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Musical Backbends: An Academy fellow on Yoga, Teaching, and Performance

It’s all in a day’s work for an Academy fellow: rehearsals, performances, teaching, community engagement ... and sun salutations? On a recent Monday morning, we attended an introductory yoga session as part of our Professional Development curriculum in the Academy. And aside from being a great way to bond as a group, we discovered that a yoga lesson has a lot more in common with our teaching and performing work than you might think.

The fellows journaling at Sonic Yoga as part of their yoga session with Lori McAlister.

A yoga session is structured around a central, apex pose, with every component of the lesson serving to prepare the mind and body to execute this pose. It’s nearly identical to our process in drawing up a lesson plan, or interactive concert. We first ask ourselves, “What is the primary musical concept that we want to illuminate?” From there, it’s a matter of working backwards to figure out what steps need to happen if we want to give our students or audience the best understanding of the concept.

In our yoga class, the apex was wheel pose (a backbend, essentially). It was a challenge for all of us, but one which we were able to tackle because we approached it by a series of manageable “baby steps” rather than all at once. We focused on breathing, stretched our backs, and opened up our chests and shoulders before even thinking about what the end result would be. If you had asked me at the start of the class if I could do wheel pose, I probably would have thought you were crazy. So needless to say, it was an absolute thrill to find that with the right guidance, I was able to achieve what would have been an impossible task on its own. It was a powerful reminder to me that as long as the necessary scaffolding is in place, no challenge—whether physical or musical—is out of reach for a student or audience member.

Additionally, throughout the lesson, our instructor, Lori, didn’t just tell us what to do—she showed us, performing the poses right along with us. In the discussion which followed, we termed this teaching technique “artistry as inspiration.” Seeing the mastery and grace in Lori’s practice made us all think, “Hey, I want to do that, too!” In our musical lives, this is the sort of teaching we strive to bring to the public schools. By sharing high-level performance with our students, we are giving them aspirational models.

Achieving a wheel pose was a powerful reminder to me that as long as the necessary scaffolding is in place, no challenge—whether physical or musical—is out of reach for a student or audience member.

A final bit of food for thought for us was the use of an invocation to both begin and end the yoga lesson—an expression of a deeper purpose behind what we are doing. Yoga isn’t just about physical fitness; it is also about self-discovery and being present in our individual experiences, and these were the sort of big-picture ideas the invocation dealt with. As educators, we all obviously believe that music serves a purpose beyond simply playing notes on a page. But I began to think that maybe we should consciously strive to acknowledge this on a day-to-day basis in our music making. Personally, I can’t wait to visit with my elementary school band students again and tell them that we don’t practice our scales and long tones only to learn notes and fingerings—playing in band is a communal experience, and provides a framework through which many voices can come together as one.

Leelanee achieves a wheel pose at the Carnegie Hall offices.  

I’ll certainly be going forward from my Academy yoga experience with an eye focused not just on what we do as musicians, but why we do it.

'Til next time,
Leelanee Sterrett

Related posts:
The Academy's Educational Mission: Interactive Performances, Part 1 

The Academy's Educational Mission: Interactive Performances, Part 2 

  Performing, Teaching, and Being Ready for Everything   

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