Sunday, February 5, 2017

Marimba Body: Thumbs

Thumbs.

Without them who knows how we'd play our instruments.


Interest in the relationship between the hand, wrist, and thumb began a few years ago when I took piano lessons to refine my technique. (As similar as piano and percussion are in theory, there's much less crossover than I mistakenly thought and hoped.)  
Anyway, something my mentor said was when the thumb isn't being used it should relax towards the rest of the hand and fingers.  Sure, may sound obvious, but in the throes of playing - piano or percussion - it's easy to forget little things like this. 

Brain: Play a broken 13 over 7, across 6 surfaces...crescendo...oh, right. THUMB.
End Scene

Thumbs that are mis-mapped, working more than they should, or working when they don't need to contribute to funny aches, pains, and numbness that can get mistaken for carpal tunnel.  

Just like all other subjects in the Marimba Body series, how we relate to the structure and movement design of the thumb is evident in the effectiveness of technique and absence or presence of discomfort.


Skeletal Structure

source

From the fingertips, the bones of the hand are the phalanges (3 in the index-pinky fingers; 2 in the thumb), metacarpals (5 of them - one for each finger), and the carpals, which articulate the wrist joint.  Disclaimer about the diagram: the ulna doesn't actually contact the carpals. There's space between.
  
While the metacarpals of the four fingers are within our palm, the metacarpal of the thumb aligns outside it, giving the digit a much larger range of motion and greater independence than the others.  You can try to feel the length of that metacarpal with your fingertips: anything that moves around is a tendon, but if you imagine the shape of the bone as you feel, you might be able to get a sense of how far down that metacarpal goes.


Ligaments and Tendons

Ligaments connect bone to bone, and are unbelievably strong: bones break before ligaments break, if that's any indication.

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The two drawings above are of a right hand: upper left shows posterior (back of the hand), bottom right shows anterior (palm).  The labels of ligaments are too small to read, but that's ok for our purposes, as we just need to look at them.  

Ligaments above are drawn as white bands.  Along each finger they connect phalanges to one another and to the respective metacarpal.  Notice how much thicker they appear to be on the palm side of the hand; really, this makes sense considering the muscle is located here.  
Very important is the ligament running horizontally across the metacarpals of the index-pinky fingers.  This Deep Transverse Metacarpal ligament shapes the top of the palm.  
Physiologically, it stabilizes the palm and makes the job of our small hand muscles easier: imagine if we had to control each finger from the wrist rather than the top of the palm - talk about carpal tunnel and injuries.

There's obviously something that keeps the thumb connected to the palm, and that's the job of muscles and tendons.

source
Above, tendons are white and muscle tissue is red.  Looking at the thumb, it's clear that its phalangeal length contains no actual muscle, only tendons, ligaments, and bone. (Well, and veins and stuff, but that's not the point right now.)  The vast majority of muscle within the hand that moves our thumb is on the anterior side, near the wrist. We all remember aches there in school as we furiously took notes. Guitar and string players are probably keenly aware of this muscle, and tend to have the largest bulge there of all musicians.  

Knowing the location of muscle is key in determining if the body is being used correctly.  If you try to move your thumb from a muscle you imagine to be at its second knuckle, you will quickly get sore, as there's no muscle there to move, only tendon to swell.

source
This diagram shows flexor muscles that help move the thumb toward the palm. If you try, you can feel the muscles working all the way up your forearm.  Similarly, to extend the thumb up or stretch it away from the palm involves muscles of the forearm, though not all are shown here. 

To isolate thumb movement as something that only happens in the digit itself is misleading, and, for a professional musician, dangerous. 


Habit to Avoid 

One of the main culprits of pain at the base of the thumb is keeping it outstretched for long periods of time.  Though I encountered this problem first on piano, it applies to 4-mallet playing, too.  This post, by pianist Graham Fitch, is really enlightening when it comes to causes of thumb injury.It takes more energy to hold a large interval than it does a small one. And depending on how you habitually work your thumbs, your own "default" interval may tell you whether or not you are overworking the thumb.  If your "default" is larger than a 4th or 5th, you're probably overworking the thumb.  This is visually more relevant to cross-grip players.  

Since the mechanism for Musser and Stevens grips is different from the cross grips, thumb issues there are more about locking joints than overworking.  For example, a thumb whose tip points up towards the player - ie: hitchhiker thumb - is overstretching the anterior ligament between the phalanges and compressing the tendon on the posterior side. Eventually, numbness may set in as a result.  

Another place thumbs can cause trouble is in hand-drumming.  Slamming the thumb down on the rim of a conga is quite unpleasant, and so we talk at length about finger/hand position.  It bogs us down and locks us up rather than encouraging the free feeling innate to hand drumming.  Relax the thumb towards the palm, align the wrist, and away we go.

Normal Variants

From person to person there are many variants in the size and characteristics of thumbs.  Some of us have "toe thumbs" with wide tips, others have narrow tips, some are thin and willowy and others are rather stocky.  None of this is weird: it all falls within the category of normal variants, or arbitrary differences between us that don't affect quality of use.  Other examples are hair and eye color.  

I have a theory, though, that these idiosyncrasies are some of the things that determine nuances of our own technique, or even what technique best suits a player. For example, I have really long thumbs.  They don't move better or worse than short thumbs, they're just long.  Normal variant = long thumb
The first 4-mallet grip I learned was Stevens, but in comparing my hands to photos in MOM it didn't look right, and I was somehow stretching my index finger out too far.  Well, guess what, y'all, when ya got long thumbs, the only way to make a fulcrum is to outstretch an index finger. 

Check it out:

thumb length forces the index to partially extend


longer thumb makes securing an interval easier

This stretching really taxed the small muscles in my hand, and made playing something I wanted to do but never enjoyed due to discomfort.  In trying to make my hands match someone else's in form rather than function, I started to compress and lock joints in my hand.  My long thumbs don't make me a bad player - in fact, they make big intervals easier, to a certain degree - but they did tell me, through discomfort, that they were more suited to a cross grip.  It's that easy, and that non-controversial.  A 3-finger fulcrum suits me better, too, all because it more closely maintains a relaxed hand/thumb relationship.  

Our normal variants are the things that make us unique, and, I believe, contribute to our personal sound.  They are things to be embraced, not to wish were different or manipulate into working a different way than designed.  

I'd love to know if others out there have changed technique or adjusted a current one to fit idiosyncrasies, too.  Consider it a bit of informal research - I'd like to report on this for our podcast in the coming weeks! 



Friday, January 20, 2017

Fall 2016 | Early 2017

This last fall was one of busyness and development. There are lots of exciting things to announce, like:
I'm now on faculty at James Madison University!
I've established a new chamber group: L+M Duo with Chicago-based pianist Marianne Parker
I was accepted to the PAS Health and Wellness committee
The @ percussion podcast is alive and well, recording episode 77 this week!

JMU

Being asked to join the faculty at JMU was certainly a highlight of the last few months. It's great to be at a university again, teaching with husband, and resume working with passionate, talented colleagues.  It has been great to teach percussion again, share my 'healthy playing' research findings, and occasionally exercise empathic skills in those "talking lessons" which more resemble life coachings than music lessons.
I also taught a Percussion Methods class for the first time. I learned a lot: things I'd do differently, things I'd incorporate, things I'd stick to my guns about - like talking about Body Mapping and healthy playing right off the bat.  It's amazing how we all, once charged with executing a strange new task, lose a good deal of coordination, and need a third party to point it out to us.

L+M Duo

Marianne and I met when we were both at UT, Knoxville. We share each other's instruments - percussion and piano - which means we have a really easy time playing and rehearsing together. In just a few short months we've commissioned a new piece: Magicicada, by Rusty Banks; premiered a special arrangement of Jacob TV's Body of Your Dreams; given a debut tour through East TN; been accepted to perform at a new music festival in 2017; and had our Chicago debut at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  
Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling

In June 2017 we have two more Chicago performances, one at Constellation, the well-established new music venue.  We have a new commission with Boston-based composer Aaron Jay Myers; he's a colleague of mine from Boston. I'm excited to have something from him because he's one of those folks that really knows how to write for marimba!

Health & Wellness, Y'all

Maybe it's because I'm from a medical family, or because I LOVED my high school Physiology class, or because Alexander Technique changed my life....but I'm stoked to put my passion for health to use with and for PAS.  Musicians tend to think about bodies only once there's a problem, but paying attention before then can help reduce occurrence and cause of injury. 
There's a great group of people on the committee, including powerhouse Sherry Rubins, who has been a university professor, orchestra member, and fitness teacher simultaneously and successfully for some time. I'm inspired by that.

On this note, a new avenue of reading and writing for me has to do with the intersection of the mind, body, and brain as it relates to self-care. I'm coming across fascinating things, and I can't wait to share them.


Early 2017

Casey and I recently returned from the Indiana All-State Percussion Ensemble weekend, where we both performed with the group and presented clinics/masterclasses.  I played Marimba Spiritual and Casey performed White Knuckle Stroll with Ensemble, as well as conducted his piece Occhio.   I was also asked to present a class on keyboard fundamentals to the band directors, and decided to merge that topic with my movement studies in a clinic called A Kinesthetic Approach to Keyboard Fundamentals.  We looked at lots of pictures of bones and muscles, in addition to playing some little ditties on glockenspiel, vibraphone, and marimba.

The next two events of 2017 are both at JMU and quite different in nature. In late January I'll be the accompanist for the Men's Choir Invitational. I always enjoy the sound of a men's choir, and I get to work with a dear friend and brilliant leader, Dr. Bryce Hayes, so this is an event I really look forward to.
In February, Casey and I are both involved in the Contemporary Music Festival, featuring composer Augusta Read Thomas.  The festival spans three days, and includes daily evening concerts and masterclasses/lectures by Ms Thomas.  Casey and I will perform Celestial Canons with its composer, JMU professor Dr. Eric Guinivan.  The piece premiered in August of 2016 at the Staunton Music Festival. On a personal note, it's one of the more involved pieces I've learned in terms of the variety of instruments and implements used. It even requires us to disassemble a chime rack, if that's any indication.

At the end of February I'll travel to Tarleton State University in TX to perform and present a masterclass. Thus far the rep is Marimba Spiritual and Passacaglia, which I'll get to play with my co-host and new Tarleton faculty member, Ben Charles!

I'm excited and grateful that there are more events this spring, but this is a good place to end for now. It's going to be a great year!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Body of Joy Cannot Hold Despair

One of my most inspiring teachers, actress Carol Mayo Jenkins, would be pleasantly [un]surprised to learn that one of her adages has been confirmed time and time again by science.  I'll never forget the class when she said to us (and I paraphrase): 
Feel this. Do you know a body of joy cannot hold despair, and a body of despair cannot hold joy. 
She told us to stand tall, arms outstretched, face towards the ceiling; from there, we were to find the emotion of despair. One by one we each collapsed and closed slowly, unable to maintain such an upright, celebratory, and open position. That day was important; it was the day I realized that my kinesthetic awareness could affect how I experience my life.

---
 
 Those of us that identify as artistic, creative types often deal with levels of anxiety and depression, sometimes very mild, sometimes more severe.  We Millennials, Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers, and Boomlets aren't the first to deal with them - a glance over the heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament confirms that.  And yet, though we have the advantages of modern medicine, we also live with the effects of our modern technology.

Your iPhone is Ruining Your Posture - and your Mood, from December 2015 is "old news," yet its message remains relevant.  The author refers to several international studies that are not about iPhones specifically, but about the unintentional slumped posture - iHunch, text neck - that results from constantly using such a handheld device.

iHunch refers to slumping by lengthening the neck forward and looking down, and it puts enormous pressure on the small bones of the neck.  When our head hangs down this way, rather than balancing on the spine, our 10-12 pound noggin exerts around 60 pounds of pressure on the neck.  Ouchies. 



What is clear is the physical discomfort of this posture. But what's more interesting is what happens mentally and emotionally as a result of it. Research about this connection is referred to as embodiment theories of emotion, which seeks to name the relationship between our somatovisceral and motoric systems (e.g., mood and posture).  If you're like me you wonder which system informs the other...does mood inform posture or does posture inform mood?  Which one is the more powerful leader in the relationship? Could it be possible to treat depression with physicality as well as cognitive and chemical therapies?
 

The Studies

Researchers in New Zealand hypothesized that iHunch-ian posture leads to greater stress response.  Using methods in line with psychological research standards, they measured perceived threat, self-esteem, task persistence and cardiovascular response in randomized slumped and upright groups.

The study found that the slumped group, in comparison to the upright group, showed: greater feelings of fear in social threat situations; markedly lower self-esteem; spoke fewer words overall, but greater numbers of negative and self-focused language; and an overall lower pulse point.  While the cardiovascular measure did not align with the hypothesis, the psychological factors were confirmed: slumped posture leads to greater stress response.

Since the health dangers of psychological stress are well known. the potential of learning that something as simple as posture can affect outcomes is hopeful and exciting.

A study in Germany, whose test group consisted of 30 clinically depressed individuals, showed the same collection of 32 words to both slumped and upright groups, and after a 5-minute 'distractor' task, the patients were asked to recall as many words as possible. Those allowed to slump recalled more negative than positive words, while the upright group recalled a balance, if not slightly more positive words.

Researchers in Brazil found that among those diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, not only was there a tendency for slumping posture during an episode, but a vast majority slumped on the left side.  During remission the patients would "grow out of" the slumping posture.

I find the New Zealand study most intriguing.  That a body of despair (ie: slumped posture) could create a depressive mind speaks to the power of the relationship between our mind and body.  In a body of despair, is it worth trying to think happy thoughts?


The Postscript

Here on the blog, I've avoided the word "posture" for a long time, and even now only use it as a blanket term for body placement, not as an ideal to achieve.  

In most of my essays posture is discussed as a means to avoiding injury and playing with ease.  Coming across the iHunch article and subsequently reading the cited studies cast a different light on the upward ease I've so often written about. 

As a person who finds herself anxious from time to time (but less and less, thankfully), there's a glimmer of hope and spark of confidence that comes from reading these findings.  The possible therapeutic interventions, and how noninvasive they are, only strengthen my personal theories about the relationship between body and emotions.  I start to wonder if kinesthetic mindfulness in my practice can subconsciously help me find ways out of those anxious moments.  

Viewed this way, the tenets of an approach like Alexander Technique take on a new depth.  Not only are they helpful in the usual way, to avoid tension while playing, but they become exemplars for an integrated physical and cognitive therapy about letting go and allowing ourselves to literally rise out of the weight of our troubles.  

It's a beautiful notion, really.



Sources

 
     Janette Zamudio Canales, Táki Athanássios Cordás, Juliana Teixeira Fiquer, André Furtado Cavalcante, Ricardo Alberto Moreno, "Posture and body image in individuals with major depressive disorder: a controlled study" Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 2010, Vol. 32, No. 4, p. 375-380.

Amy Cuddy, "Your iPhone is Ruining your Posture - and your Mood" The New York Times, Sunday Review. published Dec. 12, 2015.

 Johannes Michalak, Judith Mischnat, Tobias Teismann, "Sitting Posture Makes a Difference - Emobidment Effects on Depressive Memory Bias" Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 2014, Vol. 21, Issue 6, p. 519-524. 

Shwetha Nair, Mark Sagar, John Sollers, III, Nathan Consedine, Elizabeth Broadbent, Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses? A Randomized Trial Health Psychology, 2015, Vol. 34, No. 6, p. 632-641, published by the American Psychological Association. 




Monday, August 1, 2016

Migraines, and Working Through Them

The weather this week in our part of VA has done nothing but create headache, both literally and figuratively.  If you're one of the unlucky millions of people who suffer from chronic migraines, the constant shifts from hot/somewhat dry to blustery, stormy humidity and cooler temps would have you reaching for either Excedrin or exceptional amounts of ibuprofen, as I've been doing these last few days.


The world doesn't stop for a migraine, though sometimes our schedules allow us to sneak in a nap that helps dull the pain.  For those of us that make a living playing music, an ill-timed migraine can mean a bad performance or thwarted practice schedule.


What Makes a Headache a Migraine?

Migraines tend to not be acute, and rather progress through four stages over one to several days: Prodrome, Aura, Headache, and Post-drome.  Mayo Clinic has an entry that explains symptoms, but here's a synopsis.

Prodrome
- food and stomach weirdness, in what you want to eat or drink and how your body behaves
- sudden mood changes

Aura
Not everyone experiences aura.
- visual anomalies, in the form of zig-zag vision, flashes of light
- hearing phantom sounds, like music 
- difficulty speaking, perhaps accompanied by facial numbness
- limb weakness

Headache
- heightened, painful sensations of all senses
- throbbing on one or both sides of the head
- nausea and lightheadedness

Post-drome
- dizziness
- confusion and moodiness
- continued sensitivity to light and sound

A migraine is sadly an event in your life; there are headaches and then there are migraines, so if you're lucky enough to be unsure of which you deal with, chances are it isn't the latter.

Most recently, my plans to record a new video (which has since been done and is available here) were interrupted by a migraine that set in.  I lost two days completely, but managed to record half the piece while still in the Post-drome phase - nothing like playing Bach to keep you dizzy, confused, and moody, right?

In an informal survey, I learned I'm not alone in being unable to play when a migraine hits.  Some of us aim for soft sounds, while others know to just stay away...far, far, away.  If we're lucky, we're collaborating with people or studying with teachers that are sympathetic to our plight, and for that we are grateful.

Everyone is different in terms of their own symptoms and triggers, and everyone probably has their own method of dealing with a migraine when it hits.  Here's what I do.


Staying Productive in the Four Phases

Prodrome
Luckily, this phase doesn't completely interrupt life, other than the foreboding doom of what's to come.  I've found that drinking lots of water and eating healthy food, in addition to sleeping normally can ease the headache later on.  
It's also a time to get strategic about how to still get stuff done in the coming days. 

- Gather scores for study and mental practice.

- Pack in as much practice as you can now, to prepare for being unable to play for at least a day.  If you don't already have a detailed practice plan to get you through your playing obligations, make one up at this time that is realistic: ie, plan to lose more time than you'd like.  

- Gather notebooks if you compose, blog, or research.  You may not be able to look at a computer screen, but you might be able to write nice and slow.

- Gather hard-copy reading material.  Again, stay away from a screen.


Aura / Headache
Since my migraines [currently] have me experiencing auras during the actual headache, I'm placing them together here. Basically, this is the time when you feel the worst.  Can't eat, want to be in quiet darkness, and want to do nothing but sleep.  

Though I don't regularly deal with visual anomalies, I do hear phantom music.  It started a few months ago - whenever the migraine is settling in I hear a string orchestra that isn't there.  Sometimes it's an organ, but usually strings.  My layman's reasoning has decided it's because my auditory cortex is throbbing, or getting too much blood flow, and so it's replaying something I've previously heard.  My hypochondronical reasoning gets going, too, but let's not talk about that. 

Once past the terrible hours of the actual headache, some of these things may be possible.

- Slow reading and writing, around 30% of normal

- Mental practice, maybe try to learn notes while sitting up in bed or on the couch

- If you can look at a screen with the backlight all the way down, you might be able to slowly catch up on easy email.  Stress only makes these headaches worse, so skip the really involved ones.

- Try to find something to look forward to for when you feel better.  Make social plans, find a new recipe to try, plan a trip to your favorite bookstore, local museum, or market.  Having something positive waiting for you the *moment* you're able to do it is helpful.

- Move a little bit. There are certain yoga postures that can help ease pressure on the head and neck.  Personally, I find Extended Puppy Pose and Head-to-Knee Forward Bend very calming and distracting.


Post-drome
Practice at this time is a complete toss-up.  Sometimes it's possible, sometimes it isn't. I've learned, though, that if I can play, it isn't a time to perfect complicated passages, but rather a time to slowly learn new notes or practice something tedious, like un-flamming something noodle-y.

- Pad some rudiments or Stick Control, something that is almost brainless.

- Learn new notes without big expectations for yourself, and learn them quietly.

- If you can look at a screen, now is a time to type out anything you wrote, music or otherwise.  My last migraine stalled my recording plans, but I was able to edit a promo video for my new project, L+M Duo, because the program has a dark interface.  Since I couldn't leave the house (too bright and hot), I sat there for 8 hours completing it. 

- If you can tolerate sound, score study with recordings.  

Hopefully Post-drome doesn't last too long, and you're able to get back to it rather quickly.  My last one was about 24 hours, and I was able to record towards the end of it. 

If you're like me, chronic migraines are in your family history.  I grew up watching my mother suffer through them, and developed an understanding of how to care for yourself through them.  I also learned that an understanding family is very important, and I'm grateful to have that.  (Even the cat knows to not misbehave.)
Professionally, I've never cancelled a gig or class due to a migraine, but I have left the second it was acceptable, perhaps ending class early or escaping a gig before speaking with the audience.  


Hopeful Research

We still don't know what causes migraines.  The term trigger is thrown around to describe the tastes, smells, or motions that may play a role in their creation, but even they vary from person to person.  New prescription meds are available now that may not erase the migraine but shorten the Headache considerably, and reduce symptoms of the Prodrome and Post-drome phases.  However, these are generally incompatible with mood maintenance medications.

On July 27th of this year, researchers at Griffith University made a call for volunteers to undergo a study involving self-help treatment for migraines.  They're taking an 8-session treatment previously available to psychologists and teaching it to the volunteers. You can learn more about that here, and maybe even sign up! I'm greatly considering it, as prescription meds are my last, but perhaps realistic, resort.



Anyone have other suggestions on how to stay productive during a migraine? You can leave them in the comments below so we can all benefit. :)




Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Marimba Body: Loose Jaw, Loose Fingers

If you attended my class last year at PASIC, you may recall beginning with a simple exercise.  I asked everyone to find something to grasp - in most cases it was mallets or sticks, but some used a water bottle or wallet.
Then, we all grasped those items tightly.  While gripping, I asked everyone to "check in" with their jaw.  Laughs and chortles filled the room as we all realized that they were tight as well. Further examination showed that the neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists were tightening as a result.

It's tempting to investigate why this tandem tightness occurs, but what's more important is simply that it does, regardless of the reason.

A loose jaw is a shortcut to relaxation.  Free it and you will automatically feel relief along the arm.

Temporal-mandibular Joint

It's easier to free the jaw if we know exactly what area should receive focus.  To that end, here's a little info about the skeletal and muscular structures of the jaw.

source
The jaw (temporal-mandibular joint) is articulated by the temporal bone and the mandible.  The mandible, shown in purple above, forms the lower jaw.  In fact, it is the only bone of the skull that actually moves! All others are lightly fused, forming the shape of the head and face as we know it.  

You'll notice how stocky the mandible is, thick and sturdy.  While some bones of the face aren't much thicker than a fingernail, the mandible is dense enough to be felt through the skin.
The upper jaw is made of the maxilla, shown in light green, and does not move
So, when freeing the jaw, we are only concerned with loosening the lower half - it's the only part that moves! 

Fifteen pairs of muscles articulate the mandible, which isn't surprising given its constant usage.  Muscles that contribute to chewing, talking, and moving the neck all have close relationships with the lower jaw.
Some connect at the interior side of the mandible and aren't visible, like the ones highlighted below.

source
But, others are visible when they contract, and are helpful when trying to relax the jaw.


source
As the masseter muscle contracts, clenching the lower and upper teeth together, it protrudes on the mandible below the level of the ears. If you deal with TMJ, you may already be too familiar with the masseter.
The other muscle we can see during contraction is the temporalis, visible at the temple.  Both the temporalis and masseter are involved in mastication and speech.  Singers out there are aware of how a tight jaw tightens the muscles around the larynx, straining and minimizing their sound.  If you're ever witnessed an Alexander Technique specialist working with a singer you've probably heard the drastic change in the tone and volume of the voice as the jaw loosens.


Do It Yourself Exercises

For many, simply thinking about loosening the jaw will afford them relaxation all over the body.  For others, a bit of attention during everyday activities can show us how often the jaw grips when it simply doesn't need to. 

Consciously loosen the jaw while:
     - typing
     - driving
     - walking and running
     - lifting weights or working around the house
     - writing by hand
     - engaging in hobbies (knitting, gaming, reading, etc.)

When it comes to playing, there are many ways to incorporate loosening the jaw.  I have several scores where I actually wrote the word "jaw" as a reminder to relax - and in performance this was really helpful, both in terms of physicality and warding off any anxiety.

In practice, if you're just learning a piece, decide to only learn new phrases with a loose jaw.  If you're like me, you'll discover that those sections are somehow easier than those learned without such attention.  Plus, if they're technical, you'll notice they are easier to execute than you'd expect.

If you're addressing a piece that's been in your hands for a while, do a run-through that pauses every 4 measures or so.  In the pause, loosen your jaw, maybe even let it hang open while you play.  You may learn there are certain passages that really tighten you up, whether that tension begins in the fingers or the jaw.  No matter the source, the solution is a relaxed jaw.

Part of Alexander Technique is the idea of indirect solutions to physical tensions.  The connection between the jaw and fingers is one such solution.  

So, the next time you're opening a new jar of jelly think about your jaw before wrapping your hand around the top.  You may be shocked at how much easier it is to open!

- - - - - 
If the ideas in this essay are helpful to you, or the practice suggestions yield positive results, please let me know! I'm compiling feedback as a means to informal research, and appreciate any comments. If you have questions, shoot those this way, too!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Early June: R!S and TAPS East Coast

It's been a busy first half of the month so far. Though summer isn't technically upon us, there's something about the month of June that makes it a month for personal projects.
Perhaps it's because my entire life has been attached to an academic calendar, or perhaps it's because it's a month where there's typically more nice than dreary weather - either way, the first half of this selfish month has been a total joy.

New Article

It's been out for a little while, but you can read "Developing Kinesthetic Awareness: A Guide to Mindset, Explorations, and Wrists - Part 2" in this month's Rhythm! Scene.  Find it on page 14!


TAPS East Coast

By now there's evidence on social media that TAPS East Coast was a blast, both as a human and as a musician.  Held at the New England Music Camp (NEMC) at Snow Pond, the setting was nothing short of breathtaking.  The faculty were housed in cabins, the students in the new dorm, and our activities took place in the historic Bowl of the Pines located in the center of the NEMC campus.

Lake Messalonskee from The Lodge
view of the Bowl from the audience field

We presented masterclasses, taught private lessons, held a mock audition, recorded a podcast, and presented a concert, complete with a performance of Ionisation.

Ionisation dress rehearsal
coaching some Ivan Trevino

Casey performs Meditation no.1 during his masterclass

one of the mock audition winners in performance

Thanks go to Innovative Percussion for sending mallets for each participant, and to Majestic for sending not only a Prophonic snare drum for giveaway but also the gorgeous 5 octave instrument you see in the photos.


I had a great time at TAPS East Coast, and there's another one in July in Long Beach, California. You can learn more about that here.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

5 Practice Habits to Avoid

There aren't many other calming moments than the tranquil, blank mental space that accompanies those first few days at the end of the school year.  Suddenly there is so much time, assuming we can stop feeling exhausted.


Time can be our friend or our enemy in terms of our practice.  In preparations for TAPS East Coast, which starts this weekend, I find myself examining my thoughts about practice.  Since many of us are now in a limbo stage, somewhere between relaxed and feeling guilty about it, I'm hoping we can bond over these ideas.

Playing Cold – Some people warm up, some don’t.  Though some rep doesn’t require it, if we’re coming in from cold weather, just woken up, playing after a multi-week break, or about to run a complicated recital program, we have to warm up.  Cold muscles don’t move as well, which means the work goes elsewhere, like the tendons.

Cram Practicing – Sometimes life only gives us 2 weeks to prep a half recital, but if there’s any way to avoid it, we should. 
            If we’ve not practiced for days and think that 4 hours before a lesson will do any good…nope. And that's for several reasons, from induced anxiety to poor recall.  Even those of us that can learn music quickly shouldn’t rely on those abilities: it’s much smarter to begin preparations far too early and maybe feel “bored” in the process than potentially injure ourselves.

Taking Too Much Time Off – Though time off can be good for our mindset and attitudes, it’s not always great for our hands.  Just like athletes lose speed and strength with every day they don’t work out or practice, so do we.  Plus, the danger of taking too much time off is that we will cram practice once we’re back to it.  There’s the saying that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master an instrument; presumably, the healthiest way to log that time is to do it evenly, not in spurts.

Mindless Use – Musicians are often told that we feel pain because we overuse our muscles.  But I wonder if what has to happen is we become more considerate of how we use our muscles in other ways.  For example, if you want to practice 4 hours a day, play Xbox 4 hours a day, spend hours on the computer, and then do an upper body workout you’re probably going to feel pain in your forearms as each of those activities work the same muscles. 
            Perhaps we have to accept that being a musician means prioritizing our muscle use: as silly as it sounds, on days when I’m playing marimba and piano for many hours, I know I can’t go home and crochet, though it’s a pastime I cherish because my great-grandmother taught me how.  I can only crochet on days when I don’t practice as much, otherwise my fingers get over-fatigued.

Rep Jumps – We’re all guilty of wanting to play something cooler and more difficult.  Be that as it may, it’s careless to skip levels of rep, and though our minds can handle something harder, perhaps our hands aren’t ready.  Much motivation for practice comes from exposure to difficult pieces, but I don’t think there are many piano teachers who would suggest their students go from Bach’s WTC straight to Chopin’s Revolutionary.  There are steps in-between, and it’s healthy and necessary to take them.

Do you all do any of these things?  The above list includes some of my bad practice habits.  There are good ones, too, but those are for another time.