Jennifer Johnson: On Learning to Play More Effortlessly, Through a Better Understanding of the True Design of Your Body

You know when you need to hang a frame, but can’t find a hammer, so you decide to put a nail in the wall with the handle of a screwdriver, and end up making a mess of the wall or hurting yourself?

Well, that’s not too far off from what I would sometimes do in the practice room, when it came to technical challenges, whether it was playing chords in tune, or playing faster, louder, or softer. When I was trying to learn up-bow staccato, for instance, I quickly discovered that my elbow and wrist would get really tight and just didn’t seem capable of moving fast enough to do what I thought they were supposed to do. And this being in the pre-Google, pre-YouTube days, it wasn’t like I could look at 20 different people doing it to deconstruct what they were doing that I wasn’t.

Eventually I did figure out that I should be rotating my arm so that I could use the up and down muscles in my wrist rather than the side to side muscles, which made doing up-bow staccato so much easier. However, there were probably a ton of other little things that I never realized I was doing that made playing the violin much more difficult than it needed to be – both in terms of effort and accuracy/consistency.

Have you ever felt that sort of stuck-ness? Like you’ve reached some sort of physiological limit with your instrument and perhaps your body just wasn’t designed to do the thing that someone else seems to be able to do effortlessly? Well, the good news is that sometimes, it’s not that we’ve reached an actual physical limit, but that our internal “map” or concept of our body is just slightly askew, leading to an attempt to move our body in ways that it wasn’t necessarily designed to move.

Wait…what’s that now?

Meet Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is a violinist, who currently plays in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, and from 1993-2005, was a member of the Atlantic String Quartet.

She is also the author of What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body, and as a licensed Andover Educator, presents Body Mapping workshops around the world.

Whether you’ve been frustrated by feeling like you’ve hit some sort of wall in your technique, can’t play with as much ease in certain passages as others, or this is the first time you’ve heard the term Body Mapping and are simply curious about how it’s similar or different from Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, I hope this chat with Jennifer – and special co-host, violist Carol Rodland – will provide you with some new paths to explore.

In this month’s episode, we’ll explore:

  • What is Body Mapping is exactly? How does it relate to Alexander Technique? And how did it come to exist? (8:33)
  • Why does it matter that we know exactly where are joints are? How does a “mismapping” affect our playing? (11:50)
  • How to sit the right way. (15:38)
  • What should we be looking for in a chair? And why trying to sit “properly” can actually be inefficient and cause pain. (19:32)
  • Are high heels a no-no? (22:19)
  • How Body Mapping is not just about injury prevention, but getting rid of limitations that a mismapping may have placed on our technique – like in Jennifer’s case, how remapping her thumb led to a huge improvement in her staccato stroke. (27:12)
  • The problem of hyper-mobility – and how just because you’re flexible and can move a certain way, doesn’t mean you should be moving that way. (30:57)
  • How culture and the images we see can influence our posture and how we move, and lead us to carry ourselves in less than ideal ways. (33:34)
  • The impact of emotional trauma that we may carry with us in our bodies, and Barbara Conable’s thoughts on how to change your experience of performance anxiety. (35:07)
  • How to breathe more effectively. (40:04)
  • How can we tell if someone on YouTube is playing in a way that represents a good example for us to model? (44:26)
  • How Karen Tuttle came to switch from violin to viola, and started down the path of finding “truth.” (46:31)

Notes

Connect with Jennifer

If you would like to reach out to Jennifer with questions or to find out how you might work with her, you can contact her here: jennifer-johnson.co

You can order a copy of Jennifer’s Body Mapping book (for violinists) here: What Every Violinist Needs to Know about the Body

Additional resources

For non-violinists, there’s a list of Body Mapping books for additional instruments here: Association for Body Mapping Education’s Recommended Reading

And finally, if you’re interested in exploring Body Mapping further, the Association for Body Mapping Education’s website is here: Association for Body Mapping Education

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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