The Feldenkrais Method, and why singers should take note
by Luthien Brackett for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 23, 2012

Julian WachnerWhat do Jiu Jitsu, physics and neuroscience have in common? The answer is The Feldenkrais Method, so named for its founder, Moshé Feldenkrais, whose extraordinary life and professional career reads like it came from a John Le Carré spy novel. An Russian physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer and educator, Feldenkrais drew on his wealth of experience to develop a ground-breaking form of somatic education -- a category which includes such disparate forms as Yoga and the Alexander Technique -- that aims to improve movement repertoire and the way in which the mind and body work together, in order to reduce pain or limitations in movement, and promote general well-being.

Feldenkrais was born into a Hasidic family, and was nurtured by that community's marvelous oral tradition and love of learning, story-telling, singing and dancing. As the story goes, he walked from the Ukraine to Palestine in the early part of the twentieth century. After he arrived, he began studying jiu jitsu and subsequently created a self-defense methodology for the Jews that were living there, since they were not permitted to have weapons. Among them was his friend David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel.

In the 1930's, while he was earning his Doctor of Science in engineering at the Sorbonne in France, he met Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Kano was impressed that Feldenkrais had, on his own, discovered and adapted many of the judo movement's principles in his self-defense method. In 1936, he earned a black belt in judo. He later became a co-founding member of the Jiu Jitsu Club de France, one of the oldest Judo clubs still in existence in Europe.

Just as the Germans were about to arrive in Paris in 1940, Feldenkrais fled to Britain where he became a science officer in the British Admiralty working on anti-submarine weaponry. He also taught self-defense techniques to his fellow servicemen. On slippery submarine decks, he aggravated an old knee injury. Doctors advised him that surgery was his only recourse, but that, despite the invasiveness of the operation and slow convalescence, it was unlikely to restore full range of motion. Not liking those odds, Feldenkrais refused the surgery, and set out to heal himself using a self-designed method of physical rehabilitation that evolved into the Feldenkrais Method. He posited that his injury was the result of improper movement that had become habitual. He therefore spent long hours making slow, incremental movements which he meticulously observed and documented, until he had essentially re-trained his body to move in a way that did not cause pain or injury to his knee.

So, what does all of this mean in practical terms, and why should singers take note? On Friday, May 4 and Saturday, May 5 in New York City, and Friday, May 11 in Montréal, conductor/composer Julian Wachner (pictured above, of Trinity Wall Street) and dancer/choreographer Maud Tizon (Opéra de Lyon) will explore this very question with a Feldenkrais workshop designed specifically for musicians, actors, dancers and other artists.

As it turns out, although the Feldenkrais Method is beneficial for those experiencing chronic or acute pain, its effects go much deeper. This is because, at its core, the Method is a form of neurological re-training that is not confined to the specific site of an injury. The lasting effects are not just decreased pain or discomfort, but increased spontaneity, potency, and creativity. The sensory-motor experience, in both group and individual lessons, can help to put one in touch with sensations and experiences that are the source of many creative processes. For these reasons, it has been shown to be of particular benefit to artists who want to extend their abilities and improve their performance.

Julian Wachner began his Feldenkrais training in order to maximize his own potential as a musician. He received his diploma as a certified Feldenkrais Practitioner following a four year course of study in the south of France. He has taught the Feldenkrais Method at the Tanglewood Music Center, Glimmerglass Opera Young Artists Program, McGill University, Yale University, and at Boston University, and maintains a private practice in New York City.

"Several years ago, I found myself in a very dark place where I would see a problem and not meet it with softness," he says "When you are a conductor or leader, when you hit a problem, you have to find ways through it with creativity, with compromise and with team work. The Feldenkrais Method got me to the point where I have a more balanced approach. I think it's part of the next wave of our human development."

Feldenkrais "lessons" fall into two general categories: Awareness Through Movement (ATM), and Functional Integration (FI). The workshops on May 4, 5 and 11 fall into the former category.

"Awareness Through Movement is the Feldenkrais group lesson," says Julian. "The idea behind it is exactly that: that awareness is the first step toward any kind of change. For example, if you're walking with a limp, identifying the root cause of that limp can take some work. It's probably not where you feel it, but someplace else. Perhaps you're holding your breath when you walk. There are all kinds of challenges and impediments that we put in our own way in terms of movement. In an ATM lesson, the practitioner might ask you to lift your arm up into the air. Maybe half the room gets their arms up, maybe the other half get them halfway up, or have tension or discomfort. Over the course of the class, the practitioner suggests a series of movements, such as tilting your pelvis, putting weight on your left foot, turning your head, or releasing your breath. At the end of the lesson, when the group performs the very same motion, suddenly something amazing will happen. Maybe they'll roll over, maybe there will be so much power and energy in the move that there will be a systemic change."

Functional Integration sessions are conducted one-on-one with a practitioner and student, in which the exact same material of ATM lessons is addressed in a hands-on session.

Julian will teach the workshops jointly with his fellow practitioner, Maud Tizon, a French dancer and choreographer whose distinguished career includes long-term engagements with Centre Chorégraphique National de Basse Normandie, Italy's Aterballetto, le Concert Impromptu and Opéra de Lyon. She began training in the Feldenkrais method in order to develop new tools to address the various techniques and aesthetics of dance, and assist performers with the nuances of physical artistic expression.

The cost of enrollment in each workshop is $100 per person, or $85 for two or more individuals enrolling together. Participants will also have the opportunity to schedule an optional private FI session with either Julian or Maud. Interested artists may register and obtain further details at www.julianwachner.com/feldenkrais.

Luthien Brackett is a professional singer and educator living in New York City. This is her third article for Vocal Area Network.
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