New lessons from the balloon: The Upper Body

All right, then. You’ve been talking to a balloon and discovering plenty of things about sound and vibration. You might as well use the balloon to make other discoveries. Grab a partner for this exercise. Stand facing each other. Hold the balloon lightly in your hands, about a foot or so away from your midriff. Ask your partner to place her palms on the backs of your hands, touching you as lightly as you’re touching the balloon. Tell her to keep touching your hands steadily, then start moving the balloon slowly. It doesn’t matter how you move the balloon: turn it clock- or counterclockwise, move it away from your body or closer to it, move it up and down in space.

Watch your partner as you move the balloon. Most likely she’ll contort her whole body in an effort to follow your hands and the balloon as they move here and there. She might scrunch her head and neck, raise her shoulders, shorten one side of her abdomen, and so on. She won’t be aware of her misuse; and, once she does become aware of it, she'll claim it’s “normal” to move like that.

In truth all she needs to do is to make the articulations of her arms—from shoulders to fingertips—mobile like the joints of a marionette. Then, as you move the balloon, your partner can make constant adjustments to all her arm joints, bending or unbending each as needed, lifting or dropping her elbows, her upper arms, or her forearms. Her head, neck, and trunk don’t need to move altogether!

Take turns holding the balloon and moving it. Then make the exercise more complex. While moving the balloon, ask your partner to sing a children’s song. You’ll be amazed at the effects on her arms: she'll hold them so stiffly you won't be able to move the balloon. Her efforts at singing distract her from paying attention to her arms, and she misplaces her intentions and her energies—as we all do, more often than we care to admit.

The balloon teaches you about your perceptions of yourself and of others, your understanding of what is normal or abnormal, the working of your arm joints, the way you apportion energy and effort as you move. After working with the balloon for a while, go play your instrument—be it the cello, the piano, the oboe, or the didgeridoo—and see what you can do with the wisdom you learned from the balloon.

Lessons from the balloon: The Voice

For this exploration you’ll need a sound system and a balloon—a regular rubber balloon like you see at children’s parties, round and plain, blown to about the size of your head.

On your sound system, play a CD of something lively, vibrant, and variable in dynamics and tone. I love doing this exercise to the Golden Gate Quartet—four guys with very different but well-blended voices, singing tunes of a Biblical bent with tremendous rhythmic vitality. But anything sonorous will do. While the CD is playing, hold the balloon in your hands, as lightly as possible. Walk over your sound system’s speaker; stand right next to it; and place the balloon against the speaker.

The balloon captures the vibrations from the sound system and magnifies them. And the vibrations make the balloon come alive, all sounds, all voices, all musical elements making their own individual vibrations. Sound becomes tangible, something you can hold in your hands. You have to do it to believe it. And even when you do it, you won’t believe it.

After doing this for a while, turn the music off and do another exercise. Hold the balloon (always with a light touch) close to your mouth and speak into the balloon. Yep—the balloon also captures your voice and makes it tangible. Try speaking high, low, soft, and loud. Lengthen your vowels to enhance the vibrations: “Leeeeengthen your vooooooowels.” Do the exercise with a friend: ask him or her to stand facing you, the balloon between your mouths. Take turns talking. You’ll hear and feel the differences between your voices.

While talking into the balloon, push your head back and down into your neck, shortening the neck and spine. Your voice will change considerably, and so will its vibrations. I bet you’ll like your vibrations better when the neck is lengthening and the head well-poised.

Moral of the story: Each sound has its vibration, and the sounds of a well-coordinated musician have the liveliest vibrations. Become attuned to this phenomenon and you’ll develop your field of perception, your coordination, your aesthetics, and more besides.

Stop the fight!

Tap your head with your left hand and rub your stomach with the right one, and you’ll sense the mutual influence between the right and left arms. This we call bilateral transfer—a dialogue between the two sides of the body on matters of position, movement, tension, relaxation, and balance, all of which affect the body’s overall coordination.

The legs also affect the arms, and vice-versa. Play a fast, loud passage at the piano while holding your feet off the floor. If the active support of the feet and legs is missing, the arms must work much harder. This is quadrilateral transfer—the interplay of energies between all limbs.

The dialogue between the left and right sides of the body, and between the upper and lower limbs, never stops. Like all dialogue, it can be a collaboration or a fight.

To get a fight going, hold a heavy paperback in one hand and a light bulb in the other. Each hand has a specific job to do, but each hand confuses the other and is confused by it. One hand “wants” to relax, the other “wants” to firm up. Their opposing intentions get crossed, and the body and brain go haywire.

Try another experiment. Write a short sentence by hand on a piece of paper. Now write it again, and while writing tug at your hair with the free hand. Make the tug be strong and rhythmic. You may be surprised at what happens to your handwriting. (I did this experiment with my wife, and her handwriting actually improved, becoming bolder and more legible. She did mis-spell a word or three, though.)

Because of bilateral transfer, musicians sometimes misdiagnose their technical problems, becoming convinced that the left hand, say, is to be blamed for some technical accident when in reality it’s the misuse of the right hand that causes the left hand to go awry.

Suppose a cellist is struggling with a tricky passage that challenges her left hand: a trill followed by a large shift along the fingerboard. The left hand is fast and busy, doing different things in quick succession. Meanwhile the bowing arm does something simple and steady. The average cellist focuses on the busy left hand, giving it thought and care. Naturally, her thoughts are coated in emotion: eagerness, worry, impatience, anger. At the same time, the cellist takes the right hand for granted, assuming its role is minor. The passage remains frustratingly difficult, and the cellist puts ever more energy into the left hand and involves her neck and shoulders in the effort.

But if the cellist changes her focus from her left hand to her bowing arm, bilateral transfer comes to her rescue. The right arm proclaims, “My gestures are easy, firm, intelligent; my contact with the string is stable; I have a lovely connection to the back, the pelvis, the legs, the feet, the floor.” It’s a message of intelligence and comfort, with a positive emotional charge. The left hand receives the message, absorbs it, lets itself be influenced by it—and acquires some of those universal qualities (strength, contact, connection, comfort) even though its specific tasks are different from the bowing arm’s simple gestures. As if by miracle, the passage suddenly becomes much easier to master.

In sum, bilateral and quadrilateral transfer are both potentially harmful or constructive, depending on how you go about it.