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pianomap: Excerpts from the book: What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body

By Thomas Mark

The Body Map

Suppose I am stopped at a red light and my ankle itches. Keeping my eyes on the light, I reach down and scratch the place that itches. Later I stop at a gas station, reach under the seat and pull the lever to release the gas cap. Actions like these occur all the time. But they are remarkable. How do we know to put our hands and perform specific actions in places we cannot see? How do we know how far to lift our legs when climbing stairs in the dark?

Our ability to perform these actions shows that we have some practical knowledge of our body in movement. We evidently know something about our size, the weight and relative position of our parts, where the joints are and how they move. That is to say, we have an internal representation of our body and its movements and we use this representation to coordinate our actions. This internal representation is our body map.

Our body map includes the structure, size and function of our body and its parts. It is not something we are born with, nor does it remain fixed throughout our lives. It couldn't be fixed and still be useful. A boy's body map, representing a person four feet tall, would not work well when the boy has become a man six feet tall. It is ridiculous to imagine a tall man climbing a stepladder to reach the top of the refrigerator, as he did when he was five. But if his body map had not changed as he grew, that is what he would do. We generate our body maps from our experience, and we revise them through the course of our lives.

Like other experiential knowledge, our body map may be vague or detailed, accurate or inaccurate. More precisely: my body has a certain structure and it can move in specific ways. My representation of that structure--my body map--may accurately reflect the structure, or it may not. This is an important issue because our body map is a representation that governs our movement. That is, we move our bodies according to the way we think of them, not necessarily according to the way they actually are. This is true even if we have never consciously formulated our beliefs about our structure.

We can put the point this way: our body has a particular anatomical structure. In our brain is a representation of that structure. But the representation, not the structure, determines how we try to move. So if our body map is incorrect, we will try to move in a way inconsistent with the actual structure of our body. We will not succeed in changing the structure of that body to fit our false beliefs. Instead, movement will be tense or awkward. Tension detracts from our piano playing. More than that, it is actually dangerous. That is: an inaccurate body map may lead us to move with tension that inhibits playing and can eventually lead to injury.

Just as a poor body map generates poor quality of movement, an improved body map generates an improved quality of movement. How do we improve our body map? In the first place, by acquiring accurate anatomical information. Notice, however, that acquiring accurate anatomical information is not the same as developing an accurate body map. Information is the first step and it is essential, but it will make a difference to a someone's playing only if it is incorporated into the body map so that it guides movement. Sometimes this can happen quickly, even overnight. Usually it is a gradual process involving a period of assimilation and conscious cultivation of new ways of moving. In time, mere knowledge leads to an improved body map and the new ways of moving become habits. The quality of movement and the quality of the playing are transformed.

Copyright © 2003 by GIA Publications, Inc.

For a summary of the neurological facts underlying Body Mapping, see "The Scientific Basis of Body Mapping".

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