Interview with composer and instrument inventor Julie Herndon, March 2022
Published June 11, 2022
Composer Julie Herndon wears many hats. Besides creating intriguing new pieces of music, she also builds instruments and performs. As written on her website, “her work explores the body’s relationship to sound using tools like musical instruments and personal technologies.” She has also recently released a new album, found HERE. Julie sat down with me in March for an interview about embodied composition and what intrigues her as an artist.
Anne Rainwater: What is embodied composition? Is it your own term, or is it something more commonly used?
Julie Herndon: When I started music, I was a pianist, and I was practicing a lot. I went to the San Francisco Conservatory, and while I was there, I started feeling really compressed into this bandwidth of “I’m only my brain and my hands.” And I know that many amazing pianists are able to put their whole being into playing the piano, but I realized that it made me feel a little out of my body.
So, I left the conservatory and that’s when I started focusing on writing music. And I found that I was happier on the other side of the score, so to speak. So as I was trying to build these different instruments where you crawl inside of them, and a big domed harp where you swing your arms around and play different strings, I realized the term that kind of fit my practice was embodiment. I started talking to people about this, and when I got to Stanford, I began really researching it for my doctoral degree.
There is a LOT written about embodied composition in terms of sound art, English literature and writing, and performance, but there was not a lot written about it in terms of composing and writing music. I certainly did not invent the term, “embodied composition.” Several composers I deeply respect use it in reference to their own music, but I wasn’t finding a concrete definition of what it was. And so I thought: I want to try to write a definition of this – what is this thing? I also wanted to try to reference these other disciplines that it bumps up against. My research wound up becoming an article for Leonardo (a music journal that MIT Press puts out quarterly) defining embodied composition and looking at the work of three composers through that lens Pamela Z, Meredith Monk, and Cassandra Miller.
So that was something to me that was very useful: to take this term that a lot of people might identify with and use it to understand my own practice through writing about it. This way, there’s at least something that points people towards embodied composition with respect to what other people have said about it, how composers work within it, and a possible definition.
These days what I’m doing is looking at how it shows up in my own work and tracking these 3 ingredients – I see embodied composition using the voice, gesture, and this creative, flow state – and looking at the way that’s communicated. I look at using these 3 things and think of them as entry points into talking about embodiment in composition.
AR: What has this research done for your own composition? Has it made you more aware of certain things? Has it broadened your vision of certain aspects of composition?
JH: I think it has focused me in a little bit and also given me a name for some of the things that I’ve always resonated with but I haven’t known why. It’s also given me a framework for saying “oh, that’s interesting to me because of how they’re using the voice” or “that’s interesting to me in the way that she is playing with this gesture,” etc. It’s given me a way to understand music more deeply – I’m very hot and cold with music that I like. Finding and naming my own priorities has helped me recognize why, for example, I do or don’t connect with something a composer is doing because it’s showed me why I feel something or not.
AR: That’s very cool. Changing gears a bit: I wanted to talk a little about the physical aspect of playing. So often, music will move us emotionally (as listeners), but as a performer, I get excited by the physical and movement aspects of playing just as much. It’s fun! I enjoy looking at the score, thinking about what’s coming next gesturally, and executing percussive and rhythmic aspects of a piece. In your opinion, does that relate to embodiment?
JH: I think that performers are doing 2 things. One of them is this feeling part where you’re portraying an emotion. I remember Tim Bach (at the San Francisco Conservatory) saying “when you play, you don’t want to become sad. You want to portray sadness so that other people can feel it.” If you get on stage and you feel sad, people are just going to feel bad for you! But if you lead them to feel sad, then they can have that catharsis. So, because of that, I think performance as a discipline is inherently embodied. And also, sound itself is embodied.
Something I learned is that for me, in order to keep my practice alive, I need to stay in touch with how it feels to actually play a chord or make a gesture. It’s really very much a personal priority and not a value judgment at all, because there is tape music, for example, that is gorgeous and totally moves me. Also, Beethoven and Brahms, for example – I could cry listening to the Appassionata Sonata every day.
AR: Do you think that this is something people can teach to musicians? Composers? Should there be a college course or guest talk about this?
JH: I was just talking about this to someone else recently! I would really love to write an Embodied Composition method book that has exercises with different instruments and includes different ways of thinking about this concept. This fall, I’ll be teaching, and I’m thinking about how to teach embodied composition in the context of music technology and composition and how those things can fit under that umbrella. And how it can be taught too. Right now, that’s an active construction site! I’m pretty excited about it.
AR: Do you think you chose voice to be a primary part of the concept of embodied composition for a particular reason?
JH: It’s really thinking about the 2 first instruments. Number one is the voice – it’s the first thing you hear inside the womb (your mother’s voice). We have all these connections to our voice, and it’s our primary form of communication. Even speaking is sonic communication. In talking about the voice, it really is the sound of our bodies that we make as bodies in the world.
And gesture is the other side of it – sound made from physical movement. Up until a certain point, that was really bound by acoustics; you hit something (claps on the table), and it makes a sound. And now we have this great capacity with gesture controllers and sensors: to be able to re-map those connections and make even more nuanced correlations between the way that we move and the way that something sounds.
So, the voice and the gesture part are drawing from that really old sense of music; i.e. what we can do with ourselves, locked in a room alone. And the creative state is also that flow state that you go into to work with both of those things.
AR: Do you have your own definition of a flow state – what you go through when you’re in flow and how you experience it?
JH: I define it as a lack of impedance between ideas and action. But, there are some times when…to be in it, you have to not be aware that you’re in it. It is this kind of focus that is kind of aware, but possibly not analyzing in that moment. A kind of clear focus.
AR: Another thing I think about a lot is the different ways that we perceive the world through our different senses. Has that come up in your research? Does that resonate with what you’re doing?
JH: I am completely a visual person too. In fact, a lot of ear training and musicianship things were really hard for me, because I just needed to see it! If I can see it and then do it, I have it, but to just be hearing something is much more tricky. That’s why learning languages is hard for me too.
What that has actually done for me as a musician is made me hyper-fixated on a lot of the visual cues and onstage theatricality that many people are able to take for granted. For example, look at how that person just took the cue from that person, and look how that person is sitting or making a face. I’ve become super focused on the relationships between people onstage and the way that they perform those relationships, present themselves, and interact with each other. Sometimes when I go to a concert, the interaction between the players on an interpersonal and visual level can really drown out the music sometimes. I’ve realized that is probably why I like to use that as material sometimes – that’s something that I seek when I go to a concert.
AR: Do you like listening to music if it’s just a recording? Or closing your eyes if you’re at a live performance?
JH: I do like it. It just comes from that place of needing to make the decision (to do it). And if something is very beautiful, I will absolutely close my eyes and try to focus on it. Because if my eyes are open, then I’m watching things more.
There’s a little bit of a stigma around “performativity” or visual things in music. For example, performers might compensate for the sound by moving more, or sound might get sacrificed if a physical gesture takes precedence. But at the same time, what we see does affect what we hear, and we hear it differently because of what we see. There have been so many interesting studies on this, e.g. a marimba player playing a note, and people hear the note lasting the duration of the performer’s full gesture!
AR: Have you ever seen those bumper stickers on the back of people’s cars that read: don’t believe everything you think? It’s like that! The more we learn about our brain and how we process things, the more we learn that what we think we’re experiencing with all of our senses is only the closest approximation our brain can give us. Everything has to go through these different channels and be interpreted and prioritized.
JH: I think that’s really interesting. It makes me think about virtual reality or augmented reality, especially since over the past few years, we have been on screens so much more. Our lives over video are getting super interwoven with our reality, and now we’re experiencing so much auditory and visual stimulus not necessarily in the real world, but through screens. And that can be altered or edited or mismatched! We can present ourselves in so many ways, intentionally or unintentionally.
THANK YOU JULIE!
Interview with Feldenkrais Practitioner Gabriella Piccioni, July 2021
Published September 7, 2021
I have known Gabi for about 15 years. I used to teach her daughter piano lessons when she was in elementary school, and we have stayed in touch over the years. She is a Feldenkrais practitioner, and I became more interested in Feldenkrais after going to her for some sessions a few years ago. For more information about Gabi, please see her website HERE. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Anne Rainwater: Can you describe Feldenkrais for the layperson?
Gabriella Piccioni: Feldenkrais is a way of figuring out how to understand what we’re doing, and how it contributes to our success or holds us back. We have a lot of habits in our lives, such as slouching, craning your neck forward, or holding your neck when you do something difficult. These are habits that we have developed over many years, and we don’t feel them anymore. Through Feldenkrais, you explore different ways to learn to feel the different habits and patterns that we currently have and figure out whether those habits are actually contributing to our problems.
The innovation that Feldenkrais had was through very slow, very small movements, we can learn to become aware of these movements and patterns. Then, we can discover options and alternatives that work better than what we were doing before and what we were doing automatically without even feeling it. For a lot of people, if you ask them to feel what they’re doing, they have no idea because they were never taught! It turns out that Feldenkrais is a very effective way to get people to learn, change and improve what they’re doing.
A great example is if you interlace your fingers and then change over the interlacing of your fingers by bringing the other thumb in front. You can feel right away – it feels strange! All your life, you’ve probably been interlacing your fingers in the other way, in a habitual way, without even understanding that it’s a habit, but when you shift to the unfamiliar, you can feel it. You have a sensation, and you may not be able to articulate it, but when you change that habitual way, things change in your whole body. So your breathing might change, the way you shift your weight, the way you’re sitting on your pelvis, the way you are holding your shoulders and arm muscles, etc. The idea is by feeling that, becoming aware of it, and introducing a new way of doing it, you open up all sorts of new options for yourself to move or feel. It has a lot of applications for people as they age, as they have pain or injury, or for children who have special needs or neurological damage and who can learn different ways to move and be in the world.
AR: And what about the slow moving part of Feldenkrais? How is that connected?
GP: Feldenkrais was very severely injured, and he couldn’t walk anymore. He was an engineer and a physicist who had studied martial arts, human development, and child and infant development. He started thinking “how can I learn to walk again without pain or causing injury?” And he decided to ask “how does a baby learn to walk? What does a baby need to know to move themself through space, their whole body through space?” It’s incredibly complex! The feedback between the gravity through your bones, to your brain, to where you are in space, your proprioception, etc. We can’t really learn that stuff conceptually. We learn it from sensory input from our environment.
So, he figured out that one of the conditions needed for a child or anyone to learn something and for the brain to recognize information and make sense of it was slowness. When you do something fast, you use the patterns, information, and sensory inputs that are already there and that you already know and process at a high speed. But, it’s not until you really can slow down that you give the brain a chance to take in information in a new way. It’s kind of like when you drive down the street or you’re on a high speed train and everything is going by like a blur. You can’t really take everything in, or maybe you can as a general impression, but it’s not until you really slow down, like taking a walk, that you can pause and look and take in all of the details.
Our brains have this amazing ability to do things really fast once we know how to do them. If a car is coming and we’re in the middle of the road, we need to move very quickly! But how do we learn to do those things fast and efficiently? That takes a slowing down and understanding – our brain needs time to process and notice the differences between the things that we’re doing and the different sensations we have. It’s like if you are a beginner musician and you try to learn a piece of music quickly, you learn it with a lot of errors, and then, if you kept practicing it quickly, you would “groove in” those errors. Compare this to a process where you do it slowly and correctly; you can feel, you can hear, you can pay attention to your breathing, you can pay attention to what fingers are going where. And then you can use those patterns and speed them up. Those are the optimal patterns, not the patterns with a bunch of errors. So, we incorporate the learning and information we take in in an incredibly complex way.
The amount of complexity that the brain can deal with is huge! That is one of the things that Feldenkrais believed at an early point: it’s not about stretching muscles, but changing information from the place that controls the system and that sends the message for the pattern of the fingers or the spasticity of the muscles. What does that? It’s the brain! So much of sports, so much of movement, playing music, and more, is neurological. We don’t have muscle memory! There is no brain in the finger muscles. The “memory” comes from the central processing unit based on all these subtle cues and information it has to repeat. Feldenkrais studied this at an early stage, essentially looking at brain plasticity and what was possible to do and learn and improve.
AR: That’s so fascinating. Feldenkrais is not just a physical re-orientation then, per se. Instead, it seems like you’re actively changing neurological pathways in your brain. Because of that, do you find that Feldenkrais also changes patients’ outlooks, mood, and focus? Are they separate elements, or are they all connected?
GP: It’s the same! What you’re feeling is the re-wiring. Attention and awareness is everything! Attention and awareness is so important if we’re trying to learn something, if we’re trying to improve, and if we’re trying to grow. You can do a certain same movement 100 times and not pay attention to it, and you’re really not going to feel that much different. You may wear the joint out or you may get a little more looseness in your joint, but once you start paying attention to the sensations, it’s a totally different game. And this is related to speed and going slow. It’s pretty hard to pay attention to something when you’re going quickly. Feeling the differences in the different parts of your wrist, for example, is learning. Those are the changes in your brain.
You can put those small differences together, and then end up with a large functional change; for example, it’s not just your shoulder that’s more free, it’s the way you arch your back, or it’s the freedom in your arm. Ideally, that doesn’t happen on a cognitive level though; it’s not something we’re making happen. Because we’re wired to find the best, the easiest, the most efficient way, we tend to keep those patterns that feel the best. There has to be a reason, evolutionarily I think, that it feels so good to feel the change from pain to relief.
Because our brain is such a pattern recognition machine, what happens often is that our brain learns how to recognize patterns better in movement, and that translates to learning how to recognize other patterns as well. If you’re working on a child’s back or legs, for example, you’ll get big changes in how present they are, their eye contact with a parent, and their overall speech or mood. From this, their sense of themselves starts to improve, because the brain is this amazing dynamic system, and that’s kind of magic! We’re not vessels; you can’t just pour in information and push a button and expect something to come out in a specific way. You don’t know exactly what or how a system is going to integrate new information, and sometimes it’s beyond what you imagined, or sometimes, people go back to old patterns. Brain plasticity has 2 sides to it, though – if we do pick up a habit, and it’s not a good habit, that pattern gets grooved in too.
We’re taught about the body in very segmented and fragmented pieces. But really, when you move your arm, for example, 20% of the activity is actually going on in the arm, but 80% of the activity is going on in the rest of the body to figure out how to adjust and how to make that movement possible. And so, how do we get back to understanding whether you’re doing it well or not? Asking questions like: are you breathing? Are you breathing in a way that is supportive? Is it just your arms that are moving, or can you use your pelvis to help out? Is there flow present in your movement?
You can’t only think about specific notes of the score as individual parts while playing a piece; instead, it’s the timing, it’s the way it flows, it’s what comes before and after, it’s all the combination of notes. It’s a whole thing – you know, we’re not just an arm with 5 fingers! And I think that is so interesting because our society has such a conceptual and analytical bias. That has huge advantages, but at the same time, we sometimes lose the non-conceptual part, the part that comes from sensation, the part that comes from “how does it feel to do that” and notices the subtleties in different sounds. And when you become more sensitive to that, your actions become very different. You can’t force someone to hear those differences, though; you can teach to a certain extent, but they have to arrive at it themselves. It has to make a difference to them, be meaningful to them, but then, everything is different.
AR: How did you get involved with Feldenkrais?
GP: I was having really bad back spasms, and the doctor said to take some medication or do some stretches. We had a friend who was a football coach, and he said “I work with this Feldenkrais practitioner,” and I said that I didn’t even know what that was! This friend said “they teach my football students to (use both sides of their body) by practicing looking over their other shoulder as much as their dominant shoulder when throwing,” and I just thought that was fascinating.
So, I started taking private lessons, and my back problems were gone within the first session – I stood up, and I felt such relief. She taught me that what I was doing was using my neck without properly using the rest of me. Once she showed me that, after a couple more sessions my back pain was completely gone. I was totally fascinated, because I’d always learned things conceptually before. I didn’t even know what my sternum was! I was skeptical, but the feeling was so dramatically different that I was into it. I took lessons for 10 years, and then did the training. It’s been a really amazing process.
AR: Have you found that Feldenkrais has helped and influenced musicians?
GP: Perhaps Feldenkrais himself had a passion for music, or there’s something about the work that’s related to music, but it’s always been a part of the training. We had a violinist in the symphony who was part of my training, and she played her violin for the class. We were practically crying it was so beautiful. Then, the trainer did some movements with her, mostly with her feet and ankles, and she played the piece again. You could hear the difference! And she could feel the difference too. It’s all connected: when you’re standing on your ankles better, you’re standing on your bones more, and your muscles can release. This makes your breathing freer, which makes all of your muscles freer, which makes your movement smoother and more flowing.
So much of it is the ability to perceive these very subtle differences, and that’s what advanced musicians are so good at doing. Ironically, a baby can perceive these very fine differences, but as we grow older, we lose the ability to differentiate, and that’s where the opportunity is to develop the sensitivity again and feel the differences. When we’re doing something and holding our breath versus something where our breathing and muscles can be free, then the whole action matches our intention more closely, and the action itself becomes much easier.
One thing I know for myself is that if my back or knee starts hurting, I can slow down with it and notice what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. It almost becomes a meditation or a sort of heightened awareness.
I’ve heard aging described as a process of the loss of differentiation, not just physically but cognitively as well. It’s like taking a dirt road to a path to a tiny path, and your options for movement and turning are increasingly becoming limited. To venture off the path a little and incorporate a novelty so that you can stay alive, vibrant, and vital is so important.
You hear people that age differently. How do you know that it’s inevitable? The idea that it’s inevitable is fascinating to me. Part of the aging thing is sad for many people, and then they close down many expectations for themselves. We view aging in a very specific way. We’re alive when we’re older, it’s just how much we want to live!
AR: How much of a session is conscious or unconscious on the part of the participant? How is the practitioner tuned in to the sensations of the participant?
GP: I think there are certainly things you’re unconscious of. For example, if I move your ankle and the force goes all the way from your heel to your head, you may not consciously say “the force is going through my entire skeleton and some of my muscles can release because they can feel that there is some support from the skeleton.” But you can feel it at a certain level, because the sessions are done quietly with the possibility to pay attention to movement or even just feel it at a certain level. The integration that happens of these things is not going to be a conscious thing. Your brain is going to take what is useful to you and start to integrate that unconsciously. For example, if you’re working on a child to teach them to walk (if they can’t), the idea is not that you teach them to walk and then go home and say “we’re going to walk now!” You want to watch and see if they are going to put the pieces together and start walking on their own.
So often, I’ve worked with people and I can see big changes, but they can’t tell the difference. If you really don’t notice it, is it meaningful? Do you take it home with you? Do you incorporate it in your life? The more you notice and take in, the more meaningful it is, but your nervous system is processing a lot on an unconscious level. That’s why you can work with people when they’re sleeping, and there still can be changes. You can see the changes happening, like muscles releasing, jaw tightness softening, facial muscles releasing, and more. Some of my teachers worked with people who had strokes and were in an unconscious/semi-comatose state, and they worked with their feet, toes, and other parts, and their recovery was sped up amazingly. It’s such a magical process.
Thank you for your time, Gabi!
Technique and Play, part 1
March 29, 2021
Pounding an edge to sharpness will not make it last.
-Tao Te Ching chapter 9 (Lao Tzu)
One of the great joys of playing the piano is how physically fun it is! It is not an accident that, at least in English, we refer to our time at the piano as “playing” and not as “doing,” as some other languages do. Especially for younger students, this physical fun through movement is also an important motivating factor; it is wonderful to be able to play faster than speech itself and jump around the piano register!
However, the taming of our potentially wild or jerky movements through the study and practice of technique is an equally important endeavor. Technique is one of my favorite topics to explore, which is notable since the 9 year old me considered Czerny keyboard exercises a form of acute psychological torture. What tends to be missing from most early technical instruction is a foundational approach that integrates both sides of the body together through movement, awareness, and pure play! We each possess a physical body which is a beautiful mirror image on many levels: two arms, two ears, two eyes, etc. Nonetheless, the majority of us are right handed and tend to use one side more than another in our everyday activities. Technique is the foundation upon which we will build our musical ecosystem. It is, in this sense, attentive to both the micro and the macro; every trained approach, from minute finger gestures to large scale upper body movements, enables us to physically execute musical expression with a greater sense of ease and poise.
I always find it amusing that one of the first things my young students delight in telling me after we’ve begun lessons is that it is “tricky” or “harder” for them to play on their non-dominant side. It’s like there is this little, inner narrator inside their mind screaming, “It doesn’t feel the same!” And in a sense, it’s true. Rarely, even among people who exhibit ambidextrous movement, do both sides of the body feel “even” or “the same.” A feeling of evenness is not the point; rather, we are aiming for a continual dialogue between the hands, such that one precedes or answers the movement of the other, like a beautiful, interlocking choreography between two dancers.
What is something your early teachers taught you that was grounded in technique but also fun?
“Who Knows Where Thoughts Come From?”
January 19, 2021
(for more 90s-inspired posts, see earlier entries with Beastie Boys and Star Trek: TNG references)
The character Lucas from the film Empire Records (1995) serves as a foil to others’ expectations of order and predictability. He projects defiance and free-spiritedness at the beginning of the film, specifically when he gambles away some money in a hopeless attempt to save the record store where he works from corporate overlords. Mid-way through in the film, when he rhetorically asks “who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear,” he is being completely facetious.
As Empire Records develops, Lucas speaks and moves more slowly, almost as if he has abandoned the need to rush through or for anything. Additionally, as other characters begin to go through personal crises, Lucas becomes calmer, more grounded, and philosophical, all while maintaining his personal snark:
AJ: What’s with you today? Yesterday you were normal and today you’re like the Karate Kid…what’s with you today?
Lucas: What’s with today today?
I view Lucas’s character development as a metaphor for priming the mind for the appearance of unconscious thoughts. Let me explain a bit more, since this seems like quite a leap to make from an initially badly-reviewed, now-cult 90s movie: Lucas goes through a number of mental stressors at the beginning of the film, and it is only after sifting through and calmly explaining them to other people that arrives at a conscious understanding of how he acted and why. Through this, he offers himself a clearing of the mind, so to speak, and in doing so, allows unconscious and less rational insights to appear alongside his more logically-based self-analysis.
Often, we encounter literature that supports meditation as a way to become more aware of our own internal excess noise and chatter. While I think this is a good thing and appreciate awareness via meditation, I want to broaden the ways that we can get to awareness. For example, Beethoven had a daily habit of taking long walks for hours in nature near his home in Vienna. If you had asked him if his walks qualified as meditation, he might have said no, but his walks served nearly the same purpose: to first let the mind wander, and then actively choose which thoughts deserve more awareness and attention.
I have a friend who posits that, at some point, many great artists go through some large trauma or failure, and it is specifically how they overcome such an event that helps define their purpose and essence as an artist. Coming back to Lucas and Empire Records: by the end of the film, Lucas has helped save the record store and supported his friends in the process. He is calmer and less prone to impulsiveness. Yet, he didn’t reach this state by deep meditation; rather, he overcame failures, processed a lot internally, and allowed his post-analysis state to be informed by calm confidence and renewed awareness. For those of us (all of us?) with active minds, awareness through analysis might be just the prescription we need for giving space to more insightful, unconscious thoughts, somewhat like the proverbial calm after the storm.
Environment, part 2: An Interview with The Fitness Alchemists (Hannah Husband and Will Belew)
October 31, 2020
I am excited to present a conversation from late September with the co-founders of the Fitness Alchemists, Hannah Husband and Will Belew. Hannah and Will have been in the fitness business for over 10 years and incorporate body awareness and foundational fitness in their practices of Kinstretch, cardio, and capacity strengthening and conditioning. Will is also a trumpet player, and Hannah is a classically-trained theater actor as well. We began by drawing analogies between the music world and the fitness world, specifically by thinking about performing a specific movement efficiently. This talk has been edited and condensed for clarity.
HH: If you think of a pull-up, you can perform effort at the pull-up, or you can just allow your body to get you over the bar. You can have the goal of “this is where I want to go physically” and then let all your parts do their work and find the most efficient piece. This is technically what is happening anyway, because our nervous system is way more smart than our prefrontal cortex.
WB: Yes, and putting it in terms of your students playing: they (might be) doing a bunch of “extra stuff” to try to execute what they want so, in a sense, the narrative is “if I do this extra thing, it will contribute.” However, your body is going to make use of the options it has no matter what. So you can stress and think and create a narrative, or you can put your energy into expanding your options.
AR: Yes, an analogous thing I use in teaching I call “musical sportscasting,” where a student internally narrates what is going on in the music at each point. We might get distracted by something at home when we’re practicing, but with this play-by-play detailed awareness, you stay more in the moment.
HH: Yes, it’s noticing what is happening in the moment and using internal narration as a way to keep yourself present with that.
AR: That’s fascinating. It’s like you’ve done the “prep work” in a way to help them prime those big and small movements ahead of time.
HH: You know what’s similar to me? In theatre conservatory, there was a lot of emphasis on “trust your rehearsal.” When it’s time to perform, you just have to perform; you have to trust that you know your lines, you’ve rehearsed your blocking, and you’ve done the vocal work. There’s stuff that you do behind the scenes, but the performance is that “let go moment.” Then you get to look back at it and go “I needed more range in my upper register, etc.,” but you’re not doing your drills on stage.
WB: To even go further, you’re not trying to get better at the performance by just working on the performance. For example, if you’re in a practice room working on a line and you’re going over and over and over that line, maybe (instead) you need to work on the constituent parts first, and then let the line happen more easily. I’m especially thinking, Anne, about when you mentioned asking your student to do something different with their shoulder, maybe they can’t!
AR: Yes! Very true. Regarding practicing constituent parts, I noticed that students are often not completely aware of phrasing structure, but their physical mistakes tend to be at those transition points between the phrases. I’m guessing in bodywork, there is a similar idea or potential hiccup at a transition point.
HH: Yes, that’s a pretty strong tie-in: if you want to be able to play with more freedom and expression, we want to make sure that the shoulder has more room to perform the functions of the shoulder, and the spine is well-connected and able to move, and the elbow has enough degrees to rotate and feel its bend. When you put all those parts together in the act of playing, they’re going to make use of that increased ability.
WB: There’s definitely an analogy to what you were saying, Anne, and what Hannah is talking about with how the joints function similarly and hand off to each other. It sounds like a lot of the work you do with your students is about that motor learning. There’s learning the music itself as well as the motor task, and you’re guiding them on learning those two parts. However, they need to do the motor task a lot and practice; you can’t just implant the learning – they have to practice.
AR: One of my bigger frustrations is when students say “well, I just have to practice it more.” Yes, if you’re really stuck, go play that scale 10 times, but in terms of getting it “in there” into your subconscious, rote repetition isn’t going to make it stick. Instead, the movement will get associated with speed, and any time you change your speed, you’ll go back to making mistakes.
WB: I’m glad you brought that up! One good thing to figure out for your students is what is the communication that the tissues are providing for your brain? As you are guiding them through this challenge of getting this music and concept into their brain, how can that information then be sent back to the tissues effectively? Because most of what we spend all day working on with people is getting the brain and the tissues to “talk well” to each other. That’s pretty much it, and that’s plenty!
AR: Switching gears a bit, I was really inspired years ago by the book The Inner Game of Tennis, which was talking about “just noticing.” I ask my students to simply notice my movement, expression, or really anything that catches their ear, and then imitate what they just noticed. I also tell my kids, “you have to be like a detective, really ‘sleuth’ out how to creatively resolve this!”
HH: I love that you use “sleuth” as a verb! Sleuth it out! Get in there and sleuth around.
WB: No matter if they are young or old, the key is to get them in an inquiry mode, rather than an analytical mode, especially when we’re introducing new movements! What are you feeling? Where are you feeling it? What does it feel like? Does it feel hot, cold, etc..?
AR: More broadly, how would you describe what you do as a business?
HH: We help people trust their bodies, by cultivating compassionate communication with their bodies. We also help people reclaim and integrate abilities or parts of themselves that they’ve cut off from themselves, via pain or injury or just lack of awareness. And then we strengthen and fortify all of the parts, so we unlock possibilities for the whole.
AR: Nice, that is wonderful. And what is Kinstretch?
WB: Kinstretch is an approach that helps us work on each of those components. It helps us upgrade the communication that we have with our bodies. It also helps update and integrate the parts of our body that might be dark or blind, or just not functioning like they could. And it can really be a part of how you’re guiding healing for someone post-injury or trauma. It definitely applies to fortifying and strengthening tissues, because that’s what it’s based in: the science of how tissues adapt over time.
HH: One big component that sets it apart from other movement modalities that I’ve studied is that it’s really a system that takes into account the nervous system and the “meat suit,” as it were. We’re not just trying to make the muscles stronger. We’re also trying to make sure that your body knows how to use that strength in whatever range of motion matters to you. That’s part of the reclaim and integrate piece for me; it’s not just about creating “beefy” muscles. We’re trying to make sure that you’re an integrated, communicative system that can then navigate and solve physical puzzles and tasks.
AR: Great, could you each now talk a little bit about your professional background now? And more specifically, how you ended up in this specialized area of working and teaching?
WB: My progression towards this type of modality has everything to do with the realization that movement is a powerful and positive thing for humans, but the ways in which people are blocked from accessing that movement are maddening to me. When I first started training, I think I picked up on that desire to help people move more effectively and feel good in their body, but the tools that I found to do that were part of the narrative of “if you want to be strong, you have to do things that make you look strong,” essentially. As I’ve worked through the science and the application of that science with a lot of clients and seen what works and what doesn’t work is that, the ways in which people are actually blocked from those movement outlets fall into a few different categories. I can put my efforts into addressing those specific blocks, and that speaks to me much more than performing “fitness tasks.”
Those blocks end up being, for example, that people don’t have good communication with their bodies – they just don’t feel stuff. Over time, that becomes perhaps a lack of access to certain positions in their body, or maybe they learn or just decide that certain activities are not for them. And all of that stems from the fact that maybe they just can’t feel what’s going on in their bodies. Kinstretch and functional range conditioning just does that so much more directly than any other approach that I had found prior. Another part is blocks that people have around a specific narrative; they see through the media that fitness looks like “x,y, or z,” and they think “I look like a,b, or c,” so just realizing that Kinstretch provides a completely out of the box narrative is really valuable.
HH: The other piece that Will and I bring to and is the cornerstone of the Fitness Alchemists is the coaching piece. And that’s representative of what we’ve talked about: helping people get compassionate communication with their bodies. A lot of times the thing we see getting in people’s way the most of having a consistent movement practice is how they’re relating to themselves, if they’re valuing themselves, if they’re holding themselves to an impossible standard, if they think that exercise needs to be like a punishment make up for what they ate type of situation – there are all of these things that are really supported in the cultural zeitgeist but, as we’ve experienced over the last 10 plus years of coaching humans, completely work against people moving their bodies regularly. A big cornerstone of our work is trying to peel apart those things and get people to actually find “what’s my why?” Why do I move? That’s really an unlocking feature of the what – what are you doing with your body, what kind of movement, etc. And that all falls into place if we can get after that why – why is it important? And how does it enlarge your life?
AR: Next question, regarding internal and external states – I often experience in teaching that a student’s internal and external states don’t line up. Another way of saying this is that we have our inner narrative, which is going on all of the time, and then we have our external presentation, and these 2 experiences might be completely different. How does this apply to your practice? How do you reconcile these 2 states? What comes up for you regarding this idea?
HH: That’s a really juicy question! That is a big piece of what we work with people on. We are working with: what are the sensations you are feeling? What is your perceived effort – how hard do you feel like you’re working, versus how much force are you exerting on an external object? And beyond that, especially when people are very new to Kinstretch, is that we’re trying to get each joint to do it’s own job.
In the beginning, we might say “the instruction is to only move your shoulder or your arm in your shoulder socket.” You’ll get people moving their whole upper body and having no idea, even if you say to them “hey, try not to let your t-shirt logo face the way your arm is going.” Some people won’t have any awareness that that is happening, so they won’t be able to change it. That’s part of that motor learning process that we were talking about earlier. I used to think “oh my job is really to correct my students” and now I think “my job is to facilitate their motor learning process.” And if you’ve given the instruction and it doesn’t make any sense, it’s an indication that the student needs more general awareness of themselves before they can start to feel that distinction that I eventually want to ask for.
WB: Yes, I feel like the crux of that is not that we want to “correct” them, but instead that they can only correct themselves when it comes to complex skills. I’ve seen music teachers before who are trying to correct something, but it might not be put in the right way or language that matches the performer’s internal landscape. Our brain is completely agnostic to the type of information it gets – it doesn’t care what kind of information it gets! Once it gets the information, it’s going to look for patterns and synthesize those inputs, whether it’s tactile or auditory information, or sensory input from your eyeballs, or a burning sensation in your muscles. If I want to help people with moving their body, I’m going to figure out the way I can turn up sensory inputs that impacts their ability to move. In that way, you actually can talk to their interior environment, not by giving explicit instructions but by using the information they have to work with.
AR: One other thing I’m curious about is how you get your students to engage in different senses as they are learning and trying new things?
HH: One thing we’ve been playing with as we’ve been recording more videos (and as we don’t have the option to have tactile feedback be part of our teaching arsenal), is that we’ll get people doing a movement, say segmental cat-cow, and then we’ll say “for this time, can you just tune in to the sensation of what is contracting?” But maybe another day we’ll cue the same movement with imagery, such as “you’re curling your belt buckle as you’re doing this movement.” It’s the same physical movement both times, but we try to layer in as many different ways of experiencing or noticing or bringing your senses to that same movement.
WB: The other component is that for information to be “grabbed” by a learner most effectively, it needs to both be challenging enough, but also not too challenging. When we’re thinking through how we help people enhance their bodies and enhance their movement, part of that has to be progressive. Doing a cat-cow thing about contraction might be effective the first five times, but maybe on the sixth time, your brain has now “chunked” it and sent it to the subconscious part of your brain, and now you’re no longer engaging with it. So it’s this dance because we want to offer novelty, but we also do not want to layer complexity on top of a flimsy foundation of knowledge. We want to make sure that we offer different “takes” on the same material and properly layer each task.
AR: And that relates to my next question: on your website, you call Kinstretch “movement enhancement.” You also have another part of your website that talks about doing a wide variety of activity versus repetitive movement. Can you talk more about how Kinstertch enhances your movements and why a wide variety of movement is so important too?
HH: A wide variety of movement comes from this idea that as best we know, our bodies evolved to maintain their physical health via movement. Any movement pattern that you don’t regularly use, your body stops maintaining with regards to neurological firing patterns or facilitating the lengthening of the muscles that have to stretch to allow you into that position. Essentially, you just lose that capability if you are not regularly using it because your body is an efficiency ninja. It wants to keep you alive so you can procreate and pass your genes on, basically.
Maintaining tissue quality and health is expensive – it takes some energy and effort. In our “today” world, we aren’t required to move in wildly various ways. We’re mostly required to move in very narrow and repetitive ways, and if we aren’t doing anything to maintain options that we aren’t forced to use, we lose them. And so, the options that we have for solving any physical task are much smaller, and we’re relying on fewer strands of muscle fiber. If we think of a ball and socket joint, theoretically we want enough space so that every time it does that same movement, it can do it slightly differently each time. That would be ideal! If we start to lose space and lose tissue resiliency, there will only be one way that it can do a movement, and so those tissues that aren’t functioning are more likely to wear out or get overloaded. CARs (controlled articular rotations) from Kinstretch are such a great exercise because they cover a lot of movement bases. It allows us an efficient way to keep all of the options alive and touched on, so that if you want to reach behind you to the back seat of the car, your shoulder has gone into that range every day, instead of not in years.
WB: On a micro-level, I think it’s really powerful to conceptualize the wiggle room that is either available or not in joint. Your brain doesn’t think in terms of what tissue it’s going to use to reach for something on the shelf; it just executes the task. And when it goes to execute the task, it uses whatever it knows is there. When we’re doing shoulder CARs, we’re sort of doing an inventory and letting your brain know that you have all of these ways to move. It’s really about moving in any position – your brain and your body can disperse the demands of that challenge across a much broader set of tissue. The analogy I use sometimes is if you walk in the snow with just a boot, you fall through the snow, but if you expand the surface area that you’re spreading that load onto, you don’t push through the snow. If you are only using the line of tissue in your shoulder that you always use and you never expand that, you’re going to punch through that at some point – it will “go” when it’s overloaded. Whereas, if you have many options, it will disperse those loads.
HH: In Kinstretch, a lot of what we’re doing is maintaining the options that you have and trying to give you more options.
AR: Wonderful, this was such a great talk!
HH: I’m so glad we got to talk to you, Anne. This was a fun adventure. It’s fun to get to use our creativity and skills in a different way than what we’re used to.
WB: Thanks so much for reaching out.
Environment, part 1: The Beastie Boys, Fisheye Lenses, and Priming Your Environment
September 10, 2020
In addition to their iconic sound, you always know you’re watching a Beastie Boys music video because of their extensive use of fisheye lenses and funky, bright costumes. From the early Hold It Now, Hit It (License to Ill, 1986), to Intergalactic (Hello Nasty, 1998) to Ch-Check It Out (To the 5 Boroughs, 2004), there is always a sense of familiarity. They have specifically primed their environment with common elements, particular to their style and execution. As performers, they have also crafted a who-watching-who’s scenario: are we, the listeners, the proverbial fish in the bowl, or are they? Much like their backwards lyrics (“I like my sugar with coffee and cream,” and “open up your ears and clean out your eyes”), they are creating an Alice in Wonderland environment in which the world might be topsy-turvy or right-side up, depending on your point of view.
Priming your environment is essential as an artist – what is at the personal foundation of what you want to create? Perhaps you want to express something deep and true about yourself, or perhaps instead you’d like to make some comment about society, culture, or other part of the external world. More likely, in the case of performing music, we often want to express something about the music itself as it relates to our own emotions. In any case, if your message is consistent, it will be satisfying to create and uplifting to witness, as is my experience with the music of the Beastie Boys.
Our musical language and expression encompasses our entire history as a creative artist – where we come from, any particularly influential teachers or places of study, and specific repertoire, techniques, or traditions that we hold in high esteem. I called this the living ecology of the performer, a set of personal details that is always evolving but is unique to each individual artist. What is your living ecology, and how does it play out in your daily expression of your art?
Time, part 2: Internal and External Experiences as Related to the Telescoping Effect of Time
August 20, 2020
For part 1 of this blog post, scroll down the page to the next posting.
“Time is a linguistic God who separates events that are too close together and relates events that are too far apart.”
– Roy Doughty, August 7, 2020
Last time, I left you with some words of wisdom from pianist Jane Bastien: “practice fast, learn slow. Practice slow, learn fast.” This is not just a simple adage, but an invitation to explore our sense of time (and timing) as we practice and perform music. We will return to this idea shortly.
In recent email exchanges with my friend quoted above, the brilliant writer Roy Doughty, we discussed the structures by which we create our own perceptions of time and others over which we have no control. Namely, factors such as unconscious constructs and external influences give us little agency to completely understand the passing of time objectively. One fun example is attending a film at a theater (in pre-COVID-19 times, of course) – when the film starts, we are engulfed in surrounding darkness and have no reference points to understand how time and the environment outside is changing. Another example is when we listen to a piece of minimalist music – the passing of time can either be counted precisely or, we can let the repetitions of the music wash over us, enticing us into a meditative state. In such a brainspace, 10 or 20 iterations of a theme might feel like they take around the same time to pass as repetitions that are two or three times longer (or more!); our perception of time, in a sense, becomes flattened. This shows that our understanding of time’s passage is influenced by, among other things, awareness (or lack thereof), the measuring of time (like a metronome or internal beat), and external reference points (e.g. a window to see the changing of light and shadows or a bell to signal the starting and ending of a class).
Philosopher Peter Singer spoke about “literary time” at a lecture I attended in college. This is the magical effect of time dilation that happens when you read a book, watch a movie, or experience any other time-based arts, especially one with a narrative (a dance routine, a play, etc.). A film, for example, that is around 2 hours in length might cover events that take place over years or even decades. We suspend our perceptions of our own reality at the service of fully absorbing a story whose passage of time is perhaps vastly different than our own, and more importantly, it doesn’t seem strange at all!
Because we are highly suggestible when it comes to perceiving time, it is imperative that as musicians, we must always practice at a variety of speeds. Additionally, slow and mindful consistent practice will always serve as a magnifying glass for time and attention, and this is the point that Jane Bastien was making. Not only do we understand time better when moving at a slower speed through this shift in awareness, we decrease the amount of time by which it takes to learn. In a broader sense, we change our whole future timeline – by slowing down we speed up the potential to learn. Because of this, I would like to take Jane Bastien’s motto one step further: practice slow, learn fast, and in doing so, perceive time on various levels and at various speeds. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Come next time:
Environment, part 1: Fisheye Lenses, The Beastie Boys, and Priming Your Environment
Time, part 1: Fleeting visions of Spot the cat and our perception of time
August 7, 2020
There was an excellent interactive article online at Reuters recently called Why time feels so weird in 2020. In it, author Feilding Cage demonstrates why familiarity and routine distort our perception of the passing of time; when we experience the same series of daily events for extended amounts of time, our attention becomes complacent, and time “seems” to pass by more quickly or slowly than in actuality. It was fun to do the time tests in the article, and I encourage you to do them as well. However (spoiler alert!), I was able to game the tests somewhat by setting up an internal metronome before exercises began. By counting off at a steady beat in my head, my expected psychological time distortion was superseded by my focus on maintaining a consistent counting speed.
In a related example, the episode “Timescape” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (season 6, episode 25) reveals how humans feel the flow of time as a nebulous event, distinct from the way time is measured by a mechanized device. The entire episode is fantastic, addressing the concept of time moving in different directions as well as highlighting characters’ emotional investments in beings that are mentioned but never shown (such as Data’s cat Spot and Wesley Crusher’s father), but that is a post for another time. Towards the end of the episode, the android Data performs an experiment, trying to understand the perception of time as it relates to the maxim “a watched pot never boils.” In Data’s experiment, he boils his tea pot sixty-two times, sometimes observing the pot and sometimes directing his attention elsewhere. He seems somewhat disappointed when he discusses the results with Commander Riker (a human), saying that “I have often heard people comment that time seems to pass more slowly in one instance, or more quickly in another. In reality, the actual passage of time remains fixed.” Riker counters that it is actually “how people perceive time. Every situation is different.” Data seems to accept that reasoning, especially when Riker suggests that he should turn off his internal time-monitoring system.
Time itself is a rather slippery subject. As demonstrated by the 2 examples above, we do not experience the passing of time in discrete “packets.” Indeed, as Commander Riker observed, “people do not have internal chronometers.” Our understanding of time’s flow, volume, and quantity is contingent upon our emotional state, attention to detail, and understanding of what has happened before and will happen after the present moment. Nonetheless, there are certain units of time that we become accustomed to over the course of our life: the length of a typical TV show (especially in the pre-streaming era, when there were regular, 15-30 second commercial breaks), the length of a typical symphony or sonata (if we are a classical music concertgoer), and, more universally, the amount of time it takes to do certain quotidian tasks, like brushing your teeth or getting ready for work in the morning.
As such, time is an essential component in analyzing, practicing and understanding music. It can be discretely measured with a metronome when practicing and felt or intuited when analyzing rhythm and structure. Alternatively, who among us hasn’t experienced the psychological distortion of time when performing or listening to an intensely moving piece of music? I remember hearing Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field (an 85-90 minute piece) in college and feeling like no time had passed and simultaneously like an entire day had come and gone. It was quite emotionally exhilarating to hold 2 very different concepts in my mind at the same time.
Admittedly, this introduction has only begun to scratch the surface of how we perceive time. As such, I will be adding to these blog postings 2-3 times a month, specifically addressing how large concepts, such as time, focus, and conscious thought, influence our creation and understanding of music. I will leave you now with an aphorism by Jane Bastien, a wonderful pianist and creator of a student music book series, who used to tell her students “practice fast, learn slow. Practice slow, learn fast.” It is an extremely simple idea, but this kernel of knowledge will provide a valuable jumping-off point for much more extensive musical exploration. Until soon!