Can music education help with kids' chronic pain & disembodiment?

This past weekend, I finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Over the past five months, I had an amazing experience training at Flow Yoga Center. What I especially loved about my training was simply the chance to understand the human body better: from anatomy and alignment to our bodies’ capacity for change; from diet and digestion to the physical impact of stress.

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

I’ve come to see myself not just as a yoga student and yoga teacher, but as a lifelong student of the body—and as a mind-body educator, both inside and outside the field of music.

One of the most empowering things we can do for ourselves is to increase our knowledge about, and respect for, our bodies. I truly believe that some of our biggest physical and mental health problems as a society can be traced down to a basic misunderstanding—and maybe even a rejection, a denial—of how the human body functions. We have a pretty messed-up view of how the body “should” function: working as long as possible; sleeping as little as possible; never getting old, sick or injured. And when our bodies “fail” us, we’re annoyed.

With our adversarial, do-what-I-say attitude towards our minds and bodies, it’s no wonder we’re facing epidemics of anxiety, depression, pain, chronic stress, and dependence on all kinds of drugs to get us through our days and our lives.

But what’s been really grabbing my attention lately is that it’s not just adults who are suffering major pain and discomfort in their own bodies. It’s children. Specifically, my students.

Each week, I see about 13 violin students, from third grade through ninth grade, in a variety of settings. About 50% of them regularly report some kind of chronic pain. Three have persistent low back pain (fifth and sixth graders); another regularly takes 600mg of Ibuprofen for muscular pain. Several—especially my middle schoolers—arrive to class exhausted, sleep-deprived, and poorly nourished. Admittedly, my sample size is small, but the proliferation of orthopedic problems in children from, say, extended sitting and poorly designed school furniture is well-documented.

I usually make them stand up. But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens. 

I usually make them stand up. But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens. 

As a musician and a yogi, I know that the overall health of the body is essential to being able to live fully—never mind learning to play the violin. So, I’ve come to feel that I’m not doing my job if I don’t attempt to address some of the overall body issues that my students are bringing to their lessons. Not as a doctor, but simply as a body educator.

Music education is rarely talked about in this way. But is it possible that music teachers actually have a fantastic opportunity to bring greater embodiment to our students’ lives? I think yes. In part, because:

  • We teach an embodied practice. We have an opportunity to teach healthy movement: to shape and observe how our students’ brain, bones, joints, muscles, breath, and voice are interacting.

  • We teach an active, movement-rich subject. Our students don’t need to be trapped at desks or computers. Many instruments can accommodate sitting, standing, and walking.  

  • We teach a joyful, creative practice that can get positive hormones flowing in our students’ bodies, helping to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol created by high-stress, high-stakes educational settings.

  • If we’re lucky, we have the chance to work with students one-on-one. We can offer them personalized feedback and give them healthy practices to take home.

 

My challenge to us as music teachers is to check in about whether we are making the most of this opportunity to build healthy embodiment into music education.

  • Are we merely replicating traditional classroom circumstances (prolonged sitting, sedentary learning, poor attention to body mechanics) that cause our students pain?

  • Do we understand children’s need to move? Are we staying conscious of the “movement diet” of our classes?

  • Are we listening to, and taking seriously, our students’ reports of pain and discomfort?

  • Are we telling ourselves that we “don’t have time” for movement breaks, stretching, and even periods of quiet rest?

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

For me, this is really the beginning of what I hope will be a life-long inquiry, and I look forward to hearing your ideas. Some good resources I’ve enjoyed checking out:

  • The Gokhale Method, also known as Primal Posture. The amazing anthropologist and physical therapist Esther Gokhale traveled all over the world, learning the principles of movement still present in those communities that don’t have chronic pain epidemics. I’ve used a couple of her sitting principles myself, with great results, and have also shared them with my back-pain students. I hope to eventually take a full Gokhale course.

  • Stand up Kids. This organization is dedicated to creating healthier, “movement-rich” classrooms, and has an awesome list of movement breaks that you can try with your students. The founder was interviewed on Liberated Body, too.

  • Another episode of the Liberated Body Podcast, on movement-friendly classrooms.