Developing Body Awareness and Self-Trust

May 9, 2011

Once upon a time…

Like most people who learn an instrument in the USA, I learned to play the flute in 6th grade. I had wanted to start playing much earlier than this as I knew my mother had a flute hidden away under the stairs. Sometimes I would take it down off the shelf, carefully (like it had magic and I didn’t want to disturb it) and I would open the box to reveal the gleaming, silver tube inside. Seeing that shiny instrument, nestled in dark, navy velvet, I would reach out with wonder and touch the keys, thinking to myself “one day, I am going to get to learn to play this! One day, it will be mine to play and I won’t have to stare at it from a box”. After a few minutes of staring I’d put it away back on the dusty shelf and sigh with longing that I had to wait till 6th grade to learn.

the shiny buttons...

When the day came to sign up for band, I was first in line, waving my arms and proclaiming to everyone who would listen “I have a flute! I already have an instrument! Please, I want to play the flute!” I would rush down the halls every day at 2nd period with a giddy excitement that I, yes I was going to play that beautiful, shiny instrument and because of ME it was going to make sound!!!

I was one of the first in the band room, when it was time to wait for the bus, I would sneak down there to practice (once actually missing the bus and causing my mother to come get me….something she made known was NOT acceptable) and I always made sure that when I put my flute in the storage room with the other flutes that it was upright and protected. It wasn’t just that it was my mother’s instrument and I felt the pull of responsibility to take care of something that I undoubtedly cost a fortune, but I felt it somehow fragile, and extremely special because with it came the ability to express myself and communicate in a new way.

On lesson days I was uber-excited because I knew that I got to stay after school and play to my heart’s content…well, for an hour and a half at least. Some of my friends were taking lessons that day too and we’d play duets which was thrilling, and then when I was last, I’d have the huge empty room all to myself. I’d love to listen to my sound bounce off the walls.

As I grew up through high school and even into college, that same excitement followed me – sneaking down to the band room, getting special permission to not have to sit in study halls so I could go practice, playing every chance I got and going to every honor band I possibly could. I had an in-exhaustible curiosity to learn new things, new music, and lessons were always something I looked forward to because it wasn’t about not being prepared and playing for the teacher it was the thought of “what will she say that’s new to me today? What will I learn today? When I leave here, I’ll be better than when I came in!”

The beginnings of body awareness

In all those years of teaching, very seldom was any emphasis placed on being aware of my body, save hand position being correct and an awful lot of talk about my embouchure. In fact, it was the teacher in 7th grade who taught me my current (more or less) embouchure and thinking back on it, she put a great deal of emphasis on awareness of my lips. She had me play in front of a mirror to see what the embouchure looked like, and then step away, play and see if I could feel it without looking. I would go down the hall to the bathroom and stand on my tippy toes to see in the mirror, enjoying not only the sound of my playing bouncing off the walls of the deserted bathroom and down the hall, but enjoying the thrill of discovery with how my body worked.

Interlochen Center for the Arts

Image via Wikipedia

From there, I started to notice that I was becoming increasingly interested in the body, especially mine, with how it worked in regards to playing my special instrument. I heard about Alexander Technique and took classes in it at Interlochen Arts Camp.

Then, I was told that there was a woman named Barbara Conable giving a workshop at a nearby university and her workshop was an all-day event titled “Everything The Musician Needs to Know About the Body“. My friend, a music therapy major, and I packed up and spent the day learning things that to this day, I have not forgotten.

Photograph of right posterior human distal rad...

Image via Wikipedia

At the time, I was still recovering from tendonitis acquired from my practicing at Interlochen. She asked for volunteers who had present or previous health issues. Of course, I volunteered, and she began to give me a body mapping lesson in front of the class. She told me to take my finger and run it all the way down one finger until I felt a mass of bones together: that was my wrist! Where the finger bone joined the wrist was actually the first joint of the finger! She told me: move your fingers and feel how they move….not move them from the first joint. It felt soooo much freer!

The grad school experience

I went on to graduate school where I took a class in Alexander Technique at Appalachian State for a whole year. It was wonderful to learn how to move and to learn how the body is supposed to move. But it wasn’t until I got to FSU that I REALLY began to be aware of my body.

Now, all through these years I had had an interest in exercise and weight training. I had been going to the gym since 7th grade when I was on the tennis team, but I really got into training regularly when I got to college. I read EVERYTHING I could get my hands on, and while I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was determined to learn and in the process of lifting, I began to develop mind-body awareness. My programming skills might have been seriously lacking, but I knew that when I did a one-arm row I supposed to feel it in my back, and I tinkered around with it till I did. I have no doubt this set me up for great body awareness come grad school.

At FSU I began to take Dynamic Integration (Feldenkrais) classes with Eva Amsler. This class began with all students lying on the floor for an hour every Thursday morning while Prof. Amsler walked around the room, asking us the strangest, easiest, and yet most difficult questions, in her Swiss accent.

“Do you feel your left leg lying on the floor? Which way are your toes pointing?”

“How much space is there between your ankle and the floor?”

“Do you feel your shoulder blades lying on the floor? Could you draw your little wings?”

“Think about how to get up, what would you move first?”

The class was incredibly eye-opening and between that class and her lessons I found myself questioning how I played this instrument that was almost a part of me, and questioning was there a better way? A different way?

While I was at FSU I continued my workouts, getting up about 6 every morning to walk to the gym, do my workout and walk home before preparing for class. I found myself asking the same questions in my workouts:

“Is there a better way to do this? ”

Am I moving most efficiently/effectively?”

“Should I feel this here or there?”

“If I increase the weight, does my form change?”

Looking back through my notebook of those two years of grad school, the practice notes in the beginning are peppered with questions to myself. The lessons revealed all kinds of new thoughts on how to think about my body, how to re-learn playing my instrument in the way that was best suited to me.

Actual Questions from my Notebook

Practice Notes:

I found that when slurring octaves my throat moves. I am attempting to only use my lips, mainly my upper lip. I find I can do this but it’s not clean at all. *How do I change octaves?

….the next day I answered this question:

I can change octaves by changing my support which creates faster air – blowing harder? But it sounds better when just my top lip moves down.

Warm up: long tones while singing – focus only on throat. Notice that air crept into cheeks. As I go lower, pitch wants to jump up, if I focus on only my aperture, I can feel it barely move to sculpt the air! Can only play very softly.

Played one note feeling upper lip move up and down and upper lip only while upper lip stays relaxed!

Long tones ascending concentrating on 1) Keeping an uninvolved throat 2) smallest possible movement in aperture 3) relaxed corners and/or air in cheeks.

The higher I go the louder I get! Why am I gripping the keys so tightly???

Flutter tonguing work: If I sing with the vowel “ih” in my mouth while I flutter tongue, the back of the tongue goes down. However, something changes when I take the voice away…I’m getting it but this is going to take WORK!

Pentatonic scales – focusing on feeling in whole body, am I creating unnecessary tension anywhere? Tension -front of shoulders, left rear deltoid. While I am just observing what’s happening in my body, tension-wise I am noticing more inflation in my cheeks only concentrating on that, not thinking about support and keeping fingers close to the keys.

When I sit on the ball and play, I notice I collapse into myself.

Lesson Notes/Questions:

The tongue is a muscle so we can relax it. When double tonguing, let the air move the tongue. Tongue is only interrupting the air.

Figure out which way I learn – hearing, visual or muscle memory. Sing it, write it down, or play it without blowing.

(about support) Just feel that you hold the tension – how it feels to play with and without.

Teaching principle: go where you haven’t been before – unexplored. You don’t have to say “I change you”

Observe, don’t control. Allow yourself to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, don’t stop, it punishes yourself. Just be aware when you do something wrong or right – was that easy? Hard? Instead of”when I do….then…” that’s controlling.

Trust = risk. To trust myself: 1) Observe when you control 2) risk 3) start to observe when you DON’T trust

For 3 weeks, every day, do finger work: practicing slowly, fingers slow close to the keys, observing – can also practice slowly pressing/lots of tension and then easy to feel the difference – but be really patient for 3 weeks before working other way.

Work on holding the body open.


There are lots and lots more of those in my notebook, but do you see the theme? The questions I was asking myself actually took a lot of guts. That excitement to discover, to learn, to play that I had in 6th grade that followed me all the way till now served me well; it gave me the courage I didn’t know I had to not put so much stock in what old teachers had told me was the “right” way, but it gave me the courage to discover and learn my own way. Not only did this make me a better player, it made me a much better teacher, I feel.

Exercises in developing self-trust and body awareness

As you can see by now, developing body awareness can go hand in hand with developing a trust of yourself. Look at te questions I wrote down as I practiced; have you ever asked yourself those questions? Has your practice session looked something like that?

1) this week, each time you practice, write down your own observations of your practice session. Notice what you are doing – can you do it without judging?

Look at the questions my professor asked of me and the way she guided me.

2) Take one of these each week and apply it to yourself and your practice session. Write down your observations

Are you afraid to observe? Do you find judgements coming up as you observe things? Do you have the courage to change if you observe yourself doing something less effectively than you would like?

3) sometime during the day take time to lie on the floor and make observations of yourself. Notice every part of your body and where it touches the floor. If judgements come up about how you are lying on the floor, just let them pass. Start on one side of your body and work your way up from your feet to your head – then compare each side to the other, and do the other side. When you get up after this, how do you feel? When you play after this, how do you feel?

4) while playing, start to feel other parts of your body than your fingers. You might be surprised to find you don’t even feel your fingers when you play. Take a day and focus on how your lips feel, what do they do? How do they change notes? Feel your feet when you play. Where do they touch the floor? All these thoughts think WHILE playing – how does it change your playing to concentrate on feeling your body and putting the “doing” on auto-pilot?

Be kind to yourself. Body awareness takes time and is constantly developing. Try some of these techniques and tell me below how you feel. Do you already have good body awareness? How did you develop it? If you have taken Alexander, Feldenkrais, Dynamic Integration, or body mapping lessons, share with others how it helped you.

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