Contractures

It’s that time of year again in Texas when the All State etudes have been released for the auditions next fall. These etudes are usually quite challenging, several levels above what the average student might be able to learn in a few weeks, so they are released each year in May so that students can study them over the summer. Although the situation is not ideal for all students, the big positive is that it helps students at the appropriate level of study approach a long-term process of learning of something difficult. It’s kind of like training for a long race like a triathlon or marathon — you embark upon something that will take consistency, problem solving, planning, pacing and patience over the long haul if you are going to succeed. It can be a useful process, because it is truly a “process” and the product does not or cannot emerge immediately, if the repertoire doesn’t exceed the long-term capability of the student.

Two weeks ago one of my very talented ninth graders, who has been playing for four years, brought in these etudes, Rode #5, and Dont #17, to his lesson. I wrote in fingerings for the parts where I thought it would be unclear to him; I showed him how I might use the metronome to work on the rhythms, the kinds of subdivisions I would use; I bracketed the most difficult parts and showed him the patterns that were the same as patterns he already knew, and we played some of these patterns; I set up a suggested sequence for practicing so that he could start to put some pieces together, to build a foundation for learning these etudes. I told him to go home with these tools and see what he was able to come up with in working at a slow tempo on a short section of each.

Last week he came back to his lesson having practiced none of it. So I said, “What’s up? Did you have too much else on your plate, not enough practice time?”.  Nope. “I don’t know how to play any of it.” I asked him if there were any notes or sequences that he didn’t know that I hadn’t outlined for him or rhythmic subdivisions we didn’t cover. “No. I just don’t know how to play it.”

This is a kid who learned the first movement of Vivaldi “Summer” on his own from a recording in one week over spring break because he thought it was cool. This is also a kid who learned the whole Novacek Perpetual Motion in professional tempo in a month for his solo contest, figuring out how to navigate the complicated bow patterns on his own, worked on musical ideas, ironed out difficult intonation and left hand difficulties, all within a short period of time. He practices Flesch scales in all of the double stops, learns Mazas etudes week to week on his own, he passes off Sevcik bowing exercises with new patterns in record time, rises to the challenge of learning new solos for his excellent school orchestra. He is a fast learner. Nothing in these etudes is really new to him or beyond him, and yet I felt him take a step back to where he was last year at the beginning of this same process where, for the first time, he seemed very daunted by the slower, long-haul mentality, and the difficulty of it all, and reacted similarly by refusing to even try to learn this music on his own.

This year, as last year, I told him that I never require ANYONE to do these etudes or to try out for All State, so if he wanted to continue as we have been and skip this  it was completely his choice. He said, no, he wanted to try out for All State and although he didn’t like these etudes, he wanted to learn them. So I told him that this was a process he had to take part in, that I could not spoon feed these etudes to him, not only because he was more than capable of doing his own learning (illustrating the many things he had accomplished through his own learning this past year), but also because these were too large and long to spoon feed every detail, and that my job was to help him navigate some of the difficulties he came across in his own practice and to help him pace so that he would be prepared by next fall. I said that I knew it was a new way of working to study something long-term, but that there were great rewards in this kind of process and that being less focused on the goal of playing the created different opportunities for growth in his playing from the ones he experienced with rapid short-term success. I said that if we were going to do this, I expected him to at least attempt to approach this on his own…not practicing it at all was not an option, and I would not work on it the following week if he had not put in some time himself.

Frankly, I was pretty frustrated with him, because I am, in general, pretty adamantly against spoon feeding in any part of my teaching. I felt like the whole lesson was a bit of a battle of wills, and I was not going to give in and help him figure out how to do something he was more than capable of discovering himself. One of my favorite ideas from my Feldenkrais training was to try in every situation not to rob a student of an opportunity to learn by showing or telling them how to do it…create the conditions for learning, but don’t do it for them, because you never really know what it is that they might learn beyond what you think you can teach them. So I assumed my most strong-willed I-will-not-rob-you-of-a-learning-opportunity stance I could muster!

Still something didn’t feel right about that lesson, and I was kind of bothered by it for the rest of the week. Why did he go back to not wanting to practice, refusing to try, believing that he didn’t know how to do this when I knew he was more than capable of learning most of this on his own with a little guidance?

Contractures–in a parallel dimension I have been learning a lot about contractures. There are many kinds of contractures that result from a host of different neurological and physiological conditions, but they happen basically when muscle remains in a contracted state for a long period of time or sometimes permanently. According to my PT and some reading I have done, a contracture is different from a contraction in that the muscle remains shortened for so long it maintains its state without any signals from the brain; so, for example, if you measured the neurological activity of a muscle in this state, the EMG reading would be similar to a decontracted muscle. In many cases, physiological contractures can form as protective mechanisms.

In my own situation, connected with dystonia, we are finding that some of the deep flexors in my neck remain in a state of contracture. These muscles somehow seem to have taken on a role in stabilizing and even immobilizing parts of my spine, for whatever reason. To keep my head upright and my body functioning, however, my extensor muscles in my back and some of the rotators in my neck and along my spine have to contract pretty hard when I am upright. My nervous system is constantly organizing and reorganizing to try to compensate for the shortened neck flexors and this has become quite painful to maintain. The problem is that when these extensor contractions are released, and even if I can physically find away to let go of these contractions, my structure just collapses forward and I enter a very painful and sometimes scary process of searching for a new way to stabilize. So, for me some of the contractions I experience seem to be a way that my body and brain are searching for protection or ways to compensate. I have learned this the hard way over hundreds of times of releasing contracted protective muscle and destabilizing, even in very small ways which yielded strong reactions.

One of the things that has been emerging in my PT work and concurrently in my own self-learning is a respect for the protection/compensation. In my experience with dystonia, this is not easy to find, because there seems to be a hyperplasticity involved that makes changes quite magnified in my experience. So for me, balance is key…the art of helping gain some new movement that frees a tiny bit of my spine while helping to maintain and support some of the abnormal protection.

How I’m working on this in myself is another 10 entries. However, in thinking about this a lot recently, I am coming to recognize that we all have some kind of protection and compensation that needs to be treated with respect. Even when we think there should be a better way, this learning is good for this student, etc., sometimes acknowledging the possibility of a need for support is important, especially when a strong defense arises, even when we don’t know exactly why we have to do it. Above our need to move and our need to learn and our need to succeed, I think we all have ways that we must negotiate to keep ourselves safe.

In the case of my student, who is always successful with big challenges to technique, very smart, very quick, very eager to do the work himself, I realized that it might not be just laziness or dislike for the music that made him all of a sudden shut down. There might be a need to protect something, too. I still don’t know what exactly this might be, and it’s not so necessary to actually know; maybe the idea of learning something long-term where the product doesn’t emerge immediately is to much to handle, unfamiliar, not reliable; but it occurred to me that whether or not I ever really know, it’s possible that giving just a sense of that security or protection by giving in on the learning from the inside out stance might have a stabilizing effect.

So this week he came into his lesson saying he tried, but he just didn’t get it. I decided to try giving in a little, taking him step by step through some of what I sensed he already understood, to see what might happen. So I asked him what part seemed to be the most difficult to understand and what I could show him and walk him through to help him. He said the rhythm…that he didn’t know how to practice with the metronome at a slow tempo, but that because it was too hard, he could only play slowly, and he didn’t know how to work slowly and have it still make sense.

So I said to imagine those giant sheet cakes at the grocery store that they divide into smaller cakes. He has four people in his family, and a quarter size sheet cake is probably the most they can eat for dessert at one meal. He agreed. I said that if they shared that cake equally in his family, each person would have a quarter of the smaller cake. Although the quarter of the smaller cake is really one-sixteenth of the whole sheet cake made by the store, it only really matters to his family that they each have an equal quarter of the cake. He said he understood. I said that this is how subdivision works in music, at every level you are working with the size of cake you can manage to build the rhythm and build your skill and comfort with the size you can manage. If his family eats a quarter of a sheet cake each week, dividing it into quarters each time, in four weeks they will have eaten the entire cake being satisfied with a nice dessert each week, but never making themselves uncomfortable by eating too much cake and swearing off of it for weeks on end.

Okay, so my analogies get a little wacky at the end of a long day, and I was probably craving chocolate cake, as usual, but this is literally all I explained and here’s what happened…

He said, “I understand.” I said, “Do you want to try this with the metronome on 1/4 tempo?”. He said, “Yes.” I turned on the metronome, added a subdivision, and he played the section I asked him to learn for this week with NO PROBLEM. All of the things he said he didn’t know how to do were essentially there, and we spent the lesson, as we usually do, working on refining the shifts, the timing of his string crossings, his movement, his phrasing, etc.

I asked him if he felt comfortable learning the next section on his own, if there was anything I needed to go through with him first just looking over it, and he said he would be fine.

It was a very good learning experience for me. As much as I have struggled with protection and compensation in my own mind and body, I still frequently fail to recognize the small and varied ways in which these protections exist in everyone. In some cases, simply the acknowledgment of that protection and giving someone the little bit of support they need, even when it steals just a little bit from the opportunity to learn, goes a long way towards opening the door for real learning to happen.

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