Feldenkrais – A More Relaxed Approach to Music Making

Interview Eliza and Julia Sutton, February 2014

Julia: I’m talking this morning to Eliza who is a violin student at UWA. Eliza, can please tell me about how you first came to meet Sarah?

Eliza: Sarah’s very well-known and very well liked among the music people.  She’s almost famous really. She’s the only one who I really wanted to go and see. One of my best friends has been seeing Sarah for a long time and she’s having really, really good outcomes. She’s always talking about it.

I know that Sarah has done various workshops with people in the music field including some here within UWA. Everyone’s got great things to say about her. I was hanging around for a long time trying to get in contact with Sarah. It was tricky to get in to see her at first.

Julia: There was a particular problem you were addressing?

Eliza: Yes! The first one was my headaches. I’ve always got more headaches than other people have. There was a period at the beginning of last year where I was getting them for weeks at a time. They weren’t getting solved by pain medication.

It felt obvious to me that it was related to my muscles. I get very tense. I’m a very anxious person. I get very tense and anxious, especially when it comes to my violin playing. I think when I spoke about it with my Mum it was quite obvious to us that it was all related to that.

I also have back and shoulder problems when I play a violin. Again, I get a very tense shoulder. It rises. It affects the way I play. I can’t relax into the music so much. Particular bowing strokes are a lot more difficult to me because I’m very tense and I don’t bow correctly.

I thought was going to be simple, like, “Lower your shoulder and it’s done.” It’s a lot more complicated than that. I’ve learned all about that with Sarah through Feldenkrais. The same with my back problems. I learnt specifically where the issues were, and what action was causing them. It’s not as simple as tensing that part of my back. It was all about the way I was holding my whole back.

Julia: You ended up working with other parts of your body?

Eliza: Yes, much broader than I was expecting. I was expecting to work on my back and shoulder. We ended up expanding it where actually my last session we worked on my feet, because we’re working on that part of my back. It’s all about learning how to support my back by using my thighs and my legs and working all the way down to my feet. I’m figuring out how I stand with those. We’re going to work up with my legs to be able to support my body when I’m practicing.

Julia: What you’re describing is actually getting your whole body involved in cooperating and supporting you while you play.?

Eliza: Exactly, yes, which is something I had no idea about. The whole awareness thing with the Feldenkrais has been amazing. I understand so much more about my body, how everything’s related. Yes it’s very interesting.

Julia: When you started working with Sarah, can you remember what the earlier changes were that you experienced?

Eliza: Yes, I started being able to manage my headaches a little bit more. It’s still not something I have completely solved – we’re still working together on that. The earliest things? Sarah assessed my posture and she had me lie on the floor, on the table.

I was encouraged to think about all the contact points in my back with the ground. Those little exercises that we started doing made changes happen that I could feel. Now I have more contact on the ground when I lie down. I am able to relax my shoulder with those little exercises before I play.

Julia: Has the effect of Feldenkrais extended beyond music for you into your life?

Eliza: Yes, definitely! I’m an anxious person. I get very anxious. One of the things I have to do is walk every day, once or twice a day. I needed someone to recommend that I get out and walk. I do get out and get oxygenated. It really helps me to relax.

I have also learnt to think about how my body fits together. Being aware of my, this is going to sound silly, being aware that my arm is attached to my collar bone. It all hangs off that, just that simple thing for me to remember. If I get stressed, I actually notice that my shoulders are up here. I go, “Relax them and let them drop.” The same when I’m walking around outside, I can think about and relax. It’s definitely made a huge difference for my anxiety, my tension.

Julia: What about learning music and reading music? Have you noticed any change there?

Eliza: I can focus for longer because I’m doing shorter periods of practice now. Shorter and more focused ones, because I can do my exercises in-between and that kind of thing.

Julia: That combats fatigue?

Eliza: Yes, definitely!

Julia: Keeps your body relaxed?

Eliza: Keeps my brain focused as well. I need to have those little breaks, or else by the end of practice I’m just playing and not thinking, which is not really good. Yes, little breaks where I do my exercises and get back to that level, that good, relaxed level and I start again.

Julia: How often are you seeing Sarah?

Eliza: I have periods where I see her every week. At the very beginning I was seeing her every week. Then I would I try and see how long I could go looking after myself. I’d call her up when I need to. That was quite good because it got quite long – those periods when I didn’t need to see her.

Recently, I’ve been going on these orchestral music camps and they’ve been really intense. I’ve just gotten back from one of them and I’ve been seeing her regularly, two or three times between each of those two camps, so quite regularly in this last year so far, probably four times or something.

Julia: How often do you do your exercises?

Eliza: On my big practicing days, I do them before I go to bed. That’s one time I always do them because it’s a good time. I try and do them when I first get up in the morning as well to feel that.

When I practice, I try and do 40 minutes to an hour. I’ll do a few shoulder exercises and some things that would help my back. That will take about 10 minutes. I’ll do another hour and then I’ll usually stop. Do some more. It’s three or four times a day I do them.

Julia: So working with Sarah and Feldenkrais has been helping with the headaches?

Eliza: Yes, how to manage the headaches.

Julia: Managing the headaches, staying in a more relaxed state so that you can practice in a more focused way. You don’t get as fatigued. You’ve learnt how to break up your day with walks, so the anxiety isn’t the big problem it was?

Eliza: The tension.

Julia: Being aware of how your body is put together seems to help you with keeping tension down?

Eliza: Definitely. I’m better at relaxing. It does improve my playing. When I feel like I’m really grounded, my shoulders are relaxed and the sound I make is different and better. A lot of the bow strokes and that kind of thing work a lot better.

Julia: Yes, it sounds like Feldenkrais has helped you use a lot more of your body in giving you energy and stability to play. Is that right?

Eliza: Yes, definitely.

Julia: What’s it’s like to work with Sarah as a person?

Eliza: I think she’s great. I really enjoy her. I actually look forward to my sessions. She’s very friendly and she explains everything really well.

Sometimes when we do something new or work on a new part of my body she’ll ask me what it feels. Sometimes I don’t really know because I’ve never worked on that part before. I won’t have an answer. I get nervous when I don’t know what to say. Sarah is always kind and reassuring and says, “It’s okay.”

As we go along it all starts to make sense. Sarah writes everything down for me and makes sure that I understand it.

Julia: Thank you Eliza.