Body Mapping: Preventing and Addressing Musicians’ Injuries

body mapping
By Jennifer Johnson

Body Mapping is the method, first discovered by cellist William Conable and then thoroughly developed by Barbara Conable, to teach musicians how to move according to the true anatomical design of the body in order to prevent injury and enhance facility and artistry.

During her years teaching the Alexander Technique, Barbara realized that when musicians have misconceptions about how their bodies move, they move according to those misconceptions and this leads to injury. Because musicians’ rates of injury are so high (recent research suggests 70-90% of all professional musicians experience pain and or injury during their careers), she began addressing this problem by writing two books on Body Mapping: How to Learn the Alexander Technique, and What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body. She then developed the material further by creating an organization called Andover Educators to teach the six-hour course she developed, also called What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body (WEM).

How Mismappings Occur

In the WEM course, musicians learn about the most common misconceptions both in music pedagogy and also in our culture that lead to “mismappings.” Mismappings occur when a musician (or anyone) moves repeatedly in a certain way running contrary to the actual design of the body. The brain begins firing down different neural pathways and starts to adapt to reflect how the musician thinks they are meant to move.

One analogy that is useful in explaining how Body Mapping works is a person who buys a new mechanical toy and is so impatient to put it together that he doesn’t read the instruction manual. He might get it mostly right, but if he doesn’t fully understand the whole of the design of the toy before starting, he may end up jamming certain bits into wrong relationships with other bits. The toy may even work pretty well at first after it’s put together, but not as optimally as if every piece was fitting exactly the way it was designed. Once restored to its design, it will move more easily and more smoothly.

Clearly, we don’t have to put our bodies together in this same way, but if we do not “read the instruction manual” by understanding how our bones are meant to fit together and move against one another, our own movement will be compromised and eventually the strain will lead to injury.

For example, “keeping the shoulders down” is a common misconception in music pedagogy that leads to unnecessary and habitual muscular work in the upper torso and neck and impedes free movement of the arms. Once arms have moved often enough with muscles trying to “hold shoulders down,” the brain’s new neural pathways become more deeply entrenched causing this kind of movement to feel “right” and familiar to the player even though it’s causing discomfort and pain—in Body Mapping, this is considered a mismapping.

Licensed Body Mapping instructor Jennifer Johnson (right) works with pianist Teri Slade on mapping the functions of the hand and wrist bones.

Re-map Back to Health

In order to re-map our way back to health, we need to find the natural and healthy way of moving arms that we were graced with in early childhood by studying the design of the bones’ relationships to one another and the natural functions those designs dictate. In this particular case, after studying their own structure with the guidance of a Body Mapping Educator, the player will discover that the collarbone and shoulder blade unit (normally called the “shoulder”) is absolutely an important part of a whole arm and must move when the rest of the arm moves. This is because the socket for the ball of the upper arm is contained right within the structure of the shoulder blade itself. If the shoulder blade does not follow the movement of the humerus, it sets up a situation of strain—the humerus trying to move forward to perhaps get to the tip of the bow or move the trombone slide forward, while the attached socket is being pulled back in the opposite direction.

After understanding intellectually what is causing the muscular strain, the musician can begin practicing new movement patterns in front of a mirror, being careful that they are allowing the collarbone/shoulder blade unit to follow the movement of the rest of the arm in a healthy and easy “humero-scapular rhythm.” He or she can then practice picking up the salt shaker or the water tumbler or books using this new movement pattern and eventually the “plastic” brain (in the sense of “neuro-plasticity”) will start to fire in a healthier way making the new arm movement feel more “right” than the old, injurious way. The musician has now “remapped” their movement and will continue to move in accordance with their true design.

Another common mismapping for musicians is a confusion around which bone is designed to move the hand from palm-up to palm-down, (often called pronating and supinating the hand.) Violinists, for instance, are often told to “get the elbow under the violin” in order to bring the fourth finger to the string. This frequently misleads players into trying to unnaturally twist the ulna (arm bone that lies on the pinky side of the forearm). In reality, the only movement the ulna is designed to make is a bending/unbending: it is a hinge-like joint and has next to no capacity to turn the hand.

Healthy Movement

We need to show this player in images and anatomical models, that the radius, the forearm bone that lies on the thumb side of the forearm is actually the bone designed to carry the hand into rotation. We need the student to locate where the radius meets the humerus (elbow joint on the thumb side), get them to draw it on their skin with erasable markers, palpate it regularly and notice how different it looks when moving from this joint. Then we patiently coach them as they take this information to the violin. As we do this, we make sure they are recruiting many different joints to “get the pinky down,” not just their new-found radial joint.

Healthy movement is most often a movement that is distributed across many joints of the body, not just focused at one joint. So we coach them in how the humerus must rotate in its socket with the shoulder blade, how the shoulder blade must follow that movement, and how the elbow and wrist joints can release slightly inwards in the direction of the face in a miniature shifting movement to allow the fourth finger an easier approach to the string. We will also coach them in how the fourth finger hand bone itself can be allowed a forward movement to keep the hand muscles free as the fourth finger comes to the string.

Now we have a violinist using several joints in harmony to bring the fourth finger down and so there is no one region of the body that is being strained—the movement is evenly distributed across a much larger region.

The WEM Course

The WEM course also delves into the importance of training musicians to develop all of their senses, especially the kinesthetic sense as well as a higher quality of awareness. When awareness narrows, as during periods of “concentration,” muscles in the body also tend to “narrow” or tighten. Consciously developing a wider sense of the world around us as we practice and perform helps maintain the healthier movement patterns that our remapping work is establishing for us.

We all know if we even imagine trying to play our cello or trombone in an old-fashioned phone booth, our muscles constrict to “fit us” into the space. The reverse is also true—when we cultivate an awareness of a much larger space like the one we’ll be performing in, our bodies move more freely into that perceived space. Heightening all of our senses and our awareness is extremely important to the success of the more movement-oriented part of the WEM course.

The most basic and powerful piece of information musicians need to know about Body Mapping is that we can take control of our movement patterns and become independent in addressing and managing any pain or discomfort we might experience when we play. Often musicians become dependent on health-care practitioners to “fix” us, but they can only offer temporary relief. What follows frequently is that the musician starts to feel despondent because they’ve lost their empowerment; they start to give up the hope that they’ll ever feel better and play easily again. Only we ourselves can change our own movement patterns to become free.

Much can be learned by studying anatomical images and models and finding out what surprises you about what you see. If you feel surprised by the size, number, or shapes of the bones you’re looking at, it’s likely you are carrying a misconception about how you’re supposed to move there and therefore you are probably moving against the design of your body. More often than not, this is what is causing the pain or the chronic tension.

Correcting this takes patience but musicians are motivated by how much better they feel, sometimes immediately, when they start moving according to the laws of their own body. Having said all that, a Licensed Body Mapping Educator always makes sure the student has seen a medical professional to rule out the possibility that the pain is being caused by some form of disease.

Body Mapping For All Ages

No matter what our age, when we begin to study what healthy movement looks like, on either an anatomical model or a real-life model (tiny children and great movers like pianist Anton Rubinstein, for instance), we begin to feel more freedom in our approach to the instrument. It does however take practice—we need to diligently practice our new movement patterns throughout our everyday activities, so that it’s not something we are just applying in the practice room.

Body Mapping is also a very useful tool in the teaching studio. With very small children, sometimes it’s just a matter of preventing poor movement habits from forming in the first place with the instrument. Ensuring our verbal instructions don’t mislead them is an important step with children especially. Sometimes with children who are already moving down a path of poor quality movement, it’s more about laying seeds of information so that when they are more mature and perhaps beginning to feel the first signs of discomfort, the seeds you planted married to their new motivation to not be in pain, helps them solve their problems in fairly short order.

Older adult students frequently need to be more patient as it will take longer to change their maps, but it is equally effective, as long as they stick with the principles and practice the new patterns.

I have found the easiest age to help correct mismappings is the university level-aged students. I teach Body Mapping at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s School of Music and I always delight in watching students make fast and lasting changes in their movement patterns. They may be just beginning down the road of pain and this is a huge motivator for change! However, they are still young enough that they don’t have decades of poor movement patterns behind them and they are usually of an age and maturity level that lends itself to fairly quick improvements. Very fun to watch!

Regardless of the age of the student some of the tools we use to teach Body Mapping are:

  1. Anatomical images and models to correct mismappings.
  2. Palpation of bone shapes and sizes: the student uses their hands to explore the shape or size of their own bones to correct misconceptions.
  3. Video footage of lovely movers; sometimes musicians, sometimes athletes or dancers.
  4. Self-inquiry—asking questions: “How does that feel different now compared to your habitual movement pattern?”

Barbara Conable provided a great service to the health of today’s musicians as well as to future generations by developing Body Mapping especially for musicians. Many hundreds of musicians have saved their own careers over the last few decades by learning how to move in healthy ways according to the design of their body.

Anyone wishing to know more about Body Mapping, find reading materials or locate a Body Mapping Educator can access our website at:

Jennifer Johnson, violinist, presents Body Mapping workshops for music schools and conferences nationally and internationally. She has presented at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England, was the keynote speaker at the Australian String Teachers’ Association in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 and is a regular faculty member for the New York Philharmonic’s Zarin Mehta Fellowship Program. She is a professional associate at Memorial University of Newfoundland Music School where she teaches Body Mapping and violin. Jennifer’s first book, What Every Violinist Needs to Know about the Body, was published in 2009. Her newest book, Teaching Body Mapping to Children, was published in 2016.

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