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The Lesson

By Mary Spire

Henry, a 75-year-old, prize-winning composer and pianist had his first experience with the Feldenkrais Method® when he was brought reluctantly into my studio for a lesson.

He had a lot of reservations about taking time away from his composing to have a Functional Integration® lesson (a one-on-one session). In addition, he had pressing deadlines. Consequently, upon his arrival, he immediately began working at my desk editing his latest score while I first gave a Functional Integration lesson to his wife.

While I was giving the lesson to his wife, I observed Henry as he worked at the desk: hunched over, head and neck forward, shoulders up, spine rounded, feet not on the floor. He seemed very intensely absorbed in his work and unaware of himself or his surroundings.

When it was time for Henry’s lesson, I thought about what kind of a lesson I could give him, which would catch his attention and be relevant to his needs. I asked him to take off his shoes and sit on the low Feldenkrais® table. I looked at his feet, which were very different from each other in shape and placement. I mentioned that his feet looked schizophrenic.

He looked down and said, “Well, that’s interesting. What does it mean?”

“I don’t know Henry,” I said, “we’ll have to see.”

I asked him if he could try to place his feet differently. He thought about it and placed the one that had been tilted sideways upright and closer to the other.

“That’s more like the other,” he said.

“Yes,” I responded, “and what about having them more symmetrical?”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll have them both next to each other. And now my knees have to be the same too.”

“Yes, both facing forward.” I said.

Henry spontaneously shifted the weight of his pelvis more forward.

“Now, are you comfortable Henry? Before we start, tell me what you would like to learn today.”

“Learn?” he said. “I thought you were going to work on me; my back, shoulder, neck?”

“Well, Henry, you are a very busy person and if I ‘work on you,’ in a few days you’ll need more work and you don’t have time, so instead I’ll help you to learn how to help yourself,” I said.

“So, what do you want to learn? What do you want to do better?”

“I guess I’d like to be able to compose without getting tired; without getting a headache, sore neck, sore fingers and backache. Can you help me do this?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “I can try.”

I noticed that while we had been talking, he had moved his feet back to the way they had been; one sideways and under the table, the other in front of the table. His back was again rounded and his head hung forward.

“Are you comfortable Henry?” I asked. “No? I didn’t think so. What are your feet doing?”

He shifted them.

“And your knees?” He moved his pelvis forward and sat more upright.

“That’s right, Henry. Now, go ahead and slump again and put your feet sideways, in the way that’s familiar to you. And it’s not comfortable, right?

“So go back and forth, between leaving your feet flat on the floor - so if you needed to jump up and run out of the room because a lion came running and roaring thru that window you could - and then turning them impotently sideways. Your feet are connected to the legs and pelvis. You never thought of that? Does it matter to know this? If you don’t want your back to hurt, you need to learn that if your feet are grounded and under the knees, then your pelvis can roll forward and you can sit easier and for longer periods of time. You wanted to learn this; how to sit longer without pain so as to be able to write more music.”

“Good, now you can practice this movement of rolling your pelvis forward and coming to your full height, and then slumping again. Go back and forth until it becomes familiar and easy to do.”

I watched as he did the movements and could see that he was having fun, and that it seemed easier for him.

“It’s fun?” I smiled. “Of course! You’re laughing. Are you having fun Henry? It’s easier to learn if you’re having fun and not trying too hard to do it correctly.”

I asked him to stop and rest a moment so he could feel how he was sitting and breathing. Resting is important so that the brain and nervous system can notice differences and integrate them.

I then asked Henry to do a few movements of rolling his pelvis forward and back. I noticed that he had spontaneously placed his feet below his knees and he was sitting more upright.

I asked him to turn his head to the right and then to the left. Then I asked him to turn his head to the easier side (the right side) a few times, and then to turn his head to the right and look with his eyes to the left at the same time (to differentiate the two movements).

He couldn’t do it and he started laughing.

“Sure you can,” I said, “take your time. Think about what you want to do.”

He tried many times and was getting frustrated.

“Okay”, I said. “Let’s make it easier. Turn your head to the right and keep looking at me. (I was standing directly in front of him). See, it’s easy! Notice how your chin is moving. Is it parallel to the floor or tilting? Are you breathing? Is your head moving smoothly? Are your eyes moving smoothly – legato - at the same rate of speed as your head? Do it a few times, and now as you turn your head to the right start looking to the left. Just begin the movement - don’t do it well, do it a little and try again. Great, now look to right while turning your head to the right”.

Henry turned more easily and his range of motion increased exponentially. His left knee spontaneously went forward and he got taller.

I continued the lesson by having Henry again turn his head from side to side in order to notice how different the two movements were. I then introduced the concept that since movement occurs in the brain, he could learn to do the movement of turning to the left in imagination only. After three minutes he was able to turn to the left and the right with equal ease.

“This Feldenkrais!” Henry exclaimed. “How did he think of this? He’s a genius! Amazing! I can turn very easily and I can also move my eyes and head in opposite directions at the same time! And I feel good, and I’m enjoying myself!”

Turning to his wife, he said, “You should try this. Can you do it? It’s not easy at first but then it’s easy like magic - wonderful! This is learning and I want to learn more. Let’s continue.”

Henry learned at an incredible rate of speed; it was challenging trying to keep one step ahead of him. In all, I gave him three lessons and an audiotape of an Awareness Though Movement® lesson in a sitting position, tailor-made for him. His backaches and headaches went away, only surfacing occasionally, when he was under exceptional stress. I reminded him to continue doing ATMs and he would be fine. Henry is doing well; he continues to remember to notice himself from time to time as he composes. He does his “lessons” faithfully and writes prodigious amounts of music!

Mary Spire holds a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance from U.S.C. and performed for many years before becoming a Feldenkrais practitioner. She has taught the Feldenkrais Method at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. San Francisco, Boston University, SUNY Stonybrook, the Tanglewood Music Center and at other schools and hospitals. Mary maintains private practices in Berkeley and Corte Madera, California.

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