I recently began taking lessons with vocalist and somatic (fancy word for mind-body) pedagogue Angela Haweleshka. She was highly recommended to me as part of my performance and research quest to play with less tension, breathe with more freedom, and become a better teacher in the process. Angela is well known for her work in the vocal community but also as a coach for wind and brass members of the TSO and other professional orchestras. On our first lesson Angela said, “your instrument is your body, and I am interested in dealing with your whole instrument, so the first few lessons we will not touch the saxophone much.” I knew I was in the right place.
My first lesson was 90 minutes, the first half of which was spent as if I was at a very thorough doctors appointment. Angela had a long list of questions for me ranging from my diet, past injuries, sleep habits, stress levels, hobbies, exercise, and so on. She documented everything in a giant binder and through my answers and actions she assessed my overall physical and mental state. Then she looked in my mouth with a flashlight so we could see the size of my oral cavity, and felt my larynx to see how it was moving. She assessed my breathing and taught me a series of breathing exercises, which I was instructed to do daily to stretch and strengthen the main breathing muscles. An elderly lady with a British accent, Angela manages to be both firm and direct while also sweet and caring. She feels like part therapist, part teacher, part health-care practitioner, part fairy godmother.
At my second lesson Angela added on to my breathing exercises to include a series of physical and vocal exercises and self-massage techniques. She instructed me to do this warm-up routine each day before I practice. The routine takes about 20 minutes and includes breath work, physical exercises (based in Alexander Technique), and targeted self-massage points for jaw, neck, pecs, and sternum. She asked me if I normally would warm up physically before I played, to which I sheepishly answered “sometimes” and she looked me straight in the eye and informed me that I would never play again without warming up my body first. Yes ma’am!
The next few lessons we focused more on playing the saxophone and connecting all the physical work we had done. Everything Angela teaches me is very much rooted in physical anatomy, which I love -- it is a nice change from the sometimes overly flowery/hippy descriptions that some teachers use when talking about the body. She commonly comes back to the anatomy of breathing, and recently we have been discussing the five physical resonators in our heads: where they are located, what they do, and using the resonators to create a different palette of sounds and colours on the saxophone.
I am enamoured with Angela and feel a huge difference in my body and my playing. However, it can be frustrating at times…. I can feel great doing my physical routine without the instrument and I can see the connection when I play long tones or scales, but to be able to play in this free manner while performing Berio… that is a whole different story and will take time and patience for the two roads to converge.
It is interesting how many “thirty-something” musicians are at a point in their careers where they are feeling excess tension in their playing and investigating ways of dealing with this. Habits creep in slowly and sneakily, often unnoticed by even the best teachers, until the toll of age, years of playing, and physical/mental stresses bring tension to the forefront. I cannot count how many similarly-aged musicians I have talked to recently who identify with this statement.
My takeaway thoughts from my first few lessons with Angela:
We know that the body is the instrument. So why are we so resistant to spending time warming up and working on the body? Why, as someone who is so involved in the world of musicians’ health, am I still somewhat resistant to spending the first half-hour of my practice session without the horn? I have since discovered the sheer importance of the physical warm-up and now I will not practice without doing my routine first. How can you incorporate a routine that will actually be enjoyable and realistic?
How can teachers help students so that these physical habits do not creep in? It is easy to create compensational patterns that hide or mask habits. I have studied with the top teachers on my instrument, and still the tension in my breathing and upper body has gone largely unaddressed. Part of what I am interested in is looking at how the music education system can place more value on movement and awareness at a young age, and whether this could lessen the number of tense and injured “thirty somethings.”
I have found it extremely helpful to take lessons from teachers outside of my own instrument – I would encourage anyone feeling like they are in a “rut” to expand their ideas of who they might study with. During this coming year of my DMA program I will take lessons from a vocalist, a cellist, and a saxophonist. I wish it were more encouraged for grad students to take lessons from teachers of different instruments: it can provide a totally new perspective.
There is no shame in being a professional musician and still continuing to work on physical and/or mental performance habits. Many professional musicians, actors, and athletes take “tune up” lessons from their peers and mentors. Learning is continuous: there is always more to learn. Let’s open up and talk about it!