in your relationship to the way you inhabit your life?
And what does this have to do with Awareness Through Movement?
Every summer now for over a decade I have had the great pleasure and honor of spending a few weeks teaching Feldenkrais at the beautiful World Fellowship Center at the foot of the White Mountains near Conway, New Hampshire. I spend the first half of my stay teaching, coaching, and performing at the Early Music Week, and the other half teaching a four-day intensive Awareness Through Movement retreat.
The casual observer might get the impression that I am advocating a way of being and acting that includes no commitment to goals or to improvement, a sort of anything-goes / take it easy / do whatever you like / it’s all good / whatever comes naturally philosophy with no sense of purpose or forward momentum.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am talking about here is the approach that allowed me to make my own impossible possible: to recover from chronic hand pain which for years made me feel like I would never be able to play my instrument again. It took me close to a decade of patient commitment to transform myself from a lost, confused, and pretty-much disabled recent college grad, to a serious student of movement, then a serious student of music, and finally a professional musician and Feldenkrais teacher. Many times I was tempted to give up, or just grit my teeth and push through (which, I quickly realized again and again, would amount to pretty much the same thing), but I am now very glad I kept with it.
Many students say to me at their first private Functional Integration lesson something like “I know I need to strengthen my core.” (This is almost as common as “I know I have bad posture”). Sometimes they refer to their own experience, telling me that they feel weak, or that they tire easily, but more often their personal experience is simply that their back or neck hurts, and they heard from someone (often a skilled Physical Therapist or yoga teacher) that the pain in their back is due to weak “core” muscles.
When I help them feel what they’re actually doing, it usually turns out that they’re tightening those “core” abdominal muscles all the time. No wonder they feel weak! If a muscle is always engaged, it has less strength to engage further – its potential is already in use.
I have always felt a connection between Jewish spirituality and the Feldenkrais method. Maybe this is because Moshe Feldenkrais was Jewish (he spent his childhood in a traditional community in Europe, and came from a line of important Hasidic rabbis). Or maybe it’s because I discovered the Feldenkrais Method and Jewish spirituality at about the same time. Over the past few years I have felt both this connection and some tensions between the approaches most keenly around the High Holidays. This is hardly surprising, since on a certain level Yom Kippur and the Feldenkrais method seek to do the same thing: to provide a space for change in our habitual ways of living.