Practitioners Q & A: Breaking it Down
Making the Impossible Possible
The other day, a fellow Feldenkrais Practitioner asked me how to turn a challenging and difficult ATM into something that was doable for everyone in the class, and still stay true to the lesson. I must admit that at first it didn’t seem like a particularly special skill, so I was a little surprised that she’d even asked about it. With further reflection, I realized that I had acquired this skill from my years of studying music.
Musicians are constantly faced with progressively difficult challenges. For a serious musician, it’s unthinkable to just do what you know and stay at the same level. Even at the age of 90, the great cellist, Pablo Casals kept practicing and when asked why, he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
Because this ability to break things down into manageable chunks had become second nature, I had no idea that there was any other way to go about it. In thinking about what to write in this blog, I thought it might be helpful to describe the process of “chunking down” as it’s been called.
When a musician begins to study a new piece, there are usually many parts or sections that can already be played with minimal practice or even at first sight. If this isn’t the case, and most of the piece is too hard, then the piece may be too advanced for the current level. If everything is simple, then it’s too easy. Let’s say our musician friend has found just the right piece (or was assigned it by her teacher) and begins the process of learning it. One possibility for her is to just jump in and start playing. She will eventually run into the more difficult passages and have to either stumble through them or slow down. Another strategy would be to look over the piece before playing it and notice where the difficult passages are and make note of them. Of course she’ll want to get some idea of the form and structure of the piece as well.
Now for FM Practitioners leaning a new lesson, the choice could be similar. You could just start reading the instructions (or listening to a recording) and see how it goes. Or, you could scan the lesson to get an idea of the functional theme, what are the movements leading to that function and what might be auxiliary movements and/or constraints (not possible with a recorded lesson). You can also look for parts that might be challenging for your students (and possibly for you), and parts that don’t seem so clear or difficult to describe.
Back to our music student, after looking the piece over and perhaps playing through it to get a sense of how it sounds, she’ll probably begin working on the hard parts first. One of my teachers said that ten percent of a piece requires ninety percent of the work. Lets say that she has come across a passage of notes that is too fast, perhaps awkward and beyond her abilities. If she were to just play through it over and over, making haphazard mistakes, she’d just be practicing and learning mistakes. If she’s savvy, she’ll begin to take the passage apart and start with whatever is doable and build upon that. It might be just two notes, repeating them to learn how to move easily and securely between them. She most likely will have slowed the tempo down to be sure that she’s playing them accurately. After these two become more familiar, she may move to the next two and so on, and on. Eventually, she will begin to string together more and more groups of notes until she has the whole passage. Now you know why it takes so many years of dedicated and deep practice to become a good musician.
Back to our ATM preparation, let’s say you find a part that requires coordinating and sensing several movements at the same time, what do you do? Slow it down (sound familiar?). Perhaps you remove some of the complexity by limiting the plane of motion and repeat that until it becomes more familiar. Then, you can begin to add the next part, and the next and put it back into the lesson.
By preparing this way, you can begin to develop the skill of “chunking down” complex and challenging movements. Having done this, you are better able to react to your students’s confusion if they encounter part of a lesson that seems difficult or even impossible. This is an important skill because you want your students to be able to have the sense that they’ve accomplished something and solved a challenge.
This is just a very broad and general description of the process and in the next blog I’ll take an example from an ATM lesson to better demonstrate how you can implement this kind of thinking. Of course, this methodology is already built into many lesson but still there are some lessons that are challenging for certain people. If we want our students to grow, we need to present challenge that is surmountable so as to build upon skill and self esteem.
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