Introduction to Laban/Bartenieff Movement System in Instrumental Playing
Music is simply an audible manifestation of human motion happening through musical instrument. It raises from body motion and its sensory motor functions. Motion is not a part of instrumental playing, it is a basis of it.
We need to consider that sound is mechanical waving that starts with motional impulse. Like finger-flicking to a row of domino pieces, our particular touch on instrument sets the chaining of sound with particular qualities, such as articulation, dynamics, spatial factor and even emotional print. It carries our tension or motional freedom further to the ear of a listener. Our music may be organic, lively, breathing, but also very tense, bound, narrowed and frightened. The tones become our prolonged body. Our music is as such as our motion. Our motion is as such as our state of mind. Music we play raises from our body-mind setting.
Instrumental playing is therefore not only an audible art, but especially an art of motion, a kind of a dance. There is a lot of intersections with instrumental playing and dance. Such as music consists of phrases, the dance does as well. As the dancers solve, where to initiate their movement within their bodies, the instrumental playing requires the same. Playing music is continuous flow of motion of various effort, shaping, timing and space character. It carries all the aspects as the dance does. The work of Rudolf Laban1, and Laban/Bartenieff Movement System(LBMS), providing deep insight in multiple aspects of human movement patterns”2, will serve our understanding and experience with motional aspect of musical playing great way.
We often feel our musical instrument as a barrier of our artistic visions, before we get to the point that we feel comfortable enough with the instrument. Unfortunately, the praxis within wide range of instrumental “jobs” shows us something else. Most of players, teachers and students share feelings of less or more discomfort and low self-esteem in playing their instruments. Surprisingly, even many players on very high level of instrumental mastery, define the same problems.
Within instrumental learning, players mostly drill onto the level of ability to give fine performances, but these are still covered by unsure feelings on how the body will act and feel, with low control of how to be on stage within the music and instrumental playing confidently. Playing itself is usually accompanied with inadequate bodily tension and stress. The learning process is usually cut off the bodily motion knowledge and aware experience, or if, then it usually focuses only
on the closest peripheries connected to the instrument, such as fingers and palms on the violin. Many players search for the ways how to make their instrument become somehow more related to their own bodies, how to make playing more comfortable and natural. But they usually stay within their instinct, without a method, helping them to reach this goal, Unfortunately, even this instinct cannot work effectively, because their body-mind system usually already suffers from many unhealthy patterns and non-functional reflexes, that this system then tends to prefer further for the new ones, because they are already fixed and recognized as safer, although they do not really work well.
We need to build the ability to include the instrument in our bodily actions as natural part of our motion. Those feelings that enable us to really coordinate playing, are based on aware perception of our inner bodies themselves, and their motional actions. We call this capability proprioception5, the perception of the self. Our self-awareness is basically based on these records of our own motion, weight, possition and all the sensory-motor notions, that proprioception offers us. We may come across the proprioception called as sixth sense6, that enables us feel the body and its postures and changing positions towards the ground through the receptors inside of the body like it was really another sense. Through this capability, we create functional bridge of bodily experience within our minds. The more, we become much more effective in our learning process and prevent injuries, because we finally feel our bodies. We gain more self-esteem, because we are more aware of what our body actually does. Unfortunately, this is what players miss within their playing – awareness to what is going on within their body-mind system while playing. Whatever happens on unconscious or automatic level, obviously does not satisfy our needs enough. Only through understanding our bodily and motional action, we make our musical instrument playing workable. We are not aiming to embody the instrument, but the more we focus on aware embodiment of ourselves. Musical instrument then becomes our part through conscious involving to our motion and our kinesphere7. If we really wish to master our instrument, we need to master our movement itself. We need to be aware of our embodiment. What does embodiment mean?
“Embodiment by itself means a tangible form of an idea or vision, a representation of expression of something in tangible or visible form.” 8
I dare this is exactly the aim of each performer – making our visions and ideas tangible – visible – perceivable, in outer world. We have ideas about how to perform certain piece of music and we basically bring these ideas to light of reality through our bodies. We embody the music. Reaching this goal is not permanent state, but ongoing process, within the musical embodiment fluctuates from proximity to distance according to our ability to be aware. Embodiment is also used within somatic practice as a term describing the connection between mind and body. This is the layer we are trying to master within our instrumental playing. We talk about embodied mind9, which connects to the world by embodying – making the visions and ideas visible and tangible through the body and sensory-motor system. This is what we do on our instruments in the end. We create visions of music perceivable within outer space. The aspect of embodiment is also cognitive. In other words, the body is involved in the process of cognition. We cannot really come across anything by pure mind only, without any previous bodily – sensory-motor experience.
To say that cognition is embodied means that it arises from bodily interactions with the world. From this point of view, cognition depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with particular perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked and that together form the matrix within which memory, emotion, language, and all other aspects of life are meshed. The contemporary notion of embodied cognition stands in contrast to the prevailing cognitivist stance which sees the mind as a device to manipulate symbols and is thus concerned with the formal rules and processes by which the symbols appropriately represent the world.10
For this reason, we cannot really follow instructions of our coaches for playing ability, that we have never came across with our bodies or our instrument in some way before. This is also the reason, why we should not ignore our bodies within learning process and let it act unconsciously.
Though, that is the way we usually take, by learning via style “try-false”. We drill our bodies into certain kind of experience without real reflection and further structure of what we are literally doing. Then it is very difficult to find confidence to reveal our playing back and each day becomes a little struggle, in which we are dependent on more or less unconscious reflexes we adopted and we are therefore not able to repeat them again. This way we start our ineffective long learning again and again. If we wish to reach more confidence in playing and be more effective in practice, we need to be aware of the bodily actions and processes to set the reflexes workable and repeatable ways, otherwise our cognitive notion of issue we solve will always stay incomplete and unreliable.
We also have to consider, that our body-mind system takes the experience as a whole and if you focus on a single, more rational issue during your practice, you adopt also your bodily action, although you are not aware of that and you have no idea, what is your body doing. This is the reason, why many players basically learn themselves play with lost of tension and stress. It penetrates in the instrumental style not only by bad experience or outer pressure, but mostly from everyday practice experience itself, when players are not aware of much tension they are very often creating within playing. Then, of course, each performance becomes difficult, because we really cannot rely on what our system will do, while much of reflexes adopted within playing are not aware and coordinated, although they could be. They are unconscious. Releasing inadequate and constant tension is one of central issues of each performer. In Laban structure, we have a theme exertion and recuperation, which offers us the space to train this experience and cultivate the ability to redistribute our energy more effectively and with awareness towards our bodies. Also the music itself is never the same by energy. It is very plastic, ever changing flow of musical tension and release in dynamics, tempos, timbre changing. This topic therefore creates huge intersection for our issue of not only bodily release and injury prevention, but also interpretation and expression. As you may already see, awareness bound with our bodily actions may bring many benefits for many layers of instrumental playing. The only we need is to turn our awareness to body-mind connection.
We historically segregated our minds from our bodies. The Cartesian philosophy by René Descartes provided very strong point for following centuries. The body
was lowered to be some biological mechanism, that has no place within human cognition. A phenomenon of pure mind was defined to be “The Human”. Our way back to body is still very complicated, although there already is scientific support for the body-mind connection.
As Lakoff and Johnson write, there is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement…our sense of what is real begins and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensory-motor apparatus…11
Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty formulated, that embodiment has double meaning for us: it includes body as lively experimental structure, and body as a mean of cognitive mechanism.12 According to neuroscientist Francisco Varela, we cannot research the circulation between cognitive science and human experience. We may stay within pure theory, but the issue is always touching directly our human experience. 13
We cannot abstract reflection of our inner information – sensory motor notions, feelings and emotions. This happens even without our aware witnessing, but if we wish to really be aware of our playing, we need to bring the notion of those processes into our focus. We need to bring reflection of our lively human experience to learning process of instrumental playing.
I dare, this lively human experience is not of the rational definitions and words for what we experience. Itis very much given by our emotions and feelings. Same is with music experience, both on the site of performer and listener. We mainly do not go to concerts for definitions and ranking, but for experience, to give ourselves kind of sacred space to experience ourselves through music. But how are our emotions bound with motion?
Our emotionality is highly mirrored by motor reactions. The origin of the word comes from the latin word – e-movere, which means move away14. We also say that emotions move us, we are moved by emotions. Our anger will make your veins tighter and muscles tense. We feel pressure from our teacher and “magically” start to press more on our bow and left fingers on strings. But it is even more complicated than these clear moments. Our emotions are very complex and it is very hard to bring them to light from certain motions clearly. We hardly understand our emotionality to coordinate it, but we may coordinate our emotions within playing through awareness to our certain motional actions, because their influence is bilateral and in a way psychosomatic.
Much of motor actions are done by need of certain motion, though much of tension and motions derive from certain emotions. Violinists for example very often condensate in their thorax not because of the functional need, but when they feel fear, or they also raise shoulders and tension within hands when facing difficult spots to “fight” this spot, not because it is required from technical stance. By dealing with the motion, we also influence our psyche and its issues bound with playing. We need to understand the motion aspect of instrumental playing not only as physical action, but even more a mind – soul activity. In each motion we create, with or without instrument, is an element of emotion and feelings, no matter if we recognize or analyze it. It is present, very often on unconscious basis. Our emotionality creates much of impulses within our instrumental playing, so we should at least consider that impact.
In Laban Analysis, we recognize function and expression15 of movement.
Although it is not that black-white and really precise definition, you may imagine the difference as technical and emotional aspect of your playing. It never means that once we focus on function, expression is simply gone. Our motion is never an empty form, expressive moment is always present and deeply influences the function, even though we do not focus on it, same way as in your everyday life, when you are focused on something rationally, your emotions and feelings circulate within your body-mind system, no matter that you are not aware of it at that moment.
You may think, that expression is basically an interpretation. It is necessary to consider, that expression and interpretation are two different things, when interpretation is more a set of conventional requirements on how to play certain issues, while expression is really your inner source of emotions and feelings moving out through music. This source is more or less unconscious and bound with our motion-function-technique aspect very much. The emotional impulses are never separated from the body and if we wish to be able to coordinate our instrumental playing the best way we can, but also conduct ourselves on stage to be able to perform and not to melt in stage fright (which is one of the best examples of this psychosomatic body-mind connection via emotions), we need to understand the huge impact of our emotional inner streams and try to go through ongoing reflection to get to know ourselves as well as we can. Simply, if we wish to study more effective way and be better performers, we basically need to understand ourselves and our inner impulses better.
With each movement on the instrument, we transfer our emotions to those who listen and observe us. It is coherent to say that the art is not only an offer of aesthetic qualities, but also an emotional transfer. The modus depends also on more or less consciously chosen statement of the perceiver to either judge or stay open for emotional message of your performance or even transcendence of life performance. Despite this, I do not think we ever wish to transfer chaos, fright, confusion and deep uncertainty, if these are not a part or aim of performance piece itself.
Music is an abstract, invisible, untouchable art. Of course, we keep the music within the score. But, if you think of that…did the pure score of music, you have never heard, moved your emotions? What creates the music real at the presence that it moves us? It is again the human motion, that brings the music to live within the time and space. We give our body to music, or more, we embody the music, that without the body stays only a vision. At the performance, the magic of creating the tangible aspect of the music is happening. You may argue, that it is audible, not tangible, but honestly, haven’t you ever been touched by certain piece of music? Why we say that?
Remember the notion about mechanical waving? The sound is transmitted through the air by molecules vibrating at certain frequencies.16 The audible version of this molecule beating on your ear is yet created in our minds, not in the air. By playing the instrument, we basically create the certain kind of molecule waving, not the sound itself. The musical marks and whole scores basically only conserve the instructions of how to embody certain piece within the space-time. They are in a way scores of certain motion qualities made on our instruments, although we do not consider them this way.
The learning process is then someway different. We usually only listen and hardly solve, what is going on within the body. When fixing mistakes, we somehow change something, but usually without any knowledge what we really need to do within the body, and focus on change of the sounding fully. As we already pointed out, we use the way try-false. In this new learning process, we care what we hear from us, but only as a reflection of something that we already made.
The aspect we need to consider is not a sound, but a motion, which creates this sound. We need to think of music motional way and learn it through motional consideration. All the aspects like articulation, timbre, are nothing more than bodily action of certain effort and spatial quality, certain way of initiation and sequencing the movement on the instrument. This is what creates the sounds and their context we hear and this is also the aspect we should practice and fix. The sound is basically secondary product, although it is our main goal. This goal should serve as an instruction, that gives us the directions how to reach it by certain motion. The idea of sound is a vision of the mind. The motional solution is a process of embodying this vision by our playing.
Practically, if you see crescendo, you may have musical idea in your mind, but the more, you need to come up with aware motional solution of it. How fast your bowing will be, how will you redistribute your bowing, where and how much you will start adding the weight in your right hand? We basically learn to embody audible marks and ideas.
Once we master our movement, we will be able to practice only by our mind with the score, because we will always know, what kind of motion and combination of motional qualities will create our desired sound or phrase. This will give us great confidence, but also great freedom to fulfill our visions right on stage.
Laban Analysis offers us wide range of observable motional aspects that enable us go this way. It defines four primary categories: body, effort, shape and space.17
The body category deals with body parts, its chaining within the motional patterns and body connectivity, which is crucial for our instrumental technique and release. Space might seem unnecessary for instrumentalists since we usually stand or sit at one place, but even our instrument is a space we move within. Additionally, we move within our kinesphere while playing, therefore an experience with this category is very useful. Shape tells us how we are modeling our postures and chain them next to each other. Playing the instrument is such modeling of our bodies, an ongoing shape-flow as the music also changes its characters. The effort category observes our work with motional energy through aspects of weight, time, focus and flow and it also connects with human psyche though jungian four main mental functions. This category has very much in common with use of expressive aspects, but also our motional energy redistribution. Right these aspects make our musical playing plastic and lively.
We can surely say, that music itself also possesses these qualities and due to them and through them we may embody the music. Music is happening through time-space. Particular work with effort creates plasticity of timbres, articulation, dynamics and agogic. We can say that certain music possesses “the weight”. It may be light to listen, light in dynamics, it can be heavy by the message it carries or heavy by timbres. Our listening mind is able to recognize such aspects within music, even when only listening without check by other senses. Just how can the essence of music be for example heavy when there is nothing to weight? We simply recognize those aspect in music through bodily motion of the player using those aspects. We react on the bodily acting of the musician. The sound waves reaching our ear carry the motional qualities the performer made them. Once the performer uses strong weight within playing, we recognize the weight within music. The LBMS categories are in the end not only observable, but audible. Additionally, we listeners are capable of hearing such qualities, because we ourselves are embodied and have an experience with weight, quick or sustained time, loudness or sound colors from our everyday lives. We hear so many sounds on the street, we see people acting together with the sounds and since the early childhood, we create an experience of certain sounds belonging to certain situations and certain motional qualities. We are aware, that strong punch is created by heavy stroke. We know, that silent walk may be done only on our feet finger tips to make our bodies light. Of course, the more we listen to the music itself consciously, the more precise we are able to recognize the qualities within the music. We grow further as listeners.
This is what embodied cognition mentioned above practically means. It creates not only good performers but listeners as well.
We often say music touches us. But what is this metaphor about in the end?
As D. Levitin writes: “There is nothing in a sequence of notes themselves that creates the rich emotional associations we have with music…”18
It is our mind, that makes music as such for ourselves, but there is also the person behind the molecules. It is not the music, but the performer, making the impulses to the row of molecules to get to listeners ears. In the end, it is us, artists, touching listeners, through the art we perform. I guess this is what we all wish – to be able to touch the audience the way our vision goes and master our instruments to be able to fulfill these visions. The journey to reach this goal leads through cultivation of awareness to our embodiment.
1. Studd, K., Cox, L. Everybody is a Body. (2020), USA, Outskirts Press: 139, “Laban was a multi-dimensional thinker, practitioner, theorist and philosopher, whose work influenced choreography, anthropology, psychology and other fields of human movement…”
2. Studd, K., Cox, L. Everybody is a Body. (2020), USA, Outskirts Press: 140
5. Todd, M. E., The Thinking Body. (1959) Hightstown, NJ. Princeton Book Company Publishers: 26-27
7. The term kinesphere was first used by Rudolf Laban as “the sphere around the body whose periphery can be reached by easily extended limbs without stepping away from that place which is the point of support when standing on one foot” (p.10), . Laban (1966). Choreutics. Dance Books Ltd, Alton, UK, 2011
9. Lakkoff, G., Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. New York, Basic Books: 16 – 44
10. Thelen, E., Schoner, G., Scheier, C., and Smith, L.B.(2001). “The Dynamics of Embodiment: A Field Theory of Infant Perservative Reaching.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24: 1-86
11. Lakkoff, G., Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. New York, Basic Books: 17
12. Varela, F., Thompson, E., Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 11
13. Varela, F., Thompson, E., Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 11 – 13
14. Colman, M.A. (2015). Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford, GB. Oxford University Press: 224
15. Studd, K., Cox, L. Everybody is a Body. (2020), USA, Outskirts Press: 19
16. Levitin, D.J., This is your Brain on Music.(2006)New York, USA, Penguin Books: 102
17. Studd, K., Cox, L. Everybody is a Body. (2020), USA, Outskirts Press: 141
18. Levitin, D.J. This is your Brain on Music.(2006)New York, USA, Penguin Books: 108