April 2019

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

My time in Sweden at the end of March was wonderful. I felt very privileged to be working with top professionals both individually in private, and in a masterclass setting. I was blown away by their openness and willingness to be vulnerable in front of their colleagues, and to be prepared to learn from me. I was delighted when one of the players told me that the orchestra was discussing the topic of nerves much more readily than before, and that it was no longer taboo.

Obviously, everything aside from the masterclass work was confidential so I can only give generalisations, but I was interested in how much the work I did was around physical issues more than emotional. That said, you can rarely separate the two: the mind-body connection is very strong.

A tight thumb

One string player mentioned a very tight thumb on her bow arm which was painful when she played, possibly tendonitis. It was tight and locked, and I encouraged her to find physical freedom by letting go of the tension in her thumb, whatever that meant. In other words, to give herself permission to mess up and have a less than ideal sound while she was finding and adjusting to a new, freer movement. She could find the physical freedom easily, but she really struggled to let herself play with any imperfections. This has now become a theme that I am seeing more with professional players than anyone else, including students: there is a terror of being less than perfect even if it is temporary and even if it is to serve a purpose like finding a freer movement.

Next I asked her to lie down on the floor and let go of all her muscles. It then became very clear to her that her whole bow arm was lifted and tight, and that the tension was stemming from her neck.  These were incredibly important insights and even in that one session led her to some new, positive changes. By having more physical awareness, I have no doubt that she will completely sort out her thumb issue and get back to freer, more comfortable playing again.

The importance of body awareness in musicians

I have been thinking about body awareness a lot since Sweden. My first foray into supporting musicians into all the stuff that ‘gets in the way’ of performance was through a physical approach. I spent around fifteen years doing all sorts of bodywork courses along with my playing and teaching career, just for the enjoyment of them, and with no clue that they might lead to anything. I don’t practise any form of bodywork now, but all those years of courses gave me such an understanding of the body that I can ‘see’ where someone is holding tension, even online. In fact, just this morning a professional pianist who has come to me for lessons in refining his technique, was almost shocked that I could tell him exactly, bar by bar, when his upper right arm tightened up.

This body awareness, which is more than the technique a musician learns in order to play their instrument – although that is integrally linked – is critical to how someone plays and their overall wellbeing. If a musician is holding tension, it will affect their sound, their expression, their anxiety about performing and much more. If they start breathing more freely, letting go of held muscles, their playing can transform in seconds. So why is this not much more common in music education in general, or as part of musician’s health and wellbeing?

Is body awareness really part of Performance Coaching?

I put body awareness in the category of Performance Coaching and try to manage that by explaining what I do, but perhaps it’s more than that and perhaps it should be given a different title. I don’t really know what to call it, and for that matter, I don’t feel that Performance Coaching really sums up the work I do in general. I am open to suggestions!

In the meantime, I am preparing for another trip to Sweden at the beginning of May. I will be giving a talk on The Human behind the Performer: how to support musicians to give of their best in competitions at the General Assembly for the World Federation for International Music Competitions. I will also be working again with the SRSO plus the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. It will be a full week!

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