Body Mapping Helps Musicians

By Ashley Eady


Body Mapping enhances musical performance by facilitating ease of movement and decreasing the possibility of injury. Used frequently by teachers of Alexander Technique, it provides an understanding of the anatomy involved in the movements required to play an instrument. This awareness has been shown to lessen discomfort and pain associated with performing.  

According to Barbara Conable, the founder of Andover Educators, an organization dedicated to reducing and eliminating performance injury, the body map “is a person’s representation of the body in the brain.” It serves as a tool to help an individual better perceive and control their physical movements.

“Our body map quite literally dictates our movement, its range and its quality,” Conable says. “If the map is good, movement is good. If the map is a little weird, movement is a little weird, and if the map is seriously in error…then the movement will be inevitably painful and awkward.”

Music and movement

All music involves some type of movement: Singers push air through their vocal cords, cellists glide bow over strings, and pianists chase arpeggios up and down black and white keys with their wrists and fingers.

Some people even believe that music and movement are one and the same. For example, Dr. Bonnie Draina, a vocal pedagogue who specializes in injury prevention and recovery, says, “High-quality movement is crucial to the success and health of musicians because music is movement.”

But rather than address our movements whenever something goes wrong during the music making process, we musicians tend to turn to our instruments to fix the problem. When the clarinet persistently squeaks, we change the reed or try out a different ligature or mouthpiece. When the violin produces an undesirable sound, we modify the bow or change the strings. 

Just as we train our instruments to operate at peak performance, we can learn to do the same with our bodies. After all, instruments alone do not create music; it is our bodies and our movements that do.

Learning your body map

The process by which one becomes familiar with their own body map is called Body Mapping (sometimes referred to as BMG). 

Body Mapping identifies errors within the body map, and then corrects those errors so that the self-perception of the body aligns with the reality of the body. It is, at its core, an analytical process, “a way to examine our parts in detail,” said Stacy Gehman, a physicist and International Certified Teacher of Alexander Technique.

According to Draina, “If we carry out these tasks thoughtfully and attentively, the brain will change itself, modifying the cortical maps to accurately reflect the body’s structure, and movement will improve. The result is reduced stiffness or discomfort or pain, improved facility, and (most importantly!) more enjoyment of music making.”

Step 1: Training the senses

The BMG process unfolds in three phases. The first step is learning to “train the senses, particularly the kinesthetic sense, to provide accurate information to the brain about how the body is moving,” says Draina. The kinesthetic sense encompasses the sensation and perception of bodily movement via sensory organs in the muscles and joints.

Draina explains that we all begin our lives with high kinesthetic awareness. As we mature, we often lose this awareness. “Once we get to school…we teach ourselves to ‘turn off’ or ignore our kinesthetic sense,” she explains. “We want to be good, so we learn to stop fidgeting, sit still, pay attention with our other main senses (which are exteroceptive – about the world outside of our body)…All of that leads to the exclusion of kinesthetic sensory information (which is interoceptive – about us) and a disconnect from our body…Once we are no longer kinesthetically aware, when we stop taking in that information about our physical movement, the brain is less able to modify our body maps as our bodies change.”

Step 2: Cultivating awareness of movement

The next step in the BMG process involves regaining the kinesthetic awareness that many of us lose during our childhood. As our bodies change, so do our body maps. 

“In Body Mapping, we strive to ensure that the body maps of each individual accurately reflect their own, unique structure,” says Draina. “Being kinesthetically aware of your body in movement is one of the best ways to keep your body maps up to date.”

So how can you develop an awareness of your body map? 

It all starts with what Draina calls “little doses of truth,” or encouraging students to ask questions about their bodies. She might suggest: “I wonder where you think your jaw joints are. Yes, you are close. Move your fingers just a little farther up and you can feel those joints moving as you open and close your mouth. Give a little attention to those joints every day and your ‘ah’ vowel will get easier.”

Gehman adds, “One of the powerful things about working with Body Mapping is that it is very quick to convince students that thoughts are real; that we have ways of thinking that are so established that we don’t even remember or notice that we are doing them; and that the thoughts have consequences. The positive side of this picture is that when we really pay attention to what we are thinking, we can make real changes, and those changes have far-reaching benefits in how we move and feel.”

Step 3: Access, assess, correct & refine

The final step in the Body Mapping process involves correcting and refining the body map. This can be done through the use of visual models such as drawings, mirrors, and/or a classroom skeleton.

Body Mapping is mostly a hands-off process. Unlike other approaches, the instructor does not guide a student’s physical movements. Instead, verbal coaching is used along with visual aids.

“We may touch the student’s hand to help them find the third thumb joint, for example, or help them shake out their arm, but usually a BMG teacher does not guide movement physically,” says Draina. “We name kinesthesia, describe what it is, and actively encourage the student or class or audience to experience it through activities we design for that purpose…We ask students questions about their beliefs, have them draw their skeleton, or talk about what an arm is, then show them anatomical images or models. We have them palpate their arm or leg or jaw to find the structure, and have them move the part(s) we are mapping, always bringing attention back to the whole body. And we may observe them in musical activity and coach them through how they are moving in that activity.”

Body Mapping in music schools

Many music schools offer courses in Body Mapping, Alexander Technique, and other somatic practices. These classes can be helpful in preventing the injuries associated with increased practice time, lengthy rehearsals, and changes in technique.

Draina would like to see BMG instruction taking place in middle and high schools to prevent many musical injuries from ever occurring. “If we could get young musicians to be physically aware before they start college, nipping those potential injuries in the bud, in my opinion, would be preferable,” she asserts.

“If you are playing comfortably, without pain or limitation,” she continues, “you are just going to have a more enjoyable time, and so will your colleagues and audience…No matter what age you are when you improve your movement, the impact of that change will help your audience at least as much as it helps you.”


Ashley Eady is a music journalist based in the Nashville area. She studied Clarinet Performance at Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and Arts Journalism at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


Resources

Andover Educators

Constance E. Barrett, “Using Body Mapping Techniques in the Middle School Orchestra Class”

Barbara Conable, “How How To Use Body Mapping In Your Alexander Technique Teaching” 

Bonnie Draina, “Body Mapping for Musicians”

Stacy Gehman, “Body Mapping”


Photo Credit: University of Colorado Boulder College of Music

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