Book Review: What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body

Whether there really is an increase in the number of publications about movement and playing a musical instrument or whether this is indicative increase is a reflection of my own interest over the last year, I cannot say. However, there are a good number of musicians, writers and pedagogues who are interested in putting musical training on a secure somatic foundation: The Poised Guitarist, The Golandsky Institute, and Freeing the Caged Bird to cite a few. Musicians who have cured ailments and syndromes themselves or with the help of therapists and/or Medical Doctors have written about their experiences and insights. Examples of these include David Leisner, David Vining, and Jason Solomon [pdf].

The Alexander Technique and perhaps to a lesser degree, the Feldenkrais Technique have been important resources for musicians wanted to learn how their bodies work. This book: “What Every Musician Needs to Know About their Body” (1998) is a primer. It is a “small book of elementary principles” that can guide a musician to understand better how the body works. It is not intended to be an in depth course or exploration. Readers who are expecting to know in detail how the body works would be advised to look else where. Not because the book is inadequate, the book most certainly is not. The book is concise. It is a guide to somatic work (the study of human movement) rather than intellectual knowledge.

“What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body” has several sections beginning with the head: the heaviest part of our body. After, the spine torso and legs precede the “brain and movement” and “body mapping” before continuing arms, hands, breathing and head. Finally there is a section on the core concept on the Alexander Technique: “primary control” and finally, a section on ideas of what to do if your primary control is lost.

Bold and easy to understand illustrations (Benjamin Conable) combined with the sparse text make for immediate understanding without dogma. Medical orthopaedic text books have more illustrations and details but are difficult to understand from the perspective of a musician learning how to move. Inspired by Edward Tufte’s The Visual Representation of Information, it is evident that thought has gone into the presentation of information with the emphasis on ease of understanding.

By way of example, here is a question relevant to all musicians that use their arms to play their instrument:

Q. How many joints has your arm:

a. one
b. two
c. three
d. four
e. five?

To find the answer, click on the scanned images. (Used with permission).

Experimentation and practice of the principles are the way to understanding. Experimenting with the idea that “the forward half of the spine is the weight-bearing half, providing a core for the rest of the torso” is best done sitting in a chair quietly moving backwards and forwards to feel how our weight is distributed. What feels better, more balanced, more poised.

Short and apparently banal sentences like: “Bringing awareness to movement begins its improvement!” is advice that can save one years of missed opportunities due to misuse or overuse or plain abuse of our bodies while playing the instrument. The most impressive realisation that I gained from the book was the following: “Your hand is organised around your little finger. Your little finger lies on the axis of rotation of the forearm, so the little finger is pivotal and made strong by its relationship to the ulna”. If I had internalised those quotes as a younger player I am convinced that now I would not be learning to play again after developing Task Specific Focal Dystonia.

To summarise: as a first primer the book serves as an excellent introduction to how the body works and the Alexander Technique. It is an excellent complement to other more technical texts and videos on the Alexander Technique. If you are looking to gain knowledge as opposed to somatic awareness, perhaps this is not the book for you.

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