by Annette Weiss
Paralysis-Agitans – sounds like a great name for my new band. Paralysis agitans is the Latin name for Parkinson’s Disease and it vividly describes what happens to professional keyboard players like me: when you want to move, you can’t, and when you want to be still, you move involuntarily! I was diagnosed with this movement disorder six years ago, and the diagnosis made me want to play as much music as I could for as long as I could. Luckily, I have discovered that with the help of strategies from the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education, I don’t have to desperately clutch music as tightly as I can, all the while dreading a dismal future of ever-dwindling choices of movement; I can actually enjoy the creative process of discovering new possibilities for movement.
As a result of Parkinson’s, which is a disease of the brain, not muscles, my fine motor control is impaired. When I strive to complete actions that were previously automatic with my right hand, like getting keys out of my pocket or playing a scale pattern, the movement is slow and clumsy. The problem is not localized to my hand; simultaneously my right foot contracts into a ball as my right knee and hip increase their muscle tone. It is as if my right side is a single unit, no longer able make small, fine distinctions between movements. Too many body parts are trying to participate in a movement that usually only involves the hand. As my Feldenkrais® teacher redirects my attention to various body parts during a movement, it feels like my body is being re-membered: changing and rearranging connections that increase my ease of movement. The Feldenkrais Method encourages me to attend again to individual muscles and focus on small sensations.
Another common symptom of Parkinson’s is what people call freezing – when you go to do a task, the appropriate body parts don’t move at all. For each person, a different set of actions gets temporarily frozen (for me it is quick alternations of keys on the harpsichord and turning pages of music during a performance), and many people discover tricks that help them initiate that movement. Awareness Through Movement® gives me concrete suggestions for initiating movements from different body parts – to start the motion of turning pages not with my arm, but while sensing my scapula sliding across my rib cage.
It often happens that people with Parkinson’s do not swing their arm on their affected side when they walk. I used to scold my right arm “swing normally, dammit!” My instructor teaches me a more playful approach to problem solving. What would happen if instead I consciously STOP my left arm from swinging? A dozen steps later and my right arm starts to swing on its own! Somewhere in my brain there is still a memory of normal function; applying Feldenkrais learning principles help me access it.
In addition to helping me with Parkinson’s, The Feldenkrais Method addresses issues arising from my musical training. As an aspiring musician, you purposefully train so that a single “start command” initiates a series of motions that result in a meaningful musical phrase. You build in muscle memory (ingrained habits) so you DON’T have to attend to details while performing. So the solution to one problem (playing the notes automatically so you can focus on being expressive), becomes a problem (losing awareness of the small components of movement).
So much of what I do is habitual – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It sure saves time not having to decide just exactly how I am going to tie a shoelace or which way to turn the toothpaste cap. At Functional Integration® sessions, the tactile and proprioceptive input provided seems to unwire old connections. Patterns that have been wired together for decades get broken up. I feel like my brain has been re-minded. I have concrete examples of the changes – since my last Functional Integration session, my right foot has become much less reactive to my fine motor movements. And I recently found my right hand completing a task I had given up trying to do with it.
I could judge my body for having Parkinson’s, or I can simply notice what is going on. By integrating the learning from my Feldenkrais lessons, I am better able to sense my body and work with what motions ARE available on a given day. It encourages me to experiment with ways I can playfully outwit my damaged brain. It has increased my ability to come up with solutions. My nervous system IS relearning how to move more easily and efficiently.
Born before the times that music was cut from public school budgets, Annette played in band, jazz band, percussion ensemble and chorus before going to music school and getting a degree in piano. She makes a living playing chamber music, and with choruses and orchestras. She is currently leading a professional melodica band and learning to play the synthesizer.