Lovely blog by Ilona Fried

Feldenkrais: The Wine Tasting of Movement
Wine tasting and Feldenkrais are about discernment.
Imagine attending a wine tasting where the pourer fills a large goblet and, instead of handing it you, splashes the contents in your face. Some of the liquid might reach your lips and tongue, but likely you are so shocked by the dousing that you’re gasping for breath rather than inhaling the bouquet. In lieu of finding the precise phrase to describe the wine’s complex notes, you let fly a few curse words. Spluttering, you look for a towel to wipe up the mess rather than a pencil and paper to jot down the highlights.

Come to think of it, that’s how many people exercise: they take on too much too quickly, gasp for air, perhaps grunt expletives as they lift weights or tackle a hill and, afterwards, mop up the sweat with a towel or shirt. In American culture, that’s considered normal, and the more gasping, grunting and perspiring the better, especially if it yields a post-exercise high, a healthy variant of inebriation.

In a typical wine tasting, there is no expectation of drinking large quantities or doing so quickly. It’s hard to notice subtle differences if a person drinks enough to lose sensitivity in their tastebuds or become tipsy, let alone sloshed. Connoisseurs often spit out the wine after swishing it in their mouths lest swallowing it interfere with their ability to smell, taste and sense the next vintage. Usually there is some bread or a cracker available to help cleanse the palate so flavors don’t get muddied.

Many tastings are structured around a theme and focus on a handful of wines, such as a few whites and reds from the same region, or all reds or all whites from neighboring areas or various countries. However it is designed, the point of a tasting is to make it possible for the samplers to notice similarities and differences amongst the selections. Having too many choices, or assembling random wines without some curatorial intent, makes it harder for most people to focus their attention and learn or retain anything.

Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons are more akin to wine tastings than trips to the gym. Many lessons are structured around a particular area of the body, or the relationship between two areas, to focus attention. Often, movements are repeated on both the right and left sides, to facilitate noticing differences between the two. Sometimes, a lesson is restricted to one side, to highlight its effect after it is over. Movements are often small and slow, sips rather than gulps, to help a person sense distinctions and allow the nervous system to register that information. We pause or rest frequently, the equivalent of cleansing the palate. Moving too quickly or too much, or overriding the breath, is like being splashed in the face, making it difficult for the nervous system to perceive nuances.

A novice wine taster probably won’t notice as much as an experienced sommelier or be able put their experience into words as easily. After attending more tastings, reading about wine and asking questions, they will likely learn to make finer and finer distinctions, perhaps eventually being able to identify a wine’s terroir. Ditto for Feldenkrais: a person might not be able to sense themselves very much initially but, over time, through practice, and discussion, can cultivate the kind of attention that will allow them to both feel more and notice further subtleties, perhaps eventually helping them to pinpoint the “terroir” of a chronic injury or tight spot.

In Feldenkrais, we become connoisseurs of movement, our own and that of others. We learn to treat ourselves as we would a rare vintage: with care and respect so that, like a fine wine, we get better with age.

2 Mar 2014, 2:39am

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How does the Feldenkrais method apply to me?

“In a perfectly matured body, which has grown without great emotional disturbances, movements tend gradually to conform to the mechanical requirements of the surrounding world. The nervous system has evolved under the influence of these laws and is fitted to them. However, in our society we do, by the promise of great reward or intense punishment, so distort the even development of the system, that many acts become excluded or restricted. The result is that we have to provide special conditions for furthering adult maturation of arrested functions.”

I came across this quote from Moshe Feldenkrais again, a few years since the last time I read it, and I was freshly struck by its density of meaning. I was amazed again by his ability to sum up the process of maturation, which is the journey to healthy adulthood, in a few sentences. Almost every word contains a distinct and recognizable human experience.

I learned from Dr. Feldenkrais to understand the words by the experiences they evoke. My experiences and associations are different from yours. I invite you, the reader, to find your own experiences or just allow yourself to ask the question: How does it apply to me? If you can share some of it in your comments, that will be a gift to all of us.

Here are some of my responses to the words:

“In a perfectly mature body” - I don’t know any body that exists without the person, and I have not yet met a perfect person. But I have met people who I will call mature, and I am very aware of my own, lifelong maturation process. I find myself shedding layers of habitual behavior, be it walking, using my hands & arms or discovering a prejudice I didn’t think I had. Now that I am in my sixties, I find the process accelerating. The liberation of shedding illusions and attitudes that caused me distress is exhilarating!

“Grown without emotional disturbances” - is there anyone like this out there? And we don’t need to go to the realm of abuse. It is enough for me to remember myself as a parent, wanting so much not to make the mistakes my parents did, succeeding more or less, but making new ones. I tried so hard! The parents of the special needs children I work with try so hard! And still, I witness constantly the emotional attitude behind some unnecessary words children hear, which is created by the anxiety for the future of the child. I observe how these attitudes disturb the child from achieving the step which is described in the following sentence:

“movements tend gradually to conform to the mechanical requirements of the surrounding world.” So when my two year old granddaughter tries to climb up the steps, which are part of her surrounding world, she experiments with multitude of movements to mechanically be able to accommodate the stairs and go up. I witness it and find myself holding my breath for fear of her falling. I have to tell myself that she will sense the fear and associate it with this particular activity. I change my position so that I am sure to catch her in a safe way, and change my breathing. I am no longer afraid and am available to quickly change my position to accommodate her experiments. Now we have fun! It took 30 years of Feldenkrais thinking and doing plus other venues of self-awareness, to be able to do this. I was not so smart when I raised my own kids!

“The Nervous System has evolved under the influence of these laws and is fitted to them.” Well, all my movements have to do with negotiating gravity – enjoying the support of a stable surface and learning to move away from it without falling. My brain learned to do this well enough to be still alive. Haven’t yours?

But how well did I learn? How do the emotional disturbances of my family and culture prevent me from feeling more stable, feeling strong and light at the same time, being free of aches and pains and reducing disappointments? Dr. Feldenkrais says:  ”we do, by the promise of great reward or intense punishment, so distort the even development of the system, that many acts become excluded or restricted.” Excluded and restricted by the punishments we imagine would come from failing to do it “correctly” in the time we imagine we are allotted, which has nothing to do with the realities of the situations.

“The result is that we have to provide special conditions for furthering adult maturation of arrested functions.” This is the most concise description of the Feldenkrais Method I know of. The method provides special conditions, in the forms of Awareness Through Movement classes and private Functional Integration sessions for allowing a person to feel how her/his limitations are created and find other options. The movements are only the medium we, practitioners and trainers, use to make the process of transcending our “lot in life” and enlarge the world of possibilities – physical, mental, emotional and least, but not last, social.

There is not that much difference between the process of maturation in general and the journey to become a mature performing musician. The skills an instrumentalist has to learn will develop and mature to fit the instrument and the developed musical ear. That is, if the emotional disturbances from parents and especially teachers, are kept to a minimum in the beginning of the learning process.

Many times this is not the case. If the teacher of the child who is learning to play the violin reacts too intensely to a note out of tune or a missed shift, it might take years of re-education to get rid of the anxiety that accompanies intonation and shifting. If the young child does not have the freedom to make mistakes while experimenting with ways to play, he/she will learn to hold the breath in anticipation of failure and disapproval, and will not dare to try new things.

I observe the results of these habits in many of the adult musicians I work with, be it in the form of injuries, performance anxiety or nagging dissatisfaction with the music produced. It might take some doing, but it is not hard to transcend those part of our education that were harmful to us if we are given the right conditions to do so.


19 Jul 2010, 12:15am

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Coming back to ‘Neutral’

So what  happens to a player after a 7-9 hours day of rehearsing and practicing, day after day?  That depends on the knowledge of the musician,conscious or unconscious, of how to rest and let go of effort and how to find the moments to do so. It is essential to the prevention of pain and injury and mental fatigue.

Playing in a chamber music festival like Yellow Barn or Marlboro is not only about the physical work involved in playing. There are other stressors like the number of pieces to be learned, the stress of working with highly accomplished and demanding faculty or “elders”, and the constant “raising of the bar” of one’s understanding of the music. There is very little opportunity of “coasting” on what one already knows.

These circumstances, necessary as they are to the development of a good musician, almost always express themselves in extra effort which accumulates over the day, and if not checked, over the weeks of the festival. Pain and aches start showing up and the fear they create adds to the holding of  breath and the unnecessary contraction of muscles. One ends up carrying the particular pattern of contractions that a particular instrument requires into the resting time and into sleep. It is as if one never stops playing completely. It also means that the next day, the work does not start from zero, it is added to the residue of the work from yesterday. After a week of this, the muscles are fatigued and the brain protests.

Unless, we find a way, at least once a day, to come back to our neutral, to the state of being where we give in to gravity and are able to feel how to let go of all work. That is where the Feldenkrais class comes in.  Through doing the movement variations that are the fundamental building blocks of our functioning, we learn to listen closely to the sensations that tell us about excessive effort or the opposite – the cessation of work and the giving in to gravity. We learn to know what no work feels like, so that we can start from zero and do just the amount of work we need for the current project.

That is what I mean by coming back to neutral.

In Yellow Barn at 5:00pm and in Marlboro at 9:00am musicians who have a free hour can come and learn what ‘Neutral’ feels like. Again and again they learn to recognize lightness and ease. They learn to take advantage of little breaks between rehearsals or in the middle of a piece to look for this feeling and reduce the accumulated effort.

The music next door

The Feldenkrais Room is adjacent to a rehearsal room. In my private practice I would never put music on during a lesson for all kinds of reasons. The few times I have used music were when I worked with children with Autism and other deficits who responded well to the organizing properties of Bach’s cello suites or his orchestral suites. At those times I found that my lessons where better organized and my thinking and feeling had a “flow” I did not experience to this extent at any other time. Since 40 years of my life was devoted to music from very early childhood, my creativity is at its best when I let it guide me.

In the first day of my stay at Yellow Barn Chamber Music School and Festival, the two pieces rehearsed were Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet and a Telemann flute concerto. Since I do not have a choice in this matter, and since all my students here speak the language of music, it is O.K. with all of us.

Settling into the lesson I was giving and feeling enhanced by the music, I was thinking about the similarities between a piece of music and the structure of a Feldenkrais lesson.

In a lesson the teacher thinks of an everyday activity, a “Function” in the Feldenkrais language, or a component of it, which he/she thinks will enhance the student’s life if done better, with less effort and with grace. The way to make it happen is by having a sensory conversation with the student’s nervous system which will bring about new learning. The tools we have are quite similar to composing a movement of a symphony.

The movement is composed around the Functions (note the similar word!) of a certain key, which are organized in a basic progression throughout the entire movement. Each one of these functions gets established by harmonical journeys away from it and back to it, or by circling it, which then highlights it. The digressions can be enormous, but as long as the composer has the original progression in mind, the listener feels that every sound is inevitable and that the piece ends exactly in the right moment. There is a tension that does not get completely resolved until the last sound.

It is an apt description of the ideal Feldenkrais lesson. Sometimes we use elements of other dynamic relationships from other lessons (functional progressions) to highlight a missing element in the picture the brain has of the chosen function. It is sometimes necessary to journey quite far in the service of a vision of home base. As long as the vision of what needs to be learned is clear until the end, there will be an internal, sensory logic to the lesson which will be appreciated by the student and establish new patterns of action. Here, in Yellow barn, it will mean better performance and injury free playing.

Embodied Music in Yellow Barn and Marlboro

As I gather my professional equipment and personal belongings to drive to Vermont tomorrow, I visualize what my work will look like in Yellow Barn (3 weeks) and Marlboro (3 weeks) music festivals. I imagine the scenery, the campuses, the rooms I will be working in, and the people who will come to learn something new about themselves, something that will help them find the most appropriate, effortless movements which correspond to the sounds they want to make. They will come to learn to identify the habitual, unnecessary work they do and leave it behind, making room for a spontaneous flow about which all musicians dream about.

The responsibility I feel is great, since the musicians, most of the time, will have to play immediately after the sessions with me, either in rehearsals or in concerts. In every lesson I will give, like in a concert, I will have to be at my best.

The challenge is: by what means do I make my students rediscover the early, preverbal rhythms, timings and lines of movement with which we all come into this world and with which we respond to sound, especially organized sound? How do I make the idea of “Embodied Music” real for the performer?

A while ago I came across a documentary called “When the Moment Sings” by John Collins & Jon-Roar Bjorkvold, which describes and compares everyday movements of people in Africa and westerners in Europe. Song and rhythm, from the beginning of life, accompanies everything the Africans do. The rhythm is internalized and present whether they walk with 20 kilos on their head, shifting the weight beautifully from one leg to the other, whether they work in the field, whether they build a railroad or whether they dance. The music informs their movements and their movements inform their music in a continuous feedback loop. It is “Embodied Music” and there is where I got the inspiration for this name. You can imagine that the Europeans, hurrying to the subway, do not fare so well in comparison!

But as babies, we have the same capacity as the African babies. All babies love to be rocked, move rhythmically to music, and are delighted when they learn to negotiate gravity and find mobility with no effort. They learn it all by themselves! Later, culture and socialization overrules some of these innate tendencies and we stop listening to our internal music, but it is all there to be accessed.

As musicians, we cannot afford to stop listening. If we do not discover again these innate rhythms and movements when we play, we will either not get the results we want, or we will use the kind of movement that causes injury.

It is my passion to discover more and more ways to have people sense the embodiment of music.

As a Feldenkrais Method trainer, I have a lot of knowledge about movement and its imperative importance in life. I also have many tools to bring to bear in creating change. But when a person comes in the door or a group of people lie on the floor in class, the particular organization of life that is unique to this person and to the group demands from me a new organization of the knowledge and the tools I have. It is exactly this creative reassembling of tools to respond anew to a new situation that makes the Feldenkrais method so effective. This is why continuous learning on my part cannot be compromised. There is no turning away from learning if I want to be present with a new person and take the time to identify what is the change that will be most meaningful to her or his life.

As I am packing, I am humbly gathering the gifts I have to be able to do this.

Feldenkrais for Musicians – Violin

This video, shot in the Spring of 2010, features one of Aliza’s students articulating her frustration with some aspects of her playing before the session, and the differences she felt after a Feldenkrais for Musicians lesson.

Welcome to the Feldenkrais for Musicians Blog

Welcome to the Feldenkrais for Musicians Blog!  In this blog we will cover topics relevant to musicians seeking to relieve pain, achieve a higher level of comfort while playing, and improve their overall performance.  Check back soon!