Playing with Presence is a series of three short blog articles presenting techniques that can help people bring their awareness back to the present moment. They’re based on my work with some amazing teachers who helped me recover from performance injury. Whether you are a stressed-out pianist or simply someone who works at the computer a lot, these exercises are effective tools for slowing down the rushing mind and fostering a calmer work ethic.
In the modern world it’s easy to live in a state of disembodiment. No I don’t mean the kind involving the guillotine! I mean the kind of disassociation from the body that can happen while being trapped in your head by constantly planning, story-telling, and worrying.
Through screen culture, in which people are not moving their bodies for long periods of time, awareness can be limited to what’s happening on a device like a smart phone, tablet or laptop. These technologies are so immersive that people project themselves into their avatars or social media pages, experiencing an existence somewhere different than the physical one. Just look at people using their phones on the bus who are oblivious to their surroundings. They are occupying one space, physically, while their awareness inhabits another. When someone is trapped in their head and/or their device, they are no longer in touch with their own body.
The same thing can happen at the piano if the player becomes too immersed in reading music or is not mentally present while playing. Speaking from personal experience, when I haven’t listened to my body because I was too occupied by something else like sight-reading for a gazillion people, it had to get my attention via pain or injury. Aside from muffling my own ‘body language’, this tense mental state also created clouded thinking, impatience, tension, and exhaustion.
Becoming embodied (or being in one’s body) means to return to the present moment, feeling the whole body, not just the head. When I’m in my body I feel more relaxed; I feel calmer and heavier, more patient, and yet poised to respond to what’s happening around me. I can think clearly about the task I’m doing and am less impulsive.
Today I’ll introduce you to a modality called ‘Body Mapping’. Those licensed to teach Body Mapping are called Andover Educators, musicians dedicated to helping other musicians move better and recover from injury. On their homepage there are comprehensive lists of articles and books – a great place to get started if you want more information about this intuitive modality.
I had the pleasure of learning some basic Body Mapping techniques through studies with Jennifer Johnson in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I am in debt to her as she has been one of my sources of inspiration and healing on my journey. The following concepts are just a few of the many techniques I learned from her.
Body Mapping deals primarily with our kinesthetic awareness, meaning how accurately we know where our body exists in space. Think of the drunk driving test when a police officer has the driver touch their nose with their eyes closed. If they’re sober and their kinesthetic awareness is strong this shouldn’t be difficult. If not, they may touch their forehead and get a hefty fine.
Kinesthetic awareness also includes our understanding of how our bodies move vs. how we think they move. For example, with your hand flat, palm up, look at the base of your fingers. Where do the knuckles bend? Often people say it’s right around the webbing of the fingers. This is logical because it appears this is where the fingers end and the hand begins. To boot there are crease marks like at the other finger joints which make it appear as if the knuckles bended there. In reality, when you turn your hand around, you will notice the knuckles are located lower than those crease marks. If we try to bend higher up then tension arises.
This is but one example of the physical aspect of Body Mapping. I’m convinced that every square inch of our muscular-skeletal structure can benefit from some review. An invaluable resource for pianists which approaches function and anatomy this way is What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, by Thomas Mark. There are a few free chapters on his website. I have found this book to be a God-send.
Now we’ll explore a part of Body Mapping that encompasses both awareness of our bodies as well as the world around us. ‘Inclusive Awareness’ means being aware of all aspects of our experience while practicing or performing. It includes our body and instrument, the feel of the bench, the size of the room, our audience – anything in our environment we can sense.
Engaging our Inclusive Awareness can help soften the quality of our concentration and help us feel more embodied while playing our instrument. When you return to the keyboard from a practicing break, try one of these exercises:
- As you look at your score start to soften your gaze. In your field of vision begin to include what you see peripherally. Notice the rest of the piano, beyond the keys and music stand. How high is it? How deep is it? How heavy might it be? How does it physically occupy the space? Relate yourself to the piano. How much air is there between you and the piano? As you widen your visual field also be aware of your breathing. Expanding awareness beyond your work area helps to free you from the constrained vortex of concentration which becomes ever more powerful the harder you work. When you relate what you are doing with the rest of your environment you lessen its pull, giving the nervous system a break.
- Another way to feel more embodied is to experience yourself in three dimensions. “As opposed to two dimensions?” you may ask. This is actually challenging for some people. You are probably able to feel the front of your torso superficially. Similarly you can probably experience the surface of your back without issue. Now, check in with yourself and see if you can accurately perceive the space in between. For some people there may appear to be no space there; they might feel 2D as if they are a cartoon character! Part of body awareness is also feeling the inside world. Having a true sense of physical core can help ground and balance you while playing. It might take some practice but over time you will develop a more nuanced sense of your actual width.
- I must have been in the military in a past life because I have the tendency to tighten up my back when I play like I’m under inspection. “Ten Hut! Beethoven, Für Elise, sir!!!” Think of it as the other extreme to slouching and I think it comes with being a taaaaad Type-A 🙂 One technique to help release this unneeded tension is to take one hand and cradle the back of your head. Let the head be supported and feel a sense of trust as it’s held. Then, while playing, imagine this support from the air itself. I find this helps my lower back release and allows me to be more balanced through the centre of my body.
- A similar exercise is to envision the space behind you. What’s behind you? What objects or furniture? Where are you in relation to them? Just because you can’t see it you can still be aware of the space and the objects there. It’s kinda like being a piano ninja. “Be mindful of your surroundings, grasshopper!” For me it provides a sense of physical connection with the space and softens the frontal intensity in the practice zone.
When I tried these exercises for the first time I was amazed at how the sound of my playing became effortless. It was like the music breathed more freely. Less is indeed more when it comes to quality of effort. As someone who tends to “over-effort” things, I was constantly getting in my own way by trying too hard. By balancing the energy I was putting into reading and playing with awareness of my whole space, I got out of my own way and allowed the music to speak for itself.
I hope that you too can take something away from these simple practices and soften the laser-like focus we Type-A people tend to give our craft 😉
Please write to me if you have any questions or Ah-Ha! moments.