Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Marimba Body: The Intercostals

For anyone who already knows that the intercostals are the muscles between each rib, they might wonder why a blog about playing marimba would begin not with wrists, arms, or shoulders, but with breathing muscles.

The reason is simple: we are human.  Humans have to breathe.

As musicians, we wish to express nuances of humanity as abstractions of our bodies and minds.  (At least that's how I like to think about it.)  The connective fiber between thoughts and emotions and sound is breath.  Singers know it. Actors know it. Dancers know it.  Shouldn't we know it, too?  Acquaintance with intercostals, the muscles that innately understand how to allow to us breathe, is a beginning step in developing a connection to breath and expressivity while playing.

What/Where are they?

There are three layers of Intercostals: the external, internal, and innermost.  In the drawing below, the External Intercostal muscles are colored orange, while the Internal Intercostal muscles are red.  The Innermost Intercostal muscles are not visible, as they lie underneath the other two layers.


The primary function of these muscles, as the breathing muscles that they are, is to help the ribs make room for the expanding lungs underneath them.  Lungs don't elevate upwards, nor do they "drop" down, but rather they expand in all directions: up, down, forward, backward, and sideways.  The diagram below is particularly enlightening, as it shows that the Intercostals wrap all the way around the body.  This would seem obvious, since the ribs do the same thing, but we often think of breath entering only the front [anterior] side of our bodies rather than the entire circumference.

Check it out:

The Intercostals are the pink and orange colored arcs that run around the lungs.  If we only breathed into the anterior part of our bodies, those arcs would stop halfway around - but they don't! They run from the spine to the sternum, like a giant half hula hoop between each of our ribs.

The secondary function of the Intercostals is to aid rotation of the trunk of the body.  This motion is seen in exercises like the mason twist, postures like those required of horn players in marching band, or even timpani playing that incorporates a range spanning four or five drums.

Can I feel them?

Yep, but not as easily as other muscles, like the biceps or quadriceps.  Intercostals are most easily felt on a long inhale or while stretching.  If you can easily feel your ribs, you can place a thumb between two of them and take a deep breath.  You'll notice that something is moving, and you might feel a tiny bit of the expansion, and that's them.  Personally, I think a long inhale or any of the following stretching are a bit easier.

Long Inhale: Just as it sounds, breathe in. And then breathe in some more. And then some more. That slight muscular tension you may feel is your Intercostal muscles at work to expand the ribs to make room for ALL. THAT. AIR.  Most likely, you'll feel slight tension in back of your ribs, probably because they're not used to expanding as much as the front!

Yoga Inspired Stretches: Camel Pose, Seated Twist, Half Moon

Camel Pose


Seated Twist
Half Moon

If the Intercostals are still a mystery, here's another way of thinking about it...
 When I taught Movement for Musicians, a course of my own design, last fall, in an effort to describe the location of these muscles I reminded students of what they eat when they order ribs at a restaurant. "You know that meat you're eating off the rib bone?  Those are essentially Intercostal muscles." They were flabberghasted I would mention such a thing.  "Mrs. Black! That's terrible, that's so sad!" "Hey!" I said, "I'm a vegetarian.  If this thought bugs you perhaps you should be one, too." ;)

So, wait...why do they matter?

I'm glad you asked.  I've learned through experience what happens when I am and am not connected to my breath.  Disconnection with my breath makes me feel disconnected with myself, the audience, the instrument, and of course, the music. (Not to mention it makes me feel incredibly insecure because I feel so unsupported.)  Human experience occurs while we're breathing, shouldn't music be the same way?  And I don't mean that in the banal way it sounds on the surface but in the mindful way that it could be - on the inhale comes the thought to "speak," on the exhale comes the need to make sound.  Wouldn't it be lovely. 

In acting classes my teachers focused on connection to breath for all of us.  It was never "you don't sound like he just lied to you" or "you don't sound like you just got the most wonderful news." It was always a matter of slowing down, finding connection with breath, and speaking truthfully from there.  It was a slow process, for sure, but it taught me that true connection to breath yields true expression.  I remember the day it rang true for me: I was reciting a monologue from Romeo and Juliet, and my teachers walked on stage with me, put a hand on the back of my ribs and a hand on my belly, and I spoke only when my breath told me to, not before or after.  As I finished I knew something profound had just happened, and feedback from my classmates told me so.  For the first time I understood the power of breath connection, and immediately thought that all musicians, not just the air-supported ones, could use help in understanding how to connect to the breath, and be able to identify what it feels like when the breath, mind, and sound are working as one.  Breath isn't just a utility - it's everything.

And listeners know this. They can hear it.  There may not be empirical data to support this, but if that's what any of us were looking for we wouldn't be players.  Listeners, informed or not, may articulate what they hear as general "connection" or "feeling the music," but what they are noticing is a truth and ease in the expression.  Both of these things come from breath connection.

I've been to many masterclasses where artists will speak about breath connection, even if they come from different angles than mine here.  I've heard Pius Cheung and Eriko Daimo talk about it, and I'm sure many others that I'm forgetting.

As players of an instrument that doesn't require air to produce sound, it is even more imperative that we coordinate breathing into our sound creation.  We all know that any person on the planet can grab a mallet or a beater and produce an acceptable sound on just about all of our instruments.  What elevates what us, as dutifully-called musicians, is our ability to turn that sound into something meaningful.

Just as breath helps us express while speaking, so it will help us express while playing.

Breathe full, my friends.

Martin, Donna. "Intercostal Muscles Anatomy: Origin, Insertion, Action, and Innervation." The Wellness Digest.  Posted June 17, 2014; accessed June 26, 2015.

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