Two Book Reviews of Just Play Naturally by Vivien Mackie
Pablo and Me
(Originally published in American Strings, August/September, 2003)
Vivien Mackie's Just Play Naturally is exactly what its subtitle suggests, "An account of her cello studies with Pablo Casals in the 1950s and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching and the principles of the Alexander Technique." Scottish-born Mackie spent three formative years in Prades studying with Casals. Her reminiscences of those lessons form the core of the book. Many years after that career-defining period, Mackie studied and then trained to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, developed by 19th-century orator Frederick Matthias Alexander who had successfully retrained himself to give speeches after suffering severe laryngitis. Based on his own experiences, Alexander's technique helps people in all professions become more aware of how their bodies tighten and contract in times of stress, and also shows them how to counteract those impulses with an awareness of how to "lengthen and widen."
Joe Armstrong, who also teaches the Alexander Technique, is a flutist who studies cello with Mackie as well. It is obvious from the informal tone of the writing that the two are great friends with the utmost respect for each other. The book is set up as a series of loose conversations between them...(and the)... insights into Casals' teaching style and Makie's deepening understanding of music as art are thought-provoking and fascinating. At her first lesson, Mackie played only two measures of the Haydn D major concerto, but she learned so much more than a few seconds of music. "In the Haydn...I learned in the first bar or two that every note...is either coming towards you, or going away. It has a direction. It's never just there; at it mustn't go along just plain. The ear demands to be intrigued and fascinated. If you present the ear with a steady, unchanging sound, it quickly loses interest and ceases to pay attention."
The role of body-awareness as related to cello playing is also intriguing. At the close of the book, Mackie includes an excellent introductory article to the Alexander Technique. If you have studied the technique, as I had many years ago, this book may be a welcome reminder about its pertinence to playing and performing music. If not, the book may pique your interest in the technique. Well worth reading for every cellist - really, for any musician. - Sarah Friedberg
Just Play Naturally
Originally Published in European String Teachers Association, 2003
Written throughout as conversation, this book is eminently easy to read, but it encompasses great messages with its text. It is an account of Vivien Mackie's cello studies for three years with Pablo Casals and the parallels she discovered afterwards with the Alexander Technique, in which she later trained. Besides being of obvious interest to cellists, the book additionally gives any of us illumination into a mode of life through good use of one's whole self as seen by Alexander teachers. I should perhaps say here that I am a keen advocate of the Alexander Technique although I am not a trained teacher of it.
We hear about some of Vivien's earlier years and experience, then about her time in Prades from 1952 and her first lesson with Casals, and the immeasurable time she spent in getting total accuracy of intonation and expression on the first note of a concerto. During lesson Cassals played opposite the pupil, and Vivien says that he was really 'stretching' her ears to hear real detail, besides her eyes watching to the same degree. She had to remember everything, the copy not being used. Writing it all down happened later at her home.
One of Casals' edicts, 'do only what is necessary', points at once to a parallel with Alexander's teaching. Throughout the book one is aware that the two Alexander teachers, one a cellist and one a flautist, see things in the same way. To be fair, there are misprints, but this in no way diminishes the fund of central ideas and thoughts to ponder upon. May I commend the choice of the inspiring picture of Casals radiating joy at something wonderful? His smile and his hands say so much. - Penelope Lynex
Click here to read "The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician" - an article by Vivien Mackie
Just Play Naturally - In Conversation with Joe Armstrong and a great many other books about the Alexander Technique can be purchased at The Alexander Technique Bookstore(USA and Canada) in Assoication with Amazon.com and Amazon.ca and at The Alexander Technqiue Bookshop (UK) in Association with Amazon.co.uk
A number of other articles relating to this topic can be found at Musicians and the Alexander Technique
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique is a comprehensive source of information about the Technique