When in your musical journey did you first learn to be attentive to your whole body as you played your instrument?
When was the first time you realized you needed to be mindful of how you were breathing? When did you realize that the way you stood and distributed your weight through your legs and feet mattered?
Most of us were young when we learned how to play, and so our self awareness was limited. I have yet to meet a beginner that doesn't need at least some time to focus on each element independently - the placement of the head joint, the way they are blowing, the exact spots where the flute will rest in their hands, which keys belong to which fingers, etc..
We pick up bits and pieces of the whole picture as our playing matures, but most of us are slow to put together the image of our whole body as it relates to our instrument.
My first bigger glimpse of this was in high school as a student at the Flute Workshop at The Ohio State University, taught by Katherine Borst Jones (who would later become my undergraduate teacher and a dear mentor and friend).
KBJ showed us how the whole rib cage and upper body is involved in breathing by having us breathe while hugging an enormous exercise ball. She taught us to ground our feet but stay flexible, "like a tree," and to find the strength of our legs and body in a warrior pose.
I learned even more as my time in KBJ's studio continued, I played in masterclasses for a variety of teachers, and went on to grad school. I ran with this knowledge for quite some time, knowing that I could always learn more but feeling like I had a pretty good foundation.
Then I met Jean Ferrandis, and a completely different vision of how the body influences flute playing came to light. My first lesson with Jean was spent learning about his approach to freeing the whole body in order to focus on the air. One of the first things I remember learning from him in that lesson is that if you lock your hips, it cuts off the freedom, resonance, and movement of your upper body.
You can test this freedom of movement in yourself by miming tossing a ball gently underhand:
- Stepping forward, gently underhand toss your imaginary ball with the opposite hand as you continue to step through the movement.
- Do it with the left and the right no matter which is your dominant hand.
- Feel the way the movement connects (or maybe, doesn't connect) from your hips to your shoulders as you step into the toss.
- What do you notice?
- Where is it fluid and natural? Where could it improve?
(I should note that we did this for at least 30 minutes in my first lesson with Jean - none of us are as aware as we think!)
Jean's teaching expanded my view of the physicality of playing. He always made sure we were aware of the ways we blocked fluidity, or when we made movements a habit that were not natural.
This year, with a little extra time on my hands (an actual silver lining of the pandemic) I invested in expanding my interest in the whole body as it relates to being a musician and enrolled in a 200 hour yoga teacher training. Yoga has made a tremendous impact for me when I practice it regularly - the focus on correct body alignment, muscle and joint movement, and the attention to patience and mindfulness are so incredibly beneficial to performance and practice of a musical instrument.
During a recent training weekend, I heard something that instantly struck a chord:
"The body is the home of your creativity."
I knew immediately how true this is from the way my own sense of embodiment has developed through my musical journey. I know from experience how small bad habits can grow into difficult physical blocks, and how small amounts of awareness in the right places can create tremendous freedom.
Yet even though I know how to care for my creative home when playing the flute, I don't always do a good job. And if all of my eye opening experiences of finding new awareness have taught me anything, it's that we are always learning. We can always have a better or more detailed mental image of our whole self, whether we're just sitting or doing something as athletic (yes, athletic!) as playing our instrument.
I often wonder how all of this would have sunk in when I was first learning to be self aware in my playing and how it might have changed my abilities and opened up creativity.
From teaching, I know that it can be difficult for my students to retain awareness, even if they are able to find and identify it. If we lock in on loosening the knees and distributing the weight evenly between the feet, that attention often vanishes in a few minutes.
Some of that awareness develops along with maturity and skill, but what I think works against us ALL is the disembodiment created by staring at a phone (and the way we hold it!) or a computer screen constantly.
How often do you think about the way you are sitting when you work at the computer for an hour or two?
When was the last time you were aware of the space around you as you worked?
Do you find yourself craning your neck afterward and desperately stretching?
What about the last time you practiced - were you trying to stretch out all the stiffness afterward?
Here's a simple exercise to try the next time you are sitting at a desk and typing (or looking at your phone when you should be typing):
- Start by noticing your shape, and where you feel curves in your spine and weight distributed in your seat.
- Locate your sit bones (also known as the ischial tuberosity, or the two pointy bones in your seat that you can feel against the chair) . Are they pointing forward?
- Tilt your sit bones back and widen them. Notice what changes. Now where does your spine curve? Where is the weight distributed in your seat?
- Take a deep breath and exhale, allowing gravity to work. Make sure you are not using your upper body to hold yourself up - allow your shoulder blades to slide down your back.
- Move between your two postures slowly, noting the sensations that follow and how unconsciously you can slip into the first posture.
At first it may feel awkward and rigid to widen your sit bones back because it will change the way you are curving your spine. It should bring the curve of your spine at the sacrum in to the midline and a more anatomically neutral position, allowing you to stack your ribs and head over your hips while you sit. Make sure you are not lifting yourself up with your upper body (lower your shoulders, please!) and it will feel a lot less rigid.
Once you feel good doing this seated, try doing it the next time you are preparing to practice. Even standing, we can all allow gravity to gently work while widening the lower back and sit bones to find openness in our stance and a natural curve of the spine. Can you keep that posture when you pick your instrument up?
This is just one small way to clean your creative house. The more physical space you create, the more mental space you will find.