Body Mapping

A Jaw-Dropping Skeletal Revelation

After recording and watching many videos of myself playing in the last month, I noticed one of my tendencies is to begin with my head balanced on top of the spine, carefully considering balance at the A-O joint when turning the head to the left, and then allowing the jaw to drop as a second step. Step three I breathe. Somewhere after I've begun to play, head-spine balance goes out the window until the next long pause where I can regroup.

I set a goal to keep head-spine balance as an ongoing intention while I play, and to consider how I'm using my body as a whole more often.

While looking at my skeleton the other day, I remembered that in actuality, the hanging part of the jaw sits in front of the cervical spine (the top seven vertebrae). My mental picture or body map included a jaw and a spine, including a cervical spine, on which the the head balances, but the relationship between them was either blurred or missing altogether. Looking at the skeleton, I had an a-ha moment about the importance of balance and alignment of the cervical spine (which can't be had without balance of the entire spine, which can't be had without balance from the ground up, and without it, the head cannot be in balance...) and its impact on the jaw. 

I examined the skeleton from all angles, while palpating my own jaw, the base of the skull, and the cervical spine. I also remembered exactly where the jaw joint is, and took note of the angle in which the jaw hangs when viewing the skeleton's profile, and applied this to my own mental picture.

Have a Look:


Ultimately, compromising the space in front of the cervical spine here compromises the jaw's ability to be free, which compromises free movement of the tongue, affecting the amount of space available for air to move through - in addition to ease all the cervical muscles, including the important sternocleidomastoid, which is connected at the clavicle, affecting arm and rib movement... the list goes on! 

Animated Views

The following two videos give a 3D breakdown of the important anatomy the skeleton does not show.

First, a look at the respiratory anatomy. (Beginning at 2:17, where the animation includes the skeletal system):

Next, a look at the important muscles of the jaw, face and cervical region:

Where you can encourage freedom of movement and space while playing?

Can't Get Enough Air? Try This!

Wind players need to breathe to make sound, and there are many pedagogical methods related to breathing. I have been a part of classes and flute lessons where I've been told to take a deeper breath or get more air, but the whole picture wasn't necessarily included in how to take in more air. When enough time was available to breathe more slowly, I was able to get more air in, but continued to run out of air too quickly. So naturally, when the amount of time available to breathe was minimal, I ended up gasping.

What change has allowed me to take in more air and make longer phrases?

Re-training the brain to associate the inhalation with letting go.

When we begin a piece, we have all the time we need to take a slow, deep breath. However, if the inhalation is accompanied by increased tension in the muscles surrounding the ribs, tightening of the throat, or excess tension elsewhere, we're already starting from a place of panic and discomfort. This can lead to decreased resonance in our sound, which leads to technical difficulties and inhibition in expression and phrasing. When we make it to our next breath, we may feel desperate and gasp for air, and the tension and panic may continue to build.

Many instrumentalists have a habit of moving the arms upwards as if giving ourselves a cue. The extra tension in the upper body can prevent a natural breath that leads to a feeling of tightness. Try tensing the arms and taking a deep breath now. How does it feel?

Replace the instruction of "take a deep breath" with "release while inhaling" while watching the journey of the air. What is it like to take in air while releasing at the same time? 

Practice with an intention to observe what changes in the body when breathing. 

  • Do I add tension when I feel that I'm going to run out of air?
  • Is it possible to continue to let go through the phrase, despite feeling that I may run out of air?
  • What does it feel like to breathe when I instruct myself to "take a deep breath?"
  • What does it feel like when I observe the air entering the nose or mouth?
  • When feeling that I'll run out of air, where do I tense in the body?
  • What is it like when I let the abdomen release continuously when inhaling and through playing?
  • What is it like to release the gluteal muscles upon inhalation?

Having an intention that provides ease and comfort from the first breath can be helpful in alleviating performance nerves. If our thoughts get clouded or anxious as we continue through the piece, we can come back to this intention at any time.



5 Things Body Mapping Has Taught Me

1. Mistakes Are Not Just Encouraged, They're Celebrated

One of the most memorable quotes from Barbara Conable at the Andover Educator's conference I attended in 2011 is, "Mistakes are Information." We can spend a lot of time avoiding mistakes, making sure we aren't cracking or missing notes, but avoiding the risk of making a mistake robs us of the chance to improve. Making mistakes on purpose shines a light on what we're doing and puts us in control to experiment and understand what we can change to find our desired solution. 

2. The Big Toe is More Important That You'd Think

Learning about the big toe and the evolution of bone structure during an Alexander Technique class changed my playing! The big toe plays a key functional role in propelling us forward into motion, and we can access this in preparing to play, energizing the entire body out of tension and into movement.

3. The Space of the Room (and Beyond) Provides Support

Previously, my most common state of awareness was something like my upper body and the music stand, and that's about it. I learned to add in all the senses, kinesthetic included, and notice my entire body within the space. This allowed me to release and feel supported by the space surrounding me in all directions, and resonate my sound further than just the area in front of me. In addition, opening myself up to all the space, (and recognizing how much space exists beyond the walls of the room) took me out of my small realm of self-judgement, and put me into a state of mindful observation.

4. You Can't Breathe Into Your Intestines

Well, I knew on some level that air exchanges in the lungs, but one of the most common instructions I had heard from a number of wind instructors growing up was to, "take  a deep, belly breath." My perception of what actually happened internally when breathing was skewed. Learning the anatomical reality of the lungs and their location in the body, their relationship with the ribs and the movement available at each rib, the movement of the spine, and the actual location and role of the diaphragm gave me the opportunity to allow a natural, efficient breath. The organs below the diaphragm will move down and outward upon breathing as a result of the diaphragm moving downward upon inhalation, and we can allow them room to move by releasing the abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and legs. 

5. Take a Leap of Faith and Trust

Inhibiting certain habits that have been a part of my playing for so long was scary. It felt wrong or like I wasn't doing enough when leaving out certain things, such as giving myself a "cue" with my arms when inhaling, or shifting my feet and pulling upward at difficult moments. Becoming aware of these habits and allowing myself to play continuously without them presented vast possibilities. I suddenly realized that I can play with resonance, with consistency, make longer phrases, and listen to the piece and react to each moment.