by Alan Fraser, GCFP

Physical gesture sculpts sound

The body is the actor’s or dancer’s instrument. A dancer’s art lies in the gestures; an actor’s body language is as important to his art as is his speech. The Feldenkrais Method® refines their art by refining the gesture. Musicians, by contrast, use physical gesture to bring sound out of their instrument: the “shape” of the sound constitutes the musical art. The sounds, rather than the gestures themselves, act on the emotions. However, the link between the Method’s refining influence and the artistic result remains: improved physical organization has positive, precise effects on musical interpretation.

A hand walking on the keys

Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais’s work deals with function: efficient skeletal mechanics improve the neuromotor system’s management of movement. And here the Feldenkrais Method offers the pianist a further specific benefit: the hand can be understood as a mini-body – the fingers as legs, the hand itself as a pelvis, the arm as a torso that breathes. Given this correlation, Awareness Through Movement® lessons originally designed with whole-body skeletal mechanics in mind can be adapted to the hand to evoke a similar improvement in its lying, sitting, standing, walking, running, hopping and leaping on the keyboard – or on a fretted instrument. The absurdity of feeling the arm’s weight is quickly brought to light and replaced with the impulse to unstable equilibrium.

Unstable equilibrium

The human body maintains a state of unstable equilibrium in sitting, standing, walking and running, and in this, it is unique among the animals. The Feldenkrais Method aims to improve all human movement, but its core mission may be seen to improve the delicate, functional balance of unstable equilibrium in basic sitting, standing, and walking – a hand that walks well achieves a similar goal.

Grasp to avoid falling

Grasping is the hand’s basic action. Lay it palm down, grasp, and the hand automatically stands up, creating an arch-structure of which the metacarpal-phalangeal (MCP) joint is the keystone – the hand’s hip joint. With a functional ‘hip joint,’ the fingers carry the arm as they walk, just as the pelvis and legs easily carry the torso. It is easy because the torso is balanced. Sensing the weight of the arm creates a sense of lost balance, disturbing the delicate yet potent functioning of the whole system. The grasping action can similarly empower the hand on fretted, percussion and even wind instruments.

Making music with the whole self skeletally: the kinematic chain

The central nervous system (CNS) tends to stabilize the body, “thinking” that the complex movements of the fingers need a clear point stable support – but this eliminates unstable equilibrium from the equation. In my work with pianists, singers, and instrumentalists, I almost always find a slightly hyper-extended spine, the lower back thrust just a little too far forward and stuck there, in the body’s stabilizing attempts to support the movements of the hands on the instrument or the breath on the vocal cords. The inevitable ensuing stiffness blocks the kinematic chain. The skeleton was designed to have movement transmit all the way through the skeletal frame – this is the amazing wisdom of the system, of unstable equilibrium. That is what Feldenkrais® practitioners search for during Functional Integration® lessons when they push on a client’s foot and look for the transmission of that force, in a moving way, through the entire skeleton to the head.

If the client resumes the parasitic contractions when she sits up, the Feldenkrais practitioner’s work has been for naught. When she learns to cultivate and enhance the supple movement of all the vertebrae in sitting, for instance, by practicing the three cardinal directions of movement while playing, the full power of her skeleton becomes available to her artistry for the first time.

Skeletally, the two arms attach to the body at points only about 3 centimeters apart: the origins of the clavicle in the sternum. Thus, the sternum is the prime mover of the arms, being the point of connection between arm and torso. If the sternum moves freely in breathing, all the ribs must be moveable, all the vertebrae as well, and the movements of the pelvis can ripple up through the entire system and out through the arms. The sound of any instrumentalist – pianist, string player, wind player, percussionist – is enhanced profoundly when functionality is restored to the kinematic chain, connecting the whole self to the instrument. Dr. Feldenkrais said that movement is life; that life without movement is unthinkable, and in musical performance, the spine is the tree of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic life.

Singers benefit as well from a functional spine. Muscular contractions that keep vertebrae immoveable interfere with the free movement of the diaphragm and ribs. When all the vertebrae are moveable, the functional support offered by the spine leads to astonishing sonic results. A body free from parasitic contraction produces a ringing, intense vocal sonority full of overtones with markedly reduced effort. The cessation of effort makes this amazing sound possible. After giving singers a Functional Integration lesson, I have seen them vocalizing with a look of stupefaction on their face as they can’t believe the sound they’re producing or the way they’re producing it. And it’s so easy to do – simply get the torso over the hip joints by means of a balancing act, instead of through muscular effort.

When I coach pianists, singers or other instrumentalists in this work on the spine, I will often sit behind them with my hands on this or that vertebra, mostly just sensing but also subtly guiding, bringing the body closer to the point of balance where magic happens. Of course, there are organic fluctuations – the body moves a little to the left of the point of absolute balance, or to the right, or a little in front or behind – but it always moves through the neutral point, never contradicting the laws of skeletal mechanics. When I work like this, after some time the uncanny impression arises that I can tell what the performer is going to do musically before he or she does it. I sense the phrase arising out of the back – the music’s contour, its intensity, its gesture, its expression – an instant or two before I hear it in the sound. This is indeed making music with the whole self.

Everything you do, sounds

Why is the palpable sense of skeletal connection to oneself and one’s instrument so crucial? Avoiding injury is important, but far more compelling is the resulting artistic transformation. When the body naturally follows the phrase shape inherent in the musical structure, phrase inflection becomes the manifestation of music’s inner nature rather than an imposed aesthetic. Starkly bold orchestrations on the piano become possible when muscular interference is absent, and the bones can align effectively to transmit kinetic forces efficiently. When movement ripples unhindered through the skeleton’s entire kinematic chain, the whole self takes part in the artistic process, with the accompanying, astonishing blossoming of emotionally expressive content. Music speaks from deep within the self.

The refining influence of the Feldenkrais Method for pianists and other musicians is not just about feeling good, relaxing, nor even just about improving movement – it is about connecting the deepest parts of the artist to the instrument to create performances full of drama and sensitivity, power and subtlety, to engender a voice that speaks with artistic command.

A practitioner for 26 years, and a pianist for many more, Canadian Alan Fraser has written several books linking the Feldenkrais Method to piano technique. He lives and teaches in Novi Sad, Serbia, and runs the Alan Fraser Piano Institute, a one-week intensive combining Awareness Through Movement lessons, lectures, and work at the piano at several European and N. American locations. An expanded version of this article will appear in the book, The Feldenkrais Method & Creative Practice, to be published in 2019.