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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.

WB: It’s a form of mindfulness. Let’s imagine someone is learning a new skill. We take the approach that if they have adequate health in their joints and also adequate information coming into their brain from their joints (so the joint is alive enough), that is their best chance at learning the skill. If they have that, all they have to do is practice the skill. We want to put our efforts into preparing your body to learn new skills, and if we ask you to do something you already know, like a squat, we’re not going to cue you to do the squat anymore. And that has changed.

HH: That blow by blow narration doesn’t make sense actually with our current understanding of how motor learning happens.

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!

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