The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician

by Vivien Mackie

We see the makers in instruments devising finer strings, better reeds, more efficient fingering systems, and the players exploring the new possibilities; we see composers extending their own boundaries, and writing ever more challenging music. We see the less remarkable players catching up with yesterday’s best, and so on and on. Standards and expectations have spiraled steadily upwards; as in sport, yesterday’s record has become today’s norm.

If we look at where this has led us, we see a marvelous abundance of fine players, but we also see a distressingly high proportion of musicians dropping out, at all stages of their professional lives, through what are described as "musicians’ injuries." To deal with this problem, the number of "musicians’ clinics" is steadily rising, where musicians in trouble can be examined by a doctor and sent for treatment of one kind or another. Correspondingly, we see a great rise in the number of conferences and seminars dealing with musicians’ stress. On medical advice, students are withdrawing from required performance exams in disturbingly large numbers.

Does this mean that we are approaching our physical limits? We know the pressures we are under as performers. What are those pressures doing to the way we function? Do we perhaps need to change the way we use ourselves? Is it possible to change the way in which we use ourselves? It certainly seems that we are not as good at managing our own bodies as we need to be.

Frederick Matthias Alexander was a performer in trouble. He was an actor, who was born in Tasmania in 1869. He was enjoying some success in Melbourne and Sydney when he began to suffer from increasing hoarseness, sometimes culminating in a compete loss of voice toward the end of a performance. He took the very normal step of consulting his doctor, to see whether the trouble could be explained by some abnormality in his throat. The doctor prescribed soothing pastilles and sprays, and when these proved ineffective, suggested that he rest his voice completely for a period of three weeks.

This seemed at first to be the answer, but very soon the hoarseness returned as before. The rest had merely delayed the onset of symptoms. The next step was to have his larynx examined by a specialist. The examination showed that his larynx was in perfect order. Alexander reasoned that if his larynx was in perfect order and yet not functioning adequately, he must in some way be misusing it. Accordingly he set to work to observe himself in a set of mirrors to see what he was doing amiss.

Before long he saw that when he raised his voice, he pulled his had back, depressed his larynx and audibly sucked in air. Closer examination showed that this pattern was occurring even in his ordinary speech. He set out to eliminate these movements, and found that he could not do so. They appeared to be inseparable elements bound into his whole pattern of vocal use. As he says at this point in his account of his experiments, “I found myself in a maze.”

Alexander’s patient and lengthy experiments first bore fruit when he discovered that if he could maintain what he described as a “lengthening of stature” while he spoke, the hoarseness simply did not occur. He found that, in order to maintain his “lengthenign of stature” he had to prevent the shortening of the neck muscles which resulted in the pulling back of his head. When he was able to inhibit this shortening, the depressing of the larynx and the sucking in of air did not happen. The head, then, was the key.

He was able to return to the stage, and the improvement in his performance was so striking that his colleagues were curious to know how it had come about. He showed them what he had discovered, using his hands to demonstrate the new head-neck-back relationship which brought about the lengthening of stature. To his surprise, he found that, far from being an indiosyncrasy of his own, the tendency to pull the head back was present in his colleagues also, and the lengthening of stature was as beneficial to them as to himself.

George Coghill, the American biologist, was an almost exact contemporary of Alexander. During the early part of the 20th century, he was investigating the development of movement in primitive vertebrates, and his experiments showed that “movement is controlled and integrated by the total pattern of the head, neck, and torso, which dominates the partial pattern of the limbs.”

At the university of Utrecht, meanwhile, Professor Rudolph Magnus was studying the head/neck reflexes in animals and his conclusion was that “the whole mechanism of the body acts in such a way that the head leads and the body follows.”

Here, then, were three men in their different fields and by their own methods, making the same discovery. But Alexander showed how the primary importance of the head-neck-torso relationship also applies to man, and can be put to practical use.

By 1912 Alexander was using the term “Primary Control” to indicate the dynamic relationship of head, neck and torso which brought bout the “lengthening of stature.” Later he was able to state the “this Primary Control governs the working of all the mechanisms, and so renders the control of the complex human organism relatively easy.”

In the skills required to play a musical instrument we are obviously making very great demands on our coordination, and we need to have superb control. How can we make use of Alexander’s discovery in this situation?

Alexander teachers can use their hands to help us to experience the new head/neck relationship which will initiate the lengthening process. For example, a teacher will ask a pupil to allow the head to release gently forward and up from the neck in response to his or her touch. Keeping a hand on the pupil’s neck, the teacher will then ask the person to make some simple movement, such as moving an arm as if to draw a bow, while maintaining the lengthening direction. At this point the pupil is likely to shorten the neck muscles and so pull back the head. He or she must inhibit any immediate reaction to the instruction, which will be a habitual reaction, in order to include the lengthening element. If successful, the pupil will have carried out the two instructions simultaneously - namely, to move the arm and to maintain the lengthening.

The movement made under the new conditions is likely to feel quite unfamiliar. As lessons progress, the pupil will become more skillful at inhibiting the habitual reactions in order to maintain the lengthening. The student will become more aware of the interference with the primary control, be able to tackle more complex movements, and so become progressively less dependent on the teacher’s hands. Since the neck is the starting point of the pattern of tension, inhibition at this level will prevent the spread of tension to other parts of the body - the undesirable reactions will be nipped in the bud.

In 1976 Professor Frank Pierce Jones of Tufts University described his studies of the “startle reflex” with high-speed sequential photography. Using one of his students as a model, and a sudden loud noise as the stimulus, he showed how, in the startle reflex, the pattern of tension begins in the neck muscles and passes down the trunk and limbs in about half a second. If this response can be inhibited at neck level - that is, if we can prevent the shortening of the neck muscles - the pattern can proceed no further.

Any of us will be able to recall an experience of the startle reflex when we have had a fright. Along with the postural changes comes sudden quickening of the heart rate, due to the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream, the perhaps a sudden chill, with sweating of the palms of the hands, etc. The autonomic nervous system is in fact preparing us for fight of flight.

All musicians are familiar with at least some of these symptoms, which we describe as “concert nerves.” We are experiencing a mild form of the startle pattern, and we know how incapacitating it is. What we may not appreciate is that many of us are living more or less permanently in this altered state, which has become so habitual that we accept it as normal.

It is important for us to know that movements are made by contraction of muscle, and that the contraction is virtually instantaneous, whereas the decontraction, which restores the muscle to its normal resting length, takes about ten times as long. This means that movements performed repeatedly, at very sort interval - as in a trill, for instance - will involve a progressive shortening of the muscles concerned, since there simply is not time for full decontraction to take place. Each repeat of the movement therefore requires more contraction than the last.

This also applies, on a grander scale, to a long bout of practice. (This is why it is important to take frequent breaks, so that the muscles we have been using can return to their resting length.) Unfortunately it is possible for a much-used muscle to “forget” its resting length, and fail to decontract as fully as it should; so we may get a permanent shortening of certain muscle groups, which shows as round shoulders, when the chest is over-contracted for instance, or in hands which refuse to open fully. We shape ourselves by what we do.

Frequent or prolonged anxiety will impose its pattern by the same process. Furthermore, the anxiety pattern includes the chemical component; that is to say, the postural pattern itself makes us feel anxious. A vicious circle indeed.

With the use of the primary control, we have it in our power to match the response exactly to the stimulus, which means that we can choose our habits. As players of musical instruments, forming desirable habits, as well as discarding habits we do not want, is what practice is all about. How we practice becomes critical, and Alexander’s work gives us a proper physiological basis for thinking about “how.”

If we can deal with anxiety, and if we can choose our habits with precision, we can work with far greater refinement and economy. We may then find we have access to potential we always believed we had - potential which has been locked away beyond our reach. Is this possibility not something we must pursue for ourselves, for our pupils, and for those who will follow us in our profession?


This article was abridged from an article published in Interlude, Journal of the Boston Musicians’ Association, Local 9-535, July-August, 1990 and forms the Appendix of Just Play Naturally - In Conversation with Joe Armstrong, an account of her cello study with Pablo Casals in the 1950s and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching and the principles of the Alexander Technique.

About the Author:

Vivien Mackie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1931. She attended Cheltenham Ladies College and the Royal College of Music. In 1952 she want to Prades, France to study with Pablo Casals, initially for ten lessons; but she stayed on to continue her studies with him until 1955. With her late husband, the conductor Gordon Mackie, she had two sons, Andrew and James; and from 1970-1973 she trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique with Walter Carrington. She lives in London and travels worldwide, teaching and giving classes for performers in her fusion of the principles of Casals’ teaching with those of the Alexander Technique. From 1990 to 1993 she conducted a three-year teacher training course in the Alexander Technique exclusively for musicians in Melbourne, Australia

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