Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On a Personal Note: Change

I haven't written a post for a while because life has been in flux. Change and movement constitute life. Static states and stagnation are a condition of death. Why then do we all cling to the static? Maybe because it's safe, it's known, it feels secure.

I'm expecting a baby at the end of October. Her birth will be the culmination of years of decision-making, the roller-coaster of trying to conceive, conception, miscarriage, trying again. It will also be the beginning of a new movement into life, of a constantly changing being. Actually, we've arrived at that point already--I have a clear sense that she's here, moving and changing inside me. Although there are strong punctuation marks in life, like birth, there is no real point of arrival because that would be stopping the ongoing process that each of us is. There is no period until death.

Being pregnant is like a Feldenkrais lesson at the cellular level. My body's chemical, hormonal, and physical habits are disrupted daily. Each day I have to negotiate a new balance because my center of gravity has changed again. This is really interesting, and attracts my curiosity, but it's also disconcerting at times. I've had a strong feeling more than once that I don't know who I am. It's true on so many levels. I have 50% more blood in my veins. My belly is huge. Hormonally speaking, there is a bigger difference between me and my non-pregnant self than between me and my husband. He and I, a couple, are becoming a family of three.

Just to add more change, my husband and I decided to move from San Francisco, where I have lived my entire adult life, to Berkeley. Not a huge distance, but a big change for us. It's kind of satisfying to change everything externally at the same time that so much is changing internally. It's also interesting to notice how much I identify with my home--how difficult it was to take apart the San Francisco home, how in a hurry I am to set everything up in a familiar way in the new home. In the same way I identify with my body, and do double-takes when I look down at my big belly. That's me. This is my house. Not really believing it yet, still stuck in the old patterns.

If I lie down and breathe, let my breath find its natural rhythm, that rhythm has changed because my metabolism has shifted during pregnancy. I'm lying on the floor in my new home, looking out at the redwood tree in the front yard. All these indicators of identity are superficial, even the rhythm of my breathing. I cling to the old familiar indicators, but there is a core of myself that is deeper than these indicators, and when I can stop for long enough, when I look for it, I can sense it. I couldn't describe or locate it, except perhaps in the primary image, in my representation of myself as directions and lengths. I can sense myself at some points as a continual process--my history feeding into who I am now, but also able to shift and change. When I can sense this, I can also sense many new possibilities for how to be myself. If I can change this much, what else is possible?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where to begin?

I just received an email from a young woman from Greece who is studying the flute. Her question:
"The thing is that I have tried so much to find a good balance, body posture and breathing that I am really confused at the moment and all the flute teachers tell me about it. It is about time for things to change! Could you please suggest to me a method and/or a place to begin?"

My response: Everyone has an opinion about posture! I'm sure you hear many confusing and contradictory things. What I like about the Feldenkrais Method is that there are no rules about posture, and there is no one good position. Feldenkrais sees posture as a point of equilibrium and uses going in and out of balance to find the place of balance, which can be different every day. My favorite flute teacher, Liisa Ruoho at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, says "You have to lose your balance in order to find it."

It's important to find your own balance and comfort from the inside, exploring different movements until you find what suits you. Everyone has a different shape and a different history and different habits, so one teacher's solution may not work for you. Also teachers tend to simplify and turn advice into rules. For me following rules takes me out of myself and causes more tension.

I recently taught the Feldenkrais lesson called "What Is Good Posture?" and recorded it. I'll post it now on my blog so you can do it if you'd like. It's also published in a book by Feldenkrais called Awareness through Movement. This book has 12 sample lessons which are a good introduction to Feldenkrais. There's another good one concerning breathing, which I have posted here.

Disclaimer: this is a recording of a live lesson, unscripted, and responding to the people who attended the class. It is not a substitute for a live class, where the teacher can observe your movements and respond to your pacing. But it's a good introduction to the method.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

More Core

This is another lesson from the February series, exploring core muscles and using the breath to sense the core from the inside out. It's a recorded class, which isn't as effective as a live class, where the teacher can respond to the pace of the students. But if you're curious about the class or can't attend, this is a good sample lesson to try. Find a comfortable place to lie on your back, on a carpet or other firm, padded surface. Wear comfortable clothes and allow about an hour for the lesson. Take care and don't do anything uncomfortable. You can always make the movement smaller and slower to be more comfortable, or simply imagine it, and still get the same effect. Enjoy!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Come as you are!

As for me, the Feldenkrais Method is the most rebellious thing I have ever engaged in. It locates authority within oneself rather than outside oneself and gave me tools to enrich my own authority.

Erin Clark, Blogosfeld

I was happy to read the above quote in Erin's blog, because the lack of external authority is one of my favorite things about the Feldenkrais Method. After years of traditional education--trying to please the teacher, being told how to play a piece, studying for a test--it's a relief to finally learn on your own terms. The movements in a Feldenkrais lesson are done at your own pace, within your own range of comfort. Discovering your own internal rhythms and organization, you end up with a strong sense of ownership of what you've learned.

People who come for lessons are usually full of judgment about how they move and act--"I'm sitting the wrong way. Look, my shoulder is too high. I have really bad posture." But in Feldenkrais the conventional sense of right and wrong doesn't exist. Dennis Leri writes in Learning How to Learn:
In the Feldenkrais Method, each person already presents the ideal body, the ideal way to move. For many of us this is a difficult concept to grasp. We take pain, ‘poor’ posture, or limited movement as symptoms of something wrong. Yet each and every person makes the best choices possible given his or her perception of choices.
After I explained this to a friend with whom I was working, he coined a new slogan: "Feldenkrais--come as you are!"

Another friend, when I quoted Erin in a weekly class, asked, "But who locates the authority within oneself? Who has the authority to do that?"

The picture above, from an interesting article in the New York Times, may illustrate a partial answer to this question. The sign is there. But the directions in it are blank. The method creates a formal process through which you can discover your own authority. In order to create the space to experience discovery, you follow the framework of the lessons, but the content is your own. Dennis Leri describes this process in a recent interview, when discussing the work of renowned hypnotherapist Milton Erickson:
Erickson used what we call metonymical distinctions. So he would say “a man came to me today”--doesn’t say what kind of man, right? So automatically, you’re filling in content...you’re thinking, OK, not a woman, a man. So he says, “46 years old...married...6 kids...the eldest two in jail...the wife works two jobs.” In other words, he doesn’t say “The guy’s a slacker.” He doesn’t give you an interpretation. As you go along you end up filling it in.

Dennis Leri, Interview with Ryan Nagy
Dennis goes on to say that an Awareness through Movement lesson does much the same thing. The teacher (or facilitator--more on that later) asks, "Where do you feel changes?" rather than saying "Your left shoulder should now be pressing into the floor more." You fill in the answers yourself--the content is your own. More subtly, the teacher instructs you to do a movement involving the right side, then on the left side. You compare the sides and discover a wealth of new content--new sensory, intellectual, kinesthetic, and emotional information. You have a more complete sense of yourself on many different levels, and you have discovered that sense, rather than being told by someone what you should feel.

This is why the words teacher, student, and lesson are misleading. Ilana Nevill writes about this incongruence in the most recent Feldenkrais Journal:
Our students lie in a rather vulnerable position on the floor while we as teachers tower above them, guiding and instructing them to become more aware of having a choice: either to remain dependent on what others tell them or to assume personal authority in discovering what is right and good on their own.

Ilana Neville, "Toward a Culture of Mutual Learning," Feldenkrais Journal No. 22
This can lead to an expectation of more passive learning, while in reality Awareness through Movement creates the space for you to learn actively and own what you learn. Nevill prefers to use language such as dialogue, play, exploration, partners in learning.

Feldenkrais: Come as you are! Explore, play with options, make discoveries. Leave subtly transformed, with a new sense of yourself, but feeling even more deeply you.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Do you feel centered?

What does it mean to be centered--physically, emotionally, mentally? Where is the center? Moving from the center is a fundamental strategy of the martial arts. Our powerful core muscles are stronger than the muscles of our limbs and using them can make movement seem effortless. Discover movement from the center and you may feel centered in every sense of the word.

This lesson uses a breathing technique from Judo to help you sense the varieties of movement that happen while breathing, and get more familiar with the core of yourself. You'll need about an hour to lie on a soft carpet or mat and do the lesson. Enjoy!

[disclaimer: this lesson and the others posted below were recorded during a live class. The pacing and instructions respond to the students in that class. Participating in an actual class is always more effective, but if you can't do that this is the next best thing. Take care and don't do more than you can easily and comfortably.]

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ferneyhough & Feldenkrais

For some years, the British-born, American-based composer Brian Ferneyhough has been testing the outer limits of what players can play and listeners can hear, and he has become the somewhat unwilling figurehead for a movement known as the New Complexity. Ferneyhough may win the prize for inscribing more black dots per square inch than any composer in history: a characteristic bar of his Third String Quartet has the first violin setting forth jagged, double-stopped figures over a range of several octaves, replete with glissando, trills, and seven different dynamic markings; the second violin playing a stream of twenty-nine thirty-second notes; the viola playing a stream of thirty-three thirty-second notes; and the cello scrubbing out disjointed figures down below. Because not even the most expert performers can execute such notation precisely, it becomes a kind of planned improvisation, more akin to a free-jazz or avant-rock freak-out than to anything in the mainstream classical tradition--mutatis mutandis, a mosh pit for the mind.
--Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise, p.522-3

The New Complexity invites the perfectionist performer to become friends with failure--a third F to add to the title of this entry. Preparing a piece of Ferneyhough's music begins with opening the score, gasping, and closing it quickly again. Then a second peek. The music looks very difficult and completely opaque--it's not really possible to get a sense of it from looking at it. Only after many hours of staring, working out complex mathematical relationships on graph paper, playing a single beat fifty times before it becomes familiar, does the music begin to shape itself. In the meantime, the performer (at least this is true for me and a colleague or two who discussed the process candidly) finds herself pinned against the edge of ability. There is so much to focus on, so many markings for each fragment of a second, that it really is impossible to render perfectly. And that's not the point of this music.

But for musicians trained all their lives to reach perfection, this music can be a challenge to identity, emotional endurance, and sense of self. As I was preparing the piccolo part for Flurries this past month, I repeatedly came up against a wall--I can't do this! My brain jangled (I could almost picture a big neon alarm blinking OVERLOAD) and I had to stop practicing. I knew that perfection wasn't the point but because I habitually make perfection my goal with learning music, I couldn't help panicking.

There is a series of Feldenkrais lessons designed to be impossible. They study a movement from Judo called the Five Winds Kata, which very few practitioners have ever accomplished. The reason Feldenkrais chose this movement was to keep the focus off the goal, which is almost unattainable, and on the process of learning and exploration--to give the student the chance to practice ease, curiosity, and awareness even in the most frustrating situations.

When I remembered those lessons this past month, it was easier to approach the Ferneyhough. I had the patience break it down and play everything within my comfort level, slowly enough that I could play with ease. Paradoxically, this helped me learn much faster than practicing with ambition, and running headlong into that wall over and over again. It was really interesting to notice when I approached the wall of frustration and inability, and how my identity as a musician came into question when I got too close.

I also thought deeply about what failure would mean. Ferneyhough's music is in essence a kind of orchestrated failure. A tinge of fear is an essential element; making it go away would take the exciting edge from the performance. Acceptance had to happen on a different scale: I had to accept that I can't accept failure, that I would feel fear and anxiety, and that these feelings were a vital part of the performance. Another paradox--when I stopped running away from anxiety, I started to enjoy myself, to hear the music, and to sense gestures and textures I hadn't noticed before.

A performance is just a snapshot of an ongoing process. With all its movement, its unfolding in time, music is so much more about process than goals. The process, not the goal. Expression, not perfection. With patience, ease, and grace. Mantras I keep rediscovering.