Practically Integrated: Where Parallel Practices Meet

By Lynn Cohen, Certified Advanced Rolfer®
April 2024

ABSTRACT Relating her Rolfing practice with her musical practice, Lynn Cohen explores her journey of acquiring structural integration expertise alongside a relationship with her cello.

Editor’s note: This article is a reprint of the March 2017 article of the same name (volume 45, number 1, pages 13 to 15) that appeared in this journal under our former name, Structural Integration. Some modifications have been made.

Mid-life, I found myself in need of a vocation. I had a bachelor’s and a couple of master’s degrees boxed up somewhere (along with two unpublished novels and a stack of short stories), and my dog-walking business had run its course. I needed inspiration and an income.

To my surprise, I was drawn to massage. I had thought of myself as a bit of a misanthropist who avoided close physical contact with people. In fact, I loved touching people and I loved anatomy. I was told I had “good hands.” One of my instructors came from a structural bodywork perspective. He taught me about fascia, how to work positionally and in layers. By feeling a shift in my left hip after receiving ribcage work, I got my first lesson in “where you think it is, it ain’t.”

Certified and employable, I worked in a spa for two years. It was grueling. I was vaguely embarrassed to represent an industry that used words like ‘pamper’ and ‘luxuriate’ on ads depicting towel-turbaned women, eyes serenely closed, whose creamy bare shoulders were being kneaded by a pair of impeccably manicured hands. I resented people snoring on my table. The work took a toll on my body. I sought relief from colleagues and, though some were skilled, I learned that a bad massage was worse than none at all.

Lynn Cohen: Cellos are like clients; every one is as unique as the number of them in existence.(Photo courtesy of author.)

I began my professional life at age eighteen as an orchestral double bass player. The bass is a large, clumsy instrument. It’s wide and over six feet tall, it required a station wagon or a van for transport. In the old days, the airlines sold me an entire row of seats when I traveled with it, and I fielded unhelpful, smarmy comments (“Bet you wish you played the flute!”).

As the foundation of the string section, basses have the lowest, the longest, and for that matter, the fewest notes. Bass repertoire is small, and not especially inspired. We borrowed from cello – even violin – repertoire. But, unless one is a significant talent (there are a few), playing Bach and Schubert on the bass involves making certain aesthetic allowances. It’s more a physical feat than an enlightening musical experience – like a gorilla threading a needle, or an eighteen-wheeler making a three-point-turn.

Basses growled, grunted, and guffawed. During rehearsals, from our place in the back of the orchestra, we had surreptitious bow sword fights and traded good-natured insults with the lower brass, who often sat idle. I was the only female. The guys – ‘bass jocks’ – showed off the hardest licks from one of the arpeggio-riddled concertos, or race-dueled each other through famous symphonic excerpts. On good days, I could pass for one of the guys. Most days, I felt like someone’s sixth-grade sister at a frat party.

The cellists – now they had grace. They sat comfortably, eyes in line with the conductor’s right arm, instruments balanced effortlessly between their legs like natural extensions of their bodies. From my place behind them, I watched. Their fingers did not so much move as kiss the strings. They made their cellos sing, soar, sob, plead, grieve, tiptoe, and die. Secretly, I grew intensely envious. I wanted to be them, to play the juicy passages of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Dvorak. I wanted to take possession of that heart-based tenor realm that is a cellist’s domain.

It was like developing a shattering crush on someone a month after your wedding.

I had my first Rolfing® Structural Integration experience a year or so into my spa tenure. On the table, I felt my lungs. I met my ribs. I greeted various segments of my spine. I was being excavated and dusted off, revealed to myself. After that session, walking to my car, I felt propelled forward, my legs free in an unfamiliar and enjoyable way. Massage, with its endlessly flowing strokes, suddenly seemed too small. I wanted to know how to make people feel like this: changed. I was exhilarated and inspired.

What I wanted was to be a Rolfer.

At age twenty-three, I left music for another career altogether. Thirty-two years and a few professional incarnations later, I had a thriving Rolfing practice in Los Angeles, California. A musician friend had given me his cello to hold for him while he traveled. It sat in the corner of my dining room. Every time I walked past it, something in me fluttered. Finally, I took it out of its case. It was thrilling, a greeting that promised great intimacy. But I couldn’t play at all. My hands were uncoordinated, my fingertips hurt pressing the strings, the bow felt like a club. I couldn’t make a sweet sound. If I was going to do this, I decided, I needed to do it right. I found a teacher.

While having played the bass helped to inform certain aspects of cello playing – bow grip, reading music, vibrato – my ‘bass habits’ worked against me as a cellist. The ‘right practices’ of cello playing diverge from the ‘right practices’ of the bass. Don’t shift when you can extend. Use more wrist than elbow for string crossings. Not only that, the bass was strung in 4ths (the interval of a perfect fourth between strings), whereas the cello is strung in 5ths, making reading music a true brain twister for me. It was maddening: I felt like a trans-instrumentalist, born a cellist with bass body parts. I wanted to be a real cellist. I wanted my fingers to kiss the strings. I wanted to sing, soar, and sob.

Learning an instrument involves much repetition of rote exercises. It may be tedious, but the fundamentals – the principles, the setup – are critical. By practicing scales and simple tunes, I was learning to discriminate between beautiful and not-so-beautiful sounds; my shoulder, elbow, and hand began to move in coordinated arcs; I found a way to change bows noiselessly; by using different pressure and angles of the bow, I created different colors. Having mastered the bass, I nevertheless felt more at home with the cello – my ischial tuberosities weighted evenly in the chair, the long endpin rooted and centered along my ‘Fourth-Hour’ line, the intimacy of body-to-body embrace, the vibrations humming through my tissues, penetrating my layers down to the bone.

I studied structural integration in fits and starts, beginning with a brief foray into Hellerwork® Structural Integration, followed by enrollment at the Guild for Structural Integration. Learning the structural integration ‘Recipe’ involved repetition and memorization (the map, the territory, and the goals). But I was also learning how to touch in a new way, through a set of ‘right practices’ that were different from those of massage. I was learning to feel the response, to have a conversation that existed beneath language – systems communicating with each other, too exquisitely complex to articulate.

“Follow the recipe and you will get a cake,” my Guild teacher said. “You can worry about the science of cake baking later.” He did not entertain questions about ‘why’; only ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘when’. He assured us that knowing the goals and the territory for each session would reveal, over time, the ‘why’. Only much later would I appreciate this wisdom.

As a new practitioner, I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t ‘see’ what others saw. I made up plausible-sounding answers to clients’ questions. I felt like an imposter.

I took every continuing education class I could. Surely, I thought, having more information would make me a better practitioner faster. I was driven. I had to know more now. The classes I took were all taught by Certified Advanced Rolfers, respected in our community, who had developed their own teachable systems to address structural problems (visceral, cranial, biomechanical, osteo-structural integration, spinal mechanics, etc.).

The contradictions and sophistication of these approaches confounded me. I left those classes frantic and frustrated, ashamed that I didn’t understand, convinced that I had no skills, no gifts for touch. Still, I kept cramming it in. I believed I’d finally get it if I took just one more class. The secrets of the elders would be revealed to me. I would know how to do . . . everything. I would finally feel legitimate.

Sunday afternoon, January 2016. On my music stand is Étude #20 by David Popper, a Czech cellist and composer who wrote, among other things, a book of études entitled, “High School of Violoncello Playing.” All serious cellists are acquainted with these études – musical exercises presenting specific technical challenges. By “High School,” Popper did not mean ‘pre-conservatory’. “High” meant advanced.

I don’t feel advanced. Laid out across two pages are notes forming arcs, spikes, blocks, tied octave scales, and double stops. The clefs change from bass to tenor to treble and back. It looks ridiculously impossible, but I won’t know for sure until I get my hands on the cello.

Every new Popper begins like this, thrusting me back to a state of despair and conscious incompetence. My teacher assigned me #20 because he believes I can do it. I’m unconvinced. My skills, such as they are, seem to me fleeting and inapplicable.

I have six days to prepare #20 for my lesson. It will involve hours of agonizing practice before muscle memory and instinct kick in, and I begin to feel comfortable. I will have frustration so intense I will want to break my bow in half. Yet there’s only one way forward. I take it measure by measure, note by note, stopping to count the tiny lines above the staff to figure out what they are.

It’s painful, to my hands and to my ears and to my ego. Yet I persist. I’m driven to get better. It’s who I am.

Three years post-Guild, still chasing after a confidence and a knowledge base that seemed elusive and fragile, I enrolled in the Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration (now known as the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute®, DIRI) basic certification program. If I was going to do this, I decided, I had to do it right.

Students from both schools are understandably curious about the other. As I experienced it, the main difference (aside from the teacher, which is frankly everything) was the inclusion of the Rolfing ‘Principles of Intervention’. Taking this training again at DIRI did not really change how I worked; it both filled and exposed holes in my knowledge. It showed me that I had indeed learned some things during my three years of practice and class cramming. Most significantly, the Principles provided insights into some of the “why’s” I’d been asking.

Tuesday, day three of Popper #20. A perfected version of it insinuates itself into my brain. It’s there constantly, lodged like a splinter, an ear worm playing over and over. I can’t not hear it. I hear it when I wake up. It’s there when I swim. It’s there when I chop onions and drive to the store, and it’s there while I’m walking my dog. Then life gets busy, and a day passes without practicing. The étude loops relentlessly in my head. A day later, when I go to play, it’s better than it was two days before. It feels easier. Passages I couldn’t manage have begun to flow. It’s resembling a piece of music. Without having touched the cello, I realized, I was practicing.

Of all the ‘rules’ I learned as a massage therapist, the most ingrained and resistant to correction as a Rolfer is: “never take your hands off a client.” It’s a lesson I have to keep learning and re-learning; allowing for time between contacts during a Rolfing session does for the client what missing a day of practice does for my cello learning process. It’s doing nothing. And it’s critical to integration.

LC: I studied structural integration in fits and starts, beginning with a brief foray into Hellerwork® Structural Integration, followed by enrollment at the Guild for Structural Integration. Learning the structural integration ‘Recipe’ involved repetition and memorization (the map, the territory, and the goals). (Photo courtesy of author.)

I know when I’m playing in tune by knowing when I’m not. There is the wobbly sound of overtones clashing, a jagged sensation transmitted through my maxillae. Playing in tune aligns vibrations, like iron filings obeying the power of a magnet. There is a deep sense of ‘rightness’ in the communion between me – flesh, bone, protoplasm – and this piece of wood; the vibrations that I make / it makes when I touch it / it touches me. The resonance affects me at a cellular level, awakening the optimistic part of me. It’s from that aligned place that I can best express who I am.

I know when I am touching the right place by touching the wrong place – the place where nothing happens. When I’m where I need to be, I can feel responsiveness in antagonistic muscles – twitches, pulses, vibration. There is movement. The person’s being responds. What my hands know can’t be replicated or prescribed. It is beneath thinking or language. I don’t even know what my hands seem to know. It’s some combination of analysis and intuition, informing each other, allowing me to express my Rolfer self.

I envy musicians who can sight-read well: they look at an unfamiliar piece and whip through it. If the music is easy, I can do that. But with any intricate rhythmic or notational patterns, I have to experiment with different fingerings and bowings, repeat and repeat before my brain understands what my hands need to do.

I’ve always envied those Rolfers with ‘great eyes’ – the ones who look, see, and know where the work needs to happen. While my ‘seeing’ skills have improved over time, I still need to get my hands on the client before I will know where to spend my time.

Cellos are like clients; every one is as unique as the number of them in existence. The rare ones play themselves. The affordable ones all present challenges (the C string is slow to respond; the pleasing, rich sound you hear under your ear can utterly disperse a few feet away; the upper register feels tight, etc.). The overall quality can be dark, or bright, or nasal, or warm, or penetrating. When I bought my own cello, I committed myself to a relationship. I had to find ways to deal with its limitations in order to exploit its finest qualities.

Clients are like études; some are relatively straightforward, while others present major challenges. The dream clients: “I can breathe better, I feel so light!” (after the 'First Hour'); “I feel so grounded!” (after the 'Second Hour'); “I feel so much more than three-dimensional!”(after the 'Third Hour'); etc. There are clients who come in with a never-ending list of problems for me to ‘fix’, or those who have no ability to sense change in their bodies, or who are attached to their pain for reasons I’m not in a position to address. I must engage with all of them, work with them, including their resistances and beliefs, in order to bring out all that’s available
in them.

To play a ‘double forte’ (fortissimo = very loud), I use finesse. Squeezing or pressing too hard will produce an ugly, crunching sound. With bow speed and pressure, I need to find the sweet spot on my cello.

To go deep into tissue that is locked up, I must back off. If I push too hard, too quickly, it will hurt the client. I need to adjust my pressure and speed, perhaps broaden my touch, to enter into an acceptable contact with that person’s system.

To play ‘double piano’ (pianissimo = very softly) without losing substance in the sound, I lighten the pressure but speed up my bow to engage the strings, making sure my left fingers are pressing precisely. The notes ring, soft and clear.

How to enter into a client’s system? Pianissimo.

Lynn Cohen is a Certified Advanced Rolfer, cellist, poet, writer, and dog-worshipper who practices all her passions in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


massage; musician; double bass; cello; structural integration; structural integration training; practice. ■

Article from edition:
November 2023 / Vol. 51, No. 3
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