About a month ago, Dr. Lea Pearson visited Duquesne University to give lectures on body mapping and musicians health. Dr. Pearson is a licensed Andover Educator and has been helping musicians discover more effective ways of playing with less pain. Her interest began when she was experiencing pain while playing the flute. She has published a book Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body and has her own website: Music Minus Pain.
Attending her lecture was very informative. I did not have any knowledge of what body mapping was about. As someone who has studied and instructed yoga classes, I felt that I knew about mind body connections. When she began asking the audience about the shape and size of certain body structures, it became more apparent that most of us (college students) do not really know how our bodies function. Although we were all music majors and likely did not have to take any courses in anatomy, we still did not really understand the way our bodies worked when we use them daily to produce music.
I took a 30 min private lesson with Dr. Pearson and had a really incredible experience. While playing a transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, I was having difficulty breathing and certain notes in my upper register felt labored.
She first asked me about the diaphragm. What does it do? Where is it located? What does it look like? I knew it had something to do with breathing… it is somewhere above my stomach… and I had no clue what shape it was.
This is a picture of where the diaphragm is and its shape. It’s quite large and is shaped like a mushroom/parachute. It’s located right below the lungs. When we inhale this skeletal muscle contracts and opens the thoracic part of our body allowing the lungs to fully expand. Being able to clearly visualize (or map out) my diaphragm helped me to isolate and understand the function of my breath when playing the saxophone.
The second thing she asked me to do was tell her where the spine meets the skull. I pointed towards the back of my head near my hairline. Again I was mistaken and learned that it’s just a little bit higher. She had me locate the small dents behind my earlobes and asked me to stand still and only rotate my head. This was fairly significant for me, because without being fully aware of this function I was limiting my motion to stabilize my embouchure. When I began playing and allowing the head to move more freely and let the instrument move with me, I found it easier to still play with a good embouchure and voice my upper register in a more clear way.
From just one lesson, I was able to play in a much more comfortable way and notice an immediate change in my playing. Since my lesson, I have found myself re-mapping these structures and trying to internalize them so they become more habitual and effortless.
What is it?
The Alexander Technique is a hands on method to re-educate a person on how to use their body more efficiently and more comfortably. Alexander teachers work with a student to overcome poor habits in relation to posture and balance. Particularly in the way the head, neck, and back are connected hence the mantra:
Let the neck be free so the head can move forwards and upwards and the back can lengthen and widen.
In the late 19th Century, Frederick Matthias Alexander discovered why he was losing his voice when performing Shakespeare recitals. He observed himself during rehearsals and realized that he positioned his head in a way that constricted his larynx causing him to be hoarse in the middle of performance. Surprised that he was unaware of this issue before, he worked to develop the Alexander Technique (AT) to help others fix their mistakes and become more aware of their bodies. Today many professional athletes as well as professional musicians use this method to aid in performing their best.
Practical uses for Musicians
There are many studies that show improvement among musicians playing ability and reduced performance anxiety as a result of partaking in AT sessions. Many colleges offer AT courses particularly for musicians.
In relation to the father of AT, a vocalist can benefit from understanding how to balance the head and avoid hindering their voice (instrument). Although instrumentalists do not solely produce music from their own bodies like a vocalist does, an instrumentalist can still benefit from AT in reducing poor habits that may inhibit performance.
From the Alexander Technique International website, Deborah Adams provides a great article on how AT can benefit pianists. She discusses how it can help pianists become aware of their habits that affect elements of their performance including tone production, rhythm, and even pedaling. Her main point is that AT is a means to recognize our issues and discover for ourselves a way to fix them.
For any instrumental musician, an injury or musculoskeletal condition can severely hinder or even end a career. We rely on our hands to be agile to facilitate technique and the muscles in our core and upper body to support air stream as well as support the instrument. Although we don’t exert ourselves the in the same way as a sport athlete, we still risk misusing our bodies and affecting our abilities to perform.
The most common medical issue instrumentalists face is overuse syndrome. This condition is “brought about by long, hard use of a limb that is excessive for the individual affected, taking the tissues beyond their biological tolerance and causing some subsequent change” (Bejjani). Approximately 50% of professional symphony orchestra musicians are affected by overuse syndrome. It is not surprising considering the work ethic of musicians spending hours repeating patterns and phrases until they are perfect. Many times we will practice through any pain or fatigue to perfect every detail.
Age certainly plays a factor in overuse syndrome as well as the type of instrument being played. Most if not all professional musicians began playing their instrument at a very young age. The instruments that we play are not perfectly ergonomic, forcing musicians to hold awkward body positions for longer periods of time. For example, a violinist has to support the instrument using the muscles in the neck and shoulder while keeping one arm raised the whole time. Excessive tension (or overuse) of these muscles can cause inflammation resulting in chronic pain. Over a long period of time, the body will develop around the instrument itself causing an imbalance of muscular facility.
The main symptom of this condition in musicians is pain, particularly during or after playing an instrument. Many times, this is misdiagnosed as tendinitis. Treatment for overuse syndrome is rest and physical rehabilitation/conditioning. In Bejjani’s article on Musculoskeletal and Neuromuscular Conditions of Instrumental Musicians, he explains how important it is to “stress whole-body involvement with least muscle effort, avoiding static work, and adequate breathing and relaxation techniques” in regards to treating overuse syndrome.
Both Hatha and Raja yoga practices tie in Bejjani’s suggestion. These yoga practices involve developing full mind-body awareness as well as breathing techniques (pranayama) that can reduce tension and increase relaxation. I believe that a dedicated and knowledgeable practice of yoga can significantly reduce the development of muscular conditions in musicians.
Welcome all to my new adventure in the blogosphere!
My name is Will (feel free to call me Willy B like my coworkers called me when I worked at Panera Bread). Like the famous gorilla Willie B, I was raised in Atlanta, GA. I earned a bachelor’s in saxophone performance and music theory at the University of Arkansas and am now currently pursuing a master’s in saxophone performance at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.
I soon realized after starting my first year of my bachelors that earning a music degree is incredibly stressful. Busy class schedules, rehearsals, long practice sessions, and performances certainly affected me early on. I noticed how my anxiety grew by being in a new city and handling a demanding curriculum.
Sophomore year I decided to take advantage of the recreation center (that my tuition was most certainly paying for) and attended a yoga class as a way to relieve my stress. I chose the early bird class at 6:15am and I was smitten. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much, but I loved how I felt after class and after going several times I noticed my energy level shift. I felt more focused and motivated, and I also made new friends with the other regulars (the ladies who work in the library) who made me smile so early in the morning.
After attending classes for a year, one of my instructors encouraged me go through a teaching certification. I became certified in February 2014 and was able to start instructing that summer at the recreation center on campus. For me it was a surreal moment being in front of a yoga class and thinking about where I had started. It’s a feeling I always have when I instruct a class, and knowing that there is a chance to inspire that feeling for someone else.
I aspire to teach musicians how to manage the pressure of pursuing careers in music through a mindful practice of yoga. It is a subject I have become increasingly passionate about as I discover how yoga affects my performance practice.