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Awareness Through Movement for Musicians

by Jack Heggie and Ellen Rose

During the middle part of this [last] century, Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-bornIsraeli, devised a system called Awareness Through Movement where human awareness was improved by closely studying the movements of the body. Before his death in 1984, Feldenkrais conducted special programs in his method for musicians at Yehudi Menuhin’s International School in London and at the International Course of Orchestra Conducting in Salzburg and Monte Carlo, directed by Igor Markevitch.Musicians, dancers, and athletes have attained better levels of performance with the help of the Awareness Through Movement method. Although Feldenkrais developed this system working with basic movements such as standing, crawling, walking, running, and breathing his approach can also be applied to improving the fine movements required to play a string instrument.

Feldenkrais discovered that our ability to move with speed, precision, and power depends on our sensitivity, or our ability to feel what we are doing. Recent findings by neurophysiologists about how the nervous system organized movement (by changing the bias on the sensing elements in the muscle) confirm Feldenkrais’practical work. Thus, by paying attention to the details of small, light, slow movements, string players can improve both their sensitivity and their performance.

One of the teacher’s major goals is to help foster change in a student’s approach to playing. Often students will come to a lesson with a list of technical problems that need to be changed and want immediate answers in the form of exercises, different hand positions, or new instructions. Although exercises are necessary and helpful at times, it is the approach to the exercises or movements that are crucial. When practicing, students often concentrate on the exercise itself rather than on the approach to it. While repeatedly playing an exercise can improve the trouble spot, a new approach is often needed to change a particular aspect of playing, such as switching from an arm vibrato to a hand vibrato. The exercises presented here are especially appropriate for this purpose and can be used for bowed instruments as well as other string instruments.

Range of Motion

Because students and teachers often think there is only one way to position the left hand or use the bow arm, they overlook an idea that could be more valuable and helpful to them. Just as we have a range of motion in standing upright in one place (leaning forward and backward, or to the left and right) before we lose our balance, we have ranges of motion in the left and right hands (and in the body as it relates to playing) before we get into the areas that promote tension and distort positions.

Here is one awareness exercise that has worked well without students. Set aside about an hour and a half to do the exercise. If at all possible, as a friend to read the exercise to you so that all of your attention can be directed to the exercise. Just before you start, record yourself playing a few bars of a favorite piece. At the end of the exercise, record the piece a second time and then playback both recordings to compare them.

Left-Hand Exercise

Sit in a comfortable position. Place your instrument in playing the position with your left hand supporting the instrument’s neck. Allow your right hand to rest comfortably in your lap, leaving the bow aside for now.

Direct your attention to your left index finger. Close your eyes and slowly lift the finger up about one to one and a half inches off the string. Slowly move it down until it just touches the string. Continue this motion, moving the finger up and down, and feel which joint of the finger bends to move the finger. Do this for a minute or two and as you continue to move, open your eyes and look at the finger. Do your eyes confirm what you feel?

Many people have difficult feeling exactly how the finger moves to stop the string without looking at it. Left-hand tension is often caused by faulty muscular feedback such as this.

Continue to move the finger as before, close your eyes again, and feel how the finger moves. After a few movements, open your eyes and look at the finger. Once you repeat this process several times, you will find that the feeling of movement in the finger is much more precise.

Now bring your finger down to rest on the string. Slowly increase the pressure on the string and notice what happens. You will feel that as you increase the pressure on the string, the skin at the tip of the finger is depressed a fraction of an inch.

Do only the movement where the finger is in contact with the string. Press down and feel the skin start to depress, but stop just as the string starts to move down. Reverse the movement, and let the finger move up, but do not let the finger breaks contact with the string. The motion of the finger will probably be less than one tenth of an inch. Repeat this motion for one to two minutes and remember to breathe easily as you are executing it.

Next, continue to press down on the string slowly, until the string moves down and touches the fingerboard. The instant you feel the string touch the board, stop and reverse the finger movement until the string is straight again. Do not take the pressure of the tip of the finger. Repeat this movement for one to two minutes and breathe easily. Pay careful attention to exactly when the string touches the fingerboard so that you can reverse the movement at that point.

Now bring the string down until it makes contact with the fingerboard. From this point, increase the pressure until the string is pressed firmly into the board, then release the pressure until the string is just resting on the fingerboard.Repeat this movement for about one to two minutes.

Four-Part Movement

Set your instrument down and rest for a minute. While you are resting, review the various stages of the movement you have learned. By moving very slowly and paying attention to your movement, you should be able to feel that the movement the finger makes to stop the string is composed of four stages. In the first stage of the movement, the finger moves down to make contact with the string.In the second stage, the string presses into the finger and slightly depresses it at the tip of the finger. In the third stage of the movement, the finger pushes the string down until the string makes contact with the fingerboard. In the fourth stage, the finger pressure increases slightly, holding the string firmly against the board to produce a clear note.

Put your instrument back in the playing position and move your index finger through the four stages of stopping the string. Pause about one second between each stage of pressing down and releasing the string. Do this for two minutes. When you are finished, set your instrument down, rest your hands in your lap, and close your eyes.

Direct your attention to your left hand and compare the first finger with the other three. What is the difference? Wiggle all four fingers around a little.Which finger moves more easily? Which finger do you think will play better?

Put your instrument back into the playing position and go through the previous series of movements with each of the other three fingers. Be sure to move slowly and easily, and to think of your breathing from time to time. After working with each finger, be sure to set your instrument down and compare the fingers that have done the exercise with the ones that have not. When you have finished exercising four fingers of the left hand, take a bread for a few minutes.

Right-hand Exercise

When you are ready to start with the right hand, put your instrument in the playing position and lay the bow across the strings. Draw the bow its full length back and forth across a string, sounding an open note. Observe your right arm, watching how it moves to draw the bow.

Start with a down-bow at the frog. As the right hand moves away from the instrument, experimentingall the motion is in the elbow; that is, the shoulder and upper arm remain immobile while the elbow straightens so that the forearm moves to draw the bow. At a certain point, however, the elbow joint stops straightening, and the movement switches to the shoulder joint. You may find that you have used up half or more of the bow to get to this point. From here on, the movement of drawing the bow originates in the shoulder joint, and the upper arm moves. Reverse these movements starting at the tip and ending at the frog to get back to the original position.

Spend as much timeto experiment with this until you can clearly observe how the movement of drawing the bow is composed of two stages. In the first stage, beginning with the bow at he frog, the elbow joint straightens to produce the movement, and the shoulder joint is immobile. In the second stage, the elbow joint is immobile, and the should joint moves to produce the movement.When you are thoroughly familiar with this movement, close your eyes and continue to feel the movement of the arm. Can you feel the two stages of the movement?

Set your instrument down and rest briefly, then bring it back to the playing position with the bow resting across the strings. To increase your awareness and sensitivity, the right move the bow in an unorthodox manner.

Reverse Draw

To do this, begin the movement with the bow at the frog. Hold the right elbow constant and begin to draw the bow with a shoulder motion only. When the upper arm is pointing out to the right side, the should joint will have reached the limit of its range of movement in this direction. When this happens, begin to unbend the right elbow to complete the down-bow movement. Reverse the two movements to bring the hand back to the instrument and repeat them.

Make sure that as you execute the reverse draw, you are clear about how you are moving. When you begin the down-bow by moving the hand away from the instrument in the first stage, the shoulder joint moves, but the angle of the elbow joint remains unchanged. In the second stage, the elbow joint is moving, but the angle of the should joint remains unchanged. Thus, only one joint moves at a time.

When you can do the reverse draw easily with your eyes open or closed, try your normal draw a few times. Does it feel any different? Try several normal draws, several reverse draws, then several normal ones and so on until you can do both easily. Again, set your instrument down and rest for a few minutes.

Pick up your instrument and play the piece into the tape recorder again. How does it feel to play now? Rewind the tape and listen to the before and after recording back to back. Which sounds the best? Most musicians notice a definite improvement in their playing after spending an hour or so improvement their awareness in this way.

The exercises presented here demonstrate two general principles of learning thatFeldenkrais incorporated into his work. In the fist or left-hand part of the exercise, you can feel that reducing the effort in movement to a minimum and paying attention to small details results in a dramatic improvement in movement.In the second, or right-hand part, you can feel how practicing the wrong way ,slowly, but with awareness, considerably improves the correct way.

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