Friday felt like one of my less successful days at the rig, but in actuality, it turned out to be a profoundly important learning day for me. I was once again working on my swing. One’s trapeze swing, as it turns out, is to trapeze artists, what tone is to musicians. It builds the foundation upon which everything else rests. In music, the quality of your sound affects your phrasing, articulation, etc. In trapeze, the swing is what creates fluid, dynamic tricks, and great height–it’s what gives you power.
It’s fun to swing, and even more fun to swing high. Swinging high is to trapeze artists, perhaps what playing loud is to musicians. I’ve been working hard to try to improve my swing and gain height and power. The problem is, my technique is still less than perfect. Today I was anticipating the calls of my instructors and moving early. This meant that instead of moving with the movement of the swing, I was trying to muscle the swing to move with me. In the end it didn’t work out so well for me, as I ended up straining an abdominal muscle.
I sat down with one of the instructors at TSNY, Mike, who offered me some valuable advice from his time spent studying Taekwondo. He said, “First you must master the technique, then you can work on speed, then power.” My ego desperately wants to work on power, but I know he is right–if I want to improve my swing, I must first correct my technique. Failure to correct my technique now would mean a lot of time and effort spent engraining neuro-pathways that create less than optimal movement. The more habitual the pathways become, the more difficult they are to change.
I’ve been applying this same concept (technique, speed, power) to my practicing this week as well; particularly while practicing tone. Sometimes it can be difficult to put the speed and power on hold–the ego tends to want to get in the way. The ego needs to be left outside the door of the practice room so that you can tend carefully to yourself and your craft. Pleasure will be found when you indulge in the process.
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I wonder how many musicians would benefit from taking a moment to hang from a bar. Musicians suffer so many maladies of the arm structure; most frequently from misunderstandings about the structure, function, and size of the arm. Hanging from a bar immediately chanllenges many of the most common misconceptions that musicians have about the arms. The first one that comes to mind, is where the arm structure begins. Many musicians have incorrectly perceived the top of the humerus as being the begining of the arm structure. One of the first things I noticed when I first hung from the bar, was how my humerus shared a connection to my scapulae (shoulder blade), and how my collarbone moved up and down in tandem with my scapulae. It immediately becomes apparent that an arm contains more than just an upper arm, lower arm, wrist and hand. An arm also contains a collarbone and shoulder blade!!! Flying trapeze certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you have healthy arms, you might think about stopping by your local playground to hang from the monkey bars for a moment.
I am thrilled to report that I am back on the bar!!!!! after a very long three weeks off due to an intercostal injury. [The intercostals are the muscles that lie between the ribs and are responsible for moving the ribs during breathing.] I will have an opportunity to make up the classes I missed, but I’ve still been concerned about falling behind. I’ve been trying to think of ways to practice away from the bar. When I need to practice away from my flute I study the score (not very applicable to flying trapeze), and I practice the music mentally. I find mental practice very difficult to do for trapeze because of my low level of experience with moving in the context of a “restoring force” (the force that is responsible for the oscillating action of the pendulum (i.e. the swing +me)).
I decided my best chance of practice away from the bar was to engage my mirror neurons by watching trapeze videos; including the videos that Vanessa has been sharing with me of her working on the Pullover Pump Shoot trick in class. A mirror neuron is a ‘brain cell’ that fires both during an action and while observing the same action performed by another. These neurons can “mirror” the behavior of another, as though the observer were itself acting. Many scientists think that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. This is something that musicians have understood for years–it’s why methods like Suzuki are so popular, and why music teachers sometimes require their students to attend concerts. Thank goodness for the mind-body connection! Even if our bodies are temporarily out of commission, there’s still so much we can do with our brains!
Every time I am taught a new trick at trapeze I face a challenge. There are two parts to the challenge, the first is performing a new set of moves, and the second is believing that I CAN do the moves. At the beginning of this learning journey I was fearful of the whole experience. When faced with a new trick, I always thought to myself, “You think I can do this?” I doubted that I could physically do the trick. Inevitably I would learn the trick, it usually wasn’t the first or second try, but I would get it. This happened on my whip, my straddle and my split, then came the pullover, pump shoot. The question of whether or not I could do it didn’t cross my mind this time, instead I thought, “this might take a couple of tries.” I laughed to myself later in the class about the self-doubt that used to limit me, things have changed. It did take a a lot of tries and about three classes but I finally got the pullover, pump, shoot.
Learning new music takes a couple of tries, a couple of days maybe even weeks too. It is important to remember that along with time to learn, you also need to believe in yourself!
As I fly on the trapeze one of the very cool things I am becoming more aware of is timing. From the beginning I have known that timing is key to coordinating a successful catch and moving into different positions. I am beginning to learn my swing on the trapeze and becoming sensitive to the momentum of the bar. This enables me to be more aware as I fly, experiencing subtle changes in body position as they relate to the bar’s trajectory.
Last week in a lesson I had a very cool experience sensing the timing in a duet. My student Lu Yao, was doing a beautiful job using the duration of the beat to place the subdivisions. At the point where the melody moved from one voice to the other our timing allowed perfect synchronization of the change. We were truly feeling the sense of time in the music, enjoying movement and the space between beats.
The transformation my body is undergoing through learning trapeze flying is amazing to me. Over the past 8 weeks I have learned to move in ways I never imagined or dreamed possible. Throughout this process I am aware of the possibility that I could be injured. I have taken steps to both tune into the messages my body offers in and out of class, and to map the movements I use. If a muscle or movement doesn’t feel good, I examine my movement, and notice how much effort I am exerting. Massage, heat and gentle movement are my tools to encourage muscular release and movement integration. So far so good!
This experience is a good reminder to use the same care for myself as I play. While flute playing movements are smaller and often more subtle, they too can lead to injury. Feelings of discomfort and awkwardness are a sign to inquire, tune into the quality of movement. With the same techniques described above, I care for myself and evaluate movement. Along with my new level of flexibility and self-awareness, this attention to myself has boosted virtually every aspect of my playing and teaching.
Warming up my body before I play, and taking regular playing breaks are essential. The same if true for time spent at the computer, in the kitchen or walking down the street. Tune into yourself, listen to the messages of your body, cultivate wellness.
Trapeze has allowed to me experience the joy of movement in a new exciting venue. It is just plain fun to jump off the board, fly through the air and perform a series of movements. The worries of everyday life seem to dissolve in those moments as you tune into the experience, the process. This experience has helped me find more joy in all other the areas of my life, including playing music. I am much more mindful and appreciative of the process of my activity, especially in the kinesthetic experience of movement during activities such as walking, playing with my kids, or playing a simple long tone. Accessing the subtle movements of any of these activties is joy, better than any material item I could ever possibly buy, it is within me whenever I choose to tune in.