A while back I posted on the potential benefits of the Alexander Technique for horn playing, and as a follow up this post will consider the Feldenkrais Method, or as it is known today, The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education.
Compared to my experience with the Alexander Technique, my knowledge of the Feldenkrais Method is very limited. During graduate school I took a course called “Feldenkrais for Musicians,” which was taught by Uri Vardi, Professor of Cello at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although I only took the class for one semester, I feel like I gained at least a basic understanding of the Method, and got to experience some of its applications for music and other performing arts.
Like the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method has been applied successfully in dance, acting, and music. While I highly recommend perusing the official Feldenkrais website www.feldenkrais.com, for most of this post I’ll be referring to the resources I have from my class with Professor Vardi. They are perhaps a little dated, but I am more familiar with them than with the website, and I think they will work just fine for the purposes of this introduction.
The first resource is an article by Ralph Strauch, Ph.D., a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner who studied the Method with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. The article is titled “An Overview of the Feldenkrais Method,” and according to the copyright information it “was prepared for inclusion in Choices in Health Care: A Resource Guide to Contemporary Medicine and Therapy., Adriana Elmes, Ed., copyright 1996.” Dr. Strauch explains in plain and concise language what the Feldenkrais Method is.
What is Feldenkrais?
The Feldenkrais Method is a way of learning – learning to move freely and easily, to carry less stress in your body, to stop doing the things that cause you pain. It is not the verbal/intellectual learning you were used to in school. It is learning through, and with, your body – learning that you knew as a child but lost touch with growing up.
Through gentle movement and directed attention, it enhances your self-awareness to put you back in touch with yourself, with the fluid, easy movement that is your birthright. We call this kind of learning “somatic education.” p. 1
To me, the goals of the Feldenkrais Method seem very similar to those of the Alexander Technique, although I have been told by practitioners of both that the two disciplines are very different. I’m not really qualified to make any kind of an official comparison between the two, so I’ll leave that up to those who are more knowledgeable.
Getting back to Dr. Strauch’s article, he goes on to explain how Feldenkrais classes are organized. We followed the same basic format in my class, with a few modifications which I’ll explain later.
The Method is taught in two formats – group classes and workshops in Awareness Through Movement, and individual lessons in Functional Integration. In Awareness Through Movement classes the practitioner guides you through a sequence of gentle non-strenuous movements. Attentive repetition helps you to discover how to move more comfortably and efficiently. Students often experience immediate improvements in posture, lightness of movement, and freedom from chronic discomforts.
In a Functional Integration lesson you typically lie on a low, padded table wearing loose, comfortable clothing. The practitioner uses gentle touch to explore your habitual patterns of organization and movement, and to suggest easier and more functional ways of being. Each lesson is adapted to your specific needs; there is no set sequence or number of lessons. p. 1
At Wisconsin the Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes were taught in essentially the same format described above, but the Functional Integration (FI) sessions were taught in a master class setting. Each week different people performed, and the instructor worked with them individually while the class observed and commented on what they heard and saw. There were a variety of concentrations in the class if I remember correctly, including vocalists, pianists, and three horn players.
One thing I remember vividly from the FI classes is that Professor Vardi often asked the performers to do something unusual with their bodies while they were playing or singing. He instructed students to stand on chairs, on one leg, march around the room, or lie on their backs, all while performing in front of the class. Occasionally he would ask students to try something again, while focusing on a specific part of the body.
The point of these exercises were I believe to heighten one’s awareness of the body and the physical sensations associated with performing. Once aware of these sensations, changes could then be made in order to improve efficiency, reduce tension, enhance phrasing, etc. Students often began to sound better during FI classes, with some of the benefits being a bigger, more open sound, less tension – both in their bodies and in the resulting sound – and in general a less rigid/mechanical approach to performing.
For a little more background on Feldenkrais himself, we’ll turn to Dr. Strauch’s article one more time.
The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist and engineer, and an active athlete and martial artist. Finding himself unable to walk when an old knee injury flared up, Feldenkrais wouldn’t accept his doctor’s recommendation for surgery. The injury hadn’t crippled him when it occured, he reasoned, so perhaps his current disability stemmed not from the injury itself but from something he had done in response to the injury…Feldenkrais began to explore the way he used his knees, initially with small, gentle movements because anything more was painful.
He turned his trained analytical mind to the question of how we function as human beings, educating himself in anatomy, neurology, and related subjects, bringing his experience with judo and other forms of movement to bear as well. He taught himself to walk again, without pain. He also developed a revolutionary understanding of how human beings learn and function that became the basis for the Feldenkrais Method. p. 1-2
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? For a more specific example of how a Feldenkrais Practitioner uses the Method in a musical setting, I’ll quote a passage from an article by Karen Clark called “The Impulse to Sing,” published in The Feldenkrais Journal No. 14, Winter 2002, p. 47-51. The author, a vocal teacher and Feldenkrais Practitioner, presents several case studies involving her students and how they benefited from using the Method.
Susan, a soprano with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, called me after she’d been with the opera for several months, often singing for several hours a day, 6 days a week. She was concerned because her high notes were feeling uncomfortable and unreliable and she was afraid that it was due to misuse. When she came to see me I observed that she seemed tired and drawn down physically and spiritually. I took her through some vocal exercises and sensed that the focus, for her, needed to be completely away from the throat.
First, we spent some time looking at bending the torso forward from the hip sockets, and I had her locate her hip joints by inserting her thumbs in the area where the femur articulates with the acetabulum. I then had her stand upright and asked her to think of actually beginning to sing by opening, alternately, the right and left hip joints, and each time to think of bringing the hip forward as if to align the knee and ankle.
I had her sing a simple melodic pattern and as we progressed asked her to imagine how this movement from the hip could spiral upward to lengthen and open her torso through the opposite shoulder and upper chest cavity. As the larger muscles of the pelvic girdle and the legs engaged to more efficiently support her weight, the upper body became more flexible and the intrinsic musculature in and around the larynx was freed. The high notes she had feared would be gone, were emitted, to her astonishment, beautifully and effortlessly. p. 47-48.
If this post has piqued your interest in the Feldenkrais Method and other types of body/mind awareness studies, I encourage you to check out the official Feldenkrais Method website, and their collection of articles related to Feldenkrais Method and the performing arts.
Whether we choose to study Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Aston-Kinetics/Patterning, Yoga, etc., I think our technique, musicianship, and overall approach to life and career can benefit greatly from these types of disciplines.
By James Boldin