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Case Study: "Piano Plus"
   Maureen McHugh, Feldenkrais Practitioner                                           703-751-2111

"Piano Plus"

My Experience with Feldenkrais
 

by Stephanie M.
January 2006

 

I first heard about Feldenkrais in 1996 when I was living in Chicago, and I started taking piano lessons from a teacher, JoAnn Verhoog, who specialized in an accelerated method of teaching adults.  JoAnn brought a lot of energy to the idea that playing an instrument means a commitment to a whole body feeling. When I began, she told me that her students who studied Feldenkrais seemed to learn faster than her other students. This motivated me to sign up for a Feldenkrais class! 

In the Feldenkrais class, I remember that the teacher, Charlotte Palumbo, would start each class by having us move an arm to measure our comfortable range of mobility.  Then – to my surprise – she’d have us move other parts of our bodies, ones that, in my view, were not at all to be related to our arms. Yet, by the end of each class, our range of motion in the arms had increased. 

I also remember, with less pleasure, how “bored out of my gourd” I felt during my first Feldenkrais classes. We repeated certain movements for what seemed like an eternity. This difficulty, though, turned out to be a blessing: I learned, gradually, to slow down my mind and to become more comfortable staying in the moment.

At some point, I learned how JoAnn had gotten involved with Feldenkrais. She had been in a serious car accident and taking Feldenkrais lessons had been a pathway back to mobility. I remember her fondly as an amazing teacher. She really could make it happen: getting the body to work as a whole when playing the piano. 

One day I brought a CD to one of my piano lessons. I wanted JoAnn to hear an old boogie woogie piano player, Big Joe Duskin.  To me, Big Joe was the top – he could play as fast as lightning, and I imagined that his technique was “perfect.”  JoAnn listened to one song and remarked, “He’s got a frozen right shoulder. Can’t you hear it?”  Nope. I couldn’t.  When I went home, I read Joe’s biography in the CD liner notes.  It said that his father was a preacher and didn’t like his son playing “that Devil music.” So, out of parental respect, Big Joe didn’t play piano again until after his father died.  The bio said that during the decades he was absent from piano, Big Joe Duskin took a job as a mailman.  I wondered if he carried a heavy sack of mail on his right shoulder for all those years.

 

After a few years, I left my Feldenkrais-oriented piano teacher to study boogie woogie from a more “conventional” teacher. I chose her because she loved this early style of music.  This teacher had been taught to play piano by only moving her fingers – and that is what she passed on.  Sometimes she’d remark to me while I was playing during a lesson, “You moved your elbow. You should only move your fingers when you play.”  I liked this new teacher very much, but when I played without involving my whole body, I felt dead inside. So, politely, I excused myself from further studies with her.

 

When I moved to Arlington, Virginia, I began taking Feldenkrais classes with Maureen McHugh.  Her Feldenkrais classes have helped me in a variety of ways.  I have a day job, and some days I would go to class with a problem from work still on my mind.  I could conceive of only two alternatives to solve it.  After doing the “non-habitual” movements in class, I would leave, realizing that besides the black-and-white solutions to my work problem, there was also a whole “grey” area of alternatives I could explore.  I didn’t understand how that could happen until one day Maureen referred to Feldenkrais as “moving outside the box.”  Then I realized how moving outside the box supported “thinking outside the box.”

 

There are little nuances I’ve perceived from the cumulative result of these classes.  One day at the office I was waiting for an elevator that wasn’t in a hurry to come to my floor.  I shifted my weight from side to side as I was passing the time.  As I did this simple movement, I realized I was very aware of how my hips, my ribs, and my shoulders were all connected as a whole and all responded to my movement.

Because the movements are sometimes small and subtle, I’ve become more aware of exactly how my body is moving and when it’s stressed.  I took up the flugelhorn about 8 months ago.  I had tried to play the trumpet for about 5 years several decades ago.  I could never tell what note would come out of my horn when I pressed down a valve.  Now as I learn the flugel, the body awareness I learned from Feldenkrais has helped me sense how each group of harmonic notes feels in my lip muscles and I can produce the note I want to play when I need to.  This awareness also helps me feel when I am tensing up when I play the horn.  I never had that awareness before I was exposed to Feldenkrais.

 

I recently enrolled in a review class of Tai Chi Chih.  I had studied it about 15 years ago, but I had forgotten the technique.  Now when I do the moves, I have much more awareness of my center of gravity, my balance and how evenly I am doing the technique.  When I first took this form of Tai Chi, before any exposure to Feldenkrais, I had no such awareness of how I was moving.