The Feldenkrais Method has been very helpful to me as a teacher and as a performer. My first exposure to it was in 1985, where I attended two sessions given by Feldenkrais Teacher Trainers Anat Baniel and Mark Reese at a conference in New York City. Since then, my extensive work with the Feldenkrais Method has added a new dynamic to my practicing and performing as well as my teaching. It is my hope that this article will inspire teachers and musicians to investigate the Feldenkrais work so that more people can enjoy the wonderful benefits of relaxation, ease, awareness and freedom in their own music making and teaching. –Linda Case
LC: Paul, can you briefly define the Feldenkrais Method?
Paul Rubin: The Feldenkrais Method is about working with people around the issues of the acquisition of skill, efficiency, simplicity and other improvements in movement and ability. The method is of particular interest to musicians and teachers of musicians in that it embraces ways of finding greater ease, comfort and skill even in complex and rapid movements.
The method is also about “freeing up” people’s ability to express themselves. We think of it as integrating “feeling” or “spirit” or “emotion” with our primary vehicle for self-expression: our muscles and bones!! Some artists, such as singers and actors, realize that the body itself can be thought of as an instrument. For instrumental musicians, of course, there is a further object to integrate into the process of expressiveness. In general, the Feldenkrais Method teaches people how to use themselves more skillfully, efficiently, and simply to accomplish whatever goals they wish.
LC: Who benefits from the method?
PR: We work with people who are very high level performers such as musicians, dancers, athletes, and actors. On the other end of the spectrum we work with people who have great difficulties in producing even the most simple movements: people with neurological difficulties whether from stroke or congenital neurological difficulty. So, the Method has a very broad range of application. In fact, the most difficult thing about our work is to explain how it applies to so many different kinds of people!
LC: How was it developed?
PR: It was developed by a scientist and athlete by the name of Moshe Feldenkrais. In the beginning, it was a response to his own needs for rehabilitation after a series of severe knee injuries. Over many, many years of application, however, he found that the work and the thinking behind it was applicable not only to rehabilitation but to the organization of movement across a much broader spectrum—including the kinds of movements that musicians need to produce.
LC: How is the Feldenkrais work taught or applied?
PR: We engage the student on the sensory-motor level. This is the level on which all learning of skill-and indeed of self expression-is first done and then refined throughout our lives. Within the method, we have developed a great number of sophisticated ways of engaging the learning processes to make changes in the way movement of every kind is carried out.
In more concrete and practical terms, there are two forms of the work. In private lessons the teacher gives sensory cues primarily by moving the student with very gentle touch. The process is one of generating sensation (perception of physical change) which is received and used by the human nervous system as information. We generate information of a kind and quality which acts to modify the way in which that particular individual will organize movement or “use themselves.” We call this one-to-one form Functional Integration®.
There is also a group form which we call Awareness Through Movement®. In this, students initiate movement themselves according to the verbal instructions of the teacher. The idea, however, is very similar: the movement generates sensation which is used by the nervous system to reorganize itself. In both forms of the work the quality, timing, sequence and combinations of movements are of utmost importance. There are many factors that go into determining what we know to work within these considerations.
LC: Could you describe a typical Feldenkrais Functional Integration (FI) Lesson?
PR: I begin a first session with new students by clarifying what it is they need and want. Sometimes they are looking for relief from pain, sometimes an increase in agility, speed or coordination. It often happens that people come simply to “get rid” of pain and continue with lessons because they find it improves their performance in an area that is important and/or enjoyable.
Once I have identified the interest of the students I look at them and, according to what I see, use very gentle touch to explore and illuminate the relationship, say, between the use of the neck and head, shoulders and arms, arms and hands, or other specifics. In the beginning, I am examining them to discover just how they organize themselves both internally and in relationship to the world.
By internal organization I mean things like, “How does this person breathe? How do they sit or stand or turn? How available are the muscles to be responsive to changes in feeling? What are the habits of overuse? What are the habits of emotional expression/repression?” By organization in relationship to the immediate environment I mean, “How would this person initiate and carry out action, whether simple or complex?” This formation of relationship with self and with the immediate environment is primary human function. It is paradoxically complex and yet fundamental to how well we do almost everything. It is also incredibly taken for granted! These processes become like the very air we breathe so that we don’t notice them until we hurt ourselves or run into another limitation.
Next, I ask students to sit or lie on my table, and then I begin in a very, very gentle way to move them in ways large or small. But I always work in such a fashion as to illustrate at very deep levels more efficient, simple and free ways of organizing their movements. The work is not mechanical or corrective but informative, instructive. While appearing simple, it often yields dramatic results in the way people feel themselves, and in their capabilities to move.
As a series progresses the lessons become more complex. We will integrate the function of the large muscles of the pelvis and torso through the intermediary structures of the legs and arms to the function of the hands, to the function of the feet, eyes, and head.
LC: What happens in a typical Awareness Through Movement Lesson?
PR: In an ATM Lesson, instead of touching students, the teacher gives verbal instructions and the students initiate movements themselves. The lessons are carefully constructed to follow what we know about how the brain organizes both movement and learning. Among the primary considerations are the quality of the movements, a proper pace to permit perception of detail, and a very precise sequencing of movements.
As in the individual sessions, movements generate sensation. The nervous system perceives the sensation; this is a primary form of “awareness.” The nervous system also automatically makes use of sensation—if created under the right conditions—to make changes in the way we can and do act. There are literally thousands of ATM Lessons. Some center on very small movements involving the hands or the eyes or even just the lips, the throat and the breathing apparatus. Others are very large and dance-like or even athletic. ATM can be done lying on the floor, standing, sitting, or moving about the room and just about every kind of position in between.
We might spend 45 minutes in a lesson exploring the fundamentals of rolling on the floor. Now, most people already know how to roll over on the floor. Yet, by taking this movement meticulously apart and feeling specifically the participation of the pelvis, of the chest, of the belly, of the arms, of the head and the neck and their combination to produce a truly effortless and simple rolling movement, we find that there is a significant degree of efficiency and ease learned. We also find that it is generalized to other activities.
In some ways some ATM movements can be looked at as scales and etudes and other basic musical elements that musicians may or may not use in performance, but may use to practice their relationships with their instruments. In this case, however, the instrument that we are learning to use is ourselves. For musicians, the “self” is the instrument which plays the instrument.
ATM lessons are typically taught to groups of people and usually last about 45 minutes to an hour. Many are available on audio tape and can also be done at home.
LC: Which modality do you suggest for newcomers to the Feldenkrais work?
PR: When available, I would recommend individual FI lessons. This is because they can have a greater degree of specificity for an individual as tailored by the eyes, hands and experience of a trained Feldenkrais teacher.
In practice, the two forms of the work go extremely well together and each improves the effect of the other. After a period of working in either modality, people can get more and more from each as their understanding of themselves deepens. However, if you cannot find or afford private lessons, don’t let that deter you! ATM can get you into the processes very well.
LC: How does the Feldenkrais Method work with musicians? In what ways would it be useful for string players and teachers?
PR: I work with many musicians. Recently, the players’ committee of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra negotiated to have group sessions and special small group tutorials with me written into their contract.
Remember, what the Feldenkrais Method is about in general is to teach people how to use themselves better. As I mentioned, I look at the person as the instrument which they use to play their particular instrument. Of course, the human organism is much more complicated than any musical instrument that I know of. As obvious as this seems—and perhaps just because it is so obvious—this fact is often overlooked. Musicians will often center their attention just on their hands or some small subset of “body parts.” While this produces musicians of a very high technical level of skill, it also often produces musicians who are working against themselves, or who are not—at the very least—using themselves nearly as efficiently and simply as they could. The end result is often pain, interference with the flow of attention and breath, the use of “main force” or “willpower” as a substitute for intelligence and creativity.
So, we show musicians how to use their spine, pelvis, hip joints, shoulders to support the use of their hands, elbows, forearms and breath. And vice versa. This is what we mean by “Functional Integration”: the integration of the whole of oneself into intention and action.
The ways that we sit or stand and breathe influence everything else that we do. So that if someone is playing a string instrument, for example, the way in which they organize their back and/or their belly, and/or their chest, and/or their shoulders, are all prior conditions to even picking up an instrument. And the quality of these seemingly simple but truly very complex antecedents to carrying out our larger intentions very much affects the result. We are interested in working with these kinds of fundamental relationships.
As you know, string players often develop carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, bursitis in shoulders, tendonitis in elbows, stiff necks, low back pain, etc., etc. These are so common as to be considered to be occupational injuries. There is very often no reason to suffer these injuries, and a solution to them is often easily found in our work.
In playing the violin, for example, there is a tremendous amount of movement that requires precision, speed, force and variability. The most obvious place that we see this is in the fingers of the left hand. But obviously the fingers are connected to the bones and the muscles associated with the palm and the back of the hand, through the muscles and ligaments and tendons of the wrist and the skeletal components of the wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder, and even the chest, etc., all the way through the pelvis and to the feet if one is standing. All of these contribute to the freedom of the hand to be able move with speed, precision and strength. So our job is to integrate someone’s actions in that respect.
LC: Yes, I have experienced this connection of my fingers to my whole arm and pelvis and have used this concept in my own performance as well as in my teaching. As a result of my experience with the Feldenkrais concepts in my own body, my ability to pinpoint tension and energy blockages in my students has developed tremendously.
PR: Just as familiarity with playing the violin is essential to teach others to play, so a familiarity with the complexities of the “use of one’s self” can make teachers of musicians even better teachers. Teachers of most specific activities tend to pass along wonderful information about that particular activity and its most obvious contact boundaries with the environment—a tool, instrument, etc. But it is almost unheard of for teachers of a specific activity to be really well schooled on how the rest of the person can best support the activity to both avoid injury and to produce an even better result musically or whatever. This is what we have to contribute-the Feldenkrais Method certainly offers an opportunity for teachers of musicians to bring an important added dimension to their already considerable skill.
LC: Would you describe a typical Feldenkrais session for a musician who has pain connected with playing an instrument?
PR: If someone is experiencing pain or undue fatigue, as described before, I first identify which parts of themselves-the middle of the back, the low back, the shoulders, the base of the neck, etc.—they are unconsciously squeezing or withholding from integrated function.
Often, by the way, that is NOT the place that hurts. “Tightness” between the shoulder blades will more likely show up as pain in the hand, elbow or shoulder joint before it will be felt between the shoulders—especially for people who use their hands and arms with speed, some force, and lots of repetition. This is simply because the smaller structures are more vulnerable because of their delicacy. It is also because the smaller joints, tendons and muscles are dependent on the larger structures being free to move and being well organized in the quality and direction of the “power” they send down the line to the smaller bits. If the back or pelvis or shoulders are not working well, the elbow, wrists or hands have to do their own work and the work of the heavier muscles.
According to what I see in the relationships within the individual, I design lessons that provide, on a non-verbal or kinesthetic level, the experience of integrating these parts of themselves more fully into their playing. With gentle touch, I teach simple movements which stimulate the brain to appropriately include or make “quiet” various responses in the muscles and in the attention of the student. Once the work of playing is more evenly distributed throughout the organism, stress and strain are ameliorated. Of course, sometimes rest is needed to allow for healing of tissue damage already done.
LC: Now could you describe a typical Feldenkrais session for a musician whose primary goal is to enhance performance ability?
PR: The funny thing is that most of the same processes are at work. There may not be pain because the degree and/or duration of the misuse of muscular power is not so great.
There are of course, other dynamics. Consider this: if our body is the physical instrument that we have available with which to express ourselves, then we are looking at very complex layers of activity beneath what is merely necessary to bow or finger, etc. On the unconscious level, many of our muscular “tensions” are actually expression which is interrupted or re-directed. As long as these remain habitual, we really can’t modulate them to give shape, content and congruence to our self-expression. As we learn how to modulate our activity by lessening habitual over activity and bringing more presence to parts of ourselves left out of our ways of acting, then we have a far greater range of qualities accessible for expressing ourselves, and more control over them.
Imagine trying to play violin with one of the strings immobilized somehow, even if through just part of its range of usefulness. This is how we all are to some degree: we have parts of our range of expression which are mysterious or quite unavailable because they are always stiff or simply not included in our idea of what we can do. Imagine playing with all strings intact and tuned, but with a wad of cotton wool concealed in the sound box. This is sort of like trying to express a feeling when there is a lack of presence of differentiation and definition in parts of ourselves—our emotional range is compromised.
Through the course of these lessons people do become more “self-possessed,” more free and more comfortable in finding and expressing and modulating whatever they do—music with an instrument, singing, acting.
LC: I use the Feldenkrais concepts in my teaching to explore ways of producing a beautiful tone. This includes creating many ways of producing a tone correctly as well as incorrectly, producing good and bad sounds, sounding like a beginner, sounding like an artist, etc. In our musical training we often develop a disease called “perfectionism” when we play our instruments from a judgmental mind-set of “good and bad” and “right and wrong.”
PR: Exactly. We often say in our work that in order to understand how to do something well one must understand quite a number of different ways of doing that thing. We also say that before we can feel reasonably certain that someone understands a difficulty, they must be able to produce that difficulty in a number of different ways. In the course of learning this way, it becomes easier to find the way of “choice.” Human beings are incredibly complex, and therefore are quite capable of learning to support a desired action or result in more than one way.
LC: One phrase I often use in my teaching is “resist the effort” or “that was good now can you do it again with less effort.” How do you as a Feldenkrais practitioner help people reduce the amount of effort?
PR: Generally, we all work much harder than we need to at most of the things we do. However, we have done so for so long that we no longer feel our effort; it is just “background noise.” So part of our work is to awaken the ability to feel ourselves by making and noticing distinctions in sensation as a result. This is done by focusing people’s attention on aspects of themselves that they have taken for granted for many, many years. They can become familiar with the formerly transparent efforts, and in the process learn to modulate them. This cannot be done by simple will or intention or “trying not to try;” it requires a great deal of listening” and paying attention to oneself in very particular ways first.
We also have many ways of simply presenting to the brain—or of generating within it—simpler, more efficient and more integrated ways of moving and doing. These tend to replace more effortful habits by a simple process of recognition of ease and comfort. In the beginning, people may not know how to generate these “better” states, but they do recognize them and tend to adopt them.
LC: You have really answered my questions about how this method relates to musicians and string teachers. I just wanted to add that at Ithaca College we have been fortunate to have one of our voice professors, Carol McAmmis, complete a Feldenkrais professional training program. She now teaches ATM classes as part of our curriculum for music majors. Students have the opportunity to attend ATM classes twice a week. My students have really taken advantage of this and the improvement I hear and see in their performance after a semester of Feldenkrais is quite remarkable. I am able to speak a different language with these students because they have learned to observe themselves at a new level of awareness.
PR: You know, most musicians have more respect for and understanding of their instrument than of themselves. They would never abuse their instrument in the way that most of us unknowingly abuse ourselves. Most demonstrate more motivation to learn the instrument than they do to learn about themselves.
Now when people are brought into a carefully designed systematic exploration of themselves based on learning awareness, all kinds of other things occur almost as a by-product. People start to come to spontaneous realizations like, “Oh, I’m squeezing my belly out of anxiety when I play and this is keeping my chest rigid and robs my shoulder blades of freedom to move.” Or, “When I’m playing this passage I can begin to feel the emotion connected to it welling up in my chest or my legs or my belly.” So not only are extraneous efforts lessened, but a whole new realm of richness of experience can become available.
This is where the connection between the “physical” and the “psychological” or “spiritual” or “creative” comes into play. It is also the reason why our work is so broadly applicable. As Feldenkrais used to say, “Our work does not teach you a specific task—to play the violin, to dance, throw, do yoga, etc.” Similarly, as general proficiency with an instrument is acquired, I imagine that one can learn new pieces and styles increasingly easily. And, as one can connect more and more reliably with one’s spirit, emotion and musicality, I would assume that it becomes easier to bring these abilities to more of what one plays.
LC: This really applies to the Suzuki philosophy and what we are trying to do as Suzuki teachers. We want to stimulate every soul, bring each soul into life through music. The Feldenkrais work is a wonderful aid to help us see the whole person, to look beyond the fingers and the instrument itself to the whole body where energy runs smoothly.
PR: Yes!! We, too, want to increase the capacity to explore what it means to be human, to be alive, to be aware of oneself and in communication with others—NOT just movement for its own sake. Movement is useless without meaning and feeling.
LC: Can you tell us more about Mashe Feldenkrais and how he developed this method?
PR: Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist, an engineer, and an athlete. He was born in Russia in 1904. He was endowed—like the inventors of many innovative philosophies and methodologies—with intense curiosity, intelligence, and an independent nature. What is relatively unusual is that he had established himself at high levels in scientific careers before he undertook the development of his own work. He did his doctorate under Jolliot-Curie at the Sorbonne in nuclear physics in the 1930’s. He also took degrees in mechanical engineering.
All of his qualities as a human being and his education came together with a new focus to deal with a series of injuries to his knees. Because of these, he began a lifetime of study of himself and of a wide variety of academic and intellectual disciplines to try to discover a means to rehabilitate himself. He also became very intrigued with the question of why humans put themselves in jeopardy—as he had and as many others do—over relatively insignificant moments in sports and other activities. This and other influences fired his interest in the nature of personality, character, freedom and repression of expressiveness and other “psychological” issues.
He became particularly interested in the neuro-physiological aspects of movement- the physiology of learning. I should point out that then-as now-most physical medicine was concerned with structure: the shape of the joints, the condition of the musculature and so on. Feldenkrais decided to examine how movement is learned and carried out across all of its purposes. This had great implications for the development of a form of education based in function rather than a form of treatment or physical conditioning.
LC: Did you have any direct contact with Moshe Feldenkrais?
PR: Yes. I was extremely fortunate to be among the first group of North American students to train with Dr. Feldenkrais, from the mid 1970’s through the early 1980’s when he died. I was even more fortunate to be a part of a very small group of students doing academic graduate studies in psychology under his direction. I was in my mid-twenties, he in his mid-seventies. But he was generous with his time. I observed him working with students day after day, and got as many private lessons from him as I could. At the end of his work days, we would have meals, go to an occasional movie or concert. These times were precious to me, not only because I liked him, but, like many innovators whose work came from inside, the work was never far from his mind. Most conversation and play turned into explorations of self, of mind and movement.
LC: As an introduction to the Feldenkrais Method for teachers and parents, what book would you recommend?
PR: The one I would recommend as a general introduction is Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais. This and other books about the method are available from the Feldenkrais Guild.
LC: What is the best way for people to find a Feldenkrais practitioner in their area?
PR: The Feldenkrais Guild publishes a directory of Guild Certified Feldenkrais Teacher/Practitioners and is happy to send it out.
LC: Thank you for introducing our ASJ readers to this important work.
PR: It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to educators who seem to be of a kindred spirit. Thank you.
Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, and Functional Integration are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild.
Thanks to John Tarr for facilitating arrangements for this feature on Feldenkrais. An SAA staff member, John will be leading an ATM session at the Leadership Summit in Estes Park in May. John is currently participating in a Feldenkrais Professional Training Program directed by Paul Rubin in San Francisco.