‘When you have attained complete relaxation, you are able to be flexible and agile in your movements.’ – Zen master Yang Cheng Fu
“To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension….There is nothing to be done. It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings.” – Vanda Scaravelli – Awakening the Spine.
Building strength through force only promotes the shortening of muscles as they contract, causing fatigue and strain. That strain goes against rather than with our body. Developing power is another matter entirely. Power is a natural state. It involves movement generated from our core, a great deal of relaxation and a perfect relationship between tension and release.
Moving from Our Core
“Every form of skilled or powerful movement on terra firma illustrates that athletic movement works best when power flows freely through the core.” – Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion Swimming
The terms can be vague and we often use them incorrectly. Some speak of muscles, some of bones and others of energy centres, but I think most traditions agree that the area around our centre of gravity is key to all movement. Just as we do not learn to sing but only articulate with our lips, teeth and tongue, we do not initiate sound with our fingers. Moving from the core is not only efficient but it also unites both sides of the body in one gesture, a gesture that comes from our response to the music.
When we walk, we move our centre of gravity forward, throwing ourselves off balance, and the released leg swings forward. The whole body right down to the toes respond to this shift in weight. The swing of the arm round the torso in bowing is no different. Movement happens through release as the feet sitting bones lead the shift of weight from left to right. The arm falls to restore equilibrium and the fingers follow. If the shoulder; elbow or wrist are blocked (so often the case in our obsession with having a straight bow) this swing is destroyed, we lose our power and must resort to strength.
As the body is constantly moving in spirals, with the shift of weight from one side to another comes a slight rotation of the torso. The cello pedagogue, Steve Doane, talks in his ‘Owl’ exercise about sweeping one’s gaze from left to right as one crosses from the A to the C string or shifts up the fingerboard. This works because we do not shift our gaze just with our eyes or even just our head. The movement of the eyes and head originate at our centre, and it is the imperceptible rotation of the torso that causes the ease of movement. Doane says:
“This swing supports the shifting motion by communicating energy from the feet through the hips to the back and arms. It is an essential part of your dynamic cellistic balance.” – ‘Cello Ergonomics
If we try the string crossing exercise with the opposite core movement – turning from right to left as you cross from A-C strings on the cello – we see how restricted our natural power is.
Initiating movement from our core does not mean hurling ourselves about. In fact, by making sure the big cogs power the little cogs, movement becomes more efficient. A gesture takes time to flow from the core through to our limbs, and as one movement is being completed, so another is being prepared, causing a healthy tension. This tension is called tensegrity.
Tens(ion) plus (int)egrity.
“Tensegrity is a structural principal of geometry where shapes benefit from strength and flexibility due to the push and pull of their parts.” – Will Nagel of tensegritymovement
Obviously, we need muscle tone (tension) to move. We need it to sit on a chair, and certainly to play an instrument, but we also need release. Life and music are a constant play between tension and release. The push and pull of a wave, a dominant chord resolving to the tonic, the in and the out-breath, the up and the down bow all express this perfect relationship.
Working consciously with the breath is powerful because we develop a felt sense deep inside the body of the mechanics of movement, of how muscle groups work perfectly together, especially when we change direction (up and down, left to right etc). This felt sense somehow manages to bypass our intellect, which can be a very helpful thing in our learning (or unlearning) process.
Injuries come not from tension, but from lack of life. They occur when things are static. If tension and release were in a healthy relationship, connected to the music and centrally generated in the body, I feel fairly certain there would be no injury.
Have you ever had the feeling when you are talking with someone that they are not listening at all but rather waiting for any cue to jump in with their own point of view? Or do you recognize that kind of non-listening in yourself? And do you sometimes mistake this kind of non-listening for listening when you practice and perform?
Have you ever wondered why so many jazz, world and folk musicians are so relaxed, so chilled? Why their phrases are so often like ripples made from a pebble dropped in water, their movements as natural as the bounces of a skipping stone? I think it is because they are allowing the music to follow its own destiny. Their mind is not constricted by thought and their body not brittle with commands and control. Rather than making the music, they are in a constant state of becoming it.