Working with the core So what and where is the core and how do we engage our core muscles? Roughly speaking, the core is band of muscles around the lower abdomen and the part of the body that is seen by many disciplines and practices, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates, to be the centre of our energy, is a couple of inches below the tummy button. Pretend you’re blowing up a balloon and you’ll find the core muscles straight away.
As musicians we don’t need anything like the understanding or knowledge that athletes do, or that Yoga or Tai Chi practices require, nor do we really need to engage these muscles, but a general, overall awareness of the core and that part of our body can be extremely helpful. (Woodwind and brass players, along with singers, are generally more aware of the core because they are working with their breath, but in my experience, string players and pianists tend to be less aware.) When we shift focus from our upper body to lower body, it can help us feel more grounded, rather than getting fixated about all the complexities and difficulties of what we’re doing with our shoulders, arms and hands to play the instrument, and that in turn encourages greater freedom in the upper body.
What always blows me away is the quality of sound that can be created just by shifting focus from the upper body to the core. I had a piano student once who was very small and couldn’t get the strength needed to make the louder passages in a Chopin Ballade. When she shifted her focus to the core, the sounds she created were enormous, rich and powerful.
It can also be helpful for nerves: nervous energy tends to rise up through the body whereas if we keep our focus lower, this can help us manage that nervous energy and not let it run away with us.
Here are some suggestions to play around with if you like the idea:
When playing standing up, bend your legs in an exaggerated way to see how that helps put the focus lower. It also prevents playing/singing with locked knees which can throw the body alignment out and is a way of storing tension in the body.
If you have an instrument where you can play and walk at the same time, try it out. It’s great for finding physical freedom and has the extra bonus of quietening an overly chatty mind.
When playing sitting down, connect your feet to the ground (flat shoes can help here) put your focus on your core, see what it feels like and whether you can create bigger, freer sounds by doing this.
And what does it feel like to walk around in normal, everyday life, thinking from the core?
Check out these two photos. The first is of ordinary Westerners walking. You may notice they have very little, if any, sense of their core and their body alignment is all over the place.
Contrast this to a photo I took of three women walking, from Kerala in India. Their focus is much lower, their upper body is freer and they automatically walk tall. If we can apply the freedom they have just in their walking, to our own playing and performing, it could make a huge difference.