Guest Post Health and Welness

Musicians as Movers – Part II

[This is the second article of a series of three. Musicians as Movers – Part One was published in the October 27, 2017 issue.]

How many senses do you have? As a musician, how do you use them during music making? Training all of the relevant senses is the second main goal of Body Mapping, which is a tool that musicians can use to enhance performance, maintain wellness, and prevent injury and discomfort.

Traditionally, we learn when we are fairly young that we have 5 senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching (tactile). Two of these, vision and hearing, are trained extensively as part of musical training. However, we do have an additional sense called kinesthesia or movement sense.

In Greek, the word “kinema” means “to move” and “esthia” means “to perceive.” So kinesthesia means “to perceive movement.”

For musicians who move for living, isn’t the absence of movement sense from our list of available senses a problem? Our kinesthetic sense provides information about the position of body parts in relation to our head and our vestibular system gives us a sense of where our heads are in space. Together, we have sense of position relative to space for our whole body.

Sense Receptors

Consider the human body’s sense receptors for a moment. Students know that they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, but they may have no idea how this is accomplished in the brain with the visual and auditory cortexes. The sense receptors for vision are located in the retina of the eye and sensory input is sent to the brain via the optic nerve for processing. The eyes don’t create the image—the brain does this! Just as we have smart eyes and ears, we also have smart muscles and connective tissue. Most people clearly understand that muscles move bones, but may not fully embrace the sensory information available from the same tissues. The sense receptors for kinesthesia are found in muscles, connective tissue and joints. The muscle spindle cells in the muscles of cervical spine, in particular, provide a wealth of information about the orientation of the body in relation to the head. The sense receptors for the vestibular system are located in part of the inner ear called the cochlea. The job of the sense receptors is to detect the stimulus and then send the  sensory information to the brain, and the brain then decides what to do with the information.

Kinesthetic Sense in Action

Put your right hand over your head where you can’t see it. If you were in a room full of people doing this exercise, you would be able to notice that even though your hand is in a different position than others in the room, you can describe your own and tell how it is different from others. Wiggle your fingers and notice how much information about the movement is available to you – when you start, when you stop, how fast or slow it is, how free or tense it is, whether the wrist is moving or just fingers? Now imagine that your pinky finger grew 4 inches. You would feel this movement on the inside; you wouldn’t have to look at the finger to know that it had grown. You have just used your kinesthetic sense, first to gain information about position, then movement, and then size. You didn’t need to use your eyes to provide this information! You probably concentrated on your hand in the air, because that’s what you were asked to do. In the process, you probably lost most or all of your sense of your legs, your back and your other arm. Although you did that, you really didn’t need to. You can find that hand right now as it is resting next to your computer or holding your coffee mug and then put it clearly into the context of your whole arm and your whole body. This perception of “part within the whole” is what you need to use as a musician. Music making is a whole body activity, although we tend to be focused on our hands and our embouchure. There is a beautiful quote from Barbara Conable on a DVD called Move Well Avoid Injury I like to include every time I teach this information. She says, “Many people walk around with a kind of kinesthetic blur they would never tolerate if the sense in question were their eyes.”

Another little experiment

Make sure you have a chair close by before starting this. Stand with your weight balanced evenly between both feet with the best balance that you can find at the moment.  Notice if you feel very stable or a bit wobbly.  The next step is to stand on one foot.  Compare how you stable you feel on one foot compared to being on two feet.  Most people feel a little less stable on one foot.  Next, we’re going to repeat both of the previous steps BUT with your eyes closed.  Standing on two feet with closed eyes and then standing on one foot with eyes closed.  This is where you need to have the chair handy in case you start to fall.  Most people feel less stable with their eyes closed on two feet and then very tippy, at first, when on one foot with closed eyes.  Why?  What is happening? Well, our visual sense tends to hijack our kinesthetic sense.  We are so incredibly visually oriented in our world—there is visual information constantly available with smartphones, iPads, computers, emails, texts, etc.  When you close your eyes, all of a sudden your kinesthetic sense needs to come online.  Don’t panic if you were really wobbly! If you practice this little exercise, you will improve.  Our brains are incredibly plastic, meaning that they are changeable.

Kinesthetic awareness develops in childhood. Babies and toddlers are constantly evolving greater and greater control and awareness about where their bodies are in space and how to manage their various body parts. It doesn’t take long for them to go from rocking back and forth to a full speed crawl, and then stair climbing is right around the corner—better have those baby gates handy! We all took advantage of this sense as little ones and we can relearn and rediscover the wealth of information that we can access through this sense. When something isn’t named, it’s easy to ignore it — remember that the list of senses that our culture offers us only contains five!

So what? How do I use kinesthetic awareness in my playing?

First of all, what we’re looking for is balance.

In this context, balance is not a place, it’s a relationship between your body and gravity which allows for easy and immediate movement in any direction at any time. In her book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, Missy Vineyard says that balance is “having a maximum potential for movement while using a minimum of muscular effort.” When you are allowing your bone structure, connective tissue, and postural muscles to you support you, then your other muscles are available to execute the voluntary movements that you choose. If you are operating in an unbalanced state, then you are recruiting extra muscles to stabilize you in that unbalanced state; for example, you may be recruiting arm movers to help stabilize you and then asking them to also do the work of moving your arms for flute playing. Anybody ever have pain at the base of your neck between your shoulder blades?

The kinesthetic sense can be used to provide feedback about how well you’re doing in your ongoing search for balance. We can make an analogy between auditory and kinesthetic senses in regards to sensitivity, discernment and responsiveness. If you’re working with your student Suzy, you ask her “Do you hear yourself when you’re playing that high E?” For those of you who teach, you know that, unfortunately, students aren’t always listening to themselves. When Suzy says, “Yes, I’m hearing myself,” then you know that she is sensitive to the information coming through her auditory sense. When Suzy can hear that the E is sharp, then she becomes discerning. However, she can’t stop there, she has to do something to bring the pitch down, which is called responsiveness. The kinesthetic sense can be used in a similar way. If Suzy can feel her body when she’s playing, then she is kinesthetically sensitive. When you say, “Suzy, what just happened to your head and neck when you got to that high, hard part?” and she can say “Yeah, my head came way forward and my neck muscles tightened up,”then she is kinesthetically discerning. When she takes action to get herself back into a better balance relationship, then she is kinesthetically responsive.

Teaching the importance of the kinesthetic sense to beginning musicians can prevent the pain and limitation that many musicians encounter late on. This is a skill, like everything else we do in flute playing, and it can be learned with intelligent practice.

Stay tuned for Musicians as Movers – Part Three, which discusses training awareness.