The Plus of the Compensation

If a blind or deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child, the child with a defect achieves this in another way, by another course, by other means. And, for the pedagogue, it is particularly important to know the uniqueness of the course, along which he must lead the child. The key to originality transforms the minus of the handicap into the plus of the compensation. (Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky)

My love for the work of the late neuropsychologist, Oliver Sacks, has led me recently into the writings of some of his primary influences. I have been reading bits of Alexander Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist and am increasingly interested in his own teacher, the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. All three doctors made careers of studying brain function by studying and documenting the stories of their patients from a phenomenological perspective. With each individual they strove to uncover a map of function and learning that not only explained their difficulties and dysfunctions, but, revealed, moreover, what gave rise to exceptional genius, creativity, artistry—the phenomena of the compensations for the difficulty that allowed them to not only work around difficulty, but to function in some other way at a very high level.

This work interests me as a teacher for each of my students and clients, but it is particularly relevant when the difficulty is seemingly more obvious and yet the compensation and the way into successful learning remains quite elusive. In the following case, as is more often than not, it was my own inability to perceive the compensation beyond my assumptions of what it might be that had to be overcome for the best learning to occur. I am publishing this account of our work with her permission.

One of my violin students suffers from low vision as a result of oculocutaneous albinism. She is legally blind and often walks with a cane, but is able to and prefers to read by placing material very close to her face. She reads well this way, but the conditions have to be ideal in terms of lighting and text/music size, and even the background behind the text makes a huge difference.
When she came to her first lesson with me, with the intent of becoming a professional in music, she played almost all of her music while reading with her eyes 1-2 inches from the music stand. She had to position her violin on the opposite side of the stand, extending out from the back of the stand, in order to be close enough to read what was on the page, affecting her posture and limiting her ability to move.
I have taught students with various visual challenges before, and most have a very strong aural sense that compensates for the visual loss, so it seemed natural to me to have her begin to work on learning music aurally and playing from her aural memory. I was surprised that she had reached such a high level of proficiency in her playing without working this way.
However, as we began to try to work this way, it became fairly clear that this was not a simple task. Her ears were excellent in making small corrections, and she was able to sing back what she heard with accuracy, but mapping this into some kind of physical coordination in playing eluded her.
We tried multiple ways of building aural sequences in her playing, but it seemed like she always wanted to come back to the reading as a primary means for learning her music–an arduous task, which, even with visual aids and large print, still took months to internalize.
Over time, I began to notice that in addition to her surprising visual dependence, she was also very dependent on physical organization — leaving her fingers down to “hold her place” on the fingerboard as she played — a habit that also produced quite a bit of physical tension in her playing. She recognized this tension, but struggled to “let go” and become lost in what seemed to be a vast, unmapped space of the violin…she seemed to have mapped the relationships she felt in her hands but not connected that so clearly to the violin. For example, she could find various intervals using the relationship between one finger and another once she found a starting place on the violin, but she didn’t know where these notes existed between her body and her own instrument independent of finding a starting point.
Recently I tried a different kind of experiment with her finally allowing her to use her preferred tactile sense to illustrate a new concept for organizing her practice. I had her close her eyes and I handed her various objects to identify. Some I handed her right-side-up and others in various orientations; some objects were familiar and others had familiar features, but she had not actually seen or felt them before. I asked her to describe the features and tell me what she thought they were. As she turned them over in her hands, her descriptions became very detailed with regard to texture, volume, weight, and other features. Even with the unfamiliar ones, her descriptions were complete. I asked her how she knew how to identify them, and she recognized that she had to turn them over and examine each from as many perspectives as possible, sometimes feeling just one element and then relating it to the whole. She realized that she could find any starting point and begin to map the whole.
My idea was to show her this capacity to explore fully from multiple starting points in order to get a tactile “picture” of the whole, and then to show her that this could happen with the kinesthetic in relation to the aural in learning music, too. She got this immediately, and we both began to recognize how important honing this kinesthetic strength and attaching it to her aural sense AND particularly in changing perspective so that she felt it and heard the music together in many ways was an important step in her memory. She noticed that her usual approach was to find the same starting and stopping points. So I began playing parts of passages that she already knew but starting 2-3 beats into the passage and stopping on various ending notes for her to reproduce. At first this was extremely difficult, as she felt she could only start at the beginning of the passage and stop at her normal ending to play it. But as we continued in this way of always reproducing parts of the passage within changing limits and then stringing them together with the limits overlapping, her memory began to become increasingly clear and reliable.
A week later she returned to her lesson having learned and memorized the full exposition of a Mozart violin concerto and could play through this segment without stopping. When I quizzed her on sections, playing them for her with different starting and stopping spots, she could immediately identify their location in the music, recognize the relationship to the meter, and we could discuss discrepancies in bowing and fingering that were making her uncomfortable. Instead of having to micromanage every physical detail of the playing, she was, for the first time, connecting the parts into a clearer whole. She was able to relinquish rather easily some of the physical tension tied to her “place holding” tendencies on the instrument.
When I asked to describe her practice, she said that she was able to find her own ways now to create starts and stops in each section to “turn them over” in her mind until the pieces fit together clearly. I asked her how much time this took compared to previous weeks, and she responded that her practice time was the same, but that the results came faster.
It was a great lesson to me with a student whom I had struggled to determine whether or not she was really putting in the work to learn. The difference was so striking in the outcome, that I realized how important it is to help each student find the kind of work that plays to their greatest strengths.

101 Ways to Differentiate a Scale

In the Feldenkrais Method we use two main principles, usually with movement, to improve function: Differentiation and Integration. These are the same two principles which are used similarly in mathematics to explore and understand smaller or more particular parts of a whole and recombine them to further clarify some larger function which we might be exploring, such as speed of movement or acceleration. Feldenkrais broke down functions into incremental explorations of movement and sensation using a concept he called “differentiation” and and then “integrated” them back into functions that brought the individual self into a relationship with the world and used this functional integration to not only clarify movement, but also the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are interconnected in these relationships. Because the concept of a large function was so tied up well established networks of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we have developed over years without even knowing it (habits), Feldenkrais theorized that by using these concepts of varied and subtle exploration of the infinite parts of a function, we could get around some of the burdensome complexity and learn more effectively. We could affect maximum change and come closer to our potential by allowing our learning to be about these infinite and varied relationships at finer and deeper levels, but also well spread over the spectrum of potential function.

I take these ideas directly into my violin/viola teaching, clinicing in schools, and work with professional musicians to circumnavigate injury and difficulty. I like working with instrumentalists WITH their instruments to explore these infinite relationships, because, as musicians, we rely on our aural capabilities more than almost any other sensation for feedback on our success, making our listening a critical component in our learning.

A colleague for whom I regularly clinic challenged me to create a list of 101 Differentiations of a Scale. This was a brainstorm of variations I’ve used with students and in clinics to highlight various relationships that I feel are important in our overall function of playing, segmented down to the function of a scale. Some are silly, some are challenging, some might not work for you and your particular set up or instrument, but I hope they might stimulate you to expand into infinite variations of your own!

  1. Play it from the top down and then back up.
  2. Play it in separate tetrachords.
  3. Sing the tonic before each note.
  4. Sing the tonic before each tetrachord.
  5. Play each individual tetrachord in each octave with correct fingerings.
  6. Do this with each of the 4 tetrachords, 2 going up, two going down…these are different in minor
  7. Play the scale going up one string.
  8. On another string.
  9. On another string.
  10. On the OTHER string.
  11. Play the octaves out of order.
  12. Play the whole scale with fingers 1 and 2.
  13. With 2 and 3.
  14. With 3 and 4.
  15. With 1 and 3.
  16. With 2 and 4.
  17. With 1 and 4.
  18. With 1, 2, 3.
  19. With 1, 2, 3, 4, and always in this order consecutively.
  20. With 2, 3, 4.
  21. With 1, 3, 4.
  22. With 1, 2, 4. (If you can dream it, you might need it!
  23. Play with one finger on one string.
  24. Another finger.
  25. Another finger.
  26. Another finger.
  27. Slide one finger up and down, returning to the tonic between notes.
  28. Play it standing on one foot.
  29. Stand on the other foot.
  30. Move side to side (RL, LR) with the bow.
  31. Move side to side against the bow.
  32. Rotate clockwise and counterclockwise over your feet with the bow.
  33. Rotate against the bow.
  34. If you stepped on the RIGHT foot to rotate clockwise, step left, rotate clockwise, and right for counterclockwise…with the bow.
  35. Do the above against the bow (I call this distinction inward versus outward rotation).
  36. Open and close your jaw while you play.
  37. Slide your upper jaw side to side with your chin remaining in place on the chinrest with the bow.
  38. Slide your jaw side to side in the direction opposite to the bow’s movement.
  39. Count your teeth with your tongue while you play.
  40. Stick your tongue out and in like a lizard while you play.
  41. Bring the corners of your mouth apart and together while you play.
  42. Scan your eyes side to side above the horizon while you play.
  43. Scan your eyes along the floor while you play.
  44. Move your eyes side to side with the bow.
  45. Eyes against the bow.
  46. Cover or close one eye while you play.
  47. Cover or close the other eye.
  48. Move in circles over your feet as you play.
  49. Cross one leg over the other and move in circles.
  50. Cross the other leg in front.
  51. Play with your feet wide.
  52. Play with your feet touching.
  53. Play with your feet in a straight line, one in front of the other.
  54. Stand on your heels while you play.
  55. Stand on your toes.
  56. Rock between your heels and your toes.
  57. Make circles with your scroll while you play, as if you are pushing the hand around an imaginary clock.
  58. Make circles with your nose while you play.
  59. Make circles with the top of your head.
  60. Exhale during your down bows.
  61. Inhale during your down bows.
  62. Only change your breath in the middle of the bow.
  63. Hold your breath in while you play.
  64. Hold your breath out while you play.
  65. Play the scale with all whole bow down bows and circle your bow around your scroll in between each.
  66. Play with whole bow up bows and circle around the scroll in between.
  67. Pizzicato the last note you played after every up bow.
  68. Play the whole scale with your bow held in your fist with your thumb on top of the stick, together with your fingers.
  69. Draw the bow with only the index, ring finger, and thumb.
  70. Draw the bow with only the pinky, middle finger, and thumb.
  71. Move from sitting to standing on all shifts.
  72. Move from standing to sitting on all shifts.
  73. Walk forwards.
  74. Walk backwards.
  75. Walk sideways.
  76. Walk in circles. Which way did you circle?
  77. Go the other way.
  78. Swing the right leg forward and backward with the bow while standing on the left.
  79. Swing the left leg.
  80. Zigzag between contact points…54345, 43234, 12321, etc.
  81. Play sitting on one sit bone.
  82. Sit on the other sit bone.
  83. Kneel on one foot and one knee.
  84. Other foot, other knee.
  85. Switch feet while you are playing, randomly or with string crossings, shifts, etc.
  86. Bend and unbend your knees.
  87. Bend and unbend your knees and hip joints…bring your butt back as your upper body goes forward!
  88. Make a SSSSSSSSsssssss sound until you are empty of air.
  89. Play it ponticello.
  90. Play whole bows using the wood of the bow…slippery.
  91. Intentionally slide into each note from above…random, an octave, a planned note.
  92. Intentionally slide into each note from below.
  93. Move from standing to squatting while playing.
  94. Stand on a balance board.
  95. Stand on a foam roller.
  96. Sit on a foam roller and roll your pelvis forward and back.
  97. Play with a beanbag on your head.
  98. Lie on your back on a foam roller vertically and play.
  99. Play while hula-hooping! Did you go both directions?

If you practice your scales with even one little variation each day, you will keep evolving and you will never get bored. Have fun, and let me know if you have some other crazy ones you discover on your own!

Modeling Imperfection

Do you remember back to a time when you thought a teacher or a mentor was absolutely perfect, and you were a mere peon at the bottom rungs of the ladder of perfectionism? Maybe you don’t, but I was definitely that kid, that college student, that grad student, at least initially, with most of my teachers. I remember being somewhat disillusioned in eventually discovering my teachers’ flaws, but ultimately, I learned to trust teachers more and more whose own learning process and inevitable imperfections were revealed as an essential part of their success and effectiveness. Especially in struggling with my own personal challenges, I have learned to trust people that I see as “real” learners who are comfortable in sharing their struggles as well as their successes. As a teacher, I’ve been determined not to foster the illusion of perfection in myself in relationships with my students. I really try to create an environment of “scientific” skepticism and experimentation in which we are both/all participants in a process of discovery.

Until recently, however, it never occurred to me that I could be coming across as anything but flawed, well aware of daily trial and error that I experience myself in working with the individual marvels and idiosyncrasies of each student or group that I clinic, and certainly in working on the challenges I face in my own learning. For me, the struggle is also where the fascination lies–it’s also part of the fun.

The idea of intentionally modeling my own imperfection, and pointing it out, came to the surface this last week in working with a long time student who has been struggling with a lot of self doubt to the point of some serious emotional changes and changes in her learning. In the last couple of years my student has been coming to lessons with a mountain of worries about what other people think of her. She is afraid to play anything if she thinks someone is outside the door listening, or possibly able to hear any mistake she makes. She has an older sibling who is a whiz a math, and she comes from a family who seems to pressure her to achieve at the same rate as her brother. Historically, she has been a much more creative type who used to come to lessons full of questions and unique ideas and an avid reader and discoverer. Recently, however, there has been a lot of pressure from home, she says, to drop activities that “don’t matter” (for college admissions) and pick up the slack she’s created in math/science by being too involved in other “frivolous” pursuits. She also told me of a number of horrifying incidents where a math teacher of whom her brother has always been a favorite has been criticizing her and openly comparing her to her brother in front of the other students in her class.

My heart breaks in hearing about this treatment, as I have seen her go from a bubbly and creative middle schooler to an increasingly introverted teenager who seems to be hiding her most important tools of learning in fear of judgment and criticism…failure, mistakes, taking chances, experimentation, questioning, etc. My one hope has been that her lessons could be a place that she could continue to be herself, to let go, to be comfortable making mistakes and experimenting because, after all, her teacher is as flawed as the best of them!

But here’s where I had some learning to do myself, because in her lesson two weeks ago, my student was too paralyzed to play in front of me. Even after weeks of talking the talk of flaws and vulnerability and what learning was all about, I finally started to see that it was just talk, because she didn’t see me in the same light. After much coaxing I got her to begin to play part of an assignment for the week–one which I thought I knew backwards and forwards after many years of teaching. We came to a point in our work on it when I demonstrated a technique using a phrase from her etude. As I played her eyes got big and she froze again. I asked her if she would give it a try if she understood, but after a bit more staring at me, I asked her what was wrong. She finally, timidly said, “Do you think my music might be wrong? …Because mine says that’s an F-natural, and I think you played an F-sharp.” I laughed and said, “Oh wow…good catch! I thought I knew that passage, but I got it wrong!” It wasn’t a big deal to me, but to her, it was pivotal in the lesson, as she started playing again with increased confidence and didn’t stop until she got to the end. I was kind of dumbstruck that the simple act of admitting my mistake would be so powerful in this relationship. For the rest of the lesson, I made a point of articulating my mistakes as I made them, not making any with intention, but mildly commenting on them as if they were no big deal…and believe me, there were plenty, even just articulating an idea I might have had for her and allowing her to join into the discussion of what made sense or worked and what was not quite accurate. The change in her for that lesson was noticeable.

The next week, she arrived in better spirits, quite possibly due to many other factors. In the small talk at the beginning of her lesson, however, I still made a point to share an experience from earlier that day–I was doing a clinic with middle schoolers using a silly bow exercise, and I kept teasing them that if they dropped the bow they were out! Guess who was the first to have her bow go flying…me! She thought this was funny. Five minutes later, when she was playing a scale, another student walked into the room, and for the first time EVER she kept playing! Afterwards, she said, “Did you see that? That kid came in, and I made a decision not to stop and not to care what he thought.”

It was and continues to be a huge lesson for me. In this world of increasing competition and emphasis on getting the right answer, we need more than ever to be guides to what real learning is, not just in our language, but by sharing our own ongoing processes and revealing our own powerful vulnerability.

Balancing the Bow Hold #2 (with the bow)

Balancing the Bow Hold #2

This lesson is a good continuation of Balancing the Bow Hold #1. You can do this in sitting or standing, or even kneeling on one knee with one foot standing, alternating sides…experiment with your position to see if you open up some new possibilities with movement. This time you will need a bow!

Find the balance point in the bow by holding it lightly between your index finger and your thumb with your palm facing downward, somewhere towards the frog side of the middle. With some bows, it might be almost 1/3 of the length away from the frog. Experiment with the lightest hold you can find, bringing the bow parallel to the floor, and think of it like a balance scale, or a lever shifting over a fulcrum. Find the place where the frog and tip balance equidistant from the floor with no effort on your part. Here roll the bow a tiny bit between your finger and thumb to feel that your hold is such that you can move easily without disturbing the bow. Now also roll the bow so that the hair is facing the floor, and notice the position and orientation of your thumb and finger. Roll it so the hair goes away from you. Roll it so that the hair faces you.

Repeat the above sequence between each of your fingers and your thumb individually, noticing the relationship between each of the fingers and the bow at each orientation, and also noticing how the fingers and the thumb coordinate to act as a passive fulcrum for the bow. Rest as needed as you change fingers.

Now use all of your fingers and thumb to hold the bow at this balance point, and see if you can discover an easy relationship between your thumb and fingers that allows your hand to act as a fulcrum with no strain on any individual finger or the thumb. Where does your thumb want to rest? Is it across from your index finger, or your middle finger, or somewhere in between? If you are not comfortable, move your thumb and fingers until you find the best balance with the least effort…this might even change day to day, or as you grow or change yourself.

Roll the bow a little between you thumb and fingers and notice how they bend and unbend as you do this. As you roll the stick, can you find an easy way to also orient your bow hair toward the floor? With the hair facing the floor, push with your index finger to tilt the tip downward, and then stop pushing and allow the bow to “ride” back up into balance. Do the same thing with your pinky; if you play violin or viola, use the tip of your pinky on top of the stick to do this, and if you play cello or bass, use your middle joint. Feel how you can get out of the way to allow the bow to rebalance itself. Go back and forth pushing one end down and then the other, always allowing the bow itself to ride back into the balanced position with no work from your hand.

Rest for a moment.

Hold the bow at the balance point with all of your fingers and thumb, noticing how you can do this with the least amount of interference, and bring your right arm out to your side, extended, parallel to the floor. Hold the bow with the tip pointing to the front and the hair facing the floor. Now begin to tilt the tip down toward the floor by rotating your whole arm forward, all the way to your shoulder, like your arm is a long rolling pin or dowel. Rotate as far as is comfortable, and then come back up to parallel. Do this 5-6 times. Then rotate your arm in the opposite direction to take the tip toward the ceiling, and then slowly return to parallel. Repeat this noticing the differences in your hand, in your shoulder, etc.

Rest for a moment.

Extend your arm and bow, held at the balance point again out to your right side. This time as your rotate your arm to point the tip toward the floor, fold forward as though your wanted to take the top of your head toward the floor. Feel how this changes things in your shoulder blade and ribs and assists in the rotation. Do this a few times, returning to upright each time. Then, as you begin to rotate your arm to point the tip upward, lengthen the front of yourself and look up toward the ceiling. Can you rotate farther? Can you feel why? Repeat this a few times, and then alternate between bending forward and rotating down, and looking up as your rotate the tip upward. Can you feel how your entire arm carries the weight of the bow as your rotate in each direction? Imagine that the bow itself is just another bone joined to your arm through your hand and fingers.

Rest.

Return to your balance point bow hold in front of you. Rotate your fingers and thumb to find an easy way to orient your bow hair downward without effort. Bring your instrument into playing position. Set your bow directly at the balance point on one of your middle strings under your hand and begin silently crossing strings by tilting the bow to each string level. Feel how you can allow your fingers, hand, arm, and whole body to cross strings maintaining this balance with minimal effort. Where do you feel you want to work? Where can you let go to allow the bow to balance naturally in relation to your whole self?

Try drawing some bows on each string from your balance point to the tip, observing the variety of sounds you can create when you let the bow do most of the work. This can be especially useful if you are “frog shy”!

Balancing the Bow Hold #1

Based on some of my work in clinics, sectionals, private violin and viola teaching, and work with injured musicians on multiple instruments, I have decided to begin writing down and publishing a series of Feldenkrais-inspired movement lessons to address aspects of string technique and musicianship and enliven our overall awareness to start to sense injuries in the making before they fully manifest. I’m hoping you might discover some tidbits for your students and new ways to add variation and maybe a little fun to your own practice. I’m starting with the bow, but I have a list of about 50 different movement lessons that I’ve tried with various ages and levels, so let me know if you have a particular interest. I welcome any comments or future topics to explore. In Feldenkrais style, go easily and remaining in a comfortable range, and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good or causes strain or any kind of disturbing reaction! Here’s the first of, hopefully, many:

Balancing the Bow Hold #1

Find a comfortable place to move, seated in a chair or standing.

Begin by holding a pencil vertically between your index finger and your thumb of your right hand somewhere around the middle of the pencil. Feel the weight of the pencil and notice how much pressure you apply between your finger and your thumb to keep the pencil from dropping. Through much trial and error many years ago, you discovered how much was enough, and you eventually let excess effort subside; see if you can rediscover this relationship. Roll the pencil back and forth a few times to feel it’s shape, texture, and dimensions. Turn the pencil sideways, still holding between your index finger and your thumb. Hang your arm down by your side. Feel how the weight of the pencil hangs in your fingers, and feel for the minimum pressure you can use to keep the pencil from falling. When you reduce the effort to hold the pencil, does it begin to tilt? If it does, use your other hand to adjust where you are holding the pencil to have it balance parallel to the floor with no effort from your fingers. Now bring your arm straight out in front of you. Does the feeling of weight redistribute in your hand? Bring your arm up straight above your head. Does the pencil’s weight change? What do your other fingers do? Do they want to activate, or can remain soft? How can the shape of these fingers contribute to the ease of the holding fingers? Can they coordinate with the middle of your hand to help the balance?

Let go and rest your hand and arm for a moment.

Repeat the previous steps with your middle finger and thumb, adjusting in the horizontal to make the pencil balance without effort.

Pause for a rest.

Repeat with first the ring finger, then the pinky finger, resting between. Notice how the relationship between the thumb and each finger changes the shape in the middle of your hand. Notice how the balance point for the pencil in horizontal must change to accommodate this relationship. It is not necessary to keep the pencil horizontally oriented toward your face. Just see if you can find how to balance the pencil with minimal effort between the thumb and each finger.

Rest your hand, arm, and pencil.

Now hold the pencil vertically between each of your fingertips and thumb, finding the most comfortable, restful position. This does NOT have to look like a bow hold, but make sure all four fingers remain in contact with the pencil. Maintaining this contact, roll the pencil between all fingers and the thumb, feeling the texture and weight as though examining a foreign object for the first time. Where does your thumb hold in relation to your fingers? Move your thumb slightly higher and lower on the pencil and experiment with rolling. Notice if some placements inhibit some of the rolling or if some of your fingers want to leave the pencil. Find a range where it feels smooth and easy to both hold and roll the pencil.

Hang your arm by your side and feel the weight of the pencil resting against your fingers. Roll the pencil in this position. Rotate your arm so that the palm of your hand faces forward, but still hanging by your side. Roll the pencil in this position. Keep contact with all four fingers and your thumb. Rotate your arm so that your palm faces behind you, and roll the pencil here.

Rest.

Extend your arm in front of you, palm facing down, and hold the pencil between your thumb and all of your fingers. Find a place to hold where the pencil easily remains parallel to the floor. Roll the pencil and notice if you can keep it parallel to the floor with little effort. Turn the pencil so that the palm of your hand faces the ceiling, and rotate the pencil. Begin to slowly rotate your arm so that the pencil moves from palm up position to palm down position and returning continuously. Can you continue to roll the pencil in your thumb and fingers, keeping contact, as you rotate? Do you find that you want to stop the rotation at various points along your pencil’s arc? Do this movement until you can find a smooth, continuous rotation, while also continuously rolling the pencil.

Rest your arm and notice the sensation in your right hand and arm. How does your right hand feel in relation to your left?

Return to your practice and try out some slow, legato bow strokes in different parts of the bow. How does it feel to change bows at the frog? At the tip? In the midde? Notice your connection to the string through your arm playing whole bows. Are you able to sense the transfer of weight/force/power through your body into the instrument more clearly? Notice how the balance in your hand affects the smoothness of your bow changes and overall vibrancy of sound.

On Up Bow Staccato and Pyrotechnical Goodness!

I had a really fun and interesting experience with a high school student this summer working on her up bow staccato in the Wieniawski d minor concerto. She was a student from abroad, and in her first lesson, I asked her what she most wanted to improve this summer, and without hesitation, the answer was up bow staccato. She had been working on the concerto for a couple of weeks and had successfully learned most of the difficult technique. Each time she had a run of staccato, however, she had to slow down the tempo in the preceding measures to accommodate. She told me she could just not get it fast enough.

When we started to work, I asked her about the different ways she approached the staccato in her practice and we started to look for places where she was less aware—the timing in her left hand, the excess internal rotation in her right shoulder, how she was tilting her sternum downward at a critical point in the bow stroke in order to create more pressure, but was actually inhibiting her ability to move the bow easily, how too much pronation was actually cutting off her power from bigger muscles to create friction with less effort. We spent about 20 minutes exploring various pieces of her individual puzzle that seemed to be missing, and already it started to come together.

I felt like the exploration of something so precise and complex and even seemingly impossible was also a real trigger for her expansion of the violin more easily into her self-image…maybe that’s going a bit far, but it was cool the amount of musicianship that also emerged as she explored these other elements of playing that seemed to get lost in the initial narrowing of focus around this challenge. She came back to me the next day excited to demonstrate her newly discovered and brilliant staccato, which was one of the fastest I have ever seen—in fact, we then had to work on speeding everything else up to match it!!! Now her biggest challenge is to learn how to slow it down enough to control the speed when she needs to.

This lesson started a renewed fascination with how and why these challenging pyrotechnics have developed not only better and better players, but how they have influenced our repertoire. I’m thinking about developing a series of Feldenkrais lessons focussing on the wild feats of string playing as a means for exploring our relationship with our instruments and the music we play, and how we can use these challenges to make other elements of our playing easier, freer and know ourselves better…creating long term wellness. I’m interested in creating variations for all levels.

I would love to hear about your biggest challenges, videos of staccato, ricochet, bariolage, fingered octaves, double stops, vibrato, whatever! This can include challenges presented by clients. All of our individual variations with these challenges are super fascinating to me. Other instruments welcome, too!

Pulling Out the Stops

For me, the relationship between practicing and performing in music is like the relationship between movement exploration and all of its integrated components and function in Feldenkrais…it can sometimes be a tricky thing to find, craft, uncover, streamline, etc.

As a musician, I have often found myself exploring this relationship both at the outset of a performance project trying to plan ahead for a successful performance to use my time as efficiently and effectively as possible, and in retrospect, trying to pull components of processed based practice and discovery together into something that will represent me well in a performance. As a Feldenkrais practitioner I’ve often asked myself what components I could extract from Awareness Through Movement sequences to help someone find a more effective way to balance weight over feet while holding an instrument, or finding more connection to the center in the use of the arms; and retrospectively, after exploring a pattern of movement in Functional Integration and then finding some new options for movement and ease without a particular goal in mind, helping that person find a relevant functional connection in life.

I have been exploring both of these relationships with my violin students quite a bit in the last year. I am very much in favor of ongoing process-based practice with no particular goal except learning in mind, but I believe along side this, as musicians, and as practitioners/teachers, we have to be constantly extracting from this learning and bringing elements in to concrete functional fruition. I do strongly believe that focusing on the process and allowing for maximum experiential learning yields the safest, most valuable learning, so it’s also important to me that the product does not exceed the process in it’s importance…there is a fine balance.

As it is end of the semester recital time and college jury season, the product, the function, the performance is more in focus, and so my thinking has centered more recently on the performance/function/product side of things. For some students, the bridge to performance is a much simpler structure — maybe a basic set of pilings set in calm waters to reinforce it. For others, it seems like a feat of modern engineering, reinforced with suspension and steel and earthquake and hurricane tested to make the connection strong enough.

I have never had a particularly strong performance anxiety pattern, but building that bridge from practice (which could be endlessly exploratory on multiple tangents) had to be carefully constructed, and my practice for performance had to take on a new kind of focus. The difficulty for me was in “forcing” myself to play through the piece without stopping. The temptation to stop and perfect, stop and explore, stop and think, stop and analyze, was so strong. I sometimes devised strategies to make myself stop stopping, making rules about playing a passage multiple times in a row with no stops and going back to the beginning of the repeating sequence if I did stop. I thought that I had to program my muscle memory like a computer and that mistakes and stops would build into the piece if I didn’t un-program that instinct. I had multiple variations of this game, keeping the phrase going in my head with the metronome and jumping in and out with my playing, playing at a super slow speed thinking of every detail, but never breaking the thread of thought until the end.

This semester, though, with my stoppers, the advanced engineering-earthquake-proof-performance practicers, I thought, why not do the Feldenkrais thing and PULL OUT THE STOPS and explore the heck out of why they happen from an experiential standpoint. So my stoppers created stopping journals for the piece they were preparing to perform. They could “practice” the piece as they liked, exploring, discovering, experiencing in bits, deconstructing, abstracting, but once every day they had to “perform” the piece with the intention to play all the way through, as in a performance. Doing this for someone or recording it would be a bonus. BUT they did the performance as a study in stops, hesitations, do-overs, etc., so they kept a stop journal on the stand. They could stop without guilt as the impulse arose, but during the stop they had to write down the thought or feeling or whatever instantly came to mind.

With each of these students, we tried it out in a lesson first and discussed the results at the end…there was no talking during the stops, only writing the measure number and briefly notating the thought. The results were at first very interesting because of their variety among students–with some, whom I thought the issue was a kind of perfectionism, it was merely losing ones place; with others, specific technical issues came to the forefront that were not so obvious before; for others the stops were sometimes to breathe or blink or  relax. With each of these students, however, the results were revelatory. In most cases the student was unaware of what was making her stop, and in many cases I was also unaware of the particular circumstances. On average, the stopping started to fade by about half in the second play through simply from taking the time to discover the reason for themselves…if you know what you are doing, you can do what you want!

In the coming weeks, the results became more interesting. In many cases, the practicing itself seemed to become more productive, and these students also came to lessons with more individual observations about the piece they were playing and about themselves. What was especially curious for me was that their practice has remained process oriented, but the performance became a part of the process rather than just a product…this was especially nice to see with a long-time student who has struggled for most of her life with performance anxiety who showed the beginnings of ease and poise in her stage presence.

I won’t say the stopping journal is a fix-all, but it has been a valuable learning tool for all of us. If you are a stopper, give it a try and let me know what you discover, if anything!