Preventing Injury and Promoting Artistry: Andover Educators Conference comes to Portland

Teaching musicians to avoid music-induced damage


All eyes are riveted on the musician on stage: hair flying, jaw clenching, neck jerking rhythmically, feet stomping, arms and fingers racing over the instrument, the musician’s whole body is wrestling with the passionate beast of music. The experience of getting lost in the music, of soaring freely into a soundscape, of becoming enveloped in musical creation, is what every musician strives for. Getting lost in the music, however, often comes at the cost of physical strain, inflammation, and irreparable damage to wrists, fingers, and shoulders.

For example, the Funk Brothers keyboardist Earl van Dyke, Incubus guitarist Michael Aaron “Mike” Einziger, and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante all developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and renowned classical pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman struggle with hand dystonia, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and postures. “It’s scary to see what happens to musicians,” stated composer and pianist Lisa Marsh, founder and director of the Coordinate Movement Program at Portland State University and one of six Andover Educators internationally who can license people to teach the the technique called Body Mapping. “A lot of music students come to me who have had to stop playing because of injury. Using Body Mapping, I can help retrain their movements and help them continue playing.”

Beginning Thursday, June 18 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, the Andover Educators four-day conference will celebrate, teach, and explore healthy movement for musicians.

Begun by Barbara and William Conable in 1998, Andover Educators is a not-for-profit organization that provides professional development for musicians who teach the principles of Body Mapping using Conable’s book What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body.  Both conscious and unconscious awareness of movement inform our individualized sense, or map, of how and why our bodies move. Andover educators’ primary tool is Body Mapping, defined by the organization as “the conscious correcting and refining of one’s body map to produce efficient, coordinated, effective movement.”

PSU prof and pianist Lisa Ann Marsh brings Body Mapping conference to the university.

PSU prof and pianist Lisa Ann Marsh brings Body Mapping conference to the university.

At first the Conables’ Body Mapping theories were based on experiential evidence, but research in neurophysiology, the branch of neuroscience that deals with the nervous system, is corroborating the idea that our brains form neural maps of bodily functions and structures which impact our movement. Andover Educator’s science advisor is T. Richard Nichols, professor of applied physiology and director of the neurophysiology lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology; at the Andover Educators conference he will present the seminar “Playing with Brains and Brawn: The Neuromechanics of Musical Performance,” and “Retraining After Focal Dystonia: Ideas from the Practice Room and the Lab.”

In his paper Scientific Basis of Body Mapping, Nichols states, “If movement is based on an inaccurate knowledge or perception about the anatomy of the body, then pathologic changes can result. These practices can lead to alterations in cortical representation, which can then become reinforcing of the faulty motor practice. Overtraining of one specific motor pattern can also lead to pathologic changes, such as focal dystonias, in the central nervous system. These conclusions underscore the importance of educating musicians in anatomy and physiology of the motor system so that practices that can lead to pathology in the musculoskeletal system can be avoided.”

“For example,” stated Marsh, “the pattern of tension in a pianist can begin simply by holding your head out from the body. Head balance is extremely important in terms of weight distribution. The weight of the head, arms, and torso is designed to travel through the spine, so if the head is in front of the body then suddenly muscles in the neck are holding the head up. The muscles of the upper body and arms are then compromised and suddenly your performance of Ravel’s ‘Boat on the Ocean’ lacks fluidity, resonance, and freedom.”

Oregon boasts the largest concentration of Andover educators because of Marsh’s collaboration with Barbara Conable, who lived and taught in Portland for sixteen years. This biennial conference also draws Andover educators and trainees from across the United States, Europe, South Africa, Japan, and Canada. “It’s the largest conference Andover Educators has had yet,” said Marsh, who along with her team (Harold Gray, Theresa Silveyra, Cynthia McGladrey, and Susan Riggs) organized this year’s conference. “What I love about Andover Educators is that we are a community that supports each other,” stated Marsh. “People are so excited about newcomers who want to hear about Body Mapping, and the experience is always very genuine, very warm.”

Musicians curious about Body Mapping should invest $100 to explore the conference’s first day. Thursday’s schedule begins with Barbara Conable’s keynote address and continues with the basic course created by Andover Educators. Topics include sensory awareness, the body map, six points of balance, arm structure, structures and movement of breathing, and legs and movement. The day ends with a concert (open to participants only) featuring selected performers from the Andover Educators such as German mezzo-soprano Inga Schneider, Dutch baritone Frans Hujts, Seattle pianist Laura Jeon, Oregon oboist Catherine Lee, and PSU Opera Program director Christine Meadows. Finally, a reception including wine will provide opportunities for professionals, students, and newcomers to connect and discuss the ideas presented that day, including perhaps their new maps that lead to a long and healthy career making music.

The Andover Educators Conference will be held Thursday, June 18-Sunday, June 21 at Lincoln Hall. To register for the opening day or for the entire conference, go to the website.

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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