The Alexander Technique for Musicians
by Ethan Kind
Alexander teachers look at the movements and posture patterns of their students, and help them realize which are effective and which lead to discomfort and pain. Problem patterns are often increased by the repeated movements in playing a musical instrument. After observing the student while playing or during other activities, the teacher shows her where she is tensing and instructs through touch and with verbal instructions, guiding her through activities like walking, speaking or playing an instrument.
The body ideally should be in constant flow and movement. Good posture is both an upward and a downward flow. The torso should flow upward from the hip joints, the legs should flow downward from the hip joints, and the shoulders should flow by widening horizontally as they float on the ribcage, in constant expansion and contraction through breathing.
Unfortunately these flows are often absent. For example many violinists try to hold a particular position with their shoulder girdle. Once they decide where they think their shoulders should be in relation to their arms and torso, they lock their shoulders.
None of this is necessary, or helpful. Whether standing or sitting, the violinist does not need to lock a single muscle in the body. Power and support do not come from a held position. They come from a balanced skeleton that is constantly rebalanced by muscles in flow. The skeleton supports the musculature instead of the muscles locking to support the skeleton.
F.M. Alexander, the originator of the Technique, observed that the head leads the body into movement. When the head is properly leading or directing the body, the whole body is organized around a free neck and a lengthening spine. When teaching or playing a musical instrument, instinctive, graceful, pain-free movement requires that the neck release and the spine lengthen immediately before the body goes into movement.
However, many people habitually tighten or set their muscles before they move. When they tighten in anticipation of doing something, they lock up their musculature with the unconscious assumption that this will help them do the activity more precisely. But the body is considerably more accurate and comfortable in performance when there is no tensing before initiating movement. Most of the pain and exhaustion in music teaching and playing comes from the body compensating for poor posture, rather than from the activity itself.
For instance, some music teachers, in their efforts to get their points across to their studsents, tense their backs and necks. By the end of the lesson they are either overarching or slumping to alleviate the tension of poor posture.
Grounding means allowing the hips to be fully on the chair and the feet to be fully on the floor. The tendency to stiffen the back and neck previously mentioned prevents the pelvis from resting easily on the chair. Any tightening of the thighs and drawing of legs back into the torso pulls the feet off the ground. The feet may appear to be on the ground, but the tension keeps them from being in full and easy contact with the floor.
When instructing or playing a musical instrument, a great deal of emphasis is usually placed on developing arm technique and the legs are often ignored. The sense of connection to the floor or the chair is then lost. By allowing the legs, the pelvis, and body to fully support the torso, the act of consciously grounding keeps a musician from straining the back. This sense of grounding flows up the torso into the arms, neck and shoulders and gives a greater sense of freedom in the upper body. This allows the student to be more expressive with less effort.
Inhibition in the Alexander Technique is a very different concept than the negative one popularized in psychology. Instead, it is used by Alexander teachers to describe the process of observing how you are moving, stopping in order to notice any inefficient movement patterns, and then intervening to prescribe movements that have a minimum of tension and a maximum of balance and ease.
When an Alexander teacher applies the process of inhibition to a student who is playing a musical instrument while standing, for example, the teacher would want to make the student aware of any tendency to lock the knees as the instrument is brought into playing position. The teacher then asks the student to begin again, and might say something like I want you to bring the instrument into position as you release the holding in your neck and as you unlock your knees. Continue to free your neck and knees as you begin to play. The teacher can also use his hands to guide the student through the process. The idea is to inhibit any tendency to lock or set the body in anticipation of performing.
ENDS AND MEANS
Performers and music teachers have frequently acquired a set of values that leads to sacrificing their bodies to perform or teach at a high level. How they use their body as they play or teach a musical instrument determines whether they remain healthy or become injured.
Learning to use the body correctly is most important with beginning students. In this difficult stage, the student is trying hard to learn to do new things with the body. When seeing that the student is struggling, the teacher can ask him to stop trying so hard and enjoy being a beginner. Doing this helps foster a focus on the means rather than the ends throughout his playing career.
Paying attention to the means is a radical departure from what many music teachers and performers do to solve technical problems. Both the teacher and the student usually work backward from the goal to solve a problem. This approach means that the playing of the passage is paramount at all times, even as the student plays slowly or reworks a technical point.
Alexander Technique teachers make clear to the student that it is equally important to take care of the body as to get the passage right. The performer inhibits the habits that have been created by the ever-present drive to attain a goal, replacing them with effective habits to reach the same goal.
The Alexander Technique is a refinement of instrumental technique. Its goal is to achieve ease in playing. If a student is taught that technique is useful both to prevent injury and to allow a beautiful performance, then the ends havent become more important than the means. If the music teacher embodies good posture and movement patterns during a lesson, then the principle of not sacrificing the body for the goal is modeled. The teacher and student can then take care of themselves within the teaching and learning experience.
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Ethan Kind holds a masters degree in performance on the classical guitar and is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York. Ethan Kind lives in Albuquerque, NM, and can be reached by phone 505-294-8483, Website:ethankind.com.
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