Wednesday, November 18, 2009


“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." -Aldous Huxley

Earlier this fall, I played the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Jeffrey Kahane was the piano soloist. Kahane is an open-hearted performer--the listener senses that he is expressing his love for humanity and his innermost inexpressible thoughts in an intimate way. His performances are very moving, and he plays with technical brilliance as well. I realized as I was listening to him play that I trust him to rise to any technical challenge, but he's not a perfect player. Listening to him, you get the sense that perfection is not his goal--all technical feats are solely at the service of his expressive needs, his communication of something very important to the audience.

I don't always trust myself as a performer, but at times I feel I can do anything. The moments when I trust myself least are those in which I'm focusing on perfection; the moments I trust myself the most are when I'm expressing something to the audience.

When we know what we want to say, trusting how to say it is easier. When we know ourselves better, we trust better what we want to say. Here is a Feldenkrais lesson that explores the ideas of self-awareness and trust. You'll need about an hour to do it. Get deeply acquainted with yourself, and give yourself the gift of trust.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Primary Image

Primary Image

This fall I'm teaching a series of lessons exploring the Primary Image, a fundamental view of the self composed of just the cardinal lengths and directions of spine,
arms, and legs. The image is a very useful tool: it's much more basic than your usual habits and hangups, so habits and hangups tend to fall away. By letting go of details--this is crooked, this is painful, this is too short--it's possible to move very differently. The image is simple, just lengths and directions, making it easier to pay attention to the whole self as you move.

Holding this image in your attention while you move, you're sinking to a level of perception below your individual experience, a level that has more in common with the rest of the species, or even with other mammals. Without the baggage of discomforts, historical associations, or even images of muscle and bone, the five lines of the Primary Image are free to move with the utmost ease and grace. And so are you.

Try it! Here is an example of a Primary Image lesson. I taught and recorded this lesson a few weeks ago. You'll need about an hour to do the lesson. Lie in a comfortable firm surface on your back, on a soft carpet or pad. Don't do anything that feels uncomfortable--if necessary, the movements can be done so slowly and minimally that someone watching would not be able to see you moving. Another recorded Primary Image lesson is in the previous blog entry, This Is Water. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Is Water

I just bought a copy of This Is Water by David Foster Wallace for a friend's daughter who is off to college. It's a commencement address he gave which has been published in book form. He opens with a little parable about two fish who are greeted by an older fish one day.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and say, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
The point is that the most obvious, common things about ourselves and our lives can go completely unnoticed. This is just "a banal platitude," says Foster Wallace. "But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance."1

His essay is about thinking, and how we have a choice about what we think. Here's an example, an audio clip from the original speech. He's talking about awareness, awareness of our habitual ways of thinking, ways that are so habitual that we don't even recognize their existence.

Feldenkrais lessons begin with movement but lead through movement to this same kind of awareness. Movement is just the opening, the most obvious and visible aspect of our interaction with the world. As we go about our daily lives, we hold an image of who we are, which is like water to fish--so common to every moment of our existence that we are not aware of it. Working with this image, it is possible to achieve profound, fundamental changes. Ignoring it can be a matter of life or death. Death in a metaphorical sense--moving through the world without intention, as a sleepwalker, an automaton--or in a literal sense--failing to react effectively to the snake in the grass, the car coming out of nowhere.

Parts of the self-image develop from our individual experience, our vocations and histories. Other elements are common to us all. We all move around a central axis. We all grow upward, and our arms and legs grow outward from the center.

Experiencing something so fundamental to our species helps to clear out all the stories we've told about ourselves: my spine hurts torso is too long...I can't play tennis. The primary image is devoid of these individual details. It's very refreshing to access something so basic.

Take some time to experience this for yourself! I taught and recorded this Primary Image lesson this morning. You'll need about an hour, and you begin lying on your back on a firm but comfortable surface like a thick rug or a mat. Enjoy.

[1 This Is Water, David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown and Company 2009]

Thursday, September 3, 2009


As different as we all are, we have a lot in common. We were all born, we have a standard basic shape--spine, two arms, two legs--which allows certain movements easily. We grow, we eat, and we learn.

Learning is what makes each of us so individual. Every bird in a species sings basically the same song, and does so almost from birth, but we can learn any language on earth fluently if we start as an infant. Learning can also get in our way, especially if it is compulsive--striving to achieve something leads to habits of tension in both movement and thought. These can get in the way of clear action. When different habits pile up through years of experience, carrying out a simple action can get very complicated. Often even our original intentions get cloudy.

Awareness brings clarity. This seems obvious and simple but it can work in many subtle ways. Take for instance the following quote from a transcript of one of Feldenkrais' lessons:

Pay attention if you can distinguish each vertebra when you think of the spine, or not. Then you will see that there are vertebrae that have muscles that are efforting and disturbing the movement. It is impossible to pay attention to these vertebrae. They are sealed off, opaque. The moment that you distinguish them, all of a sudden, something organizes there that allows the movement to be softer, clearer, both in space and in relation to the body. 1

Sealed off and opaque, until we shine a light on them just by shifting our attention. We're not actually doing anything, not managing the movements of all those muscles. (In fact, trying to manage or control them would make them more opaque). Awareness helps them work in the way they are meant to, and all we have to do is sit back and let it happen.

As this light spreads, and more of our self-image is clarified, we begin to move more easily. Since movement, thought, feeling, and sensation are intimately linked through the complexity of the nervous system, thought will also be clearer. Those hidden original intentions may spring into view again--suddenly we're clear about what we want to do. Feldenkrais refers to this in his article "On Health," in which he says that "the healthy person is the one who can live his unavowed dreams fully."2

If we're clear about what our intention is and can bring awareness to our whole selves, then (just like the small muscles around the vertebrae) our actions will organize themselves around those intentions. It becomes easy and simple to carry them out. All we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.

1 “Pushing the Hip Backward,” Moshe Feldenkrais, Lesson #335 in Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais at Alexander Yanai, Vol. 8, Part A, p. 2291, International Feldenkrais Federation 2000.

2 “On Health,” Dromenon, Vol. 2, No. 2, August/September 1979.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stepping outside your frame of reference

Have you ever felt stuck inside your own experience? As learning animals, we create ourselves through the experiences we have had in our lives. Our own habits of movement, thought, emotion, and sensation define our personalities, our reactions, our character. Although it's who we are, at times this frame of reference can feel limiting.

Below is an audio recording of a very short Awareness through Movement® lesson (attached as a blank video soundtrack). This lesson embodies the idea of stepping outside the frame of reference--becoming aware of the frame of reference can make it possible to step beyond it. Living outside the box can be liberating!

Most Feldenkrais lessons have this idea as a fundamental theme. Shining a light on our comfortable paths of movement helps us realize they are comfortable paths (maybe even ruts) but not the only possibility, as we often assume. This opens the door to new possibilities. Movement is a metaphor for and a microcosm of our experience. Learn to step outside your habitual paths of movement, and you will find yourself thinking, feeling, and acting in new ways.

Monday, June 1, 2009


If someone were to look at you right now they would see you as relatively symmetrical--there may be small details here and there that are not completely symmetrical, but generally your arms and legs are the same length, the two sides of your torso look similar.

Now try this: lie on the floor, and imagine a plane dividing yourself into left and right sides. Compare your perception of the two sides. Notice the length of each side, whether it feels rounder or flatter, wider or narrower, lighter or heavier. You may find some remarkable asymmetries in your subjective perception--one leg may feel inches shorter than the other, or you may feel like one side of you is flat and the other floating off the floor. Our subjective perception is much more malleable than objective observation. And this malleability is a key tool of the Feldenkrais Method.

Our subjective perception of our self is much more than an imaginary construct. It is our self-image, the foundation from which we act and live. And our interactions with the world change our self-image. It shrinks and expands along with our changes in activity, mood, and awareness. If I am playing the flute and feel expansive and happy, I will sense my size and use my lungs, hands, and fingers in a completely different way than if I feel tentative or nervous. And the reverse is true--if I can feel expansive when I am tentative or nervous, chances are I will begin to feel happier and more confident.

Try lying on the floor again. Now notice how the back of yourself comes into contact with the floor. The floor is a solid, objective surface. Comparing the contact between the back of yourself and this surface joins your subjective and objective perception. Notice the differences between the contact of your right and left sides. Roll very slowly a little to the right, to increase the contact of the right side, and then a little to the left. Do this several times, feeling the changes in contact, how there is more pressure on one side, then the other. Then lie in the middle again, and sense your contact now. Does it feel different than before?

This is just the beginning of an Awareness through Movement lesson. The lesson would usually go on to explore a movement in detail with several variations, and use a scan like the one above to see how the movement explorations have shifted your perception of yourself. These lessons help you become aware of differences between subjective and objective worlds. There is much more to consider--the subjective/objective dichotomy is the subject of volumes of philosophy and cognitive science--but these immediate practical applications help us live more fully. I'll add more later this month.

Monday, May 4, 2009

More gesture

A friend pointed out that gesture in music is a large field of study and I've been surveying it a little.

One emphasis of study is on artificial reproductions of gesture, as well as technology that captures a gesture and interprets it. IRCAM has a large website on the subject of gesture and technology. The attempt to reproduce human gestures helps us to understand them. Breaking them down into smaller components, as we do in Awareness through Movement lessons, we can appreciate the complexity of a gesture.

Another emphasis is the meaning of musical gestures. Here's a quote from an article by Fernando Iazetta:

"Gestures increase function by virtue of their expressiveness. That is, a gesture may control multiple parameters at the same time, thus allowing a user to manipulate data in a manner not possible by modifying each parameter individually. For example, a conductor simultaneously controls both tempo and volume of the music gesture. The rhythm of the gesture controls tempo and the size of the gesture controls volume. This allows an efficient communication not possible by adjusting the tempo and volume independently."

Technologists break gestures apart to study them, but expressiveness puts them back together. How could a conductor adjust the tempo and volume independently? In making a musical gesture, such as conducting the shape of a phrase, we don't consciously manage all the parameters. We don't say to ourselves, "now I'm going to move my arm a distance of eighteen inches in an upward diagonal movement, inhaling as I do so," or "I am going to indicate a tempo increase of 12% while simultaneously indicating a gradual increase in volume." We think of an expressive intent--an increase in excitement, for instance.

We sense the shape of the phrase and the movements organize themselves to carry out our intention. If we aren't certain of our intention, the gesture will seem more self-conscious. It's fairly apparent when a conductor spends time practicing in front of a mirror, or when any musician is more taken with the look of a gesture than with the underlying musical meaning.

And in playing an instrument, an image of an expressive gesture will help all the technical details of execution fall into place, usually making the technical execution feel much easier. Conscious micromanagement of all the details of fingering, rhythm, and articulation can get in the way of a fluid performance. Conscious control of intention is far more effective than conscious control of technical execution.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gesture (theme for May)

Welcome! I'm starting this blog because I teach a weekly Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement® class. Each month I choose a theme for the class. I write up a little description of the theme in my emails about the class, and I always want to write a little more than is appropriate for a brief description. Also, I find that thinking about these themes and exploring them is a great way to think about Feldenkrais and describe it to others. So here's the long description of the theme for May. I'm going to include a few entries on past themes in the next few weeks.

My class has a performing arts focus, so I'm going to include examples from the world of professional musicians (which I also belong to) and other creative artists.

Gesture is basic to our life in the world. Movement, expression, communication, thought, observation--all are accomplished through gesture. Gesture is how we interact with the world around us.

In a flute masterclass a few years ago, I saw a master flute teacher point out that a gesture a student was making with her flute had nothing to do with the gesture she was making with the air. She made a big accent with her arms and the flute, but the accent was almost exclusively visible, because she didn't make an accent with the air as well.

When we're self-conscious, on stage or in an anxiety-producing situation, we may make similar false gestures.

An Awareness through Movement (ATM) lesson can help us regain authenticity of gesture. Many lessons explore a single whole-body gesture. Even the label "whole-body" is too small, because it's the whole SELF which is participating--movement, thought, breath, and sensation. The ATM lesson uses various strategies to explore the gesture: slowing it down, breaking it into smaller components, directing the attention to various places. Sometimes lessons explore just the initiation of the gesture, using so little movement that it's almost imperceptible. Letting go of effort that is not completely necessary to accomplish the gesture helps it become more natural. Our bodies and nervous systems have a natural logic that becomes more apparent as this excess effort, or parasitic movement, falls away.

As performers and as people interacting with the world, we benefit from clear gestures. Exploring and clarifying a gesture in movement helps us clarify gestures of thought and emotion as well. And clarifying HOW we communicate something helps to clarify WHAT we're trying to communicate as well.