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Feldenkrais and Practice: Creativity and Play

In this Feldenkrais and Practise blog, professional musician and Feldenkrais teacher Emma Alter discusses how we learn through play.

Photo ofEmma Alter
By Emma Alter Published: 23 December 2020 | 1:23 PM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:32 PM
Photograph of a small boy playing around with a xylophone
Play encourages us to be curious, creative, problem solve and make sense of our changing world. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Please note: This blog was originally published on The Moving Brain. We’re republishing it here with the kind permission of the author, Emma Alter.

“A sensory stimulation is not an experience without awareness. There is no meaning to it before there is an internal query as to what one feels”. Moshe Feldenkrais

As human beings we learn through play. It’s how as children, we learn to communicate with others, build relationship skills, conceptualise abstract thoughts; it encourages us to be curious, creative, problem solve, to make sense of our changing world. And through as adults our creative Arts, (whether art, music, drama or dance) help us process our experiences.

But how often as professional musicians do we close the door to play or exploration, in order to seek perfection? Practising in order to find the perfect intonation, phrasing, experience, to create and hold onto a creation that we’ve made perfect.

One doesn’t have enough time to practice the notes one needs to learn, let alone bring play into the room. How do we, as we grow older in our professions allow playful enquiry back into the practice room.

Exploring in a non-judgemental way

In the first Feldenkrais for Musicians course I did with my two colleagues Anita and Niall, we asked for feedback at the end of the second day. One the professional musician participants told us she had stopped feeling like a failure.

We had provided space for her to feel herself, explore through movement in a non-judgemental way. We had created a learning environment for her to shift not only how she moved but how she felt about herself, her self-image. Rather than judging herself for her inability something changed so she was able to sense something closer to when we’re infants moving for the sheer pleasure of it, rolling from our side to the belly and back, simply because we can.

I was teaching an advanced student this week, and I asked her imagine playing a particular passage – just to hold the violin, and imagine the movements of the fingers, the shifts (she also had to imagine each shift was successful).

When she had imagined it three times, I asked her to pick up her bow and play it to see what the difference was. She played far better, both hands moved more freely, she made shifts comfortably that she had missed prior, and when I asked how it felt for her, she reported that it felt easier, she didn’t have the anticipation of failure that she usually had, and that there was something simpler about the way she was able to move her hands.

That’s pretty powerful.

Putting a more instinctive part of ourselves in charge

As one neuroscientist, Karolien Notebaaert puts it “performance is potential minus interferences”. Interferences from a different part of the brain prevent our prefrontal cortex (the organising part of the brain) from functioning fully – pushing out of the cerebral picture the expertise, and skills we have all grown over the years, and putting a more instinctive part of ourselves in charge. Fear of the past failures, or future failures allows another part of the brain (the amygdala) to hijack the networks of the prefrontal cortex.

Our own fear so often trips us up. How to prevent it? Well, what’s the opposite of fear? For some it’s love, joy, but from a brain perspective it’s also curiosity, play, the areas of our brain that deal with sheer sensation (known as the direct experiencing network). When this network is switched on, the amygdala’s network is downregulated.

So how do we change that? We need to allow the brain to be able to integrate the networks better. When the amygdala is in charge, the communication highways between the different parts of the brain don’t work as well. Interestingly, neuroscientists are finding that kindness helps to integrate the brain so that the different networks in the brain function better.

Exploration gives us choices without pressure to choose, understanding, patience, time. Time to be kind to ourselves, time to sense physical selves in space. Living in the present moment, in flow, not in the past or future.

Play’s innocence of intention is in all of us

That present movement is our opportunity to grasp something new. Our brains thrive on novelty, they are designed to parse information: the new – something different – new information is fun for the brain. One of the things that keeps our neurons reproducing (700 a day!) as we age is new learning, along with sleep, sex, and crunchy food amongst other things.

Play can bring us joy, a sense of belonging, a sense of safety with others, improved relationships. That innocence of intention is in all of us, and it can help us feel better in ourselves, less “like a failure” and more simply as a work in progress. When we can find more space for exploration and play, we can improve the learning processes of our brains. After all, our lives are process oriented, (life is a journey, not a destination), and when we improve the process we can improve our life’s quality.

What explorations could you allow into your practice room, and how can you learn to bring more play into your musical lives?

Learn more about Feldenkrais

Emma Alter runs free, weekly online Feldenkrais sessions for MU members on Fridays, 10:00 am – 11:00 am. Find out more and book your place. She also hosts a free, three-hour MU member workshop monthly. Find out more and book your place.

If you have any queries about the sessions and workshops, contact teachers@theMU.org

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