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!

Learning and Frustration

One of my students has been struggling with left hand tension on the violin and some pain since we started working together a couple of years ago. She has improved tremendously as we have peeled back layers of trying too hard, pre-growth spurt playing habits that don’t fit her lanky frame, etc.

In the last weeks some connections and some key underlying difficulties have started to reveal themselves as superficial tension has diminished, and I was pretty excited to see these issues with more clarity. I had a suspicion that we reached something key that would make a real difference if she could work around these very strong patterns.

The difficulty, I sometimes forget, in spite of my own experience is that when you hit upon these strongest opposers of function, it is really frustrating to go head to head with them. While I was excited, she was quite irritated to be face to face with something that deeply eluded her so much. I kept trying hard to be upbeat and encouraging, excited by my own sense of the importance of these discoveries, and perhaps, my own sense of personal importance in this process.

Then she became the teacher…she decided to stick with it (in spite of my annoying enthusiasm) and said, “If we are going to go there, you are allowed to be happy about it, as long as I’m allowed to be frustrated.” I was so amazed and proud and silenced for a moment. Of course this is what she needed, and we agreed…we studied what was possible and what was still elusive, and she left feeling puzzled in a new way by something in herself that didn’t make sense. This girl went at it this week and she came back a different player–loose, free vibrato, ease in shifting, faster playing that was much more in tune. She let herself feel the frustration; she went there, she sat with the elusiveness until something amazing emerged.

It’s a valuable part of learning that my student helped me remember not only for my teaching, but for myself in encountering day to day frustrations in my own learning. It’s worth bringing a student to this place, when they are ready, not giving the answers (as we rarely have the full picture that they do), respecting the confusion and frustration and hanging with them there, but letting them do the learning for themselves.

Thumb Together with the Fingers

Thumb together with the fingers:

I’ve off and on been sort of intrigued by this idea in many Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons (ATMs), thinking about how for string players a number of problems emerge alongside too much tension in the thumb when it operates in opposition to the fingers. These problems also have a lot to do with less freedom in each shoulder, less mobility throughout the the whole arm, less connection to power from bigger muscles, more tendency to isolate movement at the periphery, and generally less of a feeling of connectedness. I thought about this device in ATM being used to keep the person from really gripping a foot or elbow, or under the knee, sort of taking the effort away from the hand, using the whole hand as a point of connection rather than an instigator in the movement, possibly connecting with more power from the shoulder/back, big muscles.

Yesterday when I was teaching, though, I had a student who was playing an orchestral excerpt with very, very, tiny, fast, delicate bow strokes…Verdi, La Forza del Destino Overture…and she was becoming so restricted in her shoulder that her articulation became uneven after several lines of playing, and the intricate string crossings became clumsy and eventually out of control. I noticed that her shoulder became more and more rotated internally as she pronated her forearm to try to take control. I asked her about her thumb on the bow–it was working harder and harder in opposition to the fingers.

On a whim, I suggested she try playing the bow stroke with her hand in a soft fist with her thumb on top of the bow rather than below, so it could not oppose her fingers, but had to connect to the rest of her arm, basically to completely undifferentiate at the periphery. It seems counter intuitive to string playing, to undifferentiate in the hand and fingers for a movement so fine and delicate, and the idea of a fist, albeit soft, possibly to clumsy. But that concept from ATM popped in my mind and I thought, what the heck…worth a try. So after looking at me like I was insane, she tried it (always a very good sport), and several things happened:
-Her shoulder immediately opened in front
-She began making complex and fine differentiations in and around her shoulder that connected perfectly to these small movements in the bow
-Her hand relaxed
-She was able to quickly find a better place to play in the bow where she felt more clearly how the friction and buoyancy of the bow interacted best at that speed
-It sounded super clear and clean for the first time
-She smiled!

We went back to holding the bow the normal way, and I asked her to see if she could find a way to use her thumb together with her fingers to organize similarly so that she kept the connection through her whole arm. She found it! Obviously, the differentiation at the periphery has it’s role, too, which is why we have fingers and thumbs, but this constraint opened up a whole new freedom of movement, power, and FINE CONTROL through bigger muscles.

After she played a beautifully clean and musical excerpt, she looked at me with great puzzlement…”Why does that work?”, she said. I said, “I have no idea!” So it came full circle:)

Listening and Knowing?

A new student came in with pitch difficulties that seemed different from those I’ve encountered before. She could play in tune and match pitch beautifully when I played slowly along with her, or even when I sustained a pitch center while she played, but when I stopped playing, and she didn’t have a reference, her pitch quickly deteriorated. I asked her to sing groups of notes and phrases, thinking that she was lacking an internal reference for pitch and just playing mechanically when she didn’t have an external one. If this was the case, I could work with her on vocalizing and matching pitch this way, and she could build that foundation. But she sang each phase, even difficult intervals, perfectly. When I asked her to play slowly and just sing each note, or sing a pitch center for the phrase and hold each note on the violin until she knew it was in tune, she just looked at me questioningly for each note. When I asked her about it, she said, “I know when I’m singing in tune, and I know when I’m playing in tune when I’m playing with you, but I really can’t tell if I’m in tune when it’s just my singing and the violin, or my pitch inside my head and the violin.”

In Feldenkrais we say, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.” Well, most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing, so this is an even bigger challenge for the teacher than it is for the student. As I flounder around trying various experiments, my goal is to find multiple ways to allow my students through some sense or other, to experience what it is that they are doing; a lot of the time, if I’m lucky and we hit on some good new feedback in the midst of the floundering, they figure it out before I do, and usually much better than I do. If I THINK I have it figured out first, I’m usually off by a bit. All in the spirit of experimenting, I do my best to shift perspectives, in moving, in listening, in imagining, in exaggerating something they already do, in doing something off the wall crazy. On the traditional end, these experiments might be listening to oneself using a tuner, or with various intervals, or learning how to create a pitch with voice or whistle or picking out a familiar tune on the piano or the violin. If the student has a predominantly physical limitation, it might be having her play on one foot or the other to feel how she is balancing with her violin as she plays. It might be engaging her in different movement experiments to help clarify the source of resistance or tension in playing. It might be to exploring her movement in different planes along with the music to see how a particular approach with the bow might be in conflict with the phrasing one is trying to create. And then they get crazier from there…

So, my first all too knowing question was, “how do I help this young lady hear what she is doing so that she is capable of making the adjustments she needs when she practices, so that she develops her own sense of pitch and accuracy?” Wait, didn’t I just say I’m better off when I don’t think I know? It’s in the ballpark, but I think it’s not quite on track. So my slightly more refined question is, “What can she learn about herself from the things she already knows how to do well from the inside out?”

I’m a big fan of inside out, because I think it’s about degrees of knowing…you know some things for yourself because they are tested by your experience, you can make distinctions, you can build on what you already have just through new experience. I’m also a big fan of inside out because I recognize that I don’t have all of the answers (even though I sometime pretend I do) and that the answers are more complex inside a person than I could possibly hope to understand…so teaching from the inside out supports my not knowing, and I feel pretty okay with it, and then I can give up the whole ridiculous pretending I know something attitude!

One of my most vivid lessons in inside out knowledge, or lack thereof, was when I took my one and only Arabic violin lesson. In this lesson I learned that there were notes in another form of music, which I found very beautiful, for which I had no internal reference in my playing. When my very patient teacher tried to teach me to play the not-quite-quarter tones of the Arabic maqams, I had no idea if I was even remotely close to the pitch on some notes, and I physically could not make my fingers go even in the vicinity of these notes. I’ve played thousands, millions of notes out of tune in my life, but I could not sit in the middle of something that my ear said ways out of tune and try to find my way to the “in tune” pitch. I could not even match pitch with the teacher who was playing WITH me and desperately trying to help me hear. I did not KNOW what I was doing, nor did I understand what I didn’t know; the patterns for processing this information were just not there. In time, I realized it could be, though, as even by the end of the lesson, there was the occasional version of the scale that I could play slightly more in tune, or at least I could sit in the “out of tune” spot in the middle of a half step and not physically pull myself away. Some part of me accepted that another note could exist somewhere in that vicinity, even though to my brilliant teacher, I was still probably no where close to it.

This was a very good lesson for me in listening and in knowing. It may present in all of our learning throughout life. The recognition of not knowing is one of the keys to opportunity. Before that lesson, it never occurred to me that pitch existed in music on a level that I could truly not yet process it. I’m sure I was aware to some degree, abstractly, of this concept, but the act of trying to summon some capacity that was absent in my learning experience, even as a musician for many years was eye opening. I think it changed, in one hour, the way I listen to music. So my question continues to refine itself, “What opportunities can arise every instance of discovery of not knowing?” I think of my student’s admission of really not knowing if she was in tune, and I realize her honesty and inside out realization of not knowing is the foundation for the best learning she can do.

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.

Questions and Questions

Have you ever had one of those days in teaching when you feel like you are drained of all creativity and intelligence that you might have ever possessed? You are at first patient with yourself, you wait, you listen, you observe, but not a single logical thought about where to begin enters your brain? Do you eventually become impatient with yourself or with your student or client because you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask?

I had one of these days this past week. My first student started to play some scales and arpeggios that were not too bad, but just not quite in tune and she just looked uncomfortable, jerky, each time she changed strings, which coincided with things being out of tune. I looked at her and listened and looked back at her practice notebook to see some of the things we had already discussed that she might pay attention to in the last weeks. I try to teach by asking questions, so I started with a question about one of those things…”Where do you start to move first when you change strings? Does your arm or hand or finger move first?”. She did it more slowly and discovered, as I expected her to, that she was not moving her arm and hand in the same direction. We had explored this before, and so she discovered this pretty easily. So with that knowledge, she started to play again, paying more attention to how she changed strings.

So what do you think happened? Did it sound immediately better? Nope. It got worse. The string crossings were better, but everything else was worse, out of tune, tight, awkward. What the heck? When we explored this idea as a new one a couple of weeks ago, it was so much better immediately. This time it she had become more tense and her intervals were less clear on individual strings. So I then asked her about something else I was starting to see, knowing the answer I was looking for, “What happens when you move from your third finger to your fourth finger? Do you move forward or back in your arm? What about in your hand? What does each finger do?” She noticed, as I intended her to, that although she would move her arm forward, she was curling her finger back, so her muscles were working against each other and it interrupted the flow in the direction she was going. Cool. That’s exactly what I wanted her to find. “So then play a little more slowly with attention to how you move a couple of times. Great. Now let it go and just play.”

Did it improve tremendously from this new insight? No. She kept stopping and forgetting what the intervals are. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said, “I know these fingerings and I know these arpeggios, but I can’t seem to play anything in tune.”

This student is a fantastic pianist and has been playing the piano much longer than the violin. I asked her if she could imagine the sound of these arpeggios on the piano. See if you can put the pitch back in your head and let the technique go for now; maybe you are just maxing out by attending to too much all at once. She thought maybe that was true and tried to imagine the pitch on the piano first and then play. I told her that the most important thing is to know aurally where you are going; if you don’t know how you want it to sound, your intention cannot be clear; then just notice where you get stuck and figure out what is preventing you from getting there smoothly, easily.

Ok. This was going to get everything back on track right? Not really. It was marginally better in technique, but she was so confused about the intervals that she had to eventually take out her music to figure out what the fingerings were and what she was playing, after having these arpeggios memorized for weeks, because she couldn’t remember how any of it was supposed to go.

I thought, well, this is not my best teaching, despite my efforts to plumb the depths of my intuition and knowledge to try to come up with the right questions to ask her. I felt at a loss, because I was trying to move her in the direction of finding what she needed to improve. I am a big believer in questions and in using them to steer students to the answers they need through their own own listening, sensing, feeling, so that they have a solid experiential foundation to their learning. I want the answers to come from the inside. But somehow it wasn’t working this time, it was like my well of questions had run nearly dry for the moment. There didn’t seem to be any questions that could match the answers she could give or that would yield any really helpful change, and if anything, the questions were almost creating more confusion this time. That was the weird part for me, because asking these kinds of questions was often so productive with students. In any case, I was stuck at the bottom of that dry well.

The only questions left to me were “what’s going on in this student?” and “what does she need?”. These were questions for which I could not find answers inside myself. And then I realized that I had this very intelligent, thoughtful, aware student in front of me to whom I wasn’t asking the most important questions that pertained much more to her than to me, and in fact the ones we could both stand to learn the most from if they were posed and explored even if we didn’t come up with all of the answers.

So not expecting anything earth shattering except a healthy change of direction, I asked her the questions that I didn’t already think I knew the answers to, the ones that might simply be open ended without concrete answers. What do YOU think is happening right now? Where is the struggle? What do you think the problem is?

To my surprise, she immediately became pretty contemplative, and then suddenly just full of insights I had never considered. She said that when she played the piano, the melodic organization was very linear for her, visually and in space. That when you go up and down in pitch, in a line, you move only in two directions, so the coordination and organization is obvious to her, and somewhere in her brain direction is easily connected to pitch, but somehow everything had to become very conscious with the violin because there were so many different trajectories to manage, and that these connected with pitch in much more complex ways; forward didn’t always mean ascending in pitch when changing strings from a low finger to a high finger. She said that although it was all music and line and fingers, hands, and arms, it seemed like her brain had to organize so differently and in complex ways to play music on each instrument. Suddenly so much of the confusion she was experiencing from exploring my original questions in combination made some sense. I would have never imagined this, not having had her personal experience, not having a brain organized by that same experience.

We had a long discussion about this with me finally asking the questions I didn’t know the answers to, and she knew some of them, but not all, but they were the questions most relevant to her experience and her learning. I asked her what she felt like playing next. She went onto her other music with a new ease and actually many interesting comments as we explored some of the ways we could work within the context of thinking about her observations.

Her lesson changed my whole day of teaching, actually. I had been feeling not very full of ideas myself, but as I started to ask each of my students questions I didn’t know the answers to, I realized how full they were, and that they could fill me up with their own insights and that this was maybe the best starting place for their learning and mine.

So, there are questions and there are questions. Imparting knowledge and steering someone to discover knowledge is, indeed, important, but I think it is equally important to continue to ask the questions that we don’t know the answers to as part of our learning and our teaching.

Vertigo and Bach

In the last couple of years I have been dealing with a kind of proprioceptive vertigo that seems connected to a dystonia that involves my spine. Every so often, I get out of bed in the morning and I find that the floor has shifted under me and is slanting about 45 degrees down to the right. Almost every time it catches me by surprise, and I fall into the wall next to my bed. It feels like a kind of unopposable force that pushes me in that direction, as though it really were gravity and not my brain’s illusion. It’s like walking around in a fun house, except that it really isn’t all that fun. I can sense in myself how all of the parts of me are shifted by my contact with the floor through my feet or on my sitting bones if I’m sitting, and I intellectually understand that my body is creating this shift and somehow telling my brain that there is an alternative reality.

This happens every 4-6 weeks on average, and it lasts for 4-10 days, so I’ve had some chance to study it. What I’ve noticed is that if I allow myself to start to function as if the floor is actually slanted and let myself lean into the wall or into the floor the way I already feel that pressure rather than trying to insist on what I know is right, things start to settle down, and I can sometimes find my way more easily. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it seems to create a compromise so that I can see things both ways: I know how things should be, so I can manage to get around, but I know how I have to be to relax into it in that context and even start to figure out how to find some ease.

The repeated experience is rather frustrating, but at the same time, like other challenges in life, it yields some new perspectives, seeing things in ways that we might never discover if we didn’t have to meet those challenges face to face.

This week, I found the new perspective emerge in Bach E Major Preludio, which is no surprise, because there is always more to find in Bach. If you listen to this recording, there is a non-melodic passage that starts after about 30 seconds that is famous among violinists for its unique pattern of fast, repeated, string crossings with the bow and the concurrent, but not rhythmically connected, timing of changing position in the left hand. If you listen to this passage, try to figure out where the real beat is, and then check yourself when the passage ends and see if you ended up in the right place or if you had to make some adjustment to get back on track. When it comes back at around 1:30, see it you can try to find the beat again…is it in the bass, the A pedal tone, or is it in the descending middle voice? Can you identify it?

As a violinist who has played and taught this many times, I intellectually know where the beat is, but once this passage gets going in a fast tempo, my sense of the pulse shifts and I am immediately lost in the middle of the illusion that Bach has created. To play it, it feels like the musical floor is slanted at 45 degrees and you somehow know you have to right yourself and find that beat again to step out of the passage at the end without faltering, even if you have been able to stay out of your own way long enough to keep the timing of the left hand and bow functioning throughout.

Over the years I have come up with many strategies for understanding, navigating myself through, and teaching this passage successfully. Most of these strategies have involved trying to find new ways to keep the real beat clear, by reducing the weight on certain strings, making small accents, singing it in my head loud enough to drown out the distraction of what’s happening. I’ve also worked to teach students different techniques for making the movement of the bow more fluid in the unusual pattern and then figuring out how to organize the timing of the left hand to reduce the complexity.

This week I had another student who came in with all of these usual issues. She has worked on organizing her bow arm, figuring out how and when to shift her left hand, etc., but each time she tried to speed it up and just let it go, confusion would set in, and all of the things she had worked on so thoughtfully and attentively would fall apart as the beat shifted under her. It’s even funny because I can always feel the shift even as someone else finally plays it in tempo, so I am again just as lost as any other time!

This time, though, I had that sudden clear recognition of sensation of the musical floor shifting under both of us as she was playing, and it brought to mind my repeated experience with the vertigo and what I had learned. I stopped her and asked her where was the clearest place she heard the beat shift to; like me, and I’d wager most of us, it had shifted to the bass note. So I asked her to shift the bar line and slowly play the pattern as though it started on that note. It’s a technique that is sometime useful in other patterns, but I never thought of it here, because I had always been so focused on helping clarify the “right” way, lining up the real beats with the timing of everything else. When she did this, it became an obviously easier and quite familiar string-crossing pattern that I had never recognized before (and I’m a pattern fanatic!). If you are a violinist, try it…maybe it’s always been obvious to you, but this was a revelation to me! Well, it suddenly was so familiar to both of us, that she was able to do it with remarkable ease, and she started to do it faster and faster with no difficulty. How ingenious of Bach to imbed something very familiar in such a disguised way.

But still, I thought, well, that helps the bow tremendously, but it doesn’t solve the shifting of the beat problem. So then I said what happens if you turn that pattern upside down and think about the left hand coordination. We quickly discovered that if we did that same easy pattern starting from the top string rather than the bottom, and changed the perspective, but stuck with what was still an easier grouping, that the left hand timing became simple, and it remained easy for the bow. I started to realize that even in listening to her, because I wasn’t struggling to find the beat, but instead to relax into the ease of the more familiar and less complicated pattern, that I could fairly easily shift my perspective and hear the pattern starting from both the bottom and the top. I asked her to do this back and forth, one time hearing it from the bottom, and the next hearing it from the top.

In reality, the difficulty is that the beat in this pattern is in the middle voice, and there is a strong pedal provided by the a repeated open string (which always sounds louder than the other strings), and a bass line that actually sounds, uncharacteristically, on the last 16th note of the group, just before the real beat, so that by the end of the passage, you either end up thinking there are too many or not enough notes. After doing these experiments in changing the perspective to the “elusivel(y) obvious” (as we discuss in Feldenkrais) easy way, I asked her to just play the passage through in tempo. It was no problem, and for both me as a listener who has spent years getting lost in this passage and struggling to find stability, and for my student newly experiencing the difficulty, there emerged this amazing ability to shift perspective not only into the imbedded illusions of the passage to find ease in the playing, but because the struggle was gone, the beat emerged with great clarity whenever it was needed. I put on this recording just to check myself today, and I find that I am, indeed, hearing it with a different brain!