Equalizing the Nostrils and Bach

I am so fortunate to have the most open-minded, lovely students who are game to try just about anything in the name of learning. It’s fortunate that they are so willing to learn and experiment, but also fortunate that for me that they do these things without ever telling me I’m nuts (to my face, at least). It makes their lessons both fun and really full of learning and discovery for me.

One of my HS students was struggling today with memory in a movement of Bach. She was extremely nervous about an upcoming audition and was becoming more and more closed in her playing and expression than I had ever seen her…nerves are a bummer sometimes!

When she played, we both noticed that the parts where she had a clear idea of the inflection and phrasing were no problem for her. Contrastingly, the parts where she started to overthink the technique and just think about the notes, visually, aurally, kinesthetically, but not aware of their place in the context of the line and even in the conversational nature of the movement made her stutter and lose her place. When I asked her what other things she was able to observe when she was playing, she commented on how much she was moving her lips and tongue.

On a whim, I thought of extracting parts from this Feldenkrais lesson I had read a week ago, AY 5 Equalizing the Nostrils, which Feldenkrais recommended in the notes for people who become nervous and falter in public speaking. In part of the lesson, students are supposed to read a passage (from Genesis in his example) and then repeat it with lips closed, only moving the tongue and keeping the lips and jaw still and relaxed. Students are supposed to repeat the reading several times, each time with lips closed, and look for ways to use the tongue to make the reading more and more clear and to notice over time that the material becomes more and more understandable in sound in spite of the fact that the lips and jaw have remained still.

So I had my student try it with the Pledge of Allegiance (something I assumed she could recite from memory and short enough for the exercise); incidentally, she could only remember how to say the whole pledge with her hand on her heart. So she said the pledge normally, then repeated it three more times with her lips closed and jaw still. The results were fascinating—the first normal version was the monotone version of every kid in public school; the first lips closed version was a incoherent monotone mumble; the second closed lips version began to have shape; the third was nearly coherent and quite expressive and rather wildly patriotic! I was amazed beyond what I expected might happen. So I added a variation of keeping her tongue and jaw still and just enunciating with her lips, which was difficult, but actually, also quite expressive, and her final version of the pledge with all facilities available was like an experienced actress…she even used her hands to enhance the expression.

Then we returned to her Bach. I wasn’t sure if their would be a direct connection to anything interesting, but it was worth a try. First we just decided to see how it felt to play again some of the sections which lacked clarity of phrasing. The results were stark, in my opinion…it was like the phrasing really jumped out at her, and when she would lapse into a technical mode, she became immediately aware. Very cool.

So we started to talk about how to transfer this kind of experimentation to the music, addressing the need to control the technique while continuing to creatively express and ways to clarify some of the places where this became much more difficult and muddled. We came up with ideas like bowing on an unused open string and shaping the phrase while fingering with the left hand on the correct notes—with the bow being the sound and the shape and the fingers covering the technique, but with this constraint of separation. We also looked at shaping the phrase with her voice, doing the articulation of the bow with her tongue behind closed lips, while fingering, bowing the phrase while singing the line, and she was excited to look at other variations on her own.

By the end, she was breathing better, playing with more expression, smiling, and full of the energy and creativity I am used to in this girl—and not only playing some beautiful Bach, but I think any presidential candidate could hire her to say the Pledge at their national convention with conviction and enthusiasm…she might even win them the election!

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