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  • Writer's pictureSarah DelBene

Why I Advocate for Somatic Education in Music Pedagogy

I have begun to slowly incorporate my passion for Body Mapping into my regular content on social media, but as that component of my content grows, I am becoming more and more aware than many may not know exactly what Body Mapping is, how I came to study it myself, and how I became a trainee in the practice through the Association for Body Mapping Education. My journey has not been nearly as tumultuous as other people’s journey with performance pain and injury. However, studying this somatic practice opened my eyes to the very real musical world that included physical freedom to grow as a musician and fully express my musical ideas.

What is Somatic Education?

Somatic Education is a type of instruction that uses sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s physiological processes. Numerous practices fall into this category, including Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Core Movement Integration, and Body Mapping. Each practice, while having different methodologies, all aim to achieve the same goal stated by the definition above. Through this type of learning, instructors aim to help individuals cultivate physical freedom in movement for a myriad of tasks. For musicians, this means having greater freedom to be efficient in musical expression and to be completely mentally aware and present during practice and performance.

What is Body Mapping?

Body Mapping and the concept of body maps was first developed by William Conable, an Alexander Technique teacher and professor at Ohio State University, in the 1970’s. He discovered his students would move and perform based on their understanding of how their body was structured, regardless of previous Alexander Technique education. It was at this time he coined the term “body map” to describe one’s self-representation in his or her brain. This new approach to change a musician’s fundamental understanding of their anatomical structure and function is what spurred the evolution of the Body Mapping practice from its parent practice the Alexander Technique. After publishing the book How to Learn the Alexander Technique with his wife Barbara, Barbara Conable went on to found the organization Andover Educators in 1997. In 2000 Barbara Conable published the book What Every Musician Need to Know About the Body as a helpful introduction to the somatic pedagogy of the organization. This is the book from which all introductory Body Mapping workshop structures reflect. In June 2019, the organization changed its name to Association for Body Mapping Education (ABME) is order for the name to better reflect the premise and goal of the organization.

My (Continuing) Journey to Musical Freedom Through Body Mapping

I came across Body Mapping from a promo card in 2015 about the Wildacres Flute Retreat. It listed Body Mapping as a possible afternoon course taught by Dr. Lea Pearson. I had no idea what Body Mapping was at the time, so I looked it up and discovered the ABME website with their organization mission and somatic practice description. I had recently been experiencing discomfort and excess tension from my increased practicing at the beginning of my undergraduate degree, so I thought this retreat and the available course would be incredibly useful to me. As I had just transferred schools and was looking for a part-time job, I decided to wait until June 2016 to attend the retreat so as to save up the money.

My sophomore year of undergrad, the first year at my new university, proved trying emotionally from my personal life but even more physically in relation to flute playing. I was aiming to continually increase my amount of practice time while still experiencing upper body pain and feeling physically limited in what I wanted to do. While I am thankful to have sustained no severe or chronic physical injuries, I lived in regular discomfort and pain, which reached a climax over Christmas break when I pulled all the muscles in my back and had to take time off just to feel normal again. I thought a week would help, but it took almost two for the pain to subside. I knew I needed help, and I was willing to dive head first into Body Mapping, praying it would alter my crash course towards a potential chronic injury.

Taking Lea’s course that summer (June 2016) opened my eyes to my complete lack of understanding when it came to how the body functioned on the basic level, let alone in relation to playing the flute. I knew I had a long road ahead of me, and that road started with incorporating the core concepts of inclusive awareness and skeletal balance into my everyday life, not just in my playing. After all, our body maps affect how we navigate everything in life, and it’s near impossible to segregate our body awareness in everyday life from our body awareness while playing an instrument or singing. Body Mapping requires an intentional lifestyle so that awareness and free movement overflow into our musical practice and performance.

After my brief course with Lea in June 2016, I was determined to continue learning, as I knew this could potentially save me from a career altering injury. After about six months on my own I received a follow-up call from Lea. After much discussion, I enrolled in her online course to have more immediate feedback on my progress in the practice. Essentially, I had two private teachers the spring semester of my junior year, one in person, and one online. (My undergrad professor was incredibly gracious through the whole online course, and for that I am incredibly grateful.) After completing the course (rather slowly I might add), I continued to work on my own, determine to safeguard my career. The more I studied the more freedom I found in my playing, which was incredibly rewarding to see this training continually evolve my playing. Pain became less frequent and less severe. Even to this day I am still learning and growing to find efficiency that avoids pain.

I have not had regular Body Mapping lessons since that time, save for a few lessons here and there and a masterclass performance for licensed Body Mapping instructors. However, the beauty of this technique is it can be self-taught in many instances. While I do not currently have weekly feedback from a teacher, I can continue to read resources published by educators in the organization. Because of my own work and self-training, I can also record myself while playing for objective feedback. Even more recently, I can tune into Lea Pearson’s Facebook Live meetings about different topical concepts in the practice.

Biennial ABME Conference and Beyond

This past summer I attended the Biennial ABME Conference, which was held at the University of Redlands out in Southern California. Over the past couple years, I have developed a desire to become a licensed educator in the organization, and I hoped attending the conference would solidify my goals. After meeting with the director of the training program, I realized this was a very achievable goal, so I applied for the program a couple months later. I was elated to be accepted and look forward to starting my certification while completing my collegiate schooling.

Ultimately, I am an advocate for all forms of somatic education in music, even with Body Mapping being my preferred route. Whenever people ask me about my experience with Body Mapping, I always say that it is the reason I did not injury myself and have to take time off from my musical journey. For me, I was and still am ready to dive head first and do whatever it takes to avoid performance-related injuries.

For more information on Body Mapping, the Association for Body Mapping Education, and to find an educator nearest you, visit the ABME website

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