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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.