MUSICIANS' HEALTH COLLECTIVE: SUPPORTING THE HEALTH OF MUSICIANS
The Intersection of Dance, Pilates, and Music: An Interview with Cicely NelsonAugust 31, 2017
Cicely Nelson is a violinist, educator, pilates teacher, dancer, and general somatic adventurer. With a wide range of educational and artistic experiences, as well as having lived a number of places, she brings a unique perspective to all that she does. She's also a recent Canadian transplant in Los Angeles, which is a new chapter in her career. I am impressed by all that she does and I can't wait to meet up with her and move the next time I'm in LA.
K: Tell us a little about your varied career. You have a wide range of interests and training, and a blended career in multiple fields of education, somatic teaching, and music performance. (and a liberal arts degree too!) You also just moved to LA...
C: My parents are very musical and music was a constant in my house growing up. Dancing was really my first artistic outlet - I danced seriously (attending professional schools in Canada) and professionally until my early twenties (I am back to dancing now, after some time off, but not as much ballet). Dancing is a tough career though, and I think, in many ways, I was emotionally unprepared for it, and I found healing and strength in returning to therapeutic bodywork as a career while at university in New York. Music kind of slowly blossomed alongside that. So I'm not sure I even noticed at the time how helpful both conditioning and somatic work was for my playing! That I maintained my physical health was always kind of a given. Later, encountering so many musicians with physical issues, I really realized the value of the work I do! In New York I used to teach pilates to a big-name violinist. I'll never forget the day he asked me for a violin lesson – for the sake of his alignment of course, my head exploded nevertheless!
Cicely here in the early days of studying ballet
K: When did you start music study as a child, as well as dance, and how did studying those two performing arts concurrently affect you then and now?
C: Like I said, dance was very much primary, but music always alongside. I don't think musicians always think of dancers as musicians (but of course they are) - and, similarly musicians do have far greater command of their coordination and propriocention than they realize! My bodywork makes me super keenly aware of the physicality of playing - to the extent that it can occasionally be difficult to get into a state of flow where I'm just thinking of the music. But generally body awareness really helps my playing.
K: How does the liberal arts degree factor into things?
C: I didn't have much of a high school experience (due to ballet school), so college was really about studying anything and everything! Thankfully, I went to college in New York City so it was a tremendously stimulating place to kind of reroute my passions after the ballet career and, while I dabbled in premed and even contemplated going a more academic direction, I don't think it was really ever a question that I could stay away from the arts.
K: You additionally have training in Suzuki- when did you start that? C: I was made aware of the really excellent Suzuki teacher training program at the school for strings in NYC after I finished my undergraduate degree. In all honesty, the program's approach sounded so similar to Pilates! The school really emphasizes creatively finding a slow, steady, systematic path for every single student, regardless of ability or learning style. The skills that I had gained in training people to move came in really handy in teaching children to play. It's really such a great program! Incredible teachers – I think of them every day that I teach, not only the amazing violinistic tips but their humanity – how they really prioritized developing the whole child as opposed to just a little prodigies, how art for them wasn't just about creativity and achievement but also about emotional health. This resonated with me as it wasn't a balance that was particularly well struck during my own childhood.
K: How does have a somatic background affect the way you work with beginners and children? C: Oh wow, it's huge! Kids are so much more in touch with their emotions than adults, for a variety of reasons. Of course, they're not always able to understand or verbalize their feelings, but my awareness of how emotions manifest physically enables me to guide both their learning and performing experiences with extra sensitivity, I think.
K: Who have some of your biggest teachers/mentors been, either in movement or music? C: I've been fortunate to study with some incredible mentors - in all of my endeavors. I've always sought answers very avidly and, for better or worse, impatiently - so, if one my mentors wasn't getting through to me, I would seek another answer. Of course the downside to this is that I have been a somewhat of a fickle student.
In New York, I studied violin with Joey Corpus, who is just a total savant. He extremely creative about solving violinistic issues - he has no set system, his eye just seems to see. Also, somewhat ironically for a paraplegic, his instructions are extremely kinetic, an approach that resonated with me.
In terms of bodywork, I absolutely adore Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Her work on embodied anatomy, living in our bodies instead of our minds, was and remains a game changer for me.
Cicely doing swan on the ladder barrel
Erika Bloom has been an incredible Pilates colleague and mentor. We met up in New York in 2006, where I was a member of the team that opened her first studio. It was so refreshing to work with someone who prioritized education and truly kept themselves and their team abreast of current anatomical and neuromuscular scholarship. I think that's becoming a more common model now, but not as much 10 years ago. I continue to work for her now, having moved to LA to open her first West Coast studio last January.
K: What has the intersection of movement and music done for you?
C: They are the same to me. Vehicles of expression that demand massive amounts of devotion, drilling, sacrifice, and self care. But pursuits that are more rewarding than anything under the sun. Being a musician makes me a better dancer and vice versa. Pilates, yoga, and bodywork are truly my therapeutic recourse personally, but also teaching is both something that fills me up and enables me to give back in a really tangible way. Of course performing arts make people's lives better, but that can sometimes feel somewhat abstract? In teaching Pilates I feel I can make people's lives better in the moment, which provides a nice counterbalance to the occasional loneliness of artistic pursuits.
K: What are you currently fascinated with in your own movement practice and what do you want to learn more about? C: Oh that's such a great question. Last year, after a fairly stressful couple of years, I was working in the Caribbean and I had lots of extra time. My obsession then was limits – that I had always been focused on finding and pushing my boundaries and limits, but I wanted to take that time to find a real comfort zone – not pushing boundaries and leaning into ligaments, but really making my muscles stronger and becoming fluid and confident within my own skeleton. That was a really helpful direction to take and I do feel much more grounded now. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's work has been really influential recently, especially her studies on how we somatize emotion and, similarly, how movement is far more than a physical therapy, but also tremendously impactful on emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual levels.
K: What are some upcoming projects? C: Playing-wise, I am getting in shape for orchestra auditions. Given the variety of my interests, even if I could win a full time orchestra job, that wouldn't so much be my ideal life, I'm more focusing on getting in better shape to that I can play with better pick-up orchestras? My dream is to meet some local chamber musicians, that is of course my favorite thing. I had that in New York - people with whom you play for fun but people who are serious and professional so that a bunch of gigs came our way and we actually did quite well in the classical nightlife scene there for a few years!
In terms of dance, I continue to dance here in Los Angeles, mostly studying with both visiting and local Flamenco artists and performing a little bit, just casually. I'm still pretty new to Flamenco, so there is so much to learn! But what I especially love in this art form is that the dancer is the musician.
I'm probably most deeply involved right now in getting Erika Bloom's studio up and running in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. I'm really excited for what our studio can bring to this city! In my experience here thus far, Pilates is usually lumped in with fitness and the whole magic bullet/vanity industry, which of course it can be, but we offer so much more than that - a really holistic approach to wellness, movement, and fitness that is about so much more than this typically-LA obsession with looking good - and an approach that is directed by arguably the best education available in the industry at the moment.
K: Thanks so much, Cicely!
If it weren't for the wobble, we wouldn't recognize the value of stillness, that suspension between wobbles.
May be it's a trademark of youth, for better or worse, but I vividly recall the exhilaration of putting myself in both physically and emotionally grueling situations with the belief that they would push me to superhuman capacities. And whether it's because of maturity or simply, finally wising up, I don't do that as haphazardly any more.
Because, contrary to my expectation, it diminished the value of everything I did and it also diminished my capacity for appreciation. I trust the process more now. I trust my own abilities more, my own motivations. And I finally begin to appreciate the value of enjoyment. I would still say that I embrace a stoic philosophy, but one needn't suffer for that balance. The wobbles have value too.
Confession: although I truly should know better, I'm a boot camp junkie. I love being pushed, I love strenuous cardio. I know there are other ways to work up a sweat, but, when one is busy, this is a quick endorphin rush and cardio burst. But truly, after working in therapeutic Pilates and physiotherapy for over ten years now, I've seen a cautionary number of injured boot camp and cross fit clients. It's not hard to see why; group fitness trainers simply cannot safely guide thirty people through a rigorous workout. And yet, I know that, if I still crave these things, certainly less body-aware people do as well. So, with that in mind, here are some tips for surviving boot camp:
And, if at all possible, avoid boot camps. The truth is all of our bodies are incredibly different. Engaging in fitness mindfully and healthily requires a well-educated instructor and, ideally, a personalized experience. But of course not all of us can afford one-on-one daily sessions. So listen to your body, educate yourself, and by all means just get out there and do it.
I had the immense privilege of attending a workshop with the venerable Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen last weekend at the University of San Diego. For those of you who are not familiar with her work, for over fifty years, Bonnie has been at the forefront of the mind-body movement. With the detail and finesse of a hybrid between a medical professor and a dance teacher, she teaches embodied anatomy, guiding students to a deeper connection to our neurology and physiology through mindful movement.
This particular workshop, "weaving and tonifying our central core," addressed how our "core" is more far-reaching - both in space (anatomically) and in time (from embryological origin) - than is often understood. We explored the dynamic interweaving of the structures of the diaphragm/s, vis-a-vis Bonnie's hypothesis that the diaphragm's crura extend both lower and higher than most western anatomical texts attest. And we explored the effect that this hypothesis has upon peripheral joints through movement, novel schematic paradigms (largely of an embryological bent), and touch.
As a result of this new information, I am slowly exploring motions for new awareness and connectivity - both personally and in my clients, motions that are so commonplace to pilates instructors, like knee folds, squats, and leg circles. I am finding that both Bonnie's emphasis upon the diaphragm's crura and her explanations of its embryological origins radically affect how I conceive of and initiate motion, which has far-reaching implications upon how I teach movement, but also upon how I conceive of musical expression - both as a musician and teacher, and even upon how I move through the world.
Personally, this has been a lot to take in. While I have known of Bonnie's work for several years, to study with her in person led to much greater depth of understanding, physically and intellectually. It honestly feels more like the very beginnings of understanding. My previous confidence in my anatomical knowledge seems almost liminal. And, while that's scary to admit, it's also ok. For, as I mentioned in my previous post, being unsettled makes us more deeply aware and attuned. And that's a great thing.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I've been pretty remiss about blogging for the past couple of months, no doubt to the anguish of my legions of fans:). I had more time to process my thoughts while living in the Caribbean, and the past two months - travelling in December and now acclimating to a new city - have been a time of tremendous change, so my silence is due to both general overwhelm and some uncertainty about what the present moment means, as much is still unsettled - which also always a global truism but especially at the moment.
And that's ok. In an unsettled state we are more aware. We are vigilant - the hunters and the hunted. We are more attuned, accountable. So here's to making the most of an unsettled time. Here's to planting seeds even when we don't know if they'll sprout or not, or if they do, if we'll be around to see them.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
Change isn't always fast. Sometimes it seems righting a wrong that's half a millennia old may take just as long. That doesn't mean it's not happening. The increased activism of the past two weeks may appear to be subsiding slightly, but it will never drop to pre-Trump levels. You can say what you want about the Pantsuit Nation, but that group has mobilized millions of previously fairly apolitical people. Not to mention the numbers of that group who are now running for public office. The ACLU is stronger than ever before in its history, Black Lives Matter is practically mainstream (Glenn Beck is now on board!? We are truly living in apocalyptic times).
On of my favorite conversations this week has been with a colleague, who posted this.
Politically, it's a call to continue to educate ourselves, to listen more than we talk, to be more interested than interesting, and to protest peacefully when possible, but never stop protesting. But it also has somatic correlates: we must allow our bodies and minds to fall silent from time to time. We must recharge at a baseline of calm in order to stay in the fight. If we are constantly abuzz, we cannot listen to the wisdom that courses through our veins. And per kindness; sometimes it means being explicitly loving but sometimes it's admonishing someone for not knowing better, withdrawing from toxic people, or fighting back to protect yourself. Somatically, sometimes kindness is nidra and other days it's boxing.
Personally, these past few months I've cleaned house, holding myself and those close to me to higher standards of integrity. I've investigated why I allowed less than nourishing relationships and habits in my life. I've established greater awareness of my boundaries and how I enact them. I'm more profoundly aware of my own permeability - sensitivity to energies - and take steps to protect myself. I share this not out of boastfulness, but to urge you to do the same. Now is not the time to compromise.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I had a rough spill a few days ago - entirely preventable. I had been admiring the huge, rough, romantic waves on the beach here in Provo and underestimated their force. I was ok getting in the water but was trapped in a huge wave getting out and essentially put in a spin cycle with some rocks. Again, I should have known better. Thankfully, I emerged with just a few scratches and bruises, but awoke two days later achey all over and tired all day. This phenomena reminded me of a time I once went down a flight of marble stairs on my butt, and I've heard similar complaints from friends and students, so I felt it merited some research.*
This is called delayed onset muscle soreness. It is a result of us instinctively and protectively contracting our muscles at the moment of injury and overall soreness (beyond localized injuries) is due to the toll this exertion takes on both our musculoskeletal and nervous systems and also on our brains and our bodies being flooded with stress hormones. Not only are a plethora of muscles recovering from this violent spasm, but the system also has to cope with redressing this chemical imbalance.
This morning I felt tired, but I was ok teaching - probably being absorbed in other people's issues distracted me. But I was intending to do an afternoon Pilates session and found I could do little more than lie on the machine. My regular run was out of the question. I could have pushed myself to swim, but a night in felt more like what my body and nervous system needed. After a physical trauma, tuning in and relieving physical tension is paramount. Of course, it's ideal to be as active as possible, but if your body is extra achey, give it some TLC. Probably for many of you, this is a no brainer. But it's taken me some time to be this kind to my body and I feel extra justified in it knowing the science behind why. May it be of benefit to you as well.
*Waking the Tiger: Healing From Trauma. Levine, Peter. 1997.
copyright © cicely nelson 2016
I'd heard of Glennon Doyle Melton but not really followed her, as I didn't really consider myself her target demographic. But she's recently published a memoir which is getting a lot of press and I'm realizing all of humanity is this wonderful woman's demographic. I caught a caption that enticed me to watch most of the above interview (recommend!). The caption was something to the effect of pain and reactiveness being a sort of "hot potato" that we are eternally shunting off to somewhere or someone else. That we so rarely sit with feelings before we react, deny, or suppress, and thus end up kind of backed up and blocked.
I sometimes catch myself and my students (both music and Pilates/Yoga) holding our breath, which results in constricted lungs and diaphragm and increased physical tension in general. And, in the context of GDM's hot potato metaphor, it is clear that this is the somatic (bodily manifestation) effect of shunting off not just pain, anxiety, and shame, but even simple moment-to-moment awareness and presence. It's so easy to get ensnared in doing, going, and getting throughout our days, thinking of our next task or reflecting on a past conversation, even in moments where we truly can pause. It's often in these moments - washing the dishes, for instance - that I realize my mind is still going a mile-a-minute, planning, rehashing, and the physical effect is that my breath is shallow and thus that I am not truly inhabiting my body, in which this lack of awareness manifests as tension and/or counter-productive movement patterns. This somatic signal of breath awareness can be not only a canary in the mine of our emotional life, but also an anchor. By heeding our breath more often, and holding the hot potato, we can be more present both physically, emotionally, and spiritually, which allows our bodies and minds to heal and remain healthy. At the very least, our bodies will be less constricted, which has pretty profound implications for mental and physical health and conditioning. Thank you, Glennon, you have a new fan!
copyright © cicely nelson 2016