The Feldenkrais Method is practiced in many settings. This is the story of a Feldenkrais lesson given to a voice student as part of a team-taught master class for singers. Annelise Kohler - voice teacher at the Conservatory of Music in Bern, Switzerland - and I have been experimenting with this novel format since November of 2006. Each morning and afternoon session begins with Annelise leading the participants through vocal warm-ups. Then, in ensemble, they sing a chorale. Next, I teach a Feldenkrais Awareness Though Movement lesson.
Then we begin working with individuals. The student sings an Aria or Lied with accompaniment as if it were a performing situation. The other participants are listening and watching. When finished, Annelise leads the student into a discussion about how they felt and what they’d like to improve. She then critiques the performance from a voice teacher’s perspective and I give feedback from my experience as a Feldenkrais teacher. After discussion about the similarities and differences in our observations with the student, we all three decide what will be the focus for the individual Feldenkrais lesson, or Functional Integration, (FI) that follows.
At this point I begin working with the student in front of the class, giving some explanation of what I’m doing and thinking so the others can follow along. As you will later see, the lesson and my narrative can create surprising results! After working for a short time, usually 15-25 minutes, Annelise has the student sing their piece and compares it to the first performance.
This is the story of one student’s lesson, which turned out to be especially interesting from both musical and Feldenkrais perspectives.
M. is a young man hoping to make a career of singing and teaching. He sang his Lied and did fairly well, but the performance was not very moving, especially considering the piece’s tragic character and potential for dramatic expression. When Annelise asked him what he would like to improve, he said his head and neck felt awkward and uncomfortable. She mentioned that his diction could be clearer and that he needed to better convey the mood or feeling of the Lied he was singing.
Annelise asked what I had to offer and I said, “I would like to take a look at how his head is sitting on his spine.” I had him lie on a mat on the floor and sat down by his head. I noticed that his head was slightly tilted to the left and his left shoulder was closer to the left ear than his right shoulder was to the right ear and saw similar signs of this pattern in his chest, pelvis, and legs. I mentioned this to the observers and that I suspected that it wouldn’t be very comfortable for him to have his head in the visual, objective middle. To check my hypothesis, I gently lifted his head and moved it the slight amount needed so it would look as if his head was centered over his body. He reported that this indeed felt uncomfortable, so I put his head back to where he had spontaneously chosen to place it when lying down. I told him and the group that it was actually fine for him to have his head where if felt most comfortable. If he held his head in the objective “middle,” he would be in a less neutral position and actually had less freedom to move his head in most directions. For M. this was a revelation. He recounted that he had been instructed by other voice teachers to have his head centered in order to sing well but never felt comfortable when striving to do so.
I continued using my hands and voice to demonstrate how the curve of his spine, the height of his shoulders and position of his pelvis all played a role in how his head was positioned. My focus for the lesson was for him to be better able to more completely and accurately sense his own degree of comfort in various positions. Additionally, it was important for him to understand that the feeling of comfort in his head and neck was directly related to the organization of his spine, shoulders and pelvis and that just changing his head’s position alone would not make singing any easier. I did not try to teach him how to hold his head in the anatomical middle place or to correct him in any other way.
When he got up from the floor, he took a few moments to find the place where his head felt most comfortable.
And then he sang again.
This time is was entirely different. His voice and diction were much better than the first run. All present reported being moved and touched by his performance. And all this because M. felt he could have his head where it felt most comfortable and was better able to sense that in the moment! Continuing, M. experimented with “centering” his head and realized that prior to the lesson, he was actually overcompensating and bending it to the right because he had no way of knowing what the middle was supposed to feel like.
After the formal end of his lesson and at the beginning of the lunch break, I observed him putting his bag over his left shoulder. I suggested that he experiment with hanging it over the other shoulder for variation and as a way to learn more about his own sense of position. He said he had tried this before but it had always slid off. During this short interchange, he realized as well that talking on the telephone, which he did a great deal in his day job also contributed to his head position. Coming back from the lunch break, M. reported that it had become easier to carry the bag on his right shoulder.
I mentioned earlier that engaging the other people in the room with the lesson had a surprising effect. During M.’s second performance of his Lied, I noticed that his accompanist also played with more fluency and expression. I mentioned this to the class, and the accompanist agreed. She reported that she had felt quite involved my discussion of M.’s pattern and in watching us while observing herself during the lesson I gave him. It seemed that she also learned something significant about her own way of finding comfort in her head and neck, about being better able to sense herself as well during M.’s performance.
This session demonstrates several important aspects of the Feldenkrais Method in working with musicians and non-musicians alike. For example how a person’s “middle” as seen from the outside can be experienced very differently as perceived by the person from the “inside.” Furthermore, it shows that someone who has only been taught to strive for a position that they do not know through their own senses and how that position relates to other parts of their body will have difficulty both in finding that position, and from the errors in their attempts to “correct” the position.
The lesson also illustrates a related principle: the importance of respecting each person’s habits and organization as they are found. This is true for performers who need to rely on their habits as well as anyone else. In M.’s case, having a teacher tell him to “center” his head was - at best - useless information. In fact it led to other problems in his singing. He became uncomfortable from over compensating because he had no internal reference when trying to find his middle. Interestingly and very significantly, our work together of “supporting his found pattern” as we say in theFeldenkrais Method, led to him making some positive changes in his standing organization after the lesson – some automatically, and all of them by himself “from the inside.” These kinds of changes are much more likely to grow into preferred patterns of use adopted automatically and without struggle.
We are still left with the questions: What caused his diction to improve without having worked with his tongue and jaw, for example? What enabled him to become more expressive and dramatic? Why were the listeners so deeply moved by the second performance?
My answers are that the organization in the neck and shoulders can have an influence on the freedom and fluidity of the jaw muscles and more importantly, he could sing from his own neutral organization and move in various directions from there.
John Tarr is a Feldenkrais Practitioner, musician and Assistant Trainer of Feldenkrais Teachers living and practicing in Basel, Switzerland. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music performance and graduated from the San Francisco II Feldenkrais Teachers’ Training program in 1996 under the Educational Directorship of Paul Rubin and Julie Casson Rubin. He is also author of the “The Dynamic Musician Series: Dynamic Stability and Breath, Volumes 1 and 2.” You can visit his website at www.somaticvitality.org where you can find other written materials and links to his blog and free ATM lessons from iTunes.