Home > Press > Articles


A Rolfer Can Tune Your Body

By Claire Wachter

In 1940, a New York City music teacher was badly injured in an accident. She lost the use of her hands and she could no longer play the piano. She thought her teaching career was over until she met Ida Rolf. Ida Rolf, a a forty-four-year-old woman of indomitable will and determination, suggested that the teacher not give up just yet.

Ida Rolf had by that time developed a system of bodywork which she felt might enable the piano teacher to regain the use of her hands. She promised to help the teacher and, if the work was successful, the teacher promised to give the Rolf children music lessons. They began the bodywork.

Four sessions later, something amazing occurred - the teacher was well enough to start teaching again!

Who was the remarkable woman who worked this miracle?
Ida Rolf was born in New York in 1896. Her early training was strictly scientific, including a Ph.D in biochemistry from Columbia University (1920), postdoctoral work at the Rockefeller Institute's Department of Chemotherapy and an associate position in that institution1s Department of Organic Chemistry for 12 years.

During a leave of absence from the Institute, while she was studying mathematics and atomic physics in Zurich, Switzerland, Rolf began applying her method of scientific inquiry to the human condition. Her early exposure to alternative systems of medicine included the study of homeopathy in Geneva, Switzerland as well as seminars in osteopathy and chiropractic upon her return to the United States.

Rolf was obviously seeking answers to questions about her own health problems, which included curvature of the spine and hypoglycemia, and was frustrated to find that the methods for treating these conditions in the 1930's were unsatisfactory. Although she herself was always vague about the intellectual and intuitive events which led to her system of bodywork, many have felt that the influence of osteopathy (which even today continues to provide insight for progressive Rolfers) was crucial. The osteopathic idea that 'structure determines behavior' was incorporated into Rolf's own theory and practice of 'structural integration,' which is today synonymous with the bodywork more popularly called Rolfing.

During the 19301s Rolf was using an aggressive trial-and-error manipulation of the human body to find out about the body. Initially, she experimented with the hands-on realignment of the human body to relieve suffering, working on one patient (crippled from a childhood fall) for two years. Rolf tried to move the 'blocks' or structural sections of the patient1s body into a progressively more aligned relationship. Her early work was done with a great deal of strength from hands, knuckles and elbows, and was truly bodywork; later Rolf acknowledged a greater emphasis on the field of gravity and its effects on optimizing the performance of the human body. During the following decades Rolf acquired a fascinating and widely diverse clientele. Although unconfirmed, some of the Hollywood screen legends, including Cary Grant and Greta Garbo (whose famous image was reportedly, at least in part, due to the effects of Rolfing) supposedly came to Ida Rolf. One can only imagine that, in today's media-frenzied times, the discovery that a "star" endorsed a certain type of bodywork would have made Rolf wealthy as well a famous!

This was not so in the 401 and 501s. In fact, it wasn't until 1965 that Rolfing finally found its path. Up until that point the only health practitioners who learned Rolfing were the chiropractors and osteopaths, and Rolf was determined to keep structural integration distinct from those therapies. When Rolf came to Esalen (California) - the mecca of alternative life-style and philosophy associated with many of the human potential movements of the 60's - she founded the basis for the training of Rolfers who would carry on her life's work. At Esalen Rolf created the sequence of ten one-hour sessions which form the basis for the conventional Rolfing process, each session focusing on a particular aspect of the body. Rolf held that the ten-hour sequence brought about "a permanent postural improvement," the clients showing "greater elongation" and taking "greater comfort in their bodies."

Since that time Rolfing has become established as an important and effective therapy for helping injured people as well as healthy people seeking to enhance their physical structure. Among well-known musicians, the pianist Leon Fleisher is one of many who turned to Rolfing for help with injuries sustained through playing. Fleisher's return to Carnegie Hall in 1996, after a thirty-year absence, was credited in part to the Rolfing which enabled him to regain the use of his right hand. In a 1995 New York Times article Fleisher says "Rolfing has been stretching out muscle fibers that haven1t been stretched for thirty years." He observed that his muscles were getting "progressively softer and more supple and gaining elasticity."

Yet today, sixty years after the birth of Rolfing, there is still much misinformation about this deep tissue work. A person who has not personally experienced Rolfing will often ask exactly what it is, what it feels like and whether it hurts! I recently interviewed several Rolfers, among them Karen Lackritz, a Certified Advanced Rolfer based in Eugene, Oregon who has worked on many musicians. Karen offers this explanation about Rolfing:

"Rolfers work on the fascia, a connective tissue network which acts as a communicating web throughout the body. The lymph runs through fascia; blood vessels run through fascia; nerves run through fascia."

Karen says that rolfing affects the ligaments, which are a specialized form of fascia where muscles attach to the bone. The ligaments, which are part of where the fascia actually come together and become more well-defined, are the "real intelligence and memory of the body." Often restrictions will release when the rolfer applies pressure to the ligamentous layers.

In piano-related injuries, such as repetitive stress syndrome, rolfers work on the deep fascia in-between the two bones of the arms, known as the interosseous membrane. This membrane resembles a very thick piece of gauze that runs at different angles, stretched between the two large arm bones. According to Karen, it is very important for pianists to have mobility between these bones. Problems can also result from tightness in the elbow. "The elbow rotates (twists) so I work the bone to 'de-rotate' it. It's like a screw that tightens from overuse, pulling too tight. You have to 'loosen the screw' and the bone will start to de-rotate."

When there are arm disorders, Karen often finds restriction in movement between the cranium and the sacrum (the bone forming the rear section of the pelvis). In order to remedy this situation, Karen will work on the cranium and the temporal bone (near the ears) and the occipital bone (lower part of the skull). She says that the occiput is the "drive" of the system:

"I work to release the cranium by releasing the temporal bone from the occiput and getting the temporal bone to actually disengage from the occipital bone. This work can release the entire jaw, from the neck down into the arm. There are also ten cranial nerves - major wiring! - and by releasing these nerves, we can change the 'engine gears' that may be affecting the arms."

To help avoid injuries, Karen suggests that the ideal position for a pianist sitting at the keyboard is for the hip-joint to be slightly above the knee-joint. This position will allow the feet and the legs to be more involved in motion. Also, if the hips are a little bit higher, there's more pivot possible, bringing the strength from the legs up through the pelvis and into the body so that the arms are not doing all the work. It's helpful for pianists to sit on the "sitting bones" to achieve a "pelvic floor" balance which allows the lumbar spine (lower back) to come back just a little bit rather than being arched. Karen says that this position allows for stability, strength, and endurance during playing, or "a kind of anchoring."

Karen elaborates: "Rolfing seeks a certain kind of balance for the body, a state we call 'palintonos,' which is a kind of tonal balance in the body. In musical terms, it is like the relationship between the bow and the strings of the lyre, or how an instrument is tuned. It's almost as if we were tuning the body, not just in terms of alignment but also taking into consideration the kind of 'music' this 'body' plays."

A word of caution: Karen believes that surgery should be the last choice for pianists who have been diagnosed with arm injuries. She warns that every surgical cut will have an effect on the tendons and the tendons in the arms often require a long time to heal. However, Rolfing can help pianists who have already had surgery gain more mobility.

I found other Rolfers - former musicians - who had sustained serious injuries which, in some cases, surgery had been unable to correct. A few had become Rolfers because they had experienced the powerful healing of the Rolfing bodywork which enabled them to resume their musical activities.

Ray Bishop, a certified Rolfer who holds a Master of Music degree from Indiana University in Musicology and a PhD in Musicology from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has played many instruments, including the piano. Ray had a serious injury at the age of 19 that caused permanent nerve damage and a loss of feeling in his left hand. A friend took him to a Rolfer and, as a result of rolfing, most of the feeling in his left hand has returned.

Ray has a very interesting thing to say about the "epidemic" of hand problems which has plagued so many modern pianists: "Pianists got into trouble trying to copy Vladimir Horowitz." This observation echoes Leon Fleisher's comments about the way he [Fleisher] pushed himself even after feeling pain in his hands. Fleisher, according to the article in Johns Hopkins magazine (Nov. 1995), "came of age in a time of great technical virtuosity among pianists. Performers like Vladimir Horowitz, William Kapell and Byron Janis displayed stunning technique...his goal was to marry Artur Schnabel's [Fleisher's teacher] brand of consistently inspired playing with the remarkable technical virtuosity exemplified by Horowitz et al. It was a tall order, and his right arm was not up to the demands placed on it."

Ray brings his experience as a musician to his Rolfing work, attending actual practice sessions with his clients and making adjustments to their posture. Without interfering with their practice sessions, Ray relies on prearranged "cues" to coach his clients in retraining their habits. He sees the Rolfer as more than just a body worker, a mover of fascia; he considers his role to be that of an educator. He claims that the Rolfer can teach a person to initiate movement from inside the body. With pianists he teaches about movement from the major arm muscles which originate in the back. If their arms are locked he teaches them how to feel that connection with the deltoids (the large muscles around the shoulder-blades) in order to create fluidity and ease in their movements.

In his Rolfing practice Ray uses Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) , a technique for determining a person1s most active sensory and language channels. In this way he can use the person's "own language" to connect with the physical spaces which are painful or blocked. Ray states that NLP in combination with rolfing "helps the person not only access areas of tension or trauma but helps them alter their relationship with these regions so that they can create ease and comfort from the inside."

Linda Grace, a Certified Advanced Rolfer in Philadelphia, has played oboe professionally and has also taught stringed instruments. She had a back problem which made playing and sitting in rehearsals difficult; she also had tendinitis. She underwent arm surgery that left her unable to even raise her arm above her shoulder. Linda turned to Rolfing, and by the eighth or ninth session Linda could not only play again but - she felt - was playing better than she had ever played before.

Linda has Rolfed several pianists who also study the Dorothy Taubman technique. Taubman - in some ways a modern-day Ida Rolf - has dedicated herself to discovering and espousing specific techniques for playing the piano without injury. At her clients' recommendation, Linda attended a two-day session on the Taubman technique. This combination - Taubman technique plus Rolfing - would seem to be a powerful way for those pianists who have sustained injuries to find their way back to playing.

Rolfing - alone or in combination with other modes of therapy - is, in the final analysis, something that has to be experienced. Most people who have had Rolfing report an immediate and positive response even from one or two sessions and sometimes the changes can be profound. For musicians, Rolfing can be a way to expand awareness from the narrowly focused, often repetitive activity of practice to a much larger experience of the totality of making music. Karen Lackritz expresses this eloquently from the Rolfer's point of view : "Personally, I think: how do you enhance the art-form? For me, enhancing the art-form is what is important. The art-form is the body itself, how to get the maximum sound out of this "instrument."

"Let's forget about the fascia and the ligaments for a moment and look at the bigger picture. When a person has pain, it is really a sort of fear. I try to see who it is inside this person, trying to get out. I trust that Rolfers can really make a difference; it1s what I base my work on."

The author gratefully acknowledges Dean Kramer for his editorial assistance and photographic expertise. The author also wishes to thank Rolfers Karen Lackritz, Ray Bishop, and Linda Grace for their contributions. Much appreciation goes to Sue Seecof of the Rolf Institute of Boulder, Colorado, for all her support in researching this article.

Claire Wachter is an Associate Professor of Piano and Director of Piano Pedagogy Studies at the University of Oregon School of Music. In addition to her activities as a performer, she has written articles for Piano Quarterly, Piano Life, and Keyboard Companion and will chair the Committee on the Future of Piano Pedagogy for the World Piano Pedagogy Conference in Las Vegas, October 2002.