The Violinist's guide to the Alexander Technique

by Paul Collins (from THE STRAND)

Stated in the simplest way, what are the basic aims of the violinist? The first is to arrive at the clearest concept of the music to be played. The second is to find the most complete technical means for expressing this concept in performance. Violinists will agree with the importance of the second of these aims; practically all will agree that concept should lead and technique follow. What is perhaps not clearly recognized is the long-term result of failure to achieve the second aim (technical means) adequately or consistently.

Admittedly, the good violinist is never satisfied, and in a certain sense may consider has failed, partially, every time he plays. The degree and type of failure ought nevertheless to be continually and carefully assessed. Habitual failure can cloud one's conception, make one set one's sights lower. The violinist becomes resigned to and eventually content with distortion. He may develop a fuzzy philosophy of performance, one which interprets intermittent or even continuous failure as an endearing human frailty. Audiences may actually join him in this, resulting in a sort of mass delusion. On the other hand, failure may lead him into an imaginary dream-world in which he believes is accomplishing what he has in fact only conceived. Stated in another way, the more a violinist succeeds in accomplishing his second (the technical means), the more venturous he can become; his imagination increasingly liberated, he sets his sights higher in the initial aim, the concept of the music.

How does the Alexander Technique help to resolve this problem? First one must attempt a definition of the Technique - about as difficult as finding a good definition of melody or rhythm. One might say that Alexander Technique is a method by which a person is taught to reestablish the fully-coordinated working of the mind-body complex. This coordinated working of the whole person is something as inherent in the normal person as having arms and legs. Unfortunately, owing to the environmental and emotional pressures which beset the individual as he grows to adulthood, an unhindered development of the mind-body complex seldom takes place. For this reason, most adults are rather in the position of a man operating a machine into which a quantity of sand has been emptied; or, to take a more contemporary parallel, like a computer operator who having fed faulty information in at one end is frustrated to discover faulty results at the other end.

How, specifically, does the teacher of the Alexander Technique set about the task of reestablishing coordination? Using habitual situations such as sitting, standing, walking, etc., he seeks, by a series of guided movements, to give the pupil the sensory experience of good coordination, lightness of movement and economy of effort. As the pupil progresses with his lessons he learns, first, how to prevent inappropriate movements from taking place, and second, how to choose and carry out an appropriate movement for whatever he wishes to do. The technique of stopping, of inhibiting, faulty manner of movement is crucial in any attempt to improve one's coordination. Any program of reeducation which omits this fundamental point (to take the computer example again) is bound to achieve results such as would be achieved if two sets of conflicting facts were fed to the machine. Violinists who seek to change from one technical method of playing to another, in hope of improvement, are often caught in this way.

From the point of view of the violinist taking Alexander lessons, it is interesting to note two subsidiary results of the lessons - a steady increase in the strength of the back, an much greater freedom in the neck, shoulders and arms. These by-products are, of course, not the ultimate aims or results of the Alexander Technique, but should serve as an indication to the violinist (who, after all, is interested in practical results) that he is not wasting his time.

From this brief description of the Technique it should be evident that what is being advocated is not just one more method for playing the violin. Because the Technique is concerned, with the person as a whole, the Alexander teacher is attempting to improve the basic coordination to the point where the specialist knowledge of the violinist can be more completely and easily put to use.

Obviously, the experience of increasing efficiency and economy of effort in the working of the mind-body complex gives the violinist a sound basis for self-observation, whereby he can sort out the relative efficiency of the various aspects of his violin technique.

The traditions of violin playing handed down by generations of teachers and performers are based on the experience of what works; however, there has been a generous admixture of personal idiosyncrasy. Some of this has died with the originators, some has been elevated to the status of basic technical procedure by whole groups of violinists. What is needed is a method which will provide an objective practical basis for sorting out the valid principles from the superstitions. Not the least of the advantages of the Technique is that it helps the individual to see himself from the outside. In the hands of the violin teacher it becomes a method by which the troubles of his pupils can be observed accurately, analyzed and remedied.

One could say that, precisely because the Alexander Technique is not a specific instrumental technique, but rather what might be called a pre-technique, a means of sorting out the whole mind-body complex, it can be a most useful tool in the hands of the violinist.

Listed below are a few suggestions as to the specific ways in which the Alexander Technique can help the violinist.

(1) The avoidance of the aches and pains from which so many violinists suffer in varying degrees.

Initial lessons help to sort these out, one learns to understand the basic causes of occupational pains, and is shown how to avoid them. This might seem a negative point; despite that, the simple fact of freeing oneself from pain can be rather a positive step, a liberating influence.

(2) Endurance.

Because the Technique shows how to achieve bodily lightness and economy of effort, one's energy resources can be spread further and more smoothly.

(3) Strength.

The Technique does not set out to improve strength in the manner of the various systems of body-building. Whether of the traditional type (lifting weights) or of the isometric variety, all body-building systems run into two basic troubles. First, the manner in which the muscles are used remains unaltered &ndash bad use continues, only intensified. Second, because most of us are in a state of muscular imbalance, with the flexor group of muscles unduly dominant, this imbalance remains as the body-building progresses, in exaggerated form. The Alexander Technique, with its emphasis on muscular balances and good use, gives the violinist strength in the form he can use, balanced, free-running, and controlled.

(4) Coordination.

Because violin technique is nearly always a question of the combination of simultaneous movements, the overall control must be working as well as possible; otherwise one movement will interfere with another. The Alexander Technique, because it deals with the total basic patterns of coordination, helps to eliminate conflicts between simultaneous movements.

(5) Control of nervous tension.

A moment's thought is enough to make one realize that the state we usually call “nerves” or “nervous tension” could more accurately be described as “excess of nervous tension”. Since “excess of nervous tension” equals “excess of muscular tension”, any improvement in the ability to perform muscular movements with lightness and economy must mean a corresponding lessening of nervous tension.
The excess of “nerves” associated with public performance generally lends to a preoccupation with one or two technical problems which are most obviously (from the performer's point of view) giving trouble. The Alexander Technique enables one to learn how, by the use of a few basic self-directions or reminders, during a performance, to prevent the obsessive preoccupation with certain details, and keep the whole musculature, and hence the nervous system working for instead of against one.

(6) Getting “stuck”.

Practically all violinists come across this problem sooner or later, in one of its many forms. “Getting stuck” might be described as a muscular stoppage in one arm or the other, usually associated with a particular technical problem. For example, in the left arm, an inability to vibrate, or a sudden stoppage in the trill; or, in the right arm, an attack of what is known in this country as “pearlies” (the inability to keep the bow in contact with the string). Usually, certain “infallible” exercises are prescribed for such complaints, with a rather low success rate. The trouble with most of these “cures” is that they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. There is little point in trying to remedy the situation by means of exercises which the person is bound to perform with the same dangerously inefficient use that has led to the stoppage in the first place. The Alexander Technique enables one to trace the stoppage back to root causes, stop the faulty basic habit, and replace it with an efficient one.

(7) Stretch.

Many violinists experience difficulty in their ability to stretch sufficiently &ndash in the left hand in order to play tenths and fingered octaves; and in the right arm, for the purpose of getting to the point of the bow easily and in applying sufficient pressure in the upper half. Many studies have been written with these problems in mind, but though they offer temporary improvement, it is disconcerting to find how quickly the hand (and/or arm) reverts to its original state. Work on the Technique effects an improvement of a much permanent nature, free from the strains associated with these particular violin problems. Not only is the proper stretch mechanism of the muscles set into operation, but a strong framework of back muscles is established to support the arms and hands in their work.

(8) Tone quality.

Here again, as suggested at the beginning of this article, one is brought up against the necessity to conceive the tone quality before producing it. But many violinists struggle for years without ever approaching the sound they imagine. Without wishing to acclaim the Alexander Technique as a universal panacea, it has been noted many times that the increase in overall coordination brought about by the Technique produces a definite improvement in tone quality. One possible explanation is that good tone requires the utmost evenness of application of bow to string, as well as instantaneous, subtle adjustment. The fewer the constrictions in the body, the more accurate becomes the sensory appreciation, and the freer the hands and arms are to make appropriate movements and adjustments. The Alexander Technique lays considerable emphasis on the freedom of the musculature of the neck. Many of the muscles attached to the head and neck act as an outspreading web of prongs to support the shoulder girdle. By the freeing of this muscle complex one achieves springing and support for the arms. Thus the intrinsic muscles of the arms are free for the finer adjustments needed in the production of good tone quality.

In conclusion, a few points about present-day professional playing conditions (conditions which also prevail to a certain extent in amateur organizations). The violinist is being asked to produce a greater and more varied range of dynamics than ever before - the modern concert hall, heavier bows and strings, the demands of composers pose formidable problems for modern violin techniques. Similarly, a greater dexterity of music and body is required than ever before.

Economics have forced on us a situation in which we must produce good results with inadequate rehearsal time - inevitably an increase in nervous pressure ensures. The worldwide shortage of violinists results in the student being hurried through his training and pitched straight into a hectic professional existence. Very few things can break down the well-being of the individual so fast as sitting on an uncomfortable chair for a three-hour rehearsal followed by a two-hour concert, not to speak of the traveling involved. Is it any wonder that the average professional life expectancy of an orchestral violinist is as short as that of a professional footballer? Any defence one can raise against such an onslaught would seem worthwhile. The Technique outlined in this article, dealing as it does with the individual's ability to cope in all situations, twenty-four hours a day, would seem to offer a sensible natural defence against what often amounts to an opportunistic and ruthless exploitation of a person's natural abilities and strength.

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The late Paul Collins was a marathon runner, a professional violist and one of the Directors of The School of Alexander Studies in London, England.

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique