I knew there was no way I could practice the amount I needed and not just completely destroy my body. I wondered how other people did it. It never occurred to me in college that it was something I could learn – University of Denver, USA, 1989

On line, or off, pandemic or no, wellness retreats for musicians are all the rage. With so much more now on offer in music colleges and schools in terms of a holistic approach, I set out to find out why so many young musicians are drawn to finding alternative support.

In a survey I recently conducted about wellness as experienced by students in music schools and colleges over the last fifty years, it became apparent that, from the beginning of this period, horror stories abound: A violinist with a swollen wrist forbidden to do his final recital, a cellist having her bow arm twisted into painful positions and being told that it was either that or having a horrible sound, another being yelled at before she shifted to accelerate the movement …. Hopefully, the days of such cruel pedagogy are, along with sexual abuse in the teaching studio, long gone. Many – not all – music schools and colleges throughout the world now have wellness programmes, offering optional classes in Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais. The Healthy Conservatoires Network aims to promote wellbeing in the following areas: Emotional, Intellectual, Financial, Occupational, Physical, Social, Spiritual and Environmental. A student’s personal initiative to dive into avenues such as yoga, meditation or improvisation, though not part of the curriculum, is no longer considered kooky, and someone suffering from stage fright is less likely to be told just to eat a banana and imagine the audience naked. And yet, the survey brought forth some surprising results that, despite these welcome changes, indicate that all is not quite well. 

While fifty percent of participating string players said their instrumental teacher addressed the whole person, ninety – a percentage that includes many people currently at college – said that the institution at which they studied did not. 

“Tension, both physical and mental was mostly swept under the carpet. If the performance was convincing, it was tolerated despite the long-term consequences for the player. If it was impeding performance, it was mostly interpreted as a lack of ability and talent.”  Royal Academy of Music, UK, 2007

“Practice performances are viewed as hardening exercises, to get us used to playing in tense and/or uncertain circumstances.” Florida, USA, 2020

What emerged, as I read people’s comments, is that the vital changes that have taken and continue to take place in music education seem to have been initiated by a generation of musicians who, in and around the 1980s, were traumatized and struggling to find answers in the semi-darkness. Many stopped playing for years because of injury or psychological damage. Many, driven by their continuing love of music, sought outside help, and happily, many found it.

I was one of these people following a common arc consisting of the following elements: Believing that one has to be gifted to play music, performance anxiety, a breakdown – either physical or mental – and a personal journey.

Up until the age of sixteen, though I had been playing the cello for twelve years, not a single person had mentioned natural body use, gravity or breath. In concerts I suffered sweaty palms, memory lapses, bow shakes, shame and humiliation, and when my beloved Banks cello was smashed up in a car crash, I was an empty shell. I moved to New York in search of freedom on my instrument but continued to live, as James Joyce said about Mr Duffy, ‘a short distance from my body’ and when a friend grooved the sexiest ‘Take me to the River’ on bass guitar that was hanging around and then played a Bach Suite with complete ease on someone else’s cello, my jaw dropped as I wondered: How does he do that? Though I loved music, I still had no idea what it might be like to enjoy making it or sharing it with others. It was only when I developed a frozen shoulder and was told by the doctor that I would never play again that I discovered yoga. I started to inhabit my own body for the first time, and it was a revelation.

I was, I believe, amongst many instrumentalists who sought, during those decades, to find ease, joy and freedom in their playing, and luckily there were some wise beings lighting our way. I mention here a few of the people who have come up again and again in conversation. The list is by no means complete, but it is fascinating to see that they are all women. Aside from the obvious sexism in the profession at the time, perhaps they were unwilling to ‘play through pain’ as many of their male counterparts were doing (and indeed were expected to do) and drawn to a more embodied approach? 

Jean Gibson taught ‘movement awareness’ in the 1980s and worked with many players including Jaqueline Dupré and Amaryllis Fleming. Jane Cowan studied with Casals and taught ‘wing bowing’ – an approach to integrated movement that can be seen sublimely in action in her student, the now world-famous cellist, Steven Isserlis. Another of her protégés, Steven Doane, is the author of the book Cello Ergnomics, and professor at Eastman School of Music. At Ohio State University, informed by her Alexander training, Barbara Conable wrote the book ‘What Every musician needs to Know about the Body’, starting Body Mapping’, a modality in which many musicians have now trained. Joyce Rathbone and Joan Dickson, whilst communicating a sense of playfulness to many young musicians, were committed to ‘undoing wrong use of muscles’. Vivien Mackie who studied the cello with Casals in the 1950’s, and Alexander Technique with Walter Carrington, wrote the book, ‘Just Play Naturally’ which continues to inspire many musicians. 

The suggestion that Mackie makes (and indeed, to a certain extent, explains in her book) is the question that was bugging us all. How does one ‘Just Play Naturally’? Or ‘Just Relax!’ or ‘Just Breathe Naturally’? For those of us who had little or no kinesthetic, anatomical or somatic awareness, such statements, however well intentioned, were not sufficient. We wanted to know how! We looked to the performers we admired who played naturally and, because so few of them could explain how they did it, we tried to work it out for ourselves. I, for example, made a lifetime study of how the natural movement of Steven Isserlis’ bow arm seemed to be an extension of his breathing. It was dawning on us that maybe, just maybe, it was not about being, as one respondent puts it, ‘kissed by God, or not’. With proper help, anyone could have a free bow arm and have fun playing. We needed to unlearn the multitude of bad habits and mis-mappings formed in our training, understand what natural movement was, and where it came from, and then let it be. 

Body Mapping has helped me to put myself firmly in the company of all humankind and this has allowed me to explore my own movement patterns with curiosity and joy while making music.
–Violinist, Body Mapping Educator, Canada, 2009

With guidance from the luminaries who showed us the way then, many of us, alongside our successful musical careers, are now trained in disciplines such as Alexander Technique, Body Mapping , Feldenkrais, yoga, meditation or Dalcroze, and we play other musical styles such as African drumming, folk, jazz, baroque, klezmer and tango. Most importantly, we have integrated those experiences into our playing and teaching, so that body use, breath and presence are no longer extra-curricular add-ons, but integral to the way we as performers and teachers approach all music. 

My teacher had positively worked through an injury himself and helped me deal with my injury but physically and mentally.
–Cellist, Australian National Academy of Music, 2010

Thanks to Peter Buckoke and Judith Kleinman – bass players originally inspired by Jean Gibson who then went on to train as Alexander Technique teachers – AT classes are now part of the music degree at the Royal College of Music in London. This is a huge step. However, it is apparent in my research that the technique does not resonate with everybody. Happily, there are a myriad of other modalities now being taught by and to musicians, privately and in workshop settings.

I was sick with glandular fever, unable to play the cello for over three months. In my healing I found yoga and I have since done it almost every day for the past two and a half years. It has truly changed my life.
Cellist Robert Schumann Institut, Dusseldorf, 2020

 The Breathing Bow draws on yoga, breath and mindfulness to help transform stage fright into stage presence. The Exhale runs the holistic gamut, offering Feldenkrais, Alexander, yoga, Body Mapping, breath and even dietary advice. The Cello Retreat is a course exploring presence through the Alexander Technique. Mindful Music Making offers a safe space for musicians to heal through body work, meditation and compassionate communication skills. Your Body is Your Strad is a somatic approach to teaching and performing. The Art of Practicing Institute explores meditation as a key to practice and performance… The list goes on, and many of the offerings are available online during this time.

I went to an unusual course focused on improvisation. We did many activities away from our instrument, including horse riding, fencing, dancing and acting. It is only through becoming present with ourselves that we can become present and in tune with others.
Cellist, Australian National Academy of Music, 2020

The courses springing up all over the world are attended not by flaky retirees but by vibrant young professionals and college students. As one of the violinists currently at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland puts it:

[This work is] ESSENTIAL rather than something you just resort to if something goes wrong. 

The holistic approach has at its core the understanding that our body is our main instrument and that, in order to make music, it must move freely and healthily. It also reflects possibly the most common feeling (along with the ninety-five percent of respondents who believe there is a spiritual element to making music) to come out of the survey across the five decades: 

Before the cellist, comes the musician, and before that, comes the human being.
Cellist, UNAM Mexico 2020

The young people filling these courses now are our future educators. In them I see a world in which every instrumental teacher at every institution is chosen not just for their performing experience but for their understanding of how the body and mind work. If this is the case, I believe we are looking at a different future: One in which, when a student asks: ‘What happens in my shoulder when I do that?’ they receive an anatomically correct answer; in which, if someone is experiencing tension in the elbow, rather than just being told to ‘Relax!’ she might be met with a suggestion that she anchors through her left sitting bone; in which, when someone talks about feeling nervous, the inner language they use might be scanned for harmful judgements, and a performance-based meditation practice explained; in which judgement and competition are transformed into kindness and compassion towards one’s pupils, one’s audience, one’s fellow musicians and oneself, and one in which the joy of sharing music is rediscovered. 

My teacher told me how he likes to think of performance like a child in Kindergarten who paints a picture for his parents and is so excited to share it with them. “I made this for you!” – he doesn’t fear they will not love him because it may not exactly resemble their faces. It is a gift and I try to remember this on stage.
–Cellist, Robert Schumann Institut, Dusseldorf, 2015

This is a time when we do not need perfection, but we desperately need connection. If, due to the pandemic, music is forced to shed its skin and gain new meaning, I believe that meaning will come from integration. Integration brings connection rather than separateness, understanding rather than tolerance. It is not just our heads and fingers and a little bit of talent that we need. Making music is, as one respondent said, ‘the ultimate expression of the union between mind, body and spirit’. And the possibility of that union belongs to everybody.

In a recent interview Vivien Mackie, aged ninety-one, talked about a moment of awareness she had when listening to Casals, about his ‘absence’: ‘Musicians are the pipe through which’ (the composer) ‘is speaking, and our job is to keep that pipe so clean and clear that the composer can come through without any interference’. The pipe Mackie speaks about is not our Stradivarius, nor our djembe, nor our reed flute. Nor is it our ego. It is the glorious instrument that is made up of our hearts, minds, souls and bodies that brings, through musical expression, connection in a world that needs nothing more sorely.