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Using the Feldenkrais Method to Heighten Musical Awareness and Skill

By Elisabeth Reed, GCFT

Like many musicians, I came to the Feldenkrais Method in the course of dealing with a repetitive stress injury. The Method is invaluable for addressing such injuries, since it not only looks at the presenting symptoms but also investigates the underlying context of behaviors that produced them. Yet, while the Feldenkrais Method alleviated what was a potentially career-threatening injury for me, its power as a tool for understanding those holistic contexts of movement and thought has been the Method’s greatest contribution to my musical life. In the years of incorporating the Method into my playing and teaching since first using it to heal my arm, I have come to believe that the benefits of Feldenkrais study for the non-injured musician, in the form of heightened musical awareness and skill, even outweigh its more well-known role as an approach to free oneself from pain.

The language of music is very physical; we speak constantly in terms of things like breathing, gesture and weight. Musical gesture, like physical gesture, can be initiated from anywhere we can imagine: from our breath, from our spine, from our feet, sitz bones, pelvis, or belly. While it is of course legitimate to generate musical ideas intellectually, the valuable thing about the Feldenkrais Method is that it helps us discover many more options for initiating or refining a gesture, a direction for the phrase, or an emphasis. By using the Feldenkrais Method to explore how we go about making music, we can begin to notice what our habits are—perhaps we tend to make a certain quality of sound which we don’t vary much, or we have a limited range of emotional affects we are comfortable with. Once we are aware of what we are doing, we can begin to sense a whole new range of possibilities for creating and shaping sound through movement.

Here is a short Awareness Through Movement® lesson to play with—one specifically for cellists or gambists, but easily adaptable to other instruments:

Sit comfortably on a chair, at first without your instrument. Feel your two sitz bones on the chair and begin to sense the central “line” of your spine, as well as the lines of your arms and legs. Sense yourself almost as a stick figure composed of the line of your spine ascending from the chair, and the four lines of your legs and arms extending out.

Now pick up your cello and feel the relationship of the instrument to this image you have of the five connected lines of your spine, arms, and legs.

Begin with long, slow bows, down and up. As you play the down bow, arch your back, roll forward on your sitz bones, and look up toward the ceiling, breathing in. As you play the up bow, curl your back in, roll back on your sitz bones, and look down toward the floor or your belly button, breathing out.

Do this several times, keeping a sense of the five lines of your spine, legs, and arms, and shifting your attention from your feet to your knees, your sitz bones, your spine, shoulder blades, neck, head, eyes, and breath.

Now start to play with initiating the movement from each of the different places mentioned above. Begin the movement in your feet, for example, or start it with your breath. Let the impulse for beginning to move the bow shift from one place within you to another, and listen to the changes in the quality and character of the sound.

Then, reverse the direction, so that you are curling everything in on the down bow and breathing out—then arching everything on the up bow and breathing in. Notice the differences in your experience of the down and up bow.

Which way feels more habitual to you?

Experiment with moving the bow almost entirely with your breath: as you breathe in, your rib cage expands and your arm may move almost without any muscular effort in the arm itself. Play with it.

If you can, try doing this with another musician. Have them play and initiate the sound from different places and see what you notice about changes in the quality of the sound. Don’t be afraid to sound “bad” sometimes. Cultivate an interest in the variety of sounds you can make.

Elisabeth Reed is a professional musician and teacher in Oakland, Calif., where she specializes in early music. She plays the cello, the baroque cello, and a Renaissance instrument called the viola da gamba.

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