01 July 2020 - Personal stories
Emma Alter , Feldenkrais teacher and violist

Guitar Playing & Feldenkrais Lessons

A short conversation with Michael Briody (flamenco guitarist), and Emma Alter (Feldenkrais teacher and violist)

Emma: What brought you to come and see me?
Michael: I have been playing the flamenco guitar for many years, and I realized I had a lot of tension in my fingers, hands, arms and shoulders. My playing was suffering because of tension, that had built up over the years, and bad habits I’d developed. When you suddenly realise that you have spent a long time playing badly it’s very difficult to try and correct something. A friend suggested the Feldenkrais Method, and I found you online. As a string player, I knew you would understand my musical problems.
E: What was different about what you learnt in these sessions as opposed to other lessons?
M: I feel that having had Feldenkrais lessons, I play completely differently. I’ve had different teachers over the years. A lot of them would concentrate more on the music, each week a fresh piece. Some of them paid very little attention to posture, or relaxation. Every teacher brings their own different view to it, but many of my teachers didn’t even think about tension with me. Now, I feel as if the music flows out of my fingers. There’s very little effort required, I have done all the repetitions and practising the pieces, I don’t struggle in the way I did before.
E: What were the things you felt you could take away from our sessions?
M: It’s made me much more aware of what I should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s made me relax my body much more — which I was not able to do before. Before I would pick up my guitar and go into this tense state, even before I played a single note. Now I pick up the guitar, and I’ll spent a minute sitting, relaxing my shoulders, my hands, and be totally relaxed. Then I’ll start to play very slowly, just feel the guitar, feel the strings. It’s a completely new approach. It’s almost like as if I’m a beginner because it’s such a new way, both physically and mentally, of playing the guitar. I’m more conscious of what I am doing. In the past I’d spend a lot of time just racing through all the different exercises and pieces, thinking they would eventually improve, but I was compounding the problem and making it worse. I needed to stop and rethink.
E: We didn’t only work on your fingers, which one might think, as guitar is so detailed for the thumb and fingers (more so than the violin or viola), but we worked on your spine, finding and connecting your fingers to a base of support.
M: Whether sitting at a computer or whatever it is you’re doing — one’s posture, there’s so much involved. Not just plonking ourselves on a chair. There’s a lot more to it.
E: Exactly. In our use of language, we tend to compartmentalise ourselves: our fingers, or our arms, and actually because we are one system, rather than individual parts, when we change something in one area, everything else changes too — what we can call tensegrity. And the solution is not always the same place as where the problem appears.
So, in one of our sessions we worked with fingers and shoulders together, they’re forged out of one piece, that separates and joins all of the individual strands of bone and connective tissues in the womb, and have a deep connection in terms of how they function once out of the womb too. We moved the fingers to free the shoulder, and we worked on the shoulder to free the fingers — it’s a two way dialogue.
Once you feel this, you can relax the shoulders to free the fingers, and vice versa. Sensing your anatomy from the inside out helps you to change the way you move yourself. The Feldenkrais Method works on the premise of connecting more of you in your brain, improving your internal body map, and it improves everything: quality of movement, range of movement and ideally, pleasure too.

M: After only 10 sessions with you, Emma, I can say I have made huge progress. It’s taken my guitar playing to a whole new level.
E: I’m delighted, you worked hard!
This ability to continually learn, our neuroplasticity if you like, is hardwired into us as a species. Feldenkrais is a way of connecting into this, honing our neural pathways, reducing excess effort- through awareness of our physical selves in motion. It’s invaluable for musicians and dancers, whether for pain relief, or to improve the clarity of our artistic intentions, creating clearer neural pathways from our brains to our fingertips.
Have you noticed any other changes?

M: Funnily enough my handwriting has improved! Previously I wrote like a scribble, and now I hold the pen differently, and it’s much neater. I’m more conscious and more aware of everything I’m doing.

© Emma Alter 2020