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Nurturing resilient, pain-free, and confident musicians
by Lea Pearson
It’s no secret that we are in a time of rapid change.
The Covid pandemic, along with social movements empowering marginalized communities (BIPOC & AAPI folk, women, LGBTQIA+, #MeToo, the neuro-divergent and disabled, and more) have overturned the landscape of musical traditions.
These communities have always been essential in our musical terrain, but they now face increasing threats to their lives and livelihoods and are especially vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and playing-related injury.
But there’s good news too!
Setting the stage for a healthier and more diverse garden of music, some fundamental shifts are underway (with examples):
- Programming of more works by underrepresented composers (Gateways Music Festival)
- Exploration of new performance venues (NY Philharmonic Bandwagon concerts)
- Creative staging and casting (Public Theatre’s Free Shakespeare in the Park’s Richard III)
- Multi-arts and international collaborations (Rachel Barton Pine)
- Leaders and conductors attracting new and younger audiences (Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nezet-Seguin)
- Awareness of and attention to the needs and interests of diverse audiences (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
- Increased accessibility to concerts, including performances designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum (fivebyfive)
- More representation of diverse performers on stage (Castle of our Skins)
- Increased commissions by previously under-represented composers and more recordings of their works (Taylor Irelan, CD of new works by LGBTQIA+ composers)
- Music and performances designed to promote social change: for the environment, peace, racial justice, and more. (Wissam Boustany)
- Wider interest in the entire family of flute instruments, their extended techniques, and new compositions.
Other societal changes, especially among creatives, are emerging: renewed interest in mindfulness training; in holistic health, trauma-infused teaching, and movement/somatics as a part of music making (Body Mapping, Yoga, Feldenkrais, AT, performance choreography, etc.); and commitment to teaching the whole person.
Musicians are also applying these factors with their students: how to nurture students and bring out their best; to create the conditions for blossoming as musicians and as people, to make their studios more accessible, and to offer tools for a lifetime of playing enjoyment.
No longer dependent on the two traditional career avenues – playing in a major symphony or teaching at a college – musicians are seeking independence and self-fulfillment. Due in part to Covid and the development of online technology, there is an explosion of teaching and learning opportunities in all associated careers: building a teaching studio, running a business, coaching, commissioning, making podcasts, blogging, musicians’ health, music therapy – even the existence of the Babel Flute!
In essence, we are looking at a complete transformation of the musical landscape: a fundamental paradigm shift: from the western, male, hierarchical, elite model of classical performance, training, and recognition; to a more democratic and holistic model where each musician is an artist with a gift to create meaning at all levels and venues; and where they can be fully themselves – emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
A true transformation of energy and vision is underway!
II. BUT WAIT…..
There is one vital aspect of our music culture that has been slow to change:
our teaching practices.
The dominant method of private lesson teaching is derived from the European Conservatory model, where the teacher determines what the student needs to know and tells the student what to do, with little input from the student. Now considered by many to be archaic, this approach is rooted in criticism, comparison and competition, and is a major factor in our toxic culture of self-judgment and shame.
Research over the past two decades confirms a consistent 75-85% injury rate among musicians (even among students), as well as widely reported and increasing levels of anguish, depression, and tension. The use of drugs to cope with anxiety and pain is common.
In a world with where children and youth are experiencing multiple simultaneous crises (fallout from Covid, suicidality, school shootings, climate crisis, war, political and economic uncertainty, racism, violence, food insecurity and so much more), music is a powerful and needed force for healing.
It’s also no secret that musicians in general and flutists in particular attract a high percentage of marginalized folk who are at risk for discrimination, bullying and violence: GLBTQIA+ youth, trans youth (I mention them specifically because they have the highest risk for violence and suicide), BIPOC youth, girls and young women, the neuro-divergent and others, etc.
For these youth especially, music provides a sense of belonging, a community where they can be themselves, and a path to success and self-actualization. For these students especially, teaching must create an environment where they can feel safe and fully express themselves.
Music experiences that address the whole person are needed more now than ever before.
In response to the psychological devastation of COVID, where the latest figures show that 1 in 3 youth suffer with psychological symptoms, we desperately need a musical environment that prioritizes safety, nurtures creative independence, and minimizes the severe criticism & self-judgment that often lead to perfectionism, tension, and ultimately injury.
Music making involves our whole being. For musicians to reach their full potential, they must learn how to embody thoughts, feelings, and experiences; to be present and aware to all that is happening within the music, themselves, and their environment. We must educate musicians to be at home in their bodies, free of pain, and have the tools to develop their own artistic voice.
III. HOW DO WE CREATE THE CONDITIONS FOR THIS KIND OF LEARNING?
In his book “Transformational Presence: How To Make A Difference In A Rapidly Changing World,” international coach Alan Seale defines transformation as “a shift at the most fundamental levels of being, thinking, perception, character, and worldview. A shift at the core of our understanding… of what is happening in a new or different way.”
What is that shift at the core of our understanding?
- It is a shift that perceives private studio teaching as not just transmitting information, but transforming lives.
- It requires an approach to the art of teaching that centers embodied learning, self-knowledge, and making music with our whole being,.
More specifically, two fundamental paradigm shifts are needed.
- From teacher-centered to student-centered learning. The century-old method of student-centered learning (also called learner-centered teaching), focuses primarily on inquiry, with teacher and student as co-creators of artistic expression and excellence. Instead of telling the student what to do, the teacher asks the student about their own understanding, experiences, feelings, and ideas before making suggestions; then helps develop solutions that directly address the student’s needs. To quote Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is in direct contrast to our traditional top-down teacher-centered instruction (the Conservatory model).
Student-centered practices include at least two essential transformations:
- From teaching “correct form” to centering somatic, or body-focused instruction. Students learn what works for their own body, and how their body is designed to communicate joy and passion even in an environment of repetitive motion and stress. Body Mapping pedagogy is an important part of this work.
- In response to the multiple mental health needs among students and adults, from ignoring emotional needs to incorporating trauma-informed practices into teaching.
- From the narrow view of seeing ourselves as “just music teachers,” to a service-oriented leadership that empowers students to cultivate resilience. Children who have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can develop into healthy, productive adults through a relationship with one consistent, caring adult. The private studio teacher is an under-recognized and untapped resource: often teachers are the only adult with whom a student has one-to-one time on a regular basis. That caring relationship between teacher and student, as well as a safe space for learning, are fundamental necessities for nurturing healthy musicians at any age.
“Persistent exposure to one or more ACEs as a child or adolescent can cause prolonged activation of the body’s stress response, which triggers toxic stress. Toxic stress, when not properly addressed and reduced, can dramatically change how the brain develops and can lead to many learning and behavioral issues as a child, as well as many common life-threatening health conditions as an adult.”
IV. WHAT WORKS: STUDENT-CENTERED TEACHING THAT IS SOMATICALLY-BASED AND TRAUMA-INFORMED
A. Student-Centered Teaching
Student-centered learning is a collaborative process where the teacher and student work together to achieve results, starting from where the learner is at present. Acting as a guide, the teacher designs conditions for students to discover what they know, think, feel and experience, and to explore the next step toward their goal. Students develop the ability to observe themselves, to ask questions, to evaluate their own work, and to make decisions for themselves. As they evaluate their own strengths and challenges, they cultivate authentic inner sources of validation; become less dependent on the teacher, external awards, or peers to establish their validity as a musician; and gain the skills to become life-long learners.
B. Somatically-Based Instruction
If you consider all the things a musician has to learn, (not including history, theory, analysis, and a portfolio of repertoire), it’s evident that not only are there multiple complex and important distinctions, but that all learning is SOMATIC (i.e. movement -based).
Thus, instruction must be somatically based, using the tools of somatic experiencing.
A musician must not only decide what they want to say when they play; but exactly how they want to say it (dynamics, articulation); the specific and subtle movements and micro-movements needed to create that sound (embouchure and breathing; and exactly what they need to do with the instrument to bring it to life (fingering and extended techniques).
Musicians have to ensure their bodies are moving freely, supported, and balanced – available to create any sound at any time in any condition.
Some specific examples of the kinds of movement we might need are:
- Enlisting support from the ground through legs, pelvis and spine
- Managing the rib, abdominal, and spinal movements of breathing
- Discovering support and leverage for the arms
- Investigating the quality of movement of the whole body
- Exploring the intricate subtleties of of wrist movement, embouchure, and head balance
Body Mapping Pedagogy
The pedagogy of Body Mapping is one of the most effective ways to teach this kind of subtle and complex movement needed for artistic expression. Originated in 1995 from the field of somatics and the Alexander Technique, Body Mapping was specifically designed to help musicians prevent pain and injury and enhance performance. By understanding how the body is designed to move even under conditions of repetitive motions and stress, musicians can maintain healthy careers over decades of playing.
Sound is created by movement, and movement is governed by brain maps of the body. Musicians must know in intimate detail what movements will produce the level of accuracy and artistry needed.
Since movement is governed and coordinated by complex neurological maps, performers learn to refine the movements of playing by comparing their own 3-dimensional body maps with maps of the innate design and function of the body. They discover which movements create tension and which foster freedom by investigating the “felt sense.”
More than 25 books about Body Mapping have been written by highly skilled wind, brass, string, piano and vocal artists. The content and process of Body Mapping Pedagogy, consistent across all instruments and all levels of playing, includes:
- Cultivating Movement, Attention, and the Senses while playing. This covers the places of dynamic balance, how arms are designed to move and be supported, whole-body breathing, the role of legs in empowering support and expression, and the qualities of awareness and attention.
- Observing how musicians move, pay attention, and use their senses.
- Inquiring into what is happening, why, and how to make changes.
- Validating what the student does well to build confidence and reverse the criticism-based teaching of the conservatory model. When you know what works, you are able to replicate and transform it.
- Using a variety of teaching aids: anatomical models, videos, live performances, palpation, experiential and movement études, and attention practices.
C. Trauma-Informed Pedagogy
Hidden from the public eye is the trauma that many musicians have, created by our culture of teacher-centered instruction that’s infused with criticism and comparison, and results in low self-confidence, perfectionism, and intense self-judgment. (The belief “I’ll never be good enough” is ubiquitous.)
Trauma is defined by experts as “resulting from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances that are experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening, and have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.” This is a pretty accurate description of what many music students experience.
In response to this culture, the multiple mental health needs among students and adults, and the psychological devastation caused by the 75% injury rate among musicians, trauma-informed practices have an important place in our studio teaching.
There is prolific research and advice about trauma-informed education. Most relevant here are these five principles, which are fundamental to trauma-informed private teaching.
- Ensuring safety
- Establishing trustworthiness
- Maximizing choice
- Maximizing collaboration
- Prioritizing empowerment
These practices directly address the kinds of psychological issues that can develop from life experience and from traditional, conservatory-model teaching methods. Traumatic and adverse experiences often trigger the fear or survival response – a whole-body contraction (like the startle reflex). In this state of fear, the brain literally thinks you’re going to die. It doesn’t distinguish between a wrong note and a bear. If left unhealed, fear can be stuck in the body for years, limiting the ability to breathe freely, move expressively, and work effectively.
Each time we go into fear, the rational part of the brain shuts down and the stress response takes over. We can’t think clearly, as our brains are busy trying to keep us alive. It’s not easy to learn when you go into a lesson worrying about what your teacher may say. Your body is tense and it’s impossible to play your best.
How can we help our students become more resilient?
- When a student feels safe and trusted in a studio space, the fear response will be mitigated and they will be more open and able to learn. They will have more access to the felt sense, better use of their observation and inquiry processes, and be more able to understand and manage emotions. We create that safe space by centering their needs and validating their experiences.
- Maximizing choice and collaboration is exactly what student-centered teaching is about. Collaborating with the teacher, the student discovers available options, and can experiment to find out what works best for their musical intention.
- Prioritizing empowerment means prioritizing the student’s ability to make their own choices and manage their own thoughts, feeling and experiences. They are empowered to become lifelong learners, acting as their own teacher.
What if, from the very first lesson, we integrated student-centered teaching, somatic experiencing, and trauma-informed practices into studio teaching?
V. THE ART OF NURTURING THE TEACHER
There is one final piece to nurturing resilient, pain-free, and confident musicians, and that is supporting and nurturing the teacher.
Independent music teachers are often isolated, with very little connection to each other, and no regular community to support and hear their concerns – and celebrations! They too have been deeply affected by the pandemic, and feel the stress of multiple simultaneous crises. They may be struggling financially, with health issues, or have difficult family situations.
Teachers are the First Responders of Love in creating passionate and creative musicians. Yet in the U.S., most have little training in HOW to teach. There are few professional development programs for private teachers, outside of occasional conventions and workshops. And almost no opportunities to get feedback from mentors, experts, or peers.
To fulfill their potential as powerful and effective leaders, teachers need a place to learn and practice the following:
- Beginner’s mind. Go into a lesson with no agenda except serving what the student needs at this moment. You don’t have to bear the burden or know all the answers: there are always other solutions to discover!
- Curiosity. Be curious about what’s going on with the student. You are always learning: what inspires them, what they love, how they feel.
- Ask, don’t tell. Notice how quickly you want to jump in and fix whatever is going wrong. Instead, cultivate the patience to ask them questions about what’s happening, about what they think, or feel, or notice. They (and you) will learn so much!
Telling deprives students of the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.
- Learn to “hold space” for students. This means leaving your own stories and your own desires and agendas outside the lesson space. When serving the student is foremost in your mind, you will feel less pressure to get everything right.
- Get help to heal your own wounds. In my conversations with over 1000 musicians, I have learned that most of us have our own experiences of shame, perfectionism, being criticized, and fear of making mistakes. We try to ignore these feelings and leave them in the past. But the truth is that trauma, whether acute or ongoing, can remain buried in our bodies for years. It stays there until we have the courage to be vulnerable and explore how it has affected us. If we don’t find ways to deal with our negative experiences, they will continue to affect us in our relationships with family, colleagues, and students.
“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.”Brené Brown
- Be curious about your own experiences. What kinds of things make you feel anxious or tense in a lesson? How do you react when a student won’t do what you ask them to? You can serve the student best when you focus on what they need and deal with your emotions outside of lesson time.
- Cultivate the art of being present, with an inclusive multi-sensory awareness. When you are fully present in the moment with a student, you won’t worry about other things.
VI. A LOOK AHEAD
We as studio teachers have a special responsibility to our students. Other students in the arts also experience tension, pain, and injury. But most other artists are trained in group or class situations. We have a unique role: we see our students on a one-to-one basis, from ½ hour to 1 hour per week.
The research on resilience is very clear: when students have a personal caring relationship with one adult, a mentor, it can change the trajectory of their future. They become more self-confident, more successful, healthier, and less likely to use drugs.
How can we NOT take advantage of the powerful potential we have, and learn to be better at nurturing the whole student? We can cultivate more than the techniques of playing and artistry. Since emotions and thoughts affect the way we use our body in playing, it’s essential for us to help students understand their own thoughts, feelings and experiences.
We are at a time when ½ to ⅔ of students, from elementary school age up through college and young adults, are having negative and debilitating emotional experiences. Our young flute students are especially vulnerable – to bullying, disempowerment, being discounted and marginalized. We want to support them in every way we can.
It starts with the first lesson, where we create a safe space for students to ask questions, to share their experiences, to collaborate with us, and to feel comfortable in the way they use their body.
It calls for reinforcing positive results and helping students learn exactly how to use their bodies. We need to put aside our agendas and desires and hold space for them to express theirs. A culture of music training like this will build a foundation for nurturing resilient, pain-free and confident musicians.
Teachers who teach this way report feeling much freer in lessons; they don’t have the burden of managing the lesson for the student. They teach and play with more time for joy and celebration, and their students are more empowered, engaged, and successful.
That’s what we want, right?
Daniel, R. & Parkes, K.. Music Instrument Teachers in Higher Education: An Investigation of the Key Influences on How They Teach in the Studio. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29, 1, 33-46, 2017
Levine, P. Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997
NASM: National Association of Schools of Music (USA). Advisories from the NASM and Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA) https://intranet.music.indiana.edu/departments/health-safety/resources/nasm-resources.html.
Pearson, Lea. Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know about the Body. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2006.
Polatin, Betsy. Humanual (A Manual for Being Human). Cardiff-by-the -Sea: Waterside Productions, 2020
Pozo,J. I, Pérez Echeverría, M. P., López-Íñiguez, G., & Torrado J. A. Learning and Teaching in the Music Studio: A Student-Centred Approach. Landscapes: the Arts, Aesthetics, and Education, 31, 1st ed. Springer, (2022)
Salonen, B.L. Tertiary music Students’ Experiences of an Occupational Health course Incorporating the Body Mapping Approach. [PhD dissertation]. Bloemfontein: University of the Free State. Available at: https://scholar.ufs.ac.za/handle/11660/9652, 2018.
van der Kolk, Bessel.The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
|TEACHER CENTERED: Teacher gives all the instruction, Little or no Inquiry||STUDENT CENTERED: Using Inquiry||SOMATICALLY-BASED: Using Inquiry, Observation, and Validation|
|T – all right – let’s work on the Debussy.||T – so how’s it going? What piece would you like to work on today? Either something that you feel like you’re doing really well and want to show me, or something that you need help with.||(Observation – teacher notices student is a little low energy today. Doesn’t try to fix it, but decides to be a little more energetic herself.)Let’s have some fun with your repertoire today! What piece is on your mind? (Beginning of Inquiry)|
|As I remember you had some trouble with that last time||S- I’d love some help with the phrasing in the Debussy.||I’m really excited about the Debussy. It’s got some great stuff in it, and I’d like to go over it with you.|
|Student gets 2 lines into the piece –||T- OK great! What is it about the phrasing that you are struggling with?||Is there something specific you’d like help with?|
|T -ok lets stop there. That run isn’t quite even – let’s try it again, slower.||Well, I’m not always sure where the peak of the phrase is.||Well I’m getting a little stuck on this passage at m. 57, which has a difficult run. It never comes out clean.|
|I think you’re rushing on the C sharp. Play it again and hang onto that note a little bit longer.||OK, how would you figure that out?||OK great, that sounds like a good place to start. Let’s start actually a little bit before it. Maybe we can figure out if there’s something going on before you get to it.|
|Plays||I’m not sure. Perhaps I need to look at the score a little more||(Teacher has observed that the student is tensing up before this passage but does not say that. They want the student to figure it out.)|
|OK that’s better.||Let’s do that! Let’s take a look at the score. Where would you like to focus?||Student starts a little further back and quickly has difficulty with the passage.|
|Now go on.||Here, measure 57.||So – what do you think is going on here? What do you notice in your body or in the way you feel?|
|Plays||OK, so what’s going on here? I mean in terms of the structure – how does this relate to the rest of the movement or the piece?||I feel like I’m getting tense but I don’t know how not to do that.|
|This phrase doesn’t quite have the expression that it needs. Let’s try to crescendo more, little bit of rubato at the top, and a diminuendo going down.||Well, I recognize this motive, I think it’s from the opening||Tell me more about that. What do you notice?|
|Plays||Thats great! I wonder if it shows up anywhere else in the piece?||Well I think my shoulders get a little tense.|
|That’s better but it’s not quite there yet. Let’s do it again. This time give more for the crescendo so you really take it to the top.||Yes, I see it a few times here in the development, and then it comes back at the end.||OK. Can you show me what that looks like?|
|Like this. (Teacher plays)||So how do you decide whether you want to play those all the same, or different?||Here – I just feel like I’m pulling in for a little bit|
|Student Plays, trying to copy teacher||Well, I want to be looking at the harmony and what’s happening in the other instruments, so I can figure out where the emotional tension is.||Yeah I can see that. (Observation) Do you have a sense of why you’re doing that (Inquiry)|
|I think you’re going to need to work on that one at home because it’s not quite right yet.||That’s a great place to start!||Well, I’m worried that I won’t be able to make it, that I’ll play a wrong note.|
|Let’s move on to the next section.||So let’s take two of these. Let’s explore how you might want to play this one differently from the one in the beginning.||So how would you play if you weren’t worried? (Inquiry) Show me how your body would feel – don’t actually play it but show me how your body would move – if you were totally confident that you could play this.|
|Thank you! I really like this approach.||Student moves as if they were playing in a confident way|
|You are welcome! Great work today.||Wow! What did you do that was different? Did you notice? (Inquiry)|
|Well, I think I felt a little more connected to my legs and a little freer in my arms. Also my breathing was easier and deeper.|
|Awesome! Is there one of those that you think you could try with this passage, maybe playing it a little slower so you can focus on that? (Inquiry)|
|Yes, I’d like to try connecting more with my legs|
|Great idea! Let’s try it out.(Validation)|
|So what did you notice about that this time? (Inquiry)|
|(Teacher refrains from making their own comment. They want to see what’s important to the student.)|
|Well that seemed to make a really big difference. I felt my arms were much better supported and I could breathe much deeper.|
|This is really great noticing. You’re getting the hang of making these distinctions.(Validation.) Why do you think that your ams and breathing felt better? (Inquiry)|
|I guess I need that connection to the ground. It’s the foundation of everything!|
|Indeed – we play with our whole body! (Validation)|
|Let’s do it again, and this time see what happens if you really feel the soles of your feet against the floor. Go ahead and do that right now before you play. What does it feel like to sense the whole sole of your foot connected with the floor? (Inquiry)|
|Yeah I can feel that. It’s like my feet feel bigger!|
|All right, so let’s play it again, still keeping it at a slower tempo so your brain can manage what’s going on.|
|Wow that felt really awesome!|
|This is terrific – you’re getting a sense of what you need to pay attention to, to get the security you need with this passage. Good work! (Validation)|
|So how do you want to practice this at home to help get it up to the tempo that you want?… (discussion ensues)|
Music Minus Pain | Transformational Teacher Training Program | Crack the Codes of Breathing and Tension
Lea Pearson, DMA, has been studying education, psychology, movement, anatomy, neuroscience, Body Mapping, the Alexander Technique, entrepreneurship, leadership, performance practice, and Dalcroze Eurhythmics since 1970.
A licensed Body Mapping Educator, she is an award-winning Master Teacher, a Kennedy Center-trained Teaching Artist, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Certified Health Coach. Formerly a member of the South Bend Symphony, Jackson (MI) Symphony, and a sub with the Toledo Orchestra, Lea performs works by women, Black, and other under-represented composers.
Her dream is that every musician will share their artistic vision with joy and ease – wherever, whenever, and for as long as they want. To that end, she trains teachers in the Transformational Teacher Training Program “Music Minus Pain“.