The body holds the memories: Pianists and trauma
"In more than 40 years of teaching, the greatest problem I’ve encountered is a lack of body awareness. In their ungainly behavior at the keyboard, many pianists have forgotten the simplest, most natural and functional movements."
Peter Feuchtwanger (1930-2016)
First there were flashes of memories, almost like an old-fashioned flip-book of photos. They were followed a split second later by emotions: grief, helplessness, and failure. The pictures disappeared, but the emotions remained, making me emotional and unsteady on my feet for hours afterward.
The body holds the memories. Yoga teachers have been saying this for years, but because there are few studies to confirm this statement, I was skeptical until the day I got a massage and walked out with a whole new understanding of how I’d encoded part of my life in the muscles of my arms. I'd received excellent piano training in the Russian Method; I knew how to relax my arms and ground myself on the bench. It took this incident to teach me that sometimes knowledge and years of experience aren’t enough. Sometimes true freedom of movement at the piano must be reached through less intellectual routes.
In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel Van Der Kolk writes of helping people find relief from severe trauma and PTSD. One of the things he emphasizes is how difficult it is for traumatized people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. One does not need to be the victim of severe trauma to know the truth of this. In my case, I’d unconsciously encoded some painful family memories and unrealistic expectations in the muscles of my arms, never knowing that when they were released, they’d feel as fresh as if they’d just happened.
Discomfort in the body is something I’ve observed in many adult piano students over the years. These were the students who, as Peter Feuchtwanger observed, had “forgotten the simple, most natural and functional movements.” These pianists were the ones who never seemed to know where they were in space. They held themselves with tension, and were frequently clumsy and uncoordinated. Some responded well to relaxation exercises and postural changes. Others found these things extremely challenging and unsettling. One brave woman confided that she'd been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and that relaxing the body was, for her, the most difficult part of playing the piano. Her story taught me that sometimes being uncoordinated at the piano is a problem that goes much deeper than not knowing how to sit or move.
If you've uncovered painful memories of your past, or if you're working with a student who may be experiencing this, compassion and sensitivity is required. Understand that something that may appear to be "ungainly behavior" may come from a darker place than just not knowing how to move at the keyboard. And for those who are struggling to integrate these memories, here are suggestions that may help:
Work with a therapist, if necessary
If you've uncovered memories of severe trauma, consider getting help from a therapist who is trained to help patients find freedom from the pain of the past.
Find safety in the body
Dr. Van Der Kolk writes that in instances like this, it’s important to find ways to feel safe in body, and that to do this, we have to feel safe in the present moment. He encourages all his patients to “engage in some sort of bodywork, be it therapeutic massage, Feldencrais, or craniosacral therapy.”
Try structured forms of movement and expression
Yoga, Qigong (try Qigong for Pianists, by Andrew Eales), involvement in art, music, dance, and theater, aikido, or kick-boxing have all, according to Dr. Van Der Kolk, proven to be effective.
Because meditation pulls us into the present moment, it helps release the grip of the past. For more on the effectiveness of mindful meditation, visit Trauma Recovery.
Because my memories weren’t deeply traumatic, yoga, massage, and meditation helped me free myself. And through that experience, I've learned to listen patiently to my body and to honor the messages it sends me. Today, if I feel my arms start to tighten up, I don’t try to muscle through; I pay attention and ask myself where I feel I’m taking on a job that isn’t mine, or where I’m allowing family boundaries to be blurred. Tight, sore arms were once a problem to be solved; now they're my most accurate truth-teller.
The body holds the memories, but it also holds the ability to heal. With time and self-compassion we can find the path to freedom.