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The Disembodied Culture of Classical Music

Can classical music pedagogy and performance come out of our heads and into our senses?


On August 21, 2021, I held the premiere of my original performance concept, Bach In Your Body. During the course of the evening, I performed two full suites by Johann Sebastian Bach*, as well as co-created Improvitations (improvisation + invitation + meditation ---- more on this in a future post!) with the attendees.

The attendees were free to move throughout the space in any way they wished, sinking deeper and deeper into presence with the music, themselves, and each other. My friend and hugely experienced embodiment facilitator Aaron Cantor helped set the space for how to listen with the whole body. This evening was years in the making for me, and I wanted to share the story of how this vision came to life, and the questions that have been generated by this experience.

During my 25 years as a classical violinist and violist, I have become increasingly frustrated by the disembodied culture surrounding the performance and pedagogy of classical music. In this post, I will discuss both of these aspects of the culture, and offer suggestions for how to become more embodied performers and teachers.

*for clarity's sake: I do not intend for the music of Bach to always be the focus of these concerts! His name was chosen for the sake of the pun and his music was programmed for the debut for my personal preference.


Disembodied Pedagogy

In my experience, classical music is largely taught from the outside in, and from the top down. What do I mean by this? Here's an example: my teacher notices something she wants to correct in my physical technique or musical expression. She tells me what’s wrong (“your E-flat is too high”), and (sometimes) suggests how I can correct it (“bring your elbow further to the left”). I try to immediately fix the problem by taking in the teacher’s advice with my mind. I use this mental awareness to try and coerce my body into a new pattern so that I can “get it right.” If I manage to correct this mistake a few times in front of my teacher, we both move on to the next problem.

There are a number of issues with this approach to musical learning. Namely, this approach does not take the inner state of the pupil—or, for that matter, the teacher—into account. A highly complex task such as playing an instrument requires enormous processing on many levels. As new skills are developed, the mind is trying to track several commands at once (Keep your bow straight! Right shoulder down! Don’t squeeze your left hand! And don’t forget the pianissimo!!). This can invite the student into a state of heightened focus, but tension and anxiety may also be accumulating. The Zones of Regulation Model describes this state as the Yellow Zone: “a heightened state of alertness and elevated emotions… A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, the wiggles, or nervousness when in the Yellow Zone.”

Both student and teacher are in a product-oriented rather than process-oriented mindset (the music that you hear is the product, and what's happening in the player's whole being is the process). This orientation takes the focus away from what is happening presently in the student's interoception (the process of sensing bodily signals) and proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body). It is through these awarenesses that we notice what's happening in the body (e.g. physical tension, breath, anxiety level, healthy alignment, grounding).Often, mistakes in the music can be the result of the dis-regulation of one or more of these basic physical processes.

Because my teachers were not active students of embodiment and conscious-awareness practices themselves (until I began studying with Kim Kashkashian in graduate school, who greatly facilitated my learning and conceptualization around embodiment & music), I continued in this product-oriented approach to learning violin, and accumulated huge amounts of chronic tension along the way. In high school I had tendonitis twice, and was plagued with more subtle symptoms such as chronic tension in my abdomen, disconnection from my breath, and ungrounded posture. It hadn’t worked, either — after 15 years of study, I still wasn’t in control of some basic elements of my technique or musicality. But I was lucky enough to be introduced to yoga, breathwork, meditation, dance, and other self-awareness practices in my early twenties. I started to apply these new mindful awareness practices to my violin and viola practice, and began to teach myself how to sense and feel my own inner state while playing.

Letting the Body Teach

I remember one particularly poignant session in 2015, practicing for grad school auditions on the viola. I was wrestling with a difficult and large shift, and kept missing it. I finally slowed my mind down enough to be aware of my emotional state right before the shift. I was surprised to find a feeling of deep existential terror buried in that moment! I tried to slow down and bring conscious awareness to this feeling. By expanding my awareness of that moment, I could regulate my state to create a sense of mental and emotional relaxation. My body then felt safe enough to show me that it knew exactly how to execute the difficult shift, if only I would allow it to teach me. The more I let my own body’s wisdom be my teacher, the more quickly and efficiently I improved as a player.

Rigid Performance Culture

This process of embodied personal learning was accompanied by a growing frustration around the physical rigidity surrounding classical music performances — both by the musicians themselves and the audience members. As my body became liberated from fear and tension, I started to feel music very intensely within myself. I had always been a physically expressive player, but now I was experiencing music as another living entity that took form inside of me and used me as a vessel. I would attend performances by top-level performers where technical excellence was clearly the priority, but I couldn’t feel the living soul of the music in my own body.

On the occasions when I would hear a performance that was “moving," I was expected to sit stock-still in my chair, so as not to disturb other concert-goers. The living soul of music was pulsating through me as a full spectrum of emotions and impulses, but all that was culturally acceptable was an extremely narrow range of embodiments that were private and restrained (i.e. light head movement and swaying, subdued facial expressions, waiting until the end to clap, ect). I would often leave these concerts feeling vaguely melancholic and under-nourished by the music I loved so much.

Birth of Bach In Your Body

In my late twenties, I discovered the Ecstatic Dance and Contact Improv communities. Here, finally, were other people who were practicing full-presence embodiment and improvised movement. Through these international communities, I found deeply fulfilling relationships with folks who were reclaiming their bodies, minds, and spirits from the repressive and desensitizing mainstream culture I came from.

But I missed Western classical music! In the EDM beats and atmospheric textures of the dance DJs, I missed the range and depth of emotion, the quicksilver transition between moods and characters, and the diverse sonic palettes of the music I had studied and loved for so long. I yearned for a way to bridge the gap between my two worlds.

I started a personal practice of dancing to classical music and had deeply rewarding experiences. I envisioned a classical music performance where the performers and the audience could experience autonomy over their own relationship with the music. Someone could sit or lie in silence if they liked, while someone else could be dancing ecstatically nearby. The existing hierarchy of performer as Active Expresser and listener as Passive Receiver would be broken down. Instead, we would all weave our life-forces together through courageous presence and expansive relationship with music, self and other. This wouldn’t necessarily look like “dancing” — rather, it would allow for whatever physical manifestation a present-moment embodied experience looked like for each individual. And eventually, the concept of Bach In Your Body was born.

Long-Term Vision for Bach In Your Body - Two Directions

The first Bach In Your Body performance drew attendees that were mostly from the embodiment community, and wanted to experience classical music in a new setting. It was highly rewarding for me to share the wonders of Bach's music with folks who didn't have a lot of exposure to classical concerts. As the project continues, I intend for it to move in two directions - both the embodiment community getting more exposure to classical music, and the classical music community getting more exposure to embodiment. I anticipate more challenges with the latter, and this raises some important questions which I outline below.

My long-term vision for this project looks like a whole orchestra playing a mixture of classical and improvised music, while a huge number of people channel the spirit of the music through their bodies—expressing on physical, emotional, and spiritual planes simultaneously. This expression is contextualized in a communal container of ritual and offering, nurturing the relationships to Self, to Community, and to the unseen forces (like the spirit of music) with which we are in relationship.

Questions arising

So far, I have come across very few classically-trained musicians who have similar thoughts and lines of inquiry. Here are some questions that arise about how to contextualize my offerings and ideas within both the classical music and the embodiment communities:

  • Are there others (musicians & listeners) who crave a more embodied relationship with classical music?

  • How can we as classical musicians create a culture where mindful awareness and free expression is prioritized?

  • What works about the current culture of passively receiving classical music performances?

  • How do we teach folks to listen to classical music and the expression of their bodies at the same time, if they have relatively little experience or comfort level with either?

  • How do we create safer containers for expression? How can folks of all backgrounds feel safer to experience and express what is within them?

  • When does one person's expression become a burden on someone else's process, and how do we deal with this as spaceholders? How do we make and respect boundaries with one another?

  • Why has classical music been confined to the head, while other styles of music are unquestionably experienced through the body?

  • How do these repressive tendencies relate to our culture? Is there a relationship between this aspect of the Western classical music and White Supremacist culture?

I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings, whether you are a musician, listener, classical music connoiseur or novice, dancer, embodiment practitioner... or none of these!

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.


Sources and References

Arnold, Andrew J., et al. “Interoception and Social Connection.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD,


White, Jess. “Deconstructing Embodied White Supremacy Through Dance Movement Therapy.” Lesley University, 2019.

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