The Art of Somatic Education
Self-Care for Musicians and Performance Artists

Joe Lee Griffin, Ph.D.

"I cramp up when I practice," she said. The continuing one-sided playing of her violin led to unbalanced muscular tensions. While she didn't seem to have repetitive motion injury, she couldn't practice as she wanted and feared that she was losing playing skill.

How could I help? We explored two ways. In one, I did hands-on bodywork. The other used her own self-care movements. The two are aspects of The Trager® Approach, a movement education system developed by Milton Trager, M.D., and promoted through Trager® International.

For the bodywork, she was comfortably supported on a padded table, wore soft clothing, and was covered for warmth. I used gentle, rhythmic movement to balance and release unneeded tension, particularly in her shoulders, arms, ribcage, and neck. The movements, all done within her window of comfort, included a supported rolling of the neck, sliding the shoulder blades on the rib cage, shortening and lengthening shoulder muscles, and gentle flexing of the rib cage. She reported improved comfort and body awareness and I encouraged her to enjoy these feelings and take them with her into standing, walking, and playing her violin.

While the hands-on work gave her tension release and upper body balance, her time with me was limited. For home self-care, we played with arm dangles and shimmies, as described in Milton Trager's book and video. We also created a learning game that felt particularly appropriate. I reminded her of the game of air guitar and suggested she play air violin, on both sides of her body, with empty hands, soft, light, and fluid, with open questions like, "What would feel even easier than this?" This game avoids performance anxiety, trying hard, and one-sided focus. It requires no skilled helper and no special equipment. Also, it is useful because it is undignified. Physical learning games are hampered by seriousness, trying hard, tight goals, and other behavior that leads to reflex resistance.

Voice as instrument.

Singing and speaking voices are intended to reach a listener. As with other instruments, the most effective performance comes from the functional center of the performer and is not an imitation.

An opera singer once came to me looking for deeper body awareness rather than to correct an imbalance. We focused on flexibility of the rib cage, on the whole trunk as a three-dimensional system for generating and controlling her breath, and on centering and connecting to her support. With relative ease, she got and used the expansion and centering and enjoyed her new awareness.

As this singer discovered, there is power in exploring from a place of health and balance. Of course, those who are limited or injured may come with stronger motivation and even go deeper into the learning process.

Later, I found a quote from Linda Ronstadt, "Trager work is an invaluable aid for all singers. It relaxes the throat muscles and positions the larynx for extended range and better breath support. I rely on it."

The functional mind in performance.

Most of us can recall that when we learned to drive, we were safe and effective only after driving became automatic, habitual, and non-thinking. The non-conscious functional mind does almost all complicated physical things for us. Practice and repetition provide sensory signals that allow the functional mind to improve and maintain skills. Bodywork and learning games also provide useful sensory signals.

The best performances have an automatic, non-thinking feeling. The conscious is the observer, choosing to trust an automatic wellspring of ability emerging from deep inside. Usually, when I've helped someone find their own center of functioning excellence, I too operated on automatic, without planning or analysis. Musicians, actors, and athletes seem to share a pleasure at "being on" or "in the white zone." When your body works well, it feels good. When your body feels good, it works well.

Percolation in learning.

Learning is a two-stage process. The second stage involves nonconscious integration by the functional mind. To illustrate why that is important, a story from Trager® Instructor and former dancer Roger Tolle, who works often with performance artists in New York.

An actor got his first Trager session from Roger. He felt wonderful and predicted a stellar performance that evening. Instead, it was off, as he missed cues and position marks. He was right about the improved connection to his body, but his connections were not the same as when rehearsed. One probably should not get loosened up and rebalanced just before an important performance. Time for percolation, integration, and rehearsal is needed.

A kinesthetic art form.

The stimulus of being a resident in the artistic city of Savannah (1997-2011) helped me focus on the evolution of my own art form. I believe for me, as for other Trager practitioners, the human body is the canvas or the instrument, both my own body in self-awareness games and the bodies of others in classes and hands-on bodywork. There is trust in the inner wisdom, focus in the now, absorption, sense of flow, and absence of mental chatter. I get positive feedback from students and clients because I've learned to trust, listen to, and accept their core, their functional mind, and its connection to their body. That sense of one's centered self is of significant value beyond the basic release of unneeded tension and balancing of useful tension. It is most useful to be reminded of and put in contact with the place within from which our best work comes.

Joe Lee Griffin is a retired Trager® practitioner, tutor, and workshop leader. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, was Assistant Professor at Brown, NIH Special Fellow in Anatomy at Harvard Medical School, and did research at Walter Reed, where he worked in the Wellness Center for several years.

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