November 5, 2009 in Washington Voices

Mapping the body’s flow

Instructor teaches how physical awareness improves a performer’s abilities and talents
By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photo

William Conable demonstrates the Alexander Technique to viola player Kelsi Garvin, of Spokane, on Saturday at Holy Names Music Center. The technique improves ease and freedom of movement, balance, flexibility and coordination. It has become a valued tool for for actors, dancers, musicians and athletes.
(Full-size photo)

Coming up

What: Alexander Technique and Body Mapping Workshop

When: Nov. 14, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Where: Holy Names Music Center, 3910 W. Custer Drive

Cost: $10. For more information, call (509) 326-9516.


Imagine you’re looking at a map of Spokane. You note that Division Street is a four-lane, north-south street. You decide to drive north on Division Street from Gonzaga University. To your surprise, you discover it’s not Division – it’s Ruby Street, and it’s one way. Turns out your map is several years out of date.

William Conable, emeritus professor of music at Ohio State University, said human beings have maps of their bodies tucked within their brains. “We use this map to give our bodies instruction for movement,” he explained. And sometimes those maps are faulty. “Almost everyone has something incorrect in their map, but they’ve got to use it – it’s all they have.”

He discovered body mapping when he taught cello at Ohio State. Conable observed that students moved according to how they perceived their bodies were designed rather than according to how they were actually structured.

“Forty years of college teaching is almost enough,” said Conable, now retired. But he’s not altogether out of education. He moved to Spokane when his wife accepted a job at Eastern Washington University, and Saturday, he taught an introductory body mapping and Alexander Technique workshop at Holy Names Music Center.

Musicians, actors and music teachers gathered to unlock the mysteries of their own body maps and to learn about the Alexander Technique. Conable has traveled the world teaching this method, which involves a simple, practical way to improve balance, flexibility and coordination. Developed by actor and elocutionist F.M. Alexander in the 1890s, the technique promotes freedom and ease of movement. It can enhance the performances of actors, dancers and musicians. Body mapping is Conable’s extension of the Alexander Technique. His students learn to develop a more accurate understanding of the structure and function of their bodies.

After a few minutes of introduction, Conable asked for a volunteer. He believes the best way to understand the Alexander Technique is to watch it applied. Thirteen-year-old Aubrey Hamilton shyly agreed to play the piano for the assembled group.

Soon the room resonated with the sweet strains of “Lavender Hills,” as the poised teen played. “Notice she’s quite free in her body while she plays,” said Conable. He then pointed about that when she came to a tricky place in the music she bent forward, tightened her neck and tucked her head down.

Standing behind her, Conable asked her to play the piece again. He placed his hands around the sides and back of her head as she played. Workshop attendees expressed surprise at the difference in fluidity and tone of her second rendition.

Commenting that Hamilton didn’t sway as much when Conable held her head, one participant said, “The energy of her swaying body movements seemed concentrated and poured into the music.”

A pleased Conable nodded. “The first time was very nice, but the second time was special.”

Hamilton said later, “It felt like he just softly lifted my neck and head forward.” She said that subtle change in posture helped her concentration.

Conable explained that the human body follows the lead of the head. Correct posture and positioning of the head allows greater range of movement for the entire body. By contrast, he said, “If heads are rigid on the top of the spine, that rigidity spreads to the body as a whole.”

He asked for another volunteer, and actor Aaron Murphy stood and faced the group. Murphy is currently appearing as Father Flynn in “Doubt” at Interplayers Professional Theatre. He delivered a portion of Flynn’s monologue, enthralling workshop attendees.

However, Conable observed, “Actors and dancers tend to be very aware of their fronts – it’s what everyone sees.” Then he smiled. “But there’s much more to Aaron than his front.”

Placing his hands on Murphy’s forehead and upper back, he asked the actor to deliver the speech again. He spoke softly to Murphy, “You’re going to remember you’ve got a back and sides and insides and feet.”

Murphy quipped, “I feel like I can’t move!” But he gamely began the monologue.

Again, participants noticed a marked difference. “His pitch changed,” one commented. Another noted that he delivered the same words but with more resonance and emotion.

As Murphy took his seat, Conable said, “Aaron is inhabiting his whole body – his whole self. Even though he’s offstage, if you look at him, you can hardly look at anything else.”

Murphy later said he felt kinesthetically connected and aware of his whole body when Conable gently placed his hands on him. “I felt precisely aligned,” Murphy said. “Almost like listening to a radio station that’s one point off station and suddenly comes into tune.” He added that he would be looking for an Alexander teacher when he returns to his home in San Francisco.

Next, Conable demonstrated body mapping by asking the group to point to the joint between the palm of the hand and index finger. Looking around the room, he noted that many participants had varying ideas of where that joint is located. Most pointed to their knuckles, but Conable demonstrated that the joint is actually much closer to the palm. “Most of you had a mistaken map,” he said. “Because our bodies change in shape and size, we have to be able to learn and relearn our maps.”

Conable will teach a second workshop at Holy Names Music Center on Nov. 14 and plans to offer classes at the center this winter.

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