by Elizabeth Blades
In the late 1980’s, a stressed-out wife, mother, and full-time doctoral student at the Eastman School of Music crossed paths with a newly minted Feldenkrais® practitioner in Rochester, NY. What seemed a serendipitous, but temporary, encounter transformed both lives. This is our story.
Sam Nelson: I had been working as an economist for Argonne National Laboratory, utilizing my MA in Economics and Ph.D. in environmental studies. My feet were giving me trouble, so I signed up for a series of Awareness Through Movement®classes. By the end of the course, I felt great and decided to become a Feldenkrais Practitioner, which seemed far more fun, interesting, and rewarding than writing reports for the Department of Energy.
So, I “retired” in 1983 and moved to Rochester. In early 1984, I learned that there was going to be a training in professional Feldenkrais training in Toronto, a mere sixty miles (100 kilometers) away across Lake Ontario. Shortly after graduating in 1987, Eastman hired me to teach a series of Sunday evening Awareness Through Movement classes, free to any interested student.
Elizabeth Blades: After receiving a master’s degree in music education (1983) from Eastman, I taught elementary vocal-general music in a suburb of Rochester, bought a house, had a second baby, continued a side career as a member of the Rochester Opera Theatre, the Off-Monroe Players Gilbert and Sullivan company, and as a church soloist. While I enjoyed teaching kids, I was drawn more and more to vocal performance pedagogy, so I returned to Eastman to pursue a doctorate. Needing to replace my previous income, I increased my independent music studio from a handful of voice, piano and guitar students to more than 40 weekly vocal lessons. I also teamed up with a fellow doctoral student and formed Arianna, a classical flute and guitar duo performing for weddings, parties, open houses, and the like.
One fateful day, as I was departing my own voice lesson, my teacher gave me a meaningful look and said, “You really should think about taking that Feldenkrais class on Sunday evenings. It may just be what you need.”
I was intrigued. She was aware of my frenzied life and its deleterious effect on my body and voice. I promised her I would go.
As they say, the best-laid plans often go awry. I hustled down to the student affairs office only to find the sign-up sheet for that Sunday evening’s class was full. Since I did not live in the student dorms, it would require determination and planning to beat the odds and get my name on that list.
On the day the list was posted for the next class, I cleared my schedule and parked myself at the Student Affairs office door to make sure I was the first name on the sheet. That Sunday evening, I joined the other 20 students for my first experience with the Feldenkrais Method. At the end of the 50-minute lesson, we all sat up. The 19-year-old clarinet performance major at my side took one look at me and exclaimed, “Oh my God, all your wrinkles are gone!” (I was only 36, but I suppose I looked ancient to her).
I dashed down the hall to the ladies’ room and studied myself in the mirror. She was right! Maybe not exactly about the “wrinkles,” but I did appear to look years younger, transformed. “What is this stuff? Magical!”
Serendipitously, Sam and I reconnected months later in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. It was Sam’s first venture in singing; I was singing the lead soprano role of Casilda while dealing with severe spring pollen allergies (as well as my continually stressful life). Sam recognized my dilemma and offered to give me Functional Integration®lessons whenever I was not on stage. It worked! My congestion cleared, my voice was free and dependable, and I felt energized. Once again, I was astonished at how magical and effective this “Feldenkrais thing” could be!
In due time, Sam suggested an exchange: I would teach him singing and he, in turn, would share Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons and insights.
Without giving away too much of our back-story – and there is so much more to tell – fate had opened a doorway that has literally changed my singing, my teaching, my outlook…my life. Not only did I begin to incorporate the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais into my own practice, but I also made sure they were included in my student’s lessons as well. Inevitably, whether adolescent or mature adult, young or old, beginner or seasoned professional, each student reported an increase in “flow, ease, efficiency, resonance, freedom” – and joy in their singing.
Thirty years have passed since that time. The two of us teamed up to write a book, Singing With Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice whose first edition was self-published. We printed 100 copies and hit the road to present workshops and master classes. All those copies sold; we could now hire a fantastic medical-anatomy illustrator (and professional harpist), Amy Walts when the book was officially published by Scarecrow Press in 2002. The second edition, enhanced with new Awareness Through Movement lessons, mini-lessons, updated and expanded, was released by Rowman and Littlefield as Singing With Your Whole Self: A Singer’s Guide to Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movementin April 2018.
You may want to try this mini-Awareness Through Movement lesson from our book.
FREEING THE NECK TO TURN EASILY*
Stand comfortably with your feet shoulder-width apart (that is, the shoulder-socket, not the outside of the arm, which is the tailor’s shoulder). Slowly turn your head left and right several times. Notice how far, how easily, and how smoothly it moves in each direction.
Move your head and shoulders to look to the left and back to the center.
Do this 4 to 6 times. Remember to do this slowly and gently.
Slowly turn just your shoulders toward the left and back to the center, leaving your head facing forward. Do this 4-6 times.
Fix your eyes on a point in front of you. Now turn your head to the left and back to the center, leaving your eyes fixed on that point. Slowly repeat this motion. Move gently, so you avoid eyestrain.
Now turn your head left and right slowly. Compare the ease and distance of your movements to the left to those of your movements to the right. Also, compare them to the movements you made when you began.
To balance yourself, repeat steps 2 through 4 on the right side.
Sam and I are excited to announce that after three decades of applying this work in hundreds of will be sharing what we’ve found to be truly transformative at the 2018 Feldenkrais Conference.
Please join us on September 28 for our workshop, “The Feldenkrais Method and Music – Sharing Worlds.”
What will we explore on the 28th?
Sam and I will share many of the magical moments we have witnessed over the years: the dancer who retained a long-healed injury and discovered that she could, in fact, point her foot, the trombonist whose instrument suddenly “lost weight,” and more. We’ll discuss our process with “modularized” Awareness Through Movement lessons (dividing full lessons into short 7 to 10 minute modules, easily incorporated into an applied music lesson or rehearsal).
We will also lead participants through experiential discovery in music-making before Feldenkrais work, followed by Awareness Through Movement lessons adapted to chairs or standing (more in line with the typical environment of applied music-making), followed by music-making post-Feldenkrais lesson. Additionally, Sam will offer Functional Integration lessons to volunteers seeking answers for personal self-discovery – perhaps there will be a “magical moment” or two during this workshop!
Elizabeth Blades, DMA, MM, MS, BA is the co-author of Singing With Your Whole Self: A Singer’s Guide to Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement. She is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Music (Voice) at Shenandoah University, teaching courses in body awareness for musicians.
*Singing With Your Whole Self: A Singer’s Guide to Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movements, second edition. Nelson, Samuel and Blades, Elizabeth. Rowman And Littlefield, 2018.