Be Wary Of Good Advice
by Bill Plake
One of the biggest challenges that arise when I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians is to get them to consider ideas about playing their instrument that seem to be contrary to what they believe to be absolutely true. Some of these ideas were imparted to them by well-meaning teachers. Unfortunately, a certain amount of those ideas are adding to (or causing!) the problem that motivated the student to seek my help in the first place.
I try never to directly contradict the advice that they’ve taken from their teachers. Rather, I aim at helping them have a different kinesthetic experience by not following that advice. (I of course am using my hands and words to direct them into a more efficient, natural use of themselves. This helps significantly.)
After they’ve experience this different, seemingly new way to play, I usually tell them something something like this: “So now you have a chance to go home and experiment. You can do it the way you’ve been doing it, or try it this other way. Then you can choose which you prefer, which way seems to help you the most.”
And that’s pretty much it. Far more often than not, the student chooses this newer, clearly less strenuous way to play. But it’s the student’s choice, not my insistent command.
For us as musicians, it’s natural to seek out advice from someone who has already solved the problems of playing our instrument that we still struggle with. And to be clear, most of the advice that master musicians give their students regarding pedagogy is immensely helpful, often saving the student years of misunderstanding and frustration.
But you always have to come back to this one question when taking advice from a great instrumentalist: Is this musician playing well because of what he or she is doing, or despite what he or she is doing? (I ask my regular visitors here to forgive me for raising this question so often, but it really is fundamental.)
For example, you can play saxophone quite well if you curl your toes and grip the floor with vise-like effort. But this doesn’t help you play well. It doesn’t help you produce your sound. It’s not necessary at all to playing the saxophone. (In fact it actually interferes with your ability to play your best.) It’s a simple matter of the principle of cause and effect. Curling your toes is an effect of your habit, not a cause of your good sound.
But if you believe that you need to do that to play well, it’s likely you’ll pass that advice on to one of your students as gospel truth. And this is often how bad advice is passed on from teacher to student.
Here are three guidelines you can follow when given advice about playing your instrument (from me or anyone else) to help you make better decisions for yourself:
Does it make sense with the laws of nature? Part of my job when I teach is to help my student better understand the music making process with respect to their bodily structures, and basic principles of physical science (mechanics, gravity, acoustics). I want them to have a clearer and more accurate body map, and want them to understand how their overall general coordination affects the specific coordination of playing music. I also want them to understand what it takes to produce sound on their instrument from an acoustic point of view, then always ask themselves if, or how, their habits might be affecting the production of sound. Again, the “because of/despite of” question. So many myths of pedagogy can be dispelled by simply cracking a book on human anatomy.
Does it mostly involve adding, or subtracting strain? This is an important question to ask, especially if you feel pain or fatigue after carrying out the advice you’ve been given. I’ve never yet taught a student who wasn’t creating enough muscular effort to play. In fact, it’s usually a matter of getting them to stop working in such a strenuous, misdirected way. So when advice has lots “doing” words, as in, “pull your shoulders down”, “grip the floor with your feet to ground yourself”, “push from your diaphragm”, “tuck your chin in”, etc., go back to asking if, and how, these kinds of things work with respect to the laws of nature. Many times, well-meaning teachers are describing the perceived effect of what good playing looks like, as opposed to the bigger picture of what the cause of that visible bodily change is. For example, as a saxophonist, if I let my neck release my head into an upward balance off the top of my spine, my chin will appear to move inward toward my throat. But here’s the thing: muscular release is what is causing the change. That’s something entirely different than me trying to tuck my chin in toward my throat (muscular tension). In my experience, the more the pedagogical advice has to do with release (as opposed to added effort) the more effective the result.
Do you clearly understand the advice in the same way the advice giver does? This is quite often where things start to go wrong. I’ve many times encountered students who are not understanding and carrying out the advice the way the teacher understands it and carries it out. This has to do with the limits of language. I often find myself saying to my students as I teach, “You’ve just done what I’ve asked you to do, but it’s not what I want you to do. So, let’s see if I can ask again in a different way.” There’s no such thing as one ideal way of expressing your own movement experiences so that another person will experience them in the same way you do. This is where the art of teaching becomes fundamental. If you get advice and it seems to defy the laws of nature, and/or mostly involves more muscular effort, make really sure (in the most respectful way) that you ask your teacher to help you better understand.
And on that note…of course, any time you take a lesson or seek advice from someone, proceed with the utmost respect. Never argue. Simply ask genuine questions until you understand. But ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if the advice given is helpful or not to you, no matter what anyone says. It’s your choice.
Bill Plake is a Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique in South Pasadena, California. Bill came to study the Alexander Technique because of a debilitating loss of functioning in his hands. After being impressed with the practicality of the work in helping him to remedy his condition, he decided to train to become a Certified Teacher. He completed his three-year training at the Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles. Besides maintaining a private teaching practice in Glendale, Bill also teaches classes in the community (see more), and is a guest teacher of the Alexander Technique at California Institute of the Arts and Pomona College. He is on the faculty at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, teaching the Alexander Technique to actors, singers and dancers. Bill is also a critically acclaimed musician (saxophone and flute) and a devoted music instructor. He has been a competitive athlete (cycling and triathlon) and is a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM-CPT).
For more information about the Alexander Technique, visit The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique