(This article first appeared in our Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet, now Sold Out.)
String players move to produce sound from their instruments! The quality of our movement determines the quality of our sound. And so learning to move according to the true anatomical design of the body serves two important purposes for string players:
- We produce our most lovely sounds with ease
- We prevent injury and limitation
What is Body Mapping?
Body Mapping is the method founded by William Conable and developed by Barbara Conable to consciously correct a faulty body map in order to rediscover healthy and easeful movement while making music.
Barbara wrote two books on Body Mapping: the first is How to Learn the Alexander Technique and the second is What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body. She then created a course for musicians by the same name. Before she retired, she trained many of her musician students to present the course material to other musicians. Our organization of Body Mapping Instructors is called Andover Educators.
Barbara realized that in order for musicians to recover from and prevent further injury, we would not just have to retrain movement by correcting the body map, but we would also need to retrain and hone the senses, particularly the kinesthetic sense. This sense tells us about our quality of movement, but also retrains a healthier quality of attention. Musicians who “concentrate” are narrowing their field of awareness and once that narrows, so do the muscles in the body!
What is the Body Map?
The body map is the neuronal self-representation we hold of our body in our brain. It is literally a picture of our body located in the brain that corresponds to and governs, amongst other functions, our senses. We have numerous maps which represent our self in all of our various functions and behaviours and these maps interface and communicate with each other in complex ways.
When we are very small, our maps are accurate depictions of the actual anatomical design of the body, so young children move and play the violin, viola and cello with relative ease and comfort. However these maps, which are changeable, can and frequently do deviate to become inaccurate representations of the body’s design.
Sometimes it happens because the child has modeled an adult in his life who has poor movement patterns. Sometimes the inaccuracy in the map stems from cultural myths. For example, if a child is told often enough to “sit up straight” when playing the cello, his neuronal map of his spine will gradually alter to reflect what he imagines is meant by “sitting up straight.”
“Sitting up straight” produces a great deal of unnecessary muscular effort in the back of the torso up and down either side of the spine. The more the child does it, the more his map tries to match itself with this sensation of effort in the back muscles, and over a few years, the child’s map will have changed. In other words, the number and location of firing neurons that represent his spine in his brain will actually alter so that the back half of his spine is now represented as being the primary source of support for the torso. Unfortunately for the boy, the truth is that the front half of the spine, located up the vertical centre of the torso rather than up the back, is actually the half that is designed to bear and deliver the weight of the torso down through the pelvis and into a chair! We know this because there are little pillows called disks that cushion the vertebrae one from the next in the front half, but there is no such cushioning system in the back half of the spine.
So we have a vicious cycle in place because it is that inaccurate map that now dictates his future movement. The map will cause him to spend more time sitting in this muscularly held-up manner which in turn, reinforces the strength of the inaccurate map. He will wonder why his lower back hurts so much when he sits to practice, why his arms feel stiff, and why he cannot produce the free and easy bow strokes he sees other cellists using.
Only with conscious remapping will the child return to his birthright:
- his natural balance around a spine that exists right down his centre rather than just down his back
- free arms (once the torso muscles stop trying to hold us up and allow the front of the spine to bear our weight, they are free to return to their primary job of easily moving our limbs.)
- free breathing (once the torso muscles stop trying to hold us up and allow the front of the spine to bear our weight, the ribs are free to have their full excursion to produce easy breath.)
The purpose of Body Mapping is to guide musicians through the process of remapping if they already hold erroneous beliefs about their body in movement and to prevent young musicians from ever losing the accuracy of their maps in the first place.
Accessing and Correcting the Body Map
Before you can correct your body map, it is necessary to discover where your own particular mis-mappings lie. Ways to do this are: Drawing and self-inquiry about what you think your body is like, observing yourself in a mirror or on video, comparing your observations with medical-grade anatomical images and models (notice what surprises you in the images- if you’re surprised by something, you can be sure you had a different mental conception of it!) palpating your own bones, and observing beautiful movers/performers you admire, either in live performance or on video or YouTube.
Being aware of how language or gestures reflect cultural body map errors like “sitting up straight” or “get your shoulders down” can also bring new insights about your map. Usually a combination of these methods works best.
Correcting the Map to Overcome Tendonitis
One of the most common injuries that string players suffer is tendonitis in the forearm or wrist, so to illustrate the process of correcting your map, I have chosen brief excerpts on this issue from my books What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body and Teaching Body Mapping to Children.
Structure of the Elbow Joint
There are two movements which happen at the elbow joint- bending/unbending and rotation- and there are two lower arm bones- the ulna and the radius. The ulna takes full responsibility for the movement of bending and unbending, and the radius bone looks after the movement of rotation.
The radius is the lower arm bone on the thumb side of the hand. Unlike the ulna, the radius does not form a deep joint with the humerus. The end of it is rounded, effectively providing it with a surface for swiveling against the humerus in its function of rotation. Mis-mappings at the elbow joint in rotation are often responsible for tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in violinists.
The most common cause of tendonitis in the elbow and wrist is the mis-mapping of the forearm’s rotation at the elbow joint. There are two forearm bones- the ulna and the radius. The ulna is on the pinkie side and the radius is on the thumb side. These two bones are parallel to one another when the hand is palm-up and when we turn the hand palm-down, it is the job of the radius (also called the “radial bone”) to “radiate” or rotate in order to cross over the stationary ulna. The radius is beautifully designed with a rounded swivel end where it meets the humerus (upper arm bone) to fulfill this function of rotating itself, carrying the wrist and hand bones along with it. The ulna is designed to look after bending at the elbow, not rotating. However, (violinists) frequently try to turn the ulna- the wrong bone- in order to turn the hand in pronation and supination (particularly on the left side to “get the elbow under the violin.”) But because the hinge-like bending joint where the ulna meets the humerus cannot actually produce a rotation movement, the soft tissues in the forearm, specifically the tendons, attempt to accommodate and the result is they get stretched, strained, and inflamed in the process. This is called tendonitis.
Movement Activity for Remapping Free Rotation at the Elbow Joint
Place your right forearm palm-up on a piece of paper on top of a table or desk. Then use a pen to draw a line on the paper along each side of your forearm and then turn your hand palm-down, not allowing your humerus (upper arm) to aid in the movement. If your forearm stays roughly in between the two lines when the hand is moving to palm-down, or if the ulna slides at all across the paper, then you know you have this mis-mapping.
In order to stay in between the two lines, the ulna would have to move off of its initial line and travel over the radius’ line, even though the ulna is not designed to perform this movement. The only way this can actually happen is if the tendons and other connective tissues are being strained. This is what it feels like when the radius is doing fifty percent of the rotation (instead of 100 percent) and the ulna is doing the other fifty percent of the rotation movement against its design.
Next try the rotation exercise again, but this time while keeping the ulna stationary on its first line (see image above) and allowing only the radius to leave its line in order to turn palm-down. When turning the right hand palm-down like this, the radius will end up several inches to the left of the lines on the papers but the ulna will remain on its original line.
Practicing New Movement Patterns
Once the new way of moving your hand from palm-down to palm-up can be felt, you will need to do hundreds, perhaps thousands of repetitions of this movement in order for the map to fully and permanently change back to accurately reflect the anatomical design of your elbow joint. I highly recommend keeping the forearm on a table or another surface in the beginning weeks of remapping this movement. Doing it in the air is initially much more challenging and will risk the ulna becoming involved in the rotation once again. Eventually, it becomes very easy however and conscious thought can drop away- the healthy movement will be yours once again and you’ll know that your process of correcting your map is complete.
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