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Feldenkrais and Practise: Supporting the Arms

In this third Feldenkrais and Practise blog, professional musician and Feldenkrais teacher Emma Alter discusses how we can use Feldenkrais technique to explore how we support the arms and hands during practice.

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By Emma Alter Published: 06 November 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Photograph of a young man in a yellow t-shirt against a yellow background, he is wearing earphones and stretching with an expression on his face indicating he may be in pain.
One’s fingers and the instrument, the notes, the sound all come into the foreground, and sometimes crowd out the sense of the rest of one’s own physicality. 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.

I was writing in the first post on practice about the base of support, and how important it is to have that in your awareness. You can think of it as foreground and background. When we play or sing, one’s fingers and the instrument, the notes, the sound all come into the foreground, and sometimes crowd out the sense of the rest of one’s own physicality, which can get pushed so far into the background, it’s no longer in the picture.

The idea of practising something like Feldenkrais is to have more awareness of what you’re moving when. We improve our skill of listening to ourselves, to distinguish between different qualities of movement. The idea is to be able to play with what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, to divide our attention around ourselves as well as the music, in order to play or sing with greater control and expressive freedom.

We sometimes see our hands as something separate to the rest

But let’s talk more about support. So, we need to think of the base of our support, the feet, and /or bottom if we are sitting or standing. But what supports our fingers and hands?

Our hands are what makes the environment around us concrete, we both give and take material things in the worlds with them, but in order to move them freely, pleasurably, they need to be supported.

There-in , for many of us lies the problem. We sometimes see them as something separate to the rest, so we don’t equate how we hold our arms, shoulders or ribs as having something to do with how the fingers can respond. Or vice versa, how the shoulders can be in rest or motion, has something to do with the quality of how we use our fingers.

And then if we add another layer of support, we can think of our arms as wings (bear with me…). The musculature of the shoulders is that of fan-shape strands of muscles, attaching along the sternum at the front, and from the base of the head down into the mid-back.

We also have all of the muscles of the ribs as well, which can assist in supporting from below – try slowly and gently moving your arms upwards and seeing how far down your back you can feel the muscles moving. If we think of those muscles, we can support the arms in a very different way, from a different place.

The spine is not a stiff straight line

If you’re not already, you should think of the spine as mobile. It is designed that we can side-bend many vertebrae – either all in one piece, but also in segments.

Gently take your fingertips out to the side at shoulders height. Keep your arm straight, and extend your fingers towards the wall. Repeat this a few times.

As you take your fingers closer to the wall , (keeping your arms straight) can you feel a little curve in your spine as you take your arm out to the side one way? You’ll need to “allow” it. If you take your other arm in the opposite direction (allow the first to return), see if you can sense a little curve in the spine in the other direction.

Then keep your spine straight in in the middle, don’t allow any movement at all, and feel how easily your arms extend to either side now.

Return to the first idea, and see if you sense any more curving this time round.

So the spine is not a stiff straight line in the middle of our backs, but in finding its mobile curves and participation of all the vertebrae we can support the shoulders, arms and hands in their movements more fully.

Using this exploration in your practice

How can you usefully use this in your practice? As a string player, I would most immediately think of bowing – in your scale or study practice bring your attention to your spine, and sense the difference of how the bow can move. Do this same exploration, keep your spine stiff as you bow, or help with the bowing by allowing the spine to gently curve in its different directions as you move the bow.

In my weekly classes, starting next week, we’re looking at the movements and connections of the shoulders- perfect if you have shoulder, neck or back problems (we can use the shoulders as a way into working with the neck and back or vice- versa). If that sounds interesting do join us.

Sign up to receive more information and to register.

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.

Emma will also be holding a Well Musician Autumn Course: Feldenkrais for Musicians Online, on the 21 and 22 November. This will be together with her colleagues Anita Morrison, and Niall O’Riordan. All of the sessions will recorded and available for six-months after the course. MU members can sign up with a 20% discount. 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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