Motions of the Mind

Is his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson explores artists’ abilities to portray “not only moti corporali, the motions of the body, but also how they related to what Da Vinci called “atti e moti mentali”, the attitudes and motions of the mind”.

In painting, displaying the connection between a thought and a gesture, according to Isaacson, had been discussed in artists’ pedagogies for centuries. He quotes 15th century Italian “Renaissance Man” Leon Battista Alberti, in his On Painting, who wrote “Movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body”. This thoughtful treatment of how the body reacts to a thought is a missing piece of our pedagogy as instrumentalists.

It is ironic that the connection between thought and movement is central to visual artists’ pedagogies even though their final subjects have no actual movement, whereas it is ignored for musicians who are required to move to create sound and expression. Why don’t we allow for and teach those movements (both macro and micro) when playing an instrument? In many instruments’ traditional pedagogies, whole body movement is ignored. We may, as flutists, emphasize hand position or embouchure shape, but not notice hip joints pushed forward or a twisted torso, limiting freedom of the whole body and the movement of the breath.

There is an unusual polarity between the communication of expressive, musical gestures (or, as Da Vinci called them “the attitudes and motions of the mind“) and our habits of freezing muscles and, in many cases, actively inhibiting physical movement while practicing and performing. Freezing and inhibiting movement, as well as my lack of awareness that I was even doing it in the first place, was one of the things that got me into a destructive cycle of blocking out my physical response to my musical intention, leading, eventually, to a diagnosis of focal dystonia.

This is a call for language in our musical pedagogy to teach movement. We must balance feedback for our students by including movement information and not provide a hierarchy of feedback crowned with the auditory sense.


Restless Creature

The documentary “Restless Creature” about the great American ballerina Wendy Whelan focuses on her transition into retirement. Every scene was shadowed with angst-ridden trepidation. She seemed incredulous that her career was nearing the end until, finally, she wasn’t.

She was suddenly done worrying, done wondering, and was planning for the future, with new works and collaborations. “I think I came up with the idea for my last show”, she says to her friends over lunch, “I woke with a really clear mind. I’m having a new piece created for that night only”.

The end of the documentary follows Whelan’s preparation for that final performance. She commissioned pieces from her favorite choreographers, learned new works with her dance partners, and performed to her devoted fans. Her fears were brought to a natural end and closure with a huge public party. She marked the evening with colleagues, family, friends, and fans. She said goodbye, and honored her role of 30 years with the same ballet company. There was a shower of flowers; she celebrated.

Watching made me realize that one of the things we (musicians who suffer from focal dystonia or have other career ending performance injuries) don’t get to do is celebrate the end. There is no closure. The hope of recovery lingers painfully for years and years, without a party, without a final piece, without a goodbye to the career we once held dear. I am at a point of playing with dystonia almost as long as I played without it. There is almost 20 years on either side of the day of diagnosis.

This post isn’t meant to solicit pity but, rather, to offer that a grieving process needs to be acknowledged. Whelan grieved for the end of her career. She recognized the sadness and honoured it properly. She gave it a good send-off.

About fifteen years ago, my friend and colleague Amy Likar and I were talking about the end of my career as I then understood it. She wisely asked me “Have you grieved yet?” I can finally say yes.

What’s next? I’m planning a party.


Title from Martha Graham “A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” (borrowed from Maroosha Muzaffar’s Atlantic piece).


Carry That Weight

I sometimes take a maxim from our body mapping pedagogy and mull it over, almost as a mantra, to find more depth in the idea and more meaning for my teaching. One such idea “Anything that limits rib movement limits the capacity for a free breath” begs the next logical question, “What is limiting my rib movement?”. That question can lead us down a rabbit hole of awarenessing and somatic experience. To narrow our focus let’s start with the arms.

Studying videos of busy street scenes in both the Edwardian era and the present day allows us to compare how we have changed our habits with regard to arms in movement. These two short videos are particularly striking.

In the Edwardian-era video, people are rarely holding something in their hands or arms, except for a cane or umbrella, which seems to be used fashionably and expressively, almost as a tangible extension of personality through movement. There are no bags, purses, coffee cups, food, phones, water bottles, or books in the hands or squeezed between the upper arm and ribs. Their arms are free for arm movement and therefore their ribs are free for breathing movement.

We tend to organize ourselves to accommodate what our arms are doing and lose the sense of our whole bodies in the process. This is so relevant to playing an instrument or singing while holding a choral folder. Any extra effort in our arms can lead to whole body patterns of tension, including ribs held in place, thereby reducing the full excursion of the ribs on an inhalation.

How often do you walk without carrying anything in your hands or arms? Take an intentional moment to do so this week. Have your coffee before you leave the house. Go for a walk without your phone and let your arms swing freely. Let your muscles habituate to this free pattern of use. Allowing the ribs their full free movement in any activity will begin to translate to habit on your instrument.





Ring the Bell

I keep a wire basket on my office desk. Each time I find a new piece or movement I can play without dystonic movement, I write its name on a small card and place it in the basket. In my daily routine of playing, my intention is always to focus on musical gesture, which leads me back to this basket of repertoire and pulls me away from repeated patterns. It has been important for me to take the time to make music with what I can do now (regardless of how slow or how simple those movements are), and not spend every playing moment retraining and testing my capabilities with exercises.

In his “Gratitude (yoga) Flow” class, Jason Crandell discusses the dichotomy of the balance between, on the one hand, being goal oriented and on the other, taking the time to be grateful for where we are (See Crandell’s Gratitude Flow

He states, “In yoga we embrace various paradoxes. You are working to facilitate change, and you are working to facilitate improvement. At the same time you are also working to accept and embrace the body as it is, to accept and embrace your personality as it is, and to accept and embrace your current station, wherever you are in this lifetime.

[We are] engaging in a certain amount of transformation, and not becoming an endless black hole of constant improvements and betterments…Don’t just accept where you are, embrace it. Accepting is still a subtle pejorative. Accommodate [where you are] and embrace it.”

This acceptance is a direct way out of the cyclical patterns of perfectionism, which, beautifully characterized by Catholic monk Kilian McDonnell, “straineth out the quality of mercy*”. Mercy for yourself, where you are, and where you’ve come from.

Ring the bell that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

*mercy: compassionate treatment of those in distress (merriam webster)



Benefit From Adversity

Practicing Buddhist and physician Alex Lickerman challenges readers to reflect on a “completely different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult” in his book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

He writes, “Victory over the obstacles that confront us isn’t as much about liberating ourselves from adversity as it is about obtaining the greatest benefit as possible from having encountered it.”

What if we could let blessings dominate the experience of our difficulties, even as we face them? It’s a nice idea, but how do we make this possible in the moment we are dealing with those challenges? For me, the answer has been meditation.

Bessel van der Kolk shares his research about meditation and neuroplasticity in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma: “Being able to hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and then take our time to respond allows the executive brain to inhibit, organize, and modulate the hardwired automatic reactions preprogrammed into the emotional brain.” 

Of all the retraining processes with which I have experimented in the past fifteen years, meditation has been the source of the most profound transformation to my experience of focal dystonia. Because of my meditation practice I have greater physical control of the remaining symptoms, a broader emotional perspective, and an increased ability to “hover calmly and objectively” over my movement choices. An impression of an increased amount of time in each breath allows for a sensation of a suspension of time, a “different way of considering the awkward, the uneven, and the difficult”, and even, in the moment, an ability to examine and experience the benefits that come from adversity.





My Experience is What I Agree to Attend To

With a goal to have muscle release rather than tension become my habit, I often begin my practice with an exercise repeating whole hand release. I play a succession of resonant notes, completely taking my fingers off the keys in between each note.

The release then becomes part of the muscle training. I play with shorter and shorter whole hand releases, until, eventually, without a rest to release, the sensation of release is still there. I can then play consecutive notes without taking my fingers off the keys and continue to feel release as the dominant sensation.

In his Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard writes “…[a] task must monopolize all our attention and present a challenge commensurate with our abilities. If it is too difficult, tension sets in, followed by anxiety; too easy, and we relax and are soon bored.”

Ricard addresses one of the hardest things to be aware of (and admit!) through the retraining process: “…the task must…present a challenge commensurate with our abilities“. It is so difficult to reevaluate that level of commensurate challenge. Not only is my current level completely different from my pre-diagnosis ability but it is different moment to moment through the retraining process. The key is to tune into what is possible in that moment, to “agree to attend” over and over.

Title from William James The Principles of Psychology

Observing Symmetry

If you’ve experienced an injury to one arm and had to favor that limb in movement by holding it close to the body, you may have noticed that often the injury is healed long before the holding habit is done. For many years I “protected” my left arm and hand in that way, even though there was no pain involved in my experience of focal dystonia. Yoga has given me the opportunity to even out my left and right sides. The careful attention to symmetry in yoga sequences awakened my habit of holding, of protecting my left hand and arm. Practicing symmetry in yoga has affected my sense of symmetry on the flute. I no longer feel as though I have a “dystonic side”, even with my flute in my hands.

I wrote about my initial experiences healing a movement disorder with movement during a Feldenkrais class in the Flutist Quarterly (Fall 2011),

“While seated, the practitioner asked us to turn our right hands in circles with the palm on the floor and to be aware of the subsequent movement made by the hand, arm, shoulder, spine, and head. After twenty minutes we moved on to the left side. I was shocked to find that I could not move my left hand. It felt stuck on the floor. I couldn’t figure out how to move my shoulder or spine. This was the first time that I ever noticed any difficulty of movement (any dystonic movement) away from my flute. I sat for a while stunned by this small discovery. I finally relaxed enough to allow the movement I felt on the right side to guide the movement on the left side. Essentially, I allowed my right side to teach my left. We were then asked to pick up our flutes and try some simple scales. I was shocked again by the results: I played with more control of my left hand than I had since before the diagnosis ten years before. It felt as though my left arm and hand were part of my body again.”

Reading now, five years later, allows me to reflect on how little difference I now sense between the left and right sides. In fact, not long ago someone asked about my experiences with focal dystonia. As I was describing the process to them I, without thinking, gestured with the wrong hand. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when my “dystonic” hand felt foreign to me.

The Slow Flute Movement

Go slow enough that you do it right the first time” is good advice for all we do, however, it’s particularly important during the retraining process post-focal dystonia diagnosis. It’s tempting, after repeating a passage slowly a few times, to see if the process is working by checking in with a faster tempo. We are all pulled toward that checking in. The problem with this habit for someone retraining is that, in my experience, the dystonic synaptic pathways strengthen each time dystonic movement occurs. (see Firing Together, Wiring Together)

My real progress in retraining occurred once I vowed never to practice with dystonic movement again. This, of course, meant that at the beginning of the retraining process I had to play so slowly that I couldn’t play most rep at all. That vow was sometimes sidetracked (and still is) in performance. Dr. Joaquín Farias explains that problem in his “Limitless: How Movements Can Heal Your Brain“, “If we try to recover control over our muscles when we are experiencing intense anxiety (which is understandable and usual) it will be more difficult to complete the process.”

Although there are practice sessions when I sense there is dystonic movement hovering nearby and I put the flute away, I do have control over the affected muscles in a typical practice session. Vowing never to play with dystonic movement has, in the past, meant excruciatingly slow work. But that slow work is working, and (finally!) the results aren’t so slow.

Firing Together, Wiring Together

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses synaptic connections in his book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” He writes: “…the brain is formed in a “use-dependent” manner. This is another way of describing neuroplasticity, the relatively recent discovery that neurons that “fire together, wire together.” When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting – the response most likely to occur.”

I imagine new synaptic connections in the brain being created as I retrain like water flowing in a pathway through sand. The old path, the dystonic one, was once so strong that the synaptic connections traveled that pathway naturally. Retraining, then, is the process of consciously redirecting the “water” to create another “path in the sand” in order to develop new synaptic connections. In the beginning of the retraining process, the new paths are so tenuous and precarious it is crucial to go slowly through the movement for consistency and predictability in the muscular response. Over time the new path becomes the stronger one.

I am encouraged by the idea that if my brain was plastic enough to develop focal dystonia, it is plastic enough to retrain.




No drilling!

I am careful not to drill through repetition anymore. This was a practice process that once helped me find technical success, but often led to mindless repetition without emphasis on musical gesture. During retraining from focal dystonia I learned to better observe and understand the moment I had had enough of a particular passage; when to put it away.

In The Yamas and the Niyamas: Yoga’s Ethical Practice, Deborah Adele writes, “In yogic thought there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. If we take food, for instance, we gain energy and vitality from the food we are eating – up to a point. If we continue to eat past that point, there is a downward turn into lethargy. If we eat slowly enough and pay attention, we can find this point that sits perfectly on the line of “just right”. It is this moment of “just enough” that we need to recognize. Past that point we begin our descent into excess. The same is true for any activity that we are engaged in.”

There are times when things are working well, and I am able to repeat free, non-dystonic movement. On these days I practice rhythmic whole hand release in between repetitions, coordinated with the inhalation. Both hands come off the flute in extra rests between repeated loops. With that kind of work, always while emphasizing the musical gesture, the “moment of just enough” comes much later in my practice.