A Violinist's Experience with the Alexander Technique
by Stephen Brivati
For somebody who has left the music profession but remains involved with the violin and music at many levels, the Alexander Technique can be both an inspiring and a depressing experience. In the latter case one can attend the concerts of major symphony orchestras and be acutely aware of a high level of suffering experienced by the players on both the mental and physical plane. Then one sees a player who has done the Alexander Technique and that person shines like a beacon of light and joy in the middle of the pain - it's unmistakable. Thankfully it is more and more common as the list of internationally renowned music institutes offering the Alexander Technique now ranges from the Julliard in America to the Academy in London and on into Europe and around the globe. Nobody escapes!
This suffering we are talking about is reflected in statistics showing that a huge majority of musicians are playing in pain or discomfort and it doesn't get better. Music is just not fun for the people who really should be enjoying it on stage, and if the performers aren't then workmanship rather than art is all the public is being served. Of course, the majority of musicians would either deny their pain or just write it off as part of the job. This denial operates in two ways: internally it is used to protect oneself from the idea one is doing something wrong. We have so much emotional investment in what we do I sometimes wonder how we survive at all. Second, from an external point of view it is to protect your job. No concessions to weakness are allowed in a profession where there is always somebody sitting behind waiting to slide into your seat and take the food out of the mouths of your children!
All this competitive self-destructiveness stems from end-gaining. I first felt the meaning of this ubiquitous Alexander term when being taught meditation by Jeremy Chance at an Alexander Technique retreat. A beautiful chapel looking out upon Mt.Fuji in Japan and our session was interrupted by one of the biggest bumble bees I have ever seen. Jeremy said "Lets talk about end-gaining. You all wish for a reality in which that bee is not present. Your desire for that reality is now so strong you are no longer in the present. The bee is part of now and if you accept that then you will be meditating or doing the Alexander Technique." It sure as heck worked for me. I fell in love with that bee!
My first serious end -gaining as a musician was when I was eight and I heard Heifetz on the radio. Something deep inside the hitherto reluctant young violinist was touched so deeply I vowed I would "play the violin like Heifetz," whatever the cost. Not be a musician, mark you, not take it one day at a time and focus on what I was doing, not be aware but simply "be Heifetz" with nothing in-between! This is truly the violinist (cellist? just substitute any -ist) disease. So I dedicated my childhood to practicing many hours a day while not being present, losing contact with my integrated self and getting I suppose, somewhat better on the violin. But as I hit my teens it began to hurt and the denial of pain syndrome that musicians usually experience later began right there. For whatever age you are, musicians are gifted in denying pain to at least the same extent as professional athletes for the same reason: they are the ultimate endgainers. Struggling through five years of music college was not fun. Why was it that these brilliant player/teachers couldn't help me? Twenty five years and a great deal of the Alexander Technique later I think I know a little.
The training of musicians is traditionally based on a set of habits that are supposed to be correct and connected with each habit is a kind of canonical text written by foreign sounding people like "Sevcik." One plays these canonical text over and over until the bad habits die of sheer boredom. Of course, the more bad habits you have the more hours in a day you have to spend practicing good stuff...it's an interesting theory that we all buy into and then inflict on the next generation of students. Ironically, those who really get messed up are likely to become teachers and thus assume the position where they can do the most damage. Anyway, to cut a long story short I got through music college in pain, entered and left the profession in pain and went on to be something else.
Fast forward ten years and I felt a curious compulsion to buy Vivian Mackie's book Just Play Naturally, which describes her experiences with the cello and the Alexander Technique. This inspired me to begin attending Jeremy Chance's Alexander Technique teacher training classes although I am not training as a teacher. This was a real baptism of fire because at this stage the teachers were really doing the heavy thinking part of the Alexander Technique which I do believe one has to confront at some point. But I knew nothing and I think my ignorance may have provided a good laboratory for some of those teachers...
In my first lesson Jeremy opened a discussion on the capabilities and limits of the Alexander Technique and frankly I was feeling rather cynical so I challenged him to cure my flat feet. After watching me walk around he told me that I didn't have flat feet but only misuse of the body and in thirty seconds he showed me what all the plastic insert selling doctors of my youth didn't know: I can walk pain free. No, not walk, float. I was floating!
From that moment I was a believer, but I also met the downside of the Alexander Technique. It is not a quick fix and it is my responsibility. So I got home floating on air and woke up the next day back to being an ungainly elephant. That just about broke my heart but I survived and kept going until the day I took my violin. I played, Jeremy did his magic hands stuff and somebody came out I had never met before and played so beautifully I cried. Thus I return again and again to the same serious question: why is it that somebody who knows so little about the violin (he called my bow a cue, as in snooker) could help me release music that some of the best teachers in the world could not unlock?
And of course the next day the magic thing we had unleashed had crawled back into its hole. But I am always a lucky person and my involvement with the Alexander Technique has led me to meet many of the best teachers in the world and although they are all different they have all helped me find that power that I knew had been lurking in there for twenty five years. A magic that just wouldn't come out. Meeting Jeremy, Vivien Mackie, Peter Grunwald, Marie Francois, William Conable et al. I have been enabled to walk out on stage bursting with happiness and just play to people, the music to them as a gift, their accepting the greatest gift I have ever received.
I have been surprised by some of the things I learnt about myself and performance in general. I am a big person and my self image was somehow associated with large violinists producing huge, thick sounds like David Oistrakh. But always when I was helped to use myself well by a fine teacher (or these days, even myself) my sound is more the delicate tenderness of 'lighter' players like Milstein. A violinists sound "is" their self and if I had got that misused then I really did have a lot of non-doing to master as a human being as well as a musician. Perhaps we all do?
What about performance then? Vivien Mackie taught me that if we try to be moved it's as boring as watching somebody cry for an hour. Again, I was skeptical, until she "Alexandered" me and I played a beautiful lyrical piece of Handel at one of her seminars. 'What did you feel Buri?' I was asked. 'Nothing much,' I replied in disappointment. 'Then look at the audience,' commanded Vivian (a very commanding lady!). They were nodding, smiling and even crying. I was thus forced to ponder deeply on the nature of feeling, emotion, expression and art until I discovered we are only the vessel or vehicle. This is where true satisfaction lies. When a performer is trying so hard to be moving or whatever they are back in the familiar old end-gaining routine. I was later astonished to discover through my writing and discussion with hundreds of players in real life and on the Internet that the idea of not being emotional is way off the spectrum of conventional musical thought. Old habits are so comfortable it is a real effort to live without them until we find the truth. Only the great artists are always there.
Through my writing on the Internet I think I have managed to convince a reasonable number of violinists to seek out Alexander Technique teachers, but three things spring to mind in this connection. In order to be able to offer this encouragement I first had to prove that I knew about violin playing. The violinist is a curious animal which is still largely unable to see the Alexander Technique except as a tool for "improving" what one is already doing on the instrument and thus it cannot be explored until ratified by a by a voice of violinistic persuasiveness. Secondly, it is still seen as an emergency measure to 'cure' an injury so that one can resume ones old habits with the same intensity as quickly a as possible. Finally, many of these fine players would like to see it defined or taught as a linear series of exercises that are easily understood for thirty minutes a day in the manner of the Mr. Sevcik textbooks we studied in our youth.
This is the paradox and sticking point of the Alexander Technique for violinists: we want FM Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) to have written a violin playing manual. That music and life might be inseparable is still too much to think about during the early morning scramble for a practice room at the Julliard.
Stephen Brivati (Buri) was born in England in 1965 and went through the usual institutional training as a violinist. Discomfort of playing while misusing body plus love of things oriental promted a career change to being an English teacher in Japan for the last fifteen years. After taking many lessons and seminars in Alexander Technique with a huge variety of teachers associated with the ATA in Japan he was able to enjoy studying the violin playfully for the first time. He is now dedicated to promoting the welfare of musicans through the ideas of F.M Alexander. His free time is thus spent enjoying practicing, concertizing, teaching the violin and writing extensively on these topics at violinist.com which he admits is his "home away from home." He can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org
Just Play Naturally and many other books and videos about the Alexander Technique can be found at The Alexander Technique Bookstore in Association with Amazon.com
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