February 5, 2021
by Jennifer Johnson
There is a story about Jascha Heifetz being greeted backstage after a performance by an admiring fan. She gushed to him “Your violin makes such a beautiful sound!” Still holding his violin, Heifetz held it up to his ear and said “Funny, I don’t hear anything!” His point, of course, was that regardless of how wonderful a violin is, no sound will emerge from it at all until the player sets the strings vibrating and that it’s the skill of the player that makes it sound beautiful or not.
As a movement specialist
for musicians, I love this story. As obvious as it might appear once it’s
pointed out, many musicians themselves miss the point that what we do when we
make sound falls into the movement category - just as legitimately as a
dancer’s or athlete’s skills fall into the movement category. The vibrations we
create that we call music can only be caused by movement. Furthermore, the quality
of our movement will determine the quality of our sound.
After many years of playing the violin professionally with poor-quality movement, I inevitably became injured and only found my way back to ease of playing after studying the Alexander Technique and Body Mapping for Musicians.
Teaching Body Mapping to musicians has become a passion of mine over the past 15 years and has served two important purposes in my studio
The most recent studies show that 75-90% of all professional musicians are regularly playing in some kind of pain, injury or discomfort.
Our world needs great beauty and artistry now - perhaps more than ever. We can’t afford to keep losing musicians to injury, especially when those injuries are preventable with good information!
Body Mapping is the method founded by William Conable and developed by Barbara Conable to consciously correct a faulty body map in order to rediscover healthy and easeful movement while making music.
Barbara wrote two books on Body Mapping: the first is How to Learn the Alexander Technique
and the second is What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body. She then created a course for musicians by the same name. Before she retired, she trained many of her musician students to present the course material to other musicians.
Barbara realized that in order for musicians to recover from and prevent further injury, we would not just have to retrain movement by correcting the body map, but we would also need to retrain two other areas that have been traditionally mis-trained or untrained altogether in music pedagogy:
The body map is the neuronal
self-representation we hold of our body in our brain. It is literally a picture
of our body located in the brain that corresponds to and governs, amongst other
functions, our senses. We have numerous maps which represent our self in all of
our various functions and behaviours and these maps interface and communicate
with each other in complex ways.
When we are very
small, our maps are usually accurate depictions of the actual anatomical design
of the body, so young children move and play the cello, piano or flute with
relative ease and comfort. However, these maps which are changeable, can and
frequently do deviate to become inaccurate representations of the body’s actual
Sometimes it happens
because the child has modelled an adult in his life who has poor movement
patterns. Sometimes the inaccuracy in the map stems from cultural myths or from
a teacher’s poor choice of pedagogical language.
If a young violinist
is told to “stand up straight” when playing, his neuronal map of his spine will
gradually alter to reflect what he imagines is meant by “standing up straight.”
It often means standing military-style with the chest pushed up and forward.
This produces a great deal of unnecessary muscular effort in the back of the
torso and up and down either side of the spine. “Get your shoulders down” and
“Get the violin up” are other examples of common pedagogical language that can
lead to injuries in our students.
Instead, we can teach our students what standing in a balanced way looks and feels like, what it’s like to bow with a free, whole arm that includes the shoulder blade and how to find free musically appropriate whole-body movement. We can use words like “balance, freedom, ease, momentum, lightness, floating” all the while
showing our students accurate anatomical images and models to illustrate the specific shapes and functions of bones and joints.
In addition to our good vocabulary choices, we will also need to model healthy movement ourselves and use the wonderful wide world of online musicians who move beautifully to show our students what free movement looks like.
End of Part 1
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