One technique for avoiding musician injuries is called the Alexander Technique. This technique focuses on studying one's own mannerisms and posture. It takes its name from F. Matthias Alexander (1869–1955), a former Shakespearean recitalist, who first observed and formulated its principles during 1890 – 1900. Alexander trained teachers of his Technique from 1931 until 1955.
Marshaling Your Body’s Intelligence:
Alexander Technique for Musicians
by Joan Arnold
In a memorable performance, we know when there is a sense of rightness and ease, when we’re buoyed up by the rhythm, the feel of other musicians or the responsive pulse of the audience. But when we don’t have that ease, how do we get it? When we lose it, how do we get it back?
The Alexander Technique is a way to return to the kind of balance that invites a consummate performance. It is based on the idea that our bodies possess a natural poise. This poise can be disrupted by unconscious tension habits. Instrumentalists and singers know when excess effort interferes with their best work. It can disturb their sense of pitch or timing, constrict breath or make intricate fingering cumbersome. Though they might hear the instruction, “Just relax,” they really don’t know how.
When Anne Mette Iversen wheeled her acoustic bass into my studio, I was struck by how her delicate 5'4", 108 pound frame managed her gargantuan instrument. The habits she had developed while playing led to stinging pain in her left shoulder that led to numbness in her fingers. When she sat at the computer to correspond or the piano to compose, she felt eye strain and extreme back fatigue. She knew her posture was a problem, but didn’t know how to change it.
In order for the arms to function without pain, the torso must be upright and the shoulders relaxed. In our first lesson, I noted that Iversen’s torso was collapsed and her shoulders were tight. We worked on allowing the breath to fill and empty the lungs, one means to achieving dynamic, upright posture. Recalling her first lesson, she says, “We talked about how my chest was totally sunken, so the main thing I had to do was fill it up again.”
There are several aspects of an Alexander lesson that help you learn how to change harmful habits. Part of the lesson is on a bodywork table, another is in activity. The gentle, instructive Alexander touch invites your body to release the muscular tension underlying inefficient movement habits and gives you the feeling of easier breathing, more space in the joints and power without strain. You then recognize the contrast to your habitual movement style, and can aim to replicate that feeling when you’re on your own. Rather than bracing yourself, you learn how to use your thought process to engender core support.
In the more active part of a lesson, hands-on guidance in simple moves such as standing and sitting give you the experience of more freedom in ordinary actions. You then apply the new learned pattern to an activity – at the keyboard, on a wind or stringed instrument or while singing. You vocalize or play, guided by the teacher’s intelligent, informed touch. We also use visual cues: looking in a mirror to observe inefficient posture and see that posture change. We look at a skeleton model and anatomical illustrations to arrive at an understanding of how the body works best.
“The images of how the body works really helped me,” says Iversen, a 32- year-old native of Denmark. She now composes and plays jazz gigs in New York and Europe as a sideman and leader, and has been playing bass for 7½ years. “Before, I didn’t know that the lungs go all the way up to your shoulders,” she says. “Now, just by thinking about it, my body automatically starts filling the lungs up all the way. From that day on, I haven’t had that pain in my shoulder. After my first lesson, I came home and had to raise my end pin. I pulled it out more because I had gotten a little taller.”
Practicing an instrument is all about building skill through repetition. But repetition with excess tension breeds uncomfortable or debilitating habits. For this reason, many musicians find learning the Alexander Technique can bring the relief of chronic pain or recovery from a career-threatening hand condition. It can mean the end of nagging neck pain or the resolution of a longstanding back problem. They learn how to manage the challenges of their instrument by better managing their bodies.
Frederic Mathias Alexander’s instrument was his voice. As a young actor at the turn of the 20th century in Australia, Alexander became hoarse and unable to recite the Shakespeare soliloquies he loved. Frustrated in his ambition to achieve renown as an actor, he turned his efforts to restoring his lost voice. He discovered that his problem was excess muscular tension constricting his vocalization. Through an astounding process of self-observation and experiment, he evolved a set of body/mind skills anyone can learn to solve physical problems and clear the way for freer creative expression.
One of Alexander’s discoveries was the body’s capacity for effortless poise. Our neuromuscular system is designed to work in concert with gravity. Within the body are anti-gravity reflexes that can give us lightness and freedom in function. We can elicit those reflexes by allowing ease between the head and the neck – the relationship that Alexander considered primary in controlling movement. When the neck releases, the head rotates forward at the top of the spine; rather than compressing with effort, the spine lengthens. You can apply this newfound poise to any motion – cutting vegetables, singing an aria or playing music.
When you learn the Alexander Technique, you boost the postural reflex by learning a set of mind/body skills Alexander called awareness, inhibition and direction.
- Awareness is a sense of where the body is in space, the effort quality and mental attitude you bring to your endeavors.
- Inhibition – the skill he called the key to his work – means catching yourself in over-exertion or collapse and pausing to undo it.
- Direction means envisioning a new way to move with the neck released and the head easily balanced. When we use these skills, the body can perform an action imbued with a new sense of flow.
> Continue reading about the Alexander Technique