Piano Somatics

The Road to Transcendence

Somatics and the living body

The Greek word soma means "living body." In 1976 Thomas Hanna, one of Moshe Feldenkrais's first American students, redefined it as "the body experienced from within," while developing Somatics, the study of the human being as experienced by him or herself from within. The term now applies to various fields dealing with human movement, such as Paul Rubin's Institute for the Study of Somatic Education, Christon Noulis's Somatics for Musicians, and Alan Fraser's Piano Somatics.

The greats don't play as they were taught

Fraser's path to Piano Somatics began in Montreal, where in the late 1980's his teacher, Phil Cohen founded the Concordia University Leonardo Project to study exceptional performance in music, theatre and dance. He discovered one common factor uniting the greatest artists: they don't play as they were taught. The technique of a great performer transcends the approaches of standard pedagogy and can even radically oppose them. The project also found that qualities of transcendent performance can be analyzed, codified, and taught. Standard pedagogical regimes are a necessary preparation, but Cohen's life work was to cultivate that 'something more' needed to reach transcendence.

The transcendent artist uses his body differently

After a decade with Cohen, Fraser moved to Yugoslavia to collaborate with a transcendent artist in the flesh, Kemal Gekić. Here Fraser could observe transcendent technique first hand and understand its workings from the inside out. The transcendent artist uses his body differently: his subtler, more complex relationship to his physical self fosters a deeper expression of his artistic soul.

Return to the body to return to the pianistic Self

This return to the body characterizes the Feldenkrais Method of neuromotor re-education, which Fraser also studied in depth. Moshe Feldenkrais loved radical ideas – but his seemingly strange notion that "the surest pathway to the soul was through the skeleton" actually makes sense: freeing the body of tension allows the skeleton to come into clearer kinesthetic focus – the sense of self improves. And with improved skeletal alignments, the brain automatically reduces overall muscle tonus, facilitating easier, more effective movement – better use of self.

Synthesizing these various strands of thought has made Fraser's approach to piano technique both unique and global in its application: when we return to the body's innate structure and function, we access the best of all the various pre-existing schools of piano technique – finger action, arm weight, pressure, relaxation etc. The aim is not to invalidate the traditions but to integrate and finally rejuvenate them.

Pianistic improvements across the board

Through his many years of playing and teaching Fraser has brought the qualities of transcendent playing to all his students, not only the most gifted. Acquiring the physical qualities of transcendent playing can transform the ability of even a beginner, yet promises a breakthrough even to the seasoned concert pianist.

The quality of transcendence

Institute graduate Sue Hammond (creator of Beethoven Lives Upstairs) describes her experience thus wise: "Transcendence implies an effortless, free, soaring technique that lets the pianist convey the meaning of the music with nothing between his intent and what is heard. Popular culture would call this 'being in the zone.' In his lessons, Alan clearly articulates, demonstrates, and gives time for the student to experience how skeletal alignment can minimize muscular 'work.' For this, he draws on a lifetime of kinesthetic understandings about how the body works most smoothly, without hiccups or co-contractions that can make a passage 'get stuck.' A few hours of careful observant work with Fraser can end years of pain and frustration. Although this can be slow at first, once experienced, it's never forgotten and the progress is exponential. In the end, you feel a sense of 'floating' that lets you subtly sculpt sound with ease."

Meeting the challenge

A lesson with Fraser brings you face to face with unacknowledged habits that limit you, and shows you ways to free yourself from them. This can be a confronting experience, because, loath as we are to admit it, we are comfortable with what's familiar, and find it hard to accept the unfamiliar. But when Fraser's dedication to moving beyond barriers is matched by your inner desire to do the same, magic can happen.

A look at the curriculum

Here's the typical regimen of an Alan Fraser Piano Institute.

A teaching that nurtures

"I've never seen a more nurturing teacher. He offers all the knowledge, caring, encouragement, support and dedication a student needs to reach a new high in his or her playing."

Christina. Biron, Smith Institute Graduate