Body Mapping

Last week, a violinist in the Mcgill Symphony stood up before rehearsal started an announced that Jennifer Johnson, a body mapping teacher and Andover Educator, would be coming to McGill to do a body mapping workshop on the weekend. I had seen a few of these workshops being advertised: they're the ones called "What Every Musician Needs to know About the Body", and are run by an association of hybrid Alexander technique/music teachers who focus on teaching practical anatomy lessons to musicians. Although I have been taking a few lessons in Alexander technique recently, I hadn't looked into the Andover educators in part because it seemed like a much more, well, commercialized venture. Unlike the Alexander technique, which is simply a discipline of study, "Andover Educators" is a company, and is upfront about selling goods, mostly books with the title "What every (insert instrumentalist here) needs to know About The Body" and "The Breathing Book for (instrument)." So, to be honest, my question about Andover was-- are they just taking advantage of musicians' insecurities about their body-use to sell them stuff? Nope.

It's true that, having decided to try it out, I did spend $140 that weekend-- $100 for the workshop fee, and another $40 for a private lesson with Jennifer. But after about fifteen years in music lessons of some kind, most of it being spent being given massively contradictory and often simply untrue information about how a body works and how one might be employed in the service of music-making, I would have been willing to pay pretty much any amount of money for the information Jennifer was selling. Of course, I can't claim to have truly absorbed even a fraction of what was taught in the workshop-- that's the work of a lifetime! But I no longer feel the need to have private lessons that go like this (compiled from the past few years of my life):

Me: am I breathing right? Am I doing it right now? I don't think I'm doing it right. *tries really hard* Teacher: Breathe with your belly! Me: But there are no lungs in my... okay... *tries even harder* Teacher: Yeah. Sure. Good. Watching you breathe is boring, now let's play bassoon. Me: But every time I try to play bassoon I have to breathe first! Okay my stomach is like poking out now, that's good right? Only I can't get through any phrases. Are my shoulders moving? I think my shoulders are moving. That's bad right? Teacher: Keep your shoulders down. Other Teacher: I don't know, I think maybe your shoulders can move a little bit? Yet Another teacher: Fill the bottom of your lungs first! Then your shoulders won't be a problem. Frustrated teacher: I think you're over-thinking this. Me: The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that I just don't know how to breathe. I am bad at breathing. Ben Kamins: you have survived twenty years in planet earth and spent all of it breathing. You are not bad at breathing. You are, by definition, an expert at breathing. Me: okay, then something's gone wrong.

Jennifer: SLOOOOOWWW DOWWWWWWNNNNN (hehe remember this? http://youtu.be/qRuNxHqwazs )

So here are some things I learned:

Air comes into your body when your ribs move. Your ribs are like the handle on a bucket: they swing outwards, increasing the volume of the space inside of them. The lungs are connected to the ribs simply because there is nothing in between them: they move with the ribs because of vacuum pressure. Although many people have their torso mapped as essentially square, it's more beehive-shaped: the top of the beehive is made up of your top ribs, which also open to allow air in-- meaning the top portion of the back should expand outwards upon inhalation. The air-- as I had always suspected-- does indeed go into your lungs, not your stomach, as generations of wind pedagogues seem to think. Because of the bronchial tree leading to the alveoli, the idea that you can fill the bottom of your lungs before the top is a fantasy. And, as Jennifer said, "When you have an inaccurate fantasy about the way your body works, your body will use any kind of tension possible to try to make that fantasy come true."

In my private lesson, Jennifer had me put my hands on her back and shoulders and feel that the top back ribs were expanding outwards quite a bit, and that-- the horror!-- her shoulders were moving freely with the action of the ribs. She explained that the "don't move your shoulders" myth takes place because, when people are already using unnecessary tension to try to breathe with their belly or use their diaphragm (a muscle which has no sense receptors) they'll compensate by using the muscles in their arm region to raise the shoulders. Instead, the solution is to allow the shoulders to ride on the action of the ribs. Likewise, when breathing out, there is no need to push the air out with the muscles of the stomach. This seems to contradict the idea of supporting from your abdomen, and I'm still a little bit confused about how this principle would work when back-pressure is involved, as when playing a wind instrument. Since Jennifer is a violinist (she wrote "What Every Violinist Needs to know About the Body") she had no specific answer for me on that point, but referred me to oboist Stephen Caplan's book (titled, unsurprisingly, "Oboemotions: What Every Oboe player Needs to know About the Body") and encouraged me to email him with any more wind-specific questions.

Of course, I have barely even begun to be able to employ all of this in my playing. However, for the past few months, I had been growing increasingly uncomfortable in my daily life about my breathing. Even when not playing bassoon-- sitting in class, for example-- I would start to worry: am I doing it right? How much air am I taking in now? What's my belly doing? What are my shoulders doing? After a few minutes of this line of inquiry it would start to feel like I had suddenly developed some kind of lung disease that rendered me completely incapable of breathing in a way that didn't cause me discomfort! This was one reason that I finally decided to go for the workshop: it's undesirable to be in discomfort or pain while you're playing, but completely unacceptable to have it leaking into all other areas of your life. Anyway, I'm happy to report that as I sit here typing this blog post, I can feel the air being transported efficiently and comfortably from the outside world to my lungs and back again. :D

Most of the workshop wasn't spent on breathing, though-- the audience was actually all string players except for me and one saxophonist, and there was a large contingent of Suzuki violin teachers, so a lot of the information was tailored for them. I didn't really mind since everything was transferable (and I was a Suzuki student myself back in the day!) Here are some more items from my notes:

- the "body map" is not a metaphor. Jennifer said that she always liked coming to Montreal because everyone recognizes the name of Dr. Wilder Penfield, the Canadian neurosurgeon who developed the first concepts of the cortical homunculus . (The reason his name is recognized among laymen in Montreal is that Avenue Docteur Penfield, named in his honour, runs through the northern portion of the McGill campus.)

- the kinaesthetic sense is a real sense, that has been neglected in most education systems and needs to be trained by musicians just as we train our sense of hearing.

- 2 cultural diseases affecting the health of our bodies: "Relax" and "Good posture".

- Although we tend to map the spine as something that exists towards the back of the body because that's where we can see and feel the bumps in out skin, it is actually quite central. It's also way thicker than you would expect-- if I had my own spine out of my body, I wouldn't be able to wrap my hand all the way around it at its thickest point!

- The spine is also longer than we think. It ends at the top with the A.O joint. To find out where that is, put your fingers in the dent under your ears-- it's between them.

- when you sit, your weight should be on the thick portion of your rockers (sit bones)-- not your thighs. I wonder how this could be better achieved when using a seat strap to hold up this bassoon?

-most people lean too far back in a standing posture. To find balance, try walking backwards, and see how your posture shifts.

-there is no such things the palm of your hand. If you look at a diagram of the bones in your hand, you will see that this is true.

- there is also no such thing as a waist.

- when at rest, the tongue should be between the bottom teeth and not touching the top palate. If it is touching the roof of the mouth, it is causing tension farther back in the head

And there are a lot more things that I wrote down that I wouldn't be able to explain, or don't fully understand myself at this point. And obviously, don't take it from me-- I went to this workshop last weekend, and anything I wrote here could be inaccurate in my own understanding. If you have the opportunity, I definitely recommend seeing an Andover teacher. This information, tailored to musicians in this way, just isn't available from any other source. I also found the actual demonstrations (which included a lot of hands-on work and use of plastic models to show what different bone structures actually look like in 3D) to be much easier to understand than just reading the literature-- but if it's literature you're after there's plenty of it, with a "What Every..." or a Breathing Book for many instruments and more being written right now. Here's a schedule for all the Andover workshops taking place all over the world, and here is their recommended reading list.

That's all folks!