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.

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.

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

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!

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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!

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