Whilst my concert dress has stayed sadly in its wardrobe other than a brief outing in April, I did have one trip of fascination. Just before this second Lockdown I was invited to Sandhurst to teach some Feldenkrais to the British Army, to their Brass Band.
Having been someone who wouldn’t have made it through the medical, to be in the army, and certainly not super fit, I was a little in awe. But there was nothing to be nervous about, I was made very welcome by Dean Nixon, the assistant bandmaster and the rest of the band.
I asked them to play at the beginning, and made my way around the room to look at their playing and resting postures, where they moved, where the constraints of playing their instruments were, and where their habits of not moving where as well.
We worked on ideas that would serve them in the long periods of standing they have to do before playing.
One of my concepts is that of micro-movements, that I worked out over a long period of experimentation. It was borne out of needing to physically survive playing in orchestras for hours on end as a small person playing a big instrument.
But I think it is useful for all of us, either whilst like the Army Band members when we have to stand for long periods of time; playing/singing for any length of time; or simply seated for hours: in front of the computer, at the wheel…
My thinking for the band was: how can you give the illusion of stillness, and yet move? Where is the border between thought and action?
How arched does one’s back actually need to be to look “military grade smart”? How much room is there to play with which parts of one’s back is arching at any one time? How much can one use the support of these very structured uniforms to find fluidity and flexibility within? How can you use your pelvis to more easily support an arched spine? Are all the parts below: hips, knees, ankles and feet doing their part to make it easier? These were all questions I posed, and together through the workshop we looked at possible answers.
But they apply more generally to all of us: What are the constraints (what you have to do), and where is the freedom within the limits to move more easily, more simply, more usefully?
If you’d like to, try this short lesson out. (N.B. Move within your easy range of movement, don’t strain, and keep all the movements comfortable. If it hurts, stop. It is your responsibility to move in a way that is safe for you)
In standing, sense your weight distribution over your feet: has one foot have more contact with the floor than the other? Do you have more weight towards the heels or the toes, or is it evenly spread? Is that the same on both feet? See if you can feel where your pelvis is over your feet, what’s the shape of the curve of your lumbar spine, how vertical is your ribcage? How comfortable are your shoulders on top of your ribs? What’s your sense of space across the chest, or between the shoulders and your ears- is that the same on both sides, and where does your head rest on top. Where’s your horizon- notice where you’re looking in your room.
I have written it with sitting in mind, but you could try it in standing too (this is the end- movement inquiry we did in the workshop, after a lesson on arching and rounding in other orientations.)
Sit at the front of a firm chair, with both feet flat on the floor to begin.
Can you roll your pelvis forwards and backwards, (take your waist band backwards and forwards) and allow your spine (and head) to follow, in arching and rounding? Go slowly and pause in the middle each time. Repeat the movement, without forcing, without power, but pay attention all the way up and down the whole length of your spine to where your spine and ribs can curve, and where they doesn’t. Where is it easy for your spine to curve in the two directions, and where is it less easy? Pause and rest for a moment.
Can you feel the echo of the movement in your spine? Can you imagine the movement still continuing whilst you’re still? Can you make the movement a fraction bigger so it’s no longer imaginary, but real; until you feel you’re moving, but someone 6 feet away wouldn’t notice it?
Pause again. Bring your attention to your breathing. Feel how as you breathe in the ribs expand, and contract, where does your sternum move in space? How could you use your breath to create a tiny movement of arching and rounding. How could you ride your breath, connecting the pelvis through the spine all the way to the head in these two curves backwards and forwards? Can you still include all the vertebrae in your mind’s eye when you are making a smaller movement? Can you think of the front of yourself as you make these movements too? Feel your ribs, sternum and collarbones moving?
Try from the other end. Come back to making a bigger movement, within your comfortable limits of course, not causing yourself any pain (no pain=better learning). Slowly make the movement smaller and smaller until once more you’re in that space between movement and thought. Many of our problems come from when we are too still. We aren’t designed to rest except sitting or lying down. We’re designed for movement. When we’re still it’s harder to sense ourselves, the muscle spindles which have most of the nerves don’t have as much information to send back to the brain stem when we’re still. Rest again.
It is simply easier to feel ourselves in space when we’re moving, no matter how small.
For the musicians, once you have done this a few times without your instrument, put your instrument in playing position (or yourself) and make the movements. The next step is to play something relatively easy and make the movements whilst playing. You’ll have to work out what is possible. After that, work on refinement, making it a smooth movement, asking all of the vertebrae to work together.
When you’re sitting again, see if you can move your spine forwards and backwards from different places in the spine. When we shift initiation point of the movement, it might look the same on the outside, but on the inside its a different experience for your nervous system. And that’s what so much of what the learning I am interested is about.
Sometimes efficient doesn’t mean less movement, but less tension. How can your muscles stay more neutral to allow easy movement of the skeleton, without tensing unnecessarily and getting in the way? When we add tension in the muscles that doesn’t directly lead to the movement of the skeleton that those muscles are designed to help make, the excess tension compresses joints, causing more wear and tear than is truly necessary.
Get up slowly, and come to standing. Come back to the questions at the beginning, ask them again: Do you feel differently organised from your feet up to your head? Walk around a little, and feel if that feels a little different too.
After most lessons, my Feldenkrais students say that they feel more relaxed. But I would say that “Relaxed” is simply the state of neutral, when we’re not over tensing one side of pairs of muscles- when they’re well balanced, if you like. They are able to both elongate, and constrict without getting stuck in either direction. But for many of us that’s not the case even in our youth. Our long extensor muscles of the back (for example) forget over time that they can elongate, and at some point we simply stop noticing that we’re not as neutral as we could be when we’re not active.
There’s even a law about it: the Second law of thermodynamics: without input, all enclosed systems tend to decay. Not re-examining our habits over time can assist in this deterioration. We call it ageing. But what if not all of it is inevitable? What if we keep learning and evolving through examining our habits? Keeping the ones that work, and throwing out those that are no longer useful.
If we thought of ‘calm’ or ‘relaxed’ as neutral we wouldn’t see it as something special, but rather where we are when we’re not active. A space of rest or repose. We all need to be a balance between work and rest for brains and our bodies. Self care shouldn’t be the provence of the narcissistic. After all, we don’t let our phone batteries run down to nothing, but we often do that to ourselves, continuing through pain, rather than listening to what our bodies are trying to tell us, and looking for ways to tweak, ways to improve how we’re doing what we’re doing so it doesn’t cause pain.
Sometimes moving can be a rest too, certainly in this military scenario where one has to stand at attention for hours on end. When our muscles are relaxed, ie not over working, then we’re able to move with less compression on the joints, less wear and tear on the joints, and more ease. Less energy going into unnecessary compression means greater stamina- minimum effort for maximum gain. Surely that’s something worth working towards.
At the end of our morning, one of the players suggested I should come back to help the new recruits on their first parade- often they fall over and faint from the stress of having to stand still for so long. I am pretty sure I could solve that for them, let’s hope they ask!
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