Yoga for Musicians

Article  by Mia Olson

Yoga for Musicians is a practice that I developed out of my own experience with music and yoga. It can help in so many ways including the development of a concentrated and focused mind for performance, an awareness of the body to prevent overuse injuries, and an overall awareness of breath to help with relaxation and musical phrasing. I was originally introduced to yoga as a way of exercise, but soon experienced that it offered so much more. Yoga is truly a way to balance the mind, body, and spirit. Through my own practice of yoga, I started relating these elements to my life as a musician, and am now able to help other colleagues and students along their journey. It has been exciting to see so many transformations throughout the years.

Through practicing yoga techniques, you can develop an awareness of breath and body that can help with any task at hand. For example, many students get very nervous before an audition or performance. Practicing a few of the following exercises prior to a performance can greatly reduce anxiety, and enhance performance. In addition, many people have developed a disconnection with their body. Through practice, they have been able to change the relationship that they have with their body, become more aware of their body, prevent injuries, and even heal overuse injuries.

As with any physical exercise, it is important to work within your limits. If anything does not feel quite right for your body, do not do it. We are trying to develop awareness to how our body feels and honor that without trying to force anything.

There are a couple of key elements that are important when practicing yoga. First of all, be aware of keeping a tall, straight spine regardless of whether you sit or stand. Keep the shoulders relaxed back and down as the chest opens and lifts slightly. Feel that there is a string attached to the top of your head, as you elongate the neck and keep the chin parallel with the ground. Secondly, develop an awareness of the breath and keep this awareness throughout all of the exercises.

The easiest and most effective exercise to practice before a performance is simply to become aware of the breath. This will bring our focus immediately to the present and will start to calm our nerves. When we get nervous or upset, the first thing to go is the breath, so by focusing on it and making it deeper, we can actually calm the nerves and develop more focus and concentration.

Let’s start with the most basic breath, the Full Yogic Breath, or Three-Part Dirgha Breath. Begin this breath by exhaling all of your air, pulling the muscles of the abdomen in and up towards your spine. Then relax the muscles of the abdomen and allow the air to fill up the belly, chest and all the way up to the collarbone. Continue exhaling and inhaling fully. Think about expanding the front, back, and sides of the body. Also think of slowing the breath down. If you need to reduce stress more, try to make the exhalation longer than the inhalation. By simply becoming aware of this full yogic breath, one can bring calmness back to the body and begin to develop focus and concentration,

Also try the Alternate Nostril Breath or Nadi Shodhana Breath. This is a very relaxing, balancing and calming breath. It is a great breath to help calm the nerves and reduce stress and anxiety. It also helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Start in a comfortable seated position with your spine tall. Begin to come into the Full Yogic Breath for a few rounds. Then, as you are ready, take your right hand and place your first and second finger between your eyebrows (third eye point). Even by lightly pressing this point, you can calm the mind. Start by exhaling all of your air. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger, then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale right side, closing this nostril, then exhale left side. Inhale left, close, exhale right. Continue with this breath for a few minutes, slowing down the pace of the breath a little more with each round. Release your hand back to your lap and notice how you feel now compared to when you first began.

The most basic posture in yoga is the Mountain Pose, or Tadasana. This is a great pose to use for playing on stage, as you will want to feel firmly rooted and planted when you perform. Practice this posture to help with spinal alignment and creating space in the ribcage for a full breath. Keep your feet hip width apart, toes pointing parallel and firmly planted on the ground. Engage the muscles of the legs, keeping the knees slightly bent, tuck the tailbone under slightly to keep a straight pelvis. Roll your shoulders back and down, lifting through your spine and through the crown of your head.

Most musicians tend to carry their stress in the upper body. The following exercise routine is great to do before a performance, audition, or as a way to warm up the body before a practice session. Once the exercises are learned, it only takes a few minutes to do them, and it can make all the difference in how you feel. All these exercises can be done in a comfortable seated or standing position. Just make sure the spine is elongated, shoulders are relaxed back and down, and the chest is open and slightly lifted. Connect with your full yogic breath. Do as many of these exercises as you would like, holding each stretch for 3–5 breaths.

Neck Circles: Allow the chin to rest towards your chest. Breathe into the back of your neck for a few breaths to release any tension. As you are ready, inhale right ear to right shoulder and breathe into the left side of the neck. Exhale chin towards chest and inhale left ear to left shoulder, breathing into the right side of the neck. Continue with half circles in front of the body. Then, come into full circles, being gentle as the head comes back. Reverse the direction after a few circles.

Shoulders – tension/release and circles: Inhale the shoulders up to your ears. Squeeze the shoulders up as high as you can, holding the breath in. Exhale as you drop the shoulders. Relax, and repeat two more times.

Next, inhale the shoulders up towards your ears, exhale rotating the shoulders back and down, opening up the chest area. After your shoulders come all the way down, inhale the shoulders forward, rounding the back, and continue the circles until the shoulders come all the way up to your ears again. Circle back for a few rounds and then reverse directions, exhaling the shoulders forward and down, rounding the back of the body. As the shoulders come all the way down, start to inhale the shoulders back, opening up the chest area, then up to your ears once again. Continue with shoulder rotations, making full circles coming forward.

Wrist and arm rotations: With the elbows bent by your sides and shoulders relaxed, circle the wrists away from each other in front of you. As you do this, feel free to move the fingers creatively, loosening them up. You can also bend one finger at a time toward the palm to loosen up the fingers. Repeat several times then rotate wrists towards each other in circles. Pause, then rotate the fore arms and hands towards each other in a circle in front of the body, then rotate them away from each other in the opposite direction.

Eagle Arms: This is one of the best exercises for reducing upper back and shoulder tension. Inhale and extend the arms out in a T position with your palms facing down. Exhale the right arm under the left arm, crossing at the elbows. Bend the elbows so that the palms face outward. Draw the right hand towards your nose and wrap it around the left hand, fingers pointing up toward the sky and palms come close to touching. Breathe into the back of the body opening up the shoulders. Rotate the elbows in circles in one direction, then in the other direction to loosen up the upper back. Then, inhale the elbows up and exhale the elbows down to feel the stretch in different places. Release the arms, shake it out, and repeat the whole sequence on the other side.

Standing Yoga Mudra: Start with your feet wide apart, toes pointing parallel. Lift the arms in front of you as you inhale then push the palms away from you on an exhale as you draw your hands towards each other, clasping the hands behind your back. Elongate the spine, lifting through the crown of your head. You can stop here and get a nice stretch through the chest and shoulders. Continue with the next stretch only if it feels comfortable. Begin by leading with your chest as you exhale, bending forward you’re your waist with your head coming down between your legs. Keep the knees slightly bent to protect them while you continue to draw the arms up and back, feeling a nice stretch in the arms and shoulders. Hold for a few breaths and come up to standing very slowly. Whenever the head is below the chest, you should move slowly, as all of the blood rushes to your head and you will become very dizzy if you move too fast.

Helicopter: This is one of the best exercises to practice totally letting go of tension in the upper body. Start in a standing position with the feet a little wider than hip width apart. Keep the knees slightly bent. Allow the arms to hang freely down by your side and start to turn the torso from side to side. As you start to move from side to side, the arms should flop back and forth like coat sleeves flopping in the wind. Imagine that the tension is rolling off your upper back, shoulders and arms, releasing out your fingertips, never to return again! Gradually come back to stillness after you feel that you have released some tension. Pause and notice how you feel.

These exercises can make a world of difference in how you feel and play. So, the next time you are waiting to go on stage or waiting for that audition, don’t let your nerves get the best of you. Spend that time connecting with your breath and doing a few of the exercises to release your tension and become focused. Just a couple of deep breaths, neck circles, or helicopters can do wonders. Experiment to find which exercises work best for you.

If you would like to learn more, I recommend finding a certified yoga teacher in your area. There are so many styles, so try different ones to see what feels right for you. Then, see for yourself how yoga can transform your life and your music. You can also find more information and pictures about the different poses, styles of yoga, etc. from Yoga Journal.

Mia Olson is a certified Kripalu Yoga Teacher. She has developed and teaches Yoga For Musicians classes at Berklee College of Music where she is a Professor in the Woodwind Department. Mia also teaches Harmony courses for Berklee’s online extension school, BerkleeMusic. Mia has presented Yoga for Musicians seminars for many organizations and music festivals around the world including the Seminario & Encuentro Internacional De Jazz in Mexico, the Greater Boston Flute Association, and the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. To find out more information about Mia and her projects, please visit her website.


Article on the Brain and Improvisation

One summer at the annual Bremen Music Festival in Germany, Robert Levin, a classical pianist, was in the midst of improvising a passionate and wild cadenza during Beethoven’s “C Major Piano Concerto.” A cadenza is a passage in a concerto during which the orchestra ceases and a soloist strikes out on his own, improvising within the style of the piece. Up until the early nineteenth century, many classical composers wrote space for these cadenzas within their works. Levin is one of a handful of musicians who has taken it upon himself to revive the practice of classical improvisation. He is world renowned for his ability to effortlessly extemporize in the styles of several composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. In this particular concert, however, Levin had gotten himself into a bit of a pickle.

“I was going whole hog,” Levin said, thanks to the permission Beethoven gave his renderers to modulate or change keys during his cadenzas. “I had gone really far afield and was in F sharp major. That’s as far away from C major as you can possibly get because if you keep going, you start to get closer to the other side.”

“It’s like the world,” Levin said, drawing a parallel to the structure of musical scales. “You go more than 12,500 miles around the equator and you might as well keep going.”

At this point, Levin pounded some F sharp major chords, and for a split second, he paused. “I was shocked at how far off I was and how crazy this all was,” Levin said. “I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god! How am I going to get home?’ ”

Imagine the pressure: Levin is sitting at the piano. A full orchestra of musicians, with instruments poised at the ready, not to mention the conductor, Sir John Eliot Gardner, are waiting for Levin to finish out the cadenza, so that they can resume the piece. And then there is the festival audience of thousands, some of whom, according to Levin, had sensed his predicament and audibly gasped.

“I looked down at the keyboard and imagined myself saying: ‘Save me! Help me!’ ” said Levin. “And literally—I felt this—I thought the keys looked up at me and said: ‘You got yourself here. You get yourself out.’ ”

What happened next, Levin said, was truly miraculous. “I started to play again. And so to speak, I slid on the banana peel of a diminished seventh chord and through someenharmonic sleight of hand—it was not planned—I suddenly found myself within sight of my front door, and I got home.”

There is something fascinating about the act of musical improvisation—that moment when a musician departs from the score, embarking on a thematically relevant, yet wholly spontaneous composition. We normally think of it as the province of jazz musicians, conjuring the iconic image of a sax player wailing through riffs in a smoky, dim-lit club. John Coltrane and Bill Evans were masters. Miles Davis was never much for rehearsal. He used to gather his band in the studio, rattle off a few suggestions for the broad shape each track should take, and hit record.

But many of the early classical composers—Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Liszt—were also known for improvising entire portions of their concerts. Liszt had a penchant for soliciting musical themes from his audience. Before a show, anyone could jot down a few bars of melody on a piece of paper. Some were original. Others were bits of recognizable tunes from the time, a popular symphony or aria. Liszt would then pull one of these melodies out of a hat and use it as a launching point. He’d reharmonize it or play it backwards, always wresting from it a spirited improvisation that could last for several minutes.

Regardless of genre, the appeal of improvisation is its danger. It’s an act of audacity, says Levin, but ultimately an act of profound humanity, given that it’s a communication between the performer and the audience. The musician takes a huge risk, trusting, hoping that his brain and fingers will successfully allow him to “walk the tight rope over the precipice and arrive at the other side,” Levin says. “Or you might crash and burn. You never know.” But the spectators, as they live vicariously through the musician’s adventure, love him for it.

How do musicians do this? When he’s ready to begin a cadenza, Levin says, he doesn’t have a plan. As many other seasoned improvisers claim, he just starts playing. It’s intuitive. But, Levin admits, he didn’t always know how to improvise. He had to learn. So the question remains: how can a skill that in its truest form is innate be learned?

Aaron Berkowitz, a cognitive ethnomusicologist, who took on the task of demystifying improvisation as the focus of his dissertation work at Harvard, has a theory. He likens the process of learning to improvise to that of learning a second language. Initially, he says, it’s all about memorizing vocabulary words, useful phrases and verb conjugation tables. Your first day, you might learn to say: How are you? I’m fine. “These are like the baby steps beginning improvisers take. They learn the structure of the blues. They learn basic chords and get the form down,” said Berkowitz. But they’re still very limited in what they can do.

A dedicated musician will immerse himself in the recordings of his chosen genre or composer, just as a language student might absorb foreign films or tapes of people speaking. Over time, both musician and student accumulate more phrases and ways to combine them. “But you still can’t really invent anything. [The language learner] can’t talk about politics or the environment,” Berkowitz said. “You’re still thinking: ‘Uh oh, here’s comes a verb. I have to put it in the past tense. I have to put it at the end of the sentence before I can say this whole phrase.”

But eventually, through constant practice, you get to the point where, scientists believe, these processes get pushed down into the subconscious. They don’t need to be consciously worked out anymore. They become a subroutine. Suddenly you realize you’re saying things you haven’t heard or memorized. You’re able to free-associate. Your brain begins exerting control at a higher level, directing bigger chunks of information that can be expressed as whole ideas….

I will stop here. Based on what we have read so far, how do you think that may relate to different instruments that are more physical? (sax, trumpet, trombone)

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