Healthy and unhealthy performance
As a music examiner, I have observed people of all different shapes and sizes playing instruments of all different shapes and sizes. It can be a joy to hear a free-flowing musical performance where the player is a channel for the music that flows through them to the point at which the sounds leave the instrument.
Sometimes, however, I witness performances which, at best, may be physically uncomfortable for the player and, at worst, actually painful and dangerous in the long term.
This does not mean to say that the performance was not musically communicative, but it had been achieved in spite of physically inappropriate ways of playing. Now, I do not profess to be an expert in the techniques of playing every instrument under the sun but, very often, players compromise their otherwise essentially good technique at the actual point of tone production by lack of support from a part of their body which is not necessarily the same as, or adjacent to the point of contact with the instrument.
We are all asymmetrical to greater or lesser degrees in varying parts of our bodies and most instruments are played in ways which in themselves call for asymmetrical stances. Think of even the greatest virtuosi playing the violin, the cello, the harp, the flute – all these players are having to make compromises to adjust to the physical dimensions of their instrument and playing it – most of these playing stances are pragmatic, whether consciously so or not.
My background in health and music performance
When in my teens, I suffered what would now be called repetitive strain injury exacerbated by my playing. This was subsequently cured by acupuncture and demanded a re-think of how I played and moved. This was because, although the actual technique which I had been taught was excellent, all sorts of psychological stress factors caused me to strain and over stress some muscles whilst others were underused. I was out of alignment – not only when I played, but always.
Since that time when I was spared the enormous pain to which I had become accustomed when playing, writing, carrying things and so many every day tasks which we would normally take for granted I have pursued a quest to alleviate that pain for other players by all sorts of means, which has included the study of anatomy and physiology and the recommendation of Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, massage, exploring the anxieties and tensions that performance entails, neuro-linguistic programming etc.
I have since taken this further by taking steps to prevent these physical stresses and strains caused by physical imbalances in the people with whom I have worked as students, workshop or masterclass participants.
After analysing which parts of the body are being used and abused when we play and assessing how best to correct it, I felt that the most significant element lacking in most of these cases has been CORE STABILITY, or incorrect use of the external abdominal muscles, in an attempt to compensate for dysfunction in the deep abdominal muscles that are designed to stabilise. Lack of stability of the shoulder girdle, also frequently occurs.
I know, speaking for myself that I never heard these two words – CORE STABILITY – in my musical education. I think for most music teachers at that time this idea would have belonged to the school gym or games field. But society’s concerns and interests have moved on.
Generally, people today are much more aware now of how they treat their bodies – even if they decide to ignore all the advice! When I was formally studying music, yoga was something which tended to be done by people who ate beans and wore open toed sandals. Pilates was something I did not discover until about fifteen years ago and then only because I found had inadvertently been doing it for several years already as part of my leisure pursuit dance training.
I have explored many methods and techniques and drawn on them all to varying extents to find ways of releasing muscles held continually under stress, strengthening appropriate supportive muscles and finding new alignments to encourage greater channels of freedom in order to communicate the music purely and simply rather than having to compromise what might otherwise be good technique, by inappropriate use.
As Pilates places particular emphasis on core stability, I eventually qualified as a Pilates teacher to bring all these ideas into sharper focus.
What is Pilates and why is it useful for harpists?
Pilates is a non-impact, or at most low-impact exercise method which can help re-align and rebalance your body safely. Through it you can learn about core stability and improve your concentration, breathing and focus through its flowing movements and holistic approach and it can benefit your mind, body and, of course, your playing. You become more bodily aware and able to refine your precision of movement and co-ordination. These skills can be learnt by anyone from children to senior citizens and you don’t have to be a dancer or be ultra-fit to benefit from them. Musicians with whom I have worked have raved about it. Not just me!
As nothing substitutes for having a teacher to guide you, my first recommendation would be to you to find a class near to you, or a teacher who can train you on an individual basis, Pilates exercises are something which can be done in your own home without specialist equipment other than perhaps a shock absorbent mat, but even some of the standing and other exercises can be performed without these. you don’t even need special shoes, only comfortable clothing in which you can move freely.
In future articles, I will explore and demonstrate some of the things that you can do to rebalance and realign your posture and encourage you to reflect on how you use your body not only to perform music but also perform everyday tasks. There will be some tips drawn from a wider spectrum of techniques encouraging greater bodily awareness. You may surprise yourself, too. A leaner, fitter person may emerge….. let alone a pain free performance…….
I have written a book – which is still in the draft stage – which incorporates my ideas on healthy performance practice for harpists.
If you are interested, it is available as a downloadable PDF.
Purchase of this Draft version will be entitled to a free update when the book is finished.