Connecting physical pain & tension to emotions
Recently I worked with a string player who explained that the thumb on her bow arm was painful when she played. It was tight and locked, and I encouraged her to let go of the tension in her thumb. In order to do this, she had to give herself permission to mess up and play with a less than ideal sound. She could find the physical freedom easily, but she really struggled to let herself play with any imperfections.
This has now become a theme that I am seeing more with professional players than anyone else: there is a terror of being less than perfect even if it is temporary and to serve a purpose, like finding a freer movement. This particular player not only found a new physical freedom very fast, but she had the insight that the pain was actually coming from her neck. I got her to lie down on the floor and let go of all her muscles, and she noticed again that it was her bow arm that was lifted and tight. It was such an important insight, and it has already led to some changes in movement. In due course, I have no doubt that she will successfully let go of what is probably tendonitis in her thumb.
Body awareness is more than technique My first foray into supporting musicians into all the stuff that ‘gets in the way’ of giving a good performance, was through a physical approach many years ago. I spent around fifteen years doing all sorts of bodywork courses along with my playing and teaching career, just for the enjoyment of them, and with no clue that they might lead to anything. I don’t practise any form of bodywork now, but all those years of courses gave me such an understanding of the body that I can ‘see’ where someone is holding tension, even online. In fact, just yesterday a professional pianist who has come to me for lessons in refining his technique, was almost shocked that I could tell him exactly, bar by bar, when his upper right arm tightened up.
This form of body awareness is more than the technique a musician learns in order to play their instrument, although that is integrally linked, and is critical to how someone plays, and their overall wellbeing. If a musician is holding tension, it will affect their sound, their expression, their anxiety about performing and much more. If they start breathing more freely, letting go of held muscles, their playing can transform in seconds. I look forward to the day when this is much more common in music education in general, and a normal, accepted part of musician’s health and wellbeing.