Are you in touch?

There is something that struck me since I have been conducting choirs here in UK. That is the fact that some people gave me, among other kinds of positive and most interesting feedback, comments about “surprising” and “unusual” pedagogy. They were referring to touch.

I remember that around when I was first starting my voice studies, my teachers would make take my hand over his upper belly and breath, so that I could “understand” what was happening with the air. I have never been a very touchy person, but I understood that by feeling others people’s abdomen I would have a most clear picture of what they where actually doing that if it was just explained with words. And when my last singing teacher, the wonderful Esperanza Abad wanted to explain me her way to understand “three dimensional breathing” she has making me feel in my hands how she was doing it, and that one of the most interesting and revealing sessions about breathing that I ever had.

Later on, in my time being a student first in UK, there was so much to do about touch! And even if socially I am not the touchiest person in this world, I learned that was good for me for many reasons. Not only I could be able to understand better if I touch, what other people is doing with their bodies, but also touch is important with regards to emotional expression, and by touch we can learn to help others relax and communicate so many things. And not just that, there are significant health benefits around physical contact and a lot has been written about it.

Touch can help others to feel supported, to calm down, to connect with others, and from a technical point of view, to understand quicker what another body is doing. So sometimes in our warm ups we include some gentle touch on the shoulders of the person at your side, or hold hands in a circle, or if I am explaining about how does the diaphragm lower and make space in your body all around (including the kidney area) it works very well to let a student put their palm over my kidney area while I breath and then sing. It can save me hours of explaining!

Of course, this would never mean you are to invade the personal space of the others (I am the first one who does not like to be touched randomly by people for no reason), or touch people without realizing if they are or not comfortable with it, but whilst I must say I never got anyone unhappy about it, my surprise was that some people found it surprising.

– But is it okay for you?
– Oh, yes, it’s fine… I was just surprised about it because I never did this before.
– But should I stop doing it?
– Please, don’t!

So I do use touch in my sessions.

It surprised me as much as surprised others, that they found it “surprising” and wonder how much policies have changed in the last twenty years in England. I left UK in 2004 to teach in Madrid, and now when I am back it looks like things I used to do and learned here are not so often happening due to policies.

– You should write a document saying that your choir workshops can include touch, and get people to agree with it and sign it. -I was once told.

And I will do if it it’s necessary but wonder what has happened in the years I’ve been away. I was surprised to find that some people thought that my surprising methods are due to a cultural difference (I am Spanish), and I smile while I remember that it was in England were I learned about physical contact and emotional release.

And I totally understand that institutions must have
a way to prosecute abusers and prevent abuse. But wonder if preventing physical contact can be somehow alienating at times. And I was surprised to hear that a yoga teacher told me he never touches anybody, so if a posture needs to be corrected he can only do it with words and explanations, or demonstrations. And I wonder if this is natural. And I know it’s not.
So I will keep doing my job the best I can, and appreciating all the lovely people that gives me feedback, that keep coming to my “surprising” sessions and decide that they actually like them, whist I’m sure other professionals share these values too here in England too.

And I thank the comments that “inform” me about the fact that I should take on board new policies that didn’t exist 20 years ago, so that I can be aware and try to work gently with everybody so that it will never be abrupt, but actually reinforce trust in others and in ourselves, as touch is a way of very meaningful expression that reaches were words cannot reach.

I leave you an interesting talk by Dacher Keltner on Touch. He is an UC Berkeley psychology professor and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center, shares his insights from the new science of touch: compassionate communication, touch therapies, and proof that “to touch is to give life.”

Further reading:
Browne, J. (2004). Early relationship environments: physiology of skin-to-skin contact for parents and their preterm infants. Clinics In Perinatology, 31(2): 287-98. Denison, B. (2004). Touch the pain away: new research on therapeutic touch and persons with fibromyalgia syndrome. Holistic Nursing Practice, 18(3): 142-51.
Geldard, F. A. (1960, May 27). Some neglected possibilities of commu-
nication.Science, 131,1583–1588
Hall, Edward T. The silent language, Anchor Books, New York 1973.
Hertenstein, M. J., Holmes, R., McCullough, M., & Keltner, D. (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion, 9, 566-573.
Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B. A., Jaskolka, A. R. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6, 528-533.
Montagu, A. Touching: Human Significance of the Skin. 1971, New York: Harper & Row
Weze, C., et al. (2005). Evaluation of healing by gentle touch. Public Health, 119(1): 3-10. Wood, D., Craven, R., & Whitney, J. (2005). The effect of therapeutic touch on behavioural symptoms of persons with dementia. Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine, 11(1): 66-74.

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