Using Body Mapping Techniques in the Middle School Orchestra Class
by Constance E. Barrett, DMA
After taking What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body this past summer in Columbus (June 1998), I came back to my teaching position in the Greenwich CT Public Schools determined to see that my string students develop their body maps correctly from the very beginning. With my elementary school students, there are few problems. I demonstrate the proper use of the “violin shelf,” the left clavicle bone. Students learn to walk their fingers along their clavicle bones on the left sides of their bodies, feeling how strong they are, and they learn to use that as the place to balance their instruments rather than collapsing their chests, which causes literal pain in their necks when they’re trying to practice. Children are able to hold their bows correctly from the start as well, learning how to map their hands correctly so that the thumb is as usable and movable as their other fingers, instead of a stiff, tight arbitrarily bent rock as it is when children do not map it as opposable.
Somehow, this all changes when a child reaches Middle School. Life for the middle school student becomes terribly complicated. There are the raging hormones causing all kinds of confusing sensations in the body and the emotions. There are more demands on a child’s time, including three times the amount of homework. While parents and teachers are seen by children as adversarial or non-understanding, peers go for the jugular as they experience their power to push buttons, saying things that cause damage to a child’s self-image, often to their physical perception. Adolescents judge themselves by acquired standards and attempt to change their body maps in order to accommodate their fantasies of what “should” be – or used to be – instead of what is. Boys and girls who are feeling too tall may slouch, a girl who is being teased about the size of her breasts may collapse in her chest area in order to try to hide. How does the middle school instrumental music teacher keep students playing through this time?
I began this year by borrowing “Mr. Bones” from the science teacher. I put the full-sized skeleton on stage next to the orchestra podium. In the first three weeks of school, I spent 20-25 minutes at the beginning of each class on body mapping, paying attention to different areas of the body. One day we mapped our arms, another day we mapped our legs, another day we mapped the spine and the spine-neck connection. By the third week, students were looking more comfortable and we were able to spend less time (5-10 minutes) on mapping and more on learning concert repertoire.
At Parents Open House, I described what I was doing. I began by saying that although some students quit playing because they are feeling overwhelmed and over-booked, many quit because they hurt. Using the skeleton, I demonstrated many of the things we see when a child holds a bow or a violin, and how they sit with a cello. I noticed that as I spoke, many parents began exploring the structure of their own hands and clavicle bones. I passed out a copy of the skeleton diagram I had received in What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body and pointed out various places where many students have incorrect body maps. I let parents know that I move around the class and use my hands to help adjust how students hold their instruments or how they hold their bows.
Letting parents know what I do to correct problems by touch is a way to safeguard against the possibility of misunderstandings. When working with middle school students, it is particularly important to never touch a student:
1. without his or her permission;
2. if you are alone in the room with only that student;
3. if the student is a discipline problem and/or has a history of making complaints about teachers.
If guiding the student manually seems inappropriate you can: use the skeleton to demonstrate; ask the student to explore that part by moving the skeleton and watching how the bones and joints of the skeleton work; demonstrate by modeling the action, showing how you move or sit.
At the beginning of class, I ask students to find their “violin or viola shelves” or their sitting rockers (cellists) and to get out their method books. I turn on the accompanying CD. While they are playing along, I walk around the room and make physical adjustments. When necessary, I send students up to the skeleton to explore particular areas. While the entire ensemble is thus occupied, I can give time to address the individual playing problems of each student, many of whom do not study privately outside of school. After 15-20 minutes of scales and technical work, I turn off the CD and return to the podium so that we can work on concert repertoire.
I give my students two individual performance tests each semester for which I use a checklist with a section for written comments. In addition to the categories of good intonation, beautiful tone, correct phrasing, fingerings and dynamics, and correct bowing, I grade the student’s “accuracy of body map.” Generally, I will write what I notice about a student’s body map, specifically where there seems to be an inaccuracy and how that may affect another area of his or her grade. For example, a student whose bow arm is inaccurately mapped is not likely to play with a rich, free sound, while a student whose left hand is inaccurately mapped is likely to have intonation problems.
This year my ensembles look more comfortable, they play better in tune, and they generally perform better than they have in the past. The attrition rate is lower, as well. Since September, only 6 out of the original 69 students have dropped, a much lower percentage than the 25%-30% rate that is common during the middle school years. I attribute the success the students are having to the time we now spend helping them to feel more at home in their bodies and with their instruments.
Constance E. Barrett is a cellist who teaches instrumental music for the Greenwich (CT) Public School system.