Body Mapping: Move and Perform with Ease

Photo of All Shook Up by Genny Muncy, Valdosta State University, 2018. Directed by Jacque Wheeler. Music Direction by Joe Mason. Choreography by Geoffrey Reynolds.

By Dr. Jan E. Prokop

As performers, our body is the vehicle we use to convey our art. Yet actors frequently suffer from stresses and tensions that impede movement, breath, and performance. 

One study of singers found muscular complaints in 69% of the participants, with pain symptoms that were often the result of muscular tension (frequently the result of compensating for inadequate vocal technique) (Vaiano, et al.). In this study, jaw tension and pain in the shoulders were among the most common complaints. 

The study also confirmed that postural alignment can directly interfere with respiratory muscle activity and consequently, vocal technique. Another study, focusing on dancers, revealed that 42% had suffered an injury in the previous six months which prevented them from performing (Bowling). 

When physical inconsistencies manifest, doubt creeps in and performers become nervous and frustrated. This doesn’t need to happen. Body Mapping is a technique that enables performers to learn how to adjust their bodies to find better balance and alignment. It is based on the theory that we all carry a "map" of our body in our brains, and that our body use is based on this mental picture. The goal of Body Mapping is to draw an accurate internal map so the performer is better aligned and balanced, has greater access to breath, and releases muscle tension so movement becomes easier. 

 

Overview

The concept of Body Mapping as a somatic discipline for musicians and performers originated with William Conable and Barbara Conable. William Conable, emeritus professor of cello at The Ohio State University, discovered that his students had limited knowledge of their bodies—how they worked and how they related to their instruments. Conable observed that students moved according to how they perceived their bodies were designed rather than according to how they were actually structured. Conable said, “We use this map to give our bodies instruction for movement. . . .Almost everyone has something incorrect in their map, but they’ve got to use it – it’s all they have" (Hval).

The interpretations that create our internal maps are frequently unconsciously performed. They often take place early in life, well before the development of a sophisticated adult consciousness and kinesthetic awareness, and are based on how we feel ourselves experience movement. A simplistic example of this might be a tall person who has always tried to shrink themselves to fit in. Therefore the body map on which these interpretations are based may be partly unconscious and accessible to adult scrutiny only with some difficulty. However, once this difficulty is overcome, it is possible to learn to change the map with remarkable ease and with surprisingly powerful results. 

The brain learns though repetition, and practice must be organized with a specific plan in order to reprogram the brain and change the neural pathways. The brain transmits more than just messages. It is transmitting motor tasks that must be refined by rehearsal and practice to create new neural pathways. Awareness is key. Simply repeating a new exercise with no thought about the process will not produce the desired result. In an article about musician rehabilitation, Dr. Bastepe-Gray explains:

Basically what we do in practice is functional conditioning. You are conditioning your body and building procedural memory in your cerebellum. The average attention span of an adult is 15 minutes. Intense focus is about seven seconds. After that your brain takes a little break. Not long. And it comes back. After 15 minutes it needs a longer break. After 20 minutes your brain will probably zone out for 10 minutes or so. At that time what you’re doing is basically mindless repetition.
(McGuire 15) 

When we practice a task, we build up a myelin sheath over multiple neurons so that several actions are united into one (Shen). For example, opening a door requires that the brain send the body several different instructions: interpret depth perception, step forward, move the arm, twist the wrist, and so on. Through repetition, a myelin sheath is formed that links all these actions into one event. Once ingrained, it takes time and structure for the brain to override an established neurological command and successfully implement a new one. 

Body Mapping is organized around 6 physical points of balance: 

  • Atlas-Occipital (A-O) joint, where the head meets the spine
  • Shoulders 
  • Lumbar spine/supporting portion of spine 
  • Hips 
  • Knees 
  • Ankles 

 

Exercises

In doing any exercise it is important for the student to describe what they’re feeling and what sensations they’re experiencing. Not only does this help the teacher direct their actions, but it trains students to recognize and diagnose their own muscle tension, a kind of kinesthetic awareness that is important for performers. All of these exercises are very gentle, and should be easily accomplished by most people. However, if discomfort occurs while performing any of these exercises, stop and investigate. 

 

A-O Joint

Many of us walk around with the backs of our necks compressed, our chins slightly lifted, our heads thrust forward, our gaze upward and chest caved in. This is the result of mismapping the A-O joint, and it causes tension in the neck. It’s difficult to perform or practice in that position because when there is tension in the neck, there is most likely tension somewhere in the rest of the body. 

The head/neck relationship that is manifest in the A-O joint (atlas = spine / occiput = skull) is important to understand in order to create efficient physical balance. Remember that half of your head is in front of your A-O joint and neck, and half behind it. We often forget about the back of our head because we are front-centric beings, and the presentational nature of musical theatre performance can worsen this perception. 

Begin this exercise by introducing students to the idea that the top of your spine is in the middle of your head between your ears, not at the back of your skull. 

Here are the side-coaching instructions:

  • Begin standing.
  • Put your fingers in your ears; point down slightly. Where they would meet in the middle of your head (if your fingers were very long) is the top of your spine, your 1st vertebra – the atlas.
  • With fingers still in ears, gently nod “yes." Pay attention to the sensation at the center of your head.
  • It’s a very tiny movement; not a bobble head gesture. You need to learn how to feel and describe this kinesthetically. 
  • Experiment with releasing the muscles in the back of your neck. Your chin might drop a bit. What does that feel like?
  • Explore this movement as you walk around the room, with fingers in ears and without. 
  • Now walk forward and sing. 
  • Walk backward and sing.
  • What do you feel? 

 

A music theater college junior presented with tremendous neck and tongue tension because of compensatory behavior due to a childhood illness. He sang with an elevated chin with his head jutting far forward of his neck placing the A-O joint out of balance. This mismapping of the head/neck relationship was constricting his sound because of the impact on his resonating space, pharynx, jaw, and tongue. After locating his A-O joint, he began working on finding a more neutral position for his head/neck relationship. This work is on-going, but his tongue and jaw have begun to release, his neck and cervical spine are freer and his sound is less constricted. It has also improved his air flow and breath management because he’s singing with less effort. 

 

A-O Joint – Where the Skull Meets the Spine at the 1st Vertebra

Neck tension always has a negative impact on breathing. The following 4-point stretch is another way to explore the balance and release of the head/neck (A-O) joint and surrounding muscles. Here are the side-coaching instructions:

  • Begin standing.
  • Find a spot on the wall and register where your eyes are focused.
  • With your lips together, gently tilt your head as far back as you can without bending your spine. You’ll be looking at the ceiling. No backbends! Maintain this position for 20-30 counts feeling the stretch of the muscles in the front of your neck. 
  • Gently place your fingertips on the back of your head and slowly guide your head back to balance on your spine. Let your fingers do the work, not the muscles in your neck.
  • Next, clasp your hands on the back of your head and gently, gently pull your head down, moving your chin toward your chest without caving in your chest. Maintain this position for 20-30 counts feeling the stretch of the muscles in the back of your neck and upper back. 
  • Gently place your fingertips on your forehead and slowly guide your head back to balance on your spine. Again: Let your fingers do the work, not the muscles in your neck.
  • Place your right hand on the left side of your head, and gently pull your head toward right shoulder (ear should be pointing at shoulder) without tilting your body to the right. Maintain this position for 20-30 counts feeling the stretch on the left side of your neck.
  • With your right fingertips on the right side of your head, gently lift your head to balance. 
  • Place your left hand on the right side of your head. With your left hand, gently pull your head toward your left shoulder (ear to shoulder) without tilting your body. Maintain this position for 20-30 counts feeling the stretch on the right side of your neck. 
  • With your left fingertips on the left side of your head, gently lift your head to balance.
  • Now: Look toward the wall. Are your eyes focused on the same spot as before you began or do you feel you’re looking lower? Is the back of your neck compressed or released? 

 

After this exploration, most people say their heads/chins/eyes are tilted lower and it “feels weird.” Remember that comfortable (i.e. familiar) isn’t always correct, as it may be based on an inaccurate body map. The new way of moving without tension must be practiced until it is the new familiar habit. This will adjust the body map as well as the procedural memory in the brain.

 

Shoulders

  • Stand in front of a mirror. Observe the height of your shoulders in relation to your ears. 
  • Gently, slowly raise your shoulders up to your ears being mindful to keep your A-O joint balanced. Maintain that position for 20-30 counts. (Yes, you will have a double chin. Allow that.)
  • Keep your head balanced on your spine. 
  • Very slowly release your shoulders down to a point of no work. Are your shoulders lower than when you began?
  • Repeat this exercise four times to discover/release shoulder tension.

 

Supporting Part of the Spine – Lumbar Section

Begin this exercise by discovering where the supporting part of the spine is actually located. It is often identified as the boney part in the back of the body—the spinous process of the spine near the small of the back. However, the supporting part of your spine is really in the middle of your body, where the vertebrae are located. These vertebrae are aligned with the A-O joint and the arms. Here are the side-coaching instructions to aid this discovery:

  • Put your pointer finger of your left hand in your naval, the right pointer finger at the same height on the side of your body. 
  • Where these two fingers would touch is the supporting portion of your spine. 
  • Rock your pelvis forward and back, and circle your hips in a "hula hoop" action to better discover and envision this location. 
  • Describe what is happening in the small of your back as you do these movement. 

 

Pelvis Adjustment (Standing) 

Though seemingly a long way from the lungs, legs are integral to breath, and the pelvis has an impact on the legs. The following exercise helps assess and release muscle tension in the lower part of the torso, specifically the lumbar spine (lower back) by exploring the position of the pelvis. 

  • Have students stand in "cellphone texting position." We will call this "standing flat”: head thrust forward, back of neck compressed, shoulders rolled forward, chest caved in, pelvis tilted up. Maintain this position, and then describe how it feels to breathe. 
  • Next, stand in "soldier at attention." We will call this “standing sharp": head pulled back, chest raised, shoulders pulled up and back, pelvis tilted back, small of back (lumbar spine) contracted, knees locked. Maintain this position, and then describe how it feels to breathe. 
  • Alternate between these two positions several times. 
  • Stand “in tune": the compromise between standing flat and sharp. Maintain this neutral position, and then describe how it feels to breathe. 
  • Repeat four times. 

 

Many performers experience locked or hyperextended knees as they stand when practicing and performing. This can create alignment problems, which can cause tension or soreness in the small of the back. As students explore this exercise, ask them to identify and release muscle tension in their legs and lower back. This may be a different sensation/location for each person. As they work, have students describe the sensations they experience: 

  • Do they feel a release in the small of the back? 
  • How are the legs? what are they doing? 
  • Have students envision a pelvis that is located/ balanced in line below their ears and shoulders. How does this affect the legs? The pelvis? 
  • How does it feel to breathe? 

 

Pelvis Adjustment (Seated) 

Some performers experience tension in their lower lumbar area when sitting during rehearsals, i.e. during music rehearsals or a sitzprobe or when using the computer. To learn how to release this tension, it is helpful to explore the relationship of their sitz bones to the chair. 

  • Sit “flat”– head thrust forward, back of neck compressed, shoulders rolled forward, chest caved in, pelvis tilted up. Maintain this position, and then describe how it feels to breathe. Where are your sitz bones? Is your pelvis balanced below your ears and shoulders? 
  • Sit “sharp”– head pulled back, chest raised, shoulders pulled up and back, pelvis tilted back, small of back (lumbar spine) contracted. Maintain this position. Where are your sitz bones? Is your pelvis balanced below your ears and shoulders? How does it feel to breathe? 
  • Sit “in tune” – find the compromise between the two; identify and release muscle tension. Maintain this neutral position. Where are your sitz bones? Is your pelvis balanced in line below your ears and shoulders? How does it feel to breathe? Did you feel a release in the small of your back? 
  • Repeat four times. 

 

Psoas (Hip Flexor) 

Hip and leg tension can have a negative impact on breathing. One important pair of muscles that need to be monitored are the psoas muscles, also known as the hip flexors. They originate at the femur and insert at the spine where they interdigitate with the diaphragm. They affect our alignment and balance and help stabilize our spine, crisscrossing a great deal of anatomical terrain, influencing our spine, pelvis and legs in a variety of activities. If these muscles are tight, they can impede the movement of the diaphragm. 

  • Stand in a lunge position with your with the entire left foot on the floor and your left knee bent. Be sure your left foot is far enough forward so your knee can’t hyper-extend past your toes. This is very important in preventing knee injury in a lunge position.
  • Raise your right heel. This is different than a common lunge. Our goal is to stretch your psoas muscle, not your calf muscle. 
  • Straighten your right leg as much as you comfortably can; don’t let it bend too much. Continue to keep the right heel off the floor so you are slightly on the ball of your right foot. This will allow you to stretch the psoas muscle, not the calf. 
  • Deepen the lunge by bringing your left thigh (from hip to knee) more in parallel to the floor. Move your left knee toward your toes, but never so far forward that it extends past your toes. If that happens, move your left foot forward a bit. We want to protect your knees. No hyperextending, please. 
  • Keep your torso (A-O joint, arms, pelvis) balanced and in line. 
  • Keep the right leg stretched and maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts
  • Stand up and release your legs. 
  • Then, return to the lunge position. 
  • Raise your arms so they are next to your ears. Feel the stretch in your psoas muscle. Maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts.
  • With your arms still raised next to your ears, bend slightly backwards (a mini-backbend). Maintain balance of the A-O joint; resist the urge to allow your head to move forward or backward. 
  • Feel the stretch in your psoas muscle; maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts. 
  • Sing an exercise or the first few measures of something. 
  • Describe the experience and sensations in your body and your voice. 
  • Repeat on the other side.

 

If you don’t notice or can’t feel the stretch in your psoas because of limited flexibility, this stretch can be easily modified as follows:

  • Kneel on a mat. 
  • Extend the left leg forward and bend it, with the left thigh parallel to the floor, bottom of left foot on floor. The front of the right leg, your shin (tibia & fibula), and top of right foot will remain on the floor. 
  • Deepen the stretch by moving your left knee toward your toes, but never so far forward that it extends past your toes. If that happens, then move your left foot forward a bit. We want to protect your knees. 
  • Keep your torso (A-O joint, arms, pelvis) balanced and in line. 
  • Maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts. 
  • Raise your arms up so they are next to your ears. Maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts.
  • Feel the stretch in your psoas muscle.
  • With your arms still next to your ears, bend slightly backwards (a mini-backbend). Maintain balance of the A-O joint; resist the urge to allow your head to move forward or backward.
  • Maintain this position this position for 20-30 counts; Feel the stretch in your psoas muscle.
  • Sing an exercise or the first few measures of something. 
  • Describe the experience and sensations in your body and your voice. 
  • Repeat on the other side.

A 35-year-old tenor, a performer and college professor, was reflecting on how he had sung in his twenties and wished he could capture that sensation and sound again. He felt he was singing with too much effort and frequently experienced vocal fatigue. We made an adjustment to his scapula and rhomboid muscles that helped release his chest and open his back for better access to his breath. Everything else appeared to be in order; no other adjustment made much of a difference. Then he did this psoas stretch several times on each leg, raised his arms above his head and began singing “Stranger In Paradise.” His voice soared, his face lit up. He was astonished and exclaimed—a little weepy—“That’s IT!” It doesn’t always happen that way, but this time the change was immediate and remarkable. 

Much of the music theatre performer's craft is built on kinesthetic awareness and internal movement. Body Mapping's slow, conscious exploration of tiny, simple movements enables artists to understand and develop a better awareness of their own internal movements. With this newfound ability to release muscle tension, stress is reduced, the performer feels more aligned and balanced, and the breath is more accessible. The artist’s instrument is freed. 

 

WORKS CITED

  • Bowling, Ann. "Injuries to dancers: prevalence, treatment, and perceptions of causes." British Medical Journal, vol. 298, 18 March 1989, pp. 731-734.
  • Hval, Cindy. "Mapping the Body's Flow." The Spokesman, News, Washington Voices, 5 Nov. 2009. http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2009/nov/05/mapping-the-bodys-flow/. Accessed 21 November 2018.
  • Patrick A. McGuire, “Musician Heal Thyself,” Peabody Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1, Fall 2009, pp. 14-18.
  • Shen, Jason. "Why Practice Actually Makes Perfect: How to Rewire Your Brain for Better Performance." https://blog.bufferapp.com/why-practice-actually-makes-perfect-how-to-rewire-your-brain-for-better-performance. Accessed 21 November 2018.
  • Vaiano, Thays, Anna Claudia Guerrieri and Mara Behlau. "Body Pain in classical choral singers," Communication Sciences and Disorders (CoDAS) Journal, vol. 25, no. 4, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S2317-17822013000400002. Accessed 21 November 2018. 

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