“Tuning” with a personal somatic toolkit

By Marcia Donadel

Building and enhancing somatic awareness is one of my main concerns as a performer-researcher and teacher. In my current practice, I explore a somatic informed approach to improvisation through “tuning” and exploring “tuning dimensions” for performers regarding both theory and practice. The work on “tuning” is inspired by the Lessac body and voice work. It includes tuning “to”, “with” and “from” the body. I base this blog on my Ph.D. research and experiences in the studio as a teacher and performer. More concretely, I look at sensory and creative possibilities to enhance the feeling of presence as potential tools for improvisation.

This blog translates some aspects of Arthur Lessac’s approach to ‘tuning’ as personal somatic tools for improvisation. First I will discuss some background to Lessac’s work. I will then zoom into an emphasis on presence, weaving this with notions from improvisation and Buddhism on presence and awareness. I reflect on these concepts in the learning and multi-tasking happening in everyday life, before bringing it together again nurturing such conditions for the creative process.

Lessac (1990) understands ‘tuning’ as both harmonious and constructive ways of having a whole-body experience like an instrument delicately tuned, such as conceived by nature. We take body and voice energies as organic instructions that help sense and develop ‘tuning’ through biological and psychological information. My current practice with this approach considers body and voice stimuli as either resonant or dissonant with each individual human system. Resonances are organic instructions experienced as familiar perceptions that respond to awareness, therefore connect us to a feeling of presence. In contrast, we sense the experience of dissonance as a competitive resonance in body-mind endeavours. The constant context shifting experienced in dissonance has a multitasking effect, causing a blur in perception. While apparently skilled, since everyday life often demands this kind of engagement, this extra effort requires multifocal attention and multiple responses in a minimal time frame. When potentially undetected feelings, sensations, thoughts or movements take place simultaneously, the resulting state of events leads to less coordinated functioning and compromised awareness of the embodied experience. ‘Tuning’ to the resonant body and voice stimuli results in a sense of presence that can be of great assistance to the performer in improvisation.

Similar to presence, improvisation is a fleeting notion in Performing Arts and remains a concept difficult to define. A useful notion is Paxton’s (1993, p. 257) definition of contact improvisation, as ‘doing (or allowing oneself to do) the unexpected, considering the immediate physical stimuli as tools to find action’. Paxton (1993, p. 256) states that ‘consciousness can travel inside the body. It is analogous to focusing the eyes in the external world’. So, being conscious is about taking one’s attention to a specific bodily phenomenon. If being conscious or aware is analogous to being present, this similarity leads to the important conclusion that sensory exercises have an inherent capacity to connect the practitioner to this condition or state.

Varela, Thomson and Rosch (2016:26) explain that the development of a sense of presence in mindfulness meditation is about ‘the letting go of habits of mindlessness as an unlearning rather than a learning’.Presence is, therefore, an intimate and individual search. In an improvisational, practice-oriented environment, training to experience presence is similarly not sustainable, if at all. Developing a sensation of ‘tuning’ through a personal collection of somatic tools which help the improviser acknowledge resonance or dissonance can draw near a feeling or a sensation of doing something in a connected way, which makes the sense of presence, thus, more accessible. It requires both learning and a measure of unlearning, but we can still consider this process problem solving in improvisation. The learning scope is about recognizing resonances and dissonances, while an attitude of allowing things to happen, whatever the circumstances ahead could exemplify the unlearning.

Another of Paxton’s lines of reasoning useful to this reflection, is that it is not possible to sustain awareness uninterruptedly. He supports that we experience gaps of awareness from time to time, and those gaps prevent us from learning from that moment. He highlights that ‘if consciousness stays open during these critical moments, it will have an experience, and will enlarge its concept to match the new experience. This expanded picture becomes the new ground for moving’ (1993, p. 257).

Considering that the thinking-doing time frame is almost immediate in improvisation, an extra attitude of ‘tuning whenever possible’ may offer the practitioner more time to sense the familiar resonances or dissonances with less anxiety and search the kit for a tool to deal with the situation. In such cases, consciousness may open to observe and, when possible, tune back in. This whole process is singular, particular to each person and takes place through becoming familiar with how experiences and dimensions (psychological and biological) feel. When ‘tuning’, the attitude of allowing oneself to have more time for somatic perceptions (where harmonious embodied experiences may come and go) enables the practitioner to help himself or herself experience presence in his or her own terms and possibilities.

Diving deeper into the experience of performing, teaching and researching with this approach for the last eight years, my explorations have converged into nurturing these conditions when using improvisation as the source for artistic material. During the creative process of Searching for Emily, an experimental performance linked to my current research, ‘tuning’ as outlined here impacted the feeling of being present. From the performers’ point of view, this approach enhances perception of the embodied experience, which leads to observing and assessing somatic implications on the creative process, propelled by the search for traces, images, and sensations. The creative process that resulted in the performance was a process of listening to and experimenting with both resonance and dissonance. The experiment revealed that tuning to resonance in different human dimensions (both biological and psychological) anchors feelings of presence while observing dissonance brought us an attitude of allowing extra time in search for tools to tune back and, therefore, enhance possibilities for feeling present. The performer guided the terms for the experience.

Overall, we understand ‘tuning’ as sensing when in tune while listening to both harmonic and dis-harmonic resonances. This ongoing process provides the means for self-learning (listening and tuning) or self-unlearning (allowing things to happen) in a less target-oriented manner. It becomes an attitude of stretching one’s limits through a sensation of respect and affection, since it depends less on demands external to the performer. Then, once it establishes the base for tuning experiences, the flow of discoveries regarding presence improves both inner and outer relationships in improvisation.



Lessac, Arthur. Body Wisdom: The use and training of the human body. California: Lessac Institute Publishing Company, 1990.

Paxton, Steve. Drafting Interior Techniques. CQ/Contact Improvisation Sourcebook. Contact Editions, V. 18, pp. 255-257, 1993.

Varela, Francisco J.; Thomson, Evan; Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016. Project MUSE https://muse.jhu.edu/


Notes on the contributor

Marcia Donadel is a performer, researcher and educator in Porto Alegre, Brazil. She is currently completing her practice-based doctoral research, which explores and examines sensory and creative possibilities of a somatic approach to improvisation. In 2018, her ongoing PhD research was awarded with the UFRGS-CAPES-PDSE Grant for a Doctoral Research Internship Period at C-DARE, Coventry University.


E-mail: mdonadel@gmail.com

Searching for Emily: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l7D5n41fok&t=1433s