The Alexander Technique has become an indispensable aspect of my pianistic performance and practice. It has complemented, informed and enhanced my musical education, and taken my development well beyond what conventional music education did.
The Technique has influenced countless aspects of performance. It influences audiences; it changes the music and makes a profound impact on the player. In this article I’ve chosen to look at some of the areas where the change I experienced using Alexander Technique most impressed me. The process of learning is marvellous, miraculous and, to many readers, perhaps a bit mysterious! There is, however, nothing inexplicable about the technique. The great logic at the foundation of the work is one of its main attractions!
The most profound appreciation comes when the technique is experienced first hand, and I invite readers to take a lesson for themselves to judge the value of this work from their own experience. The changes mentioned below may happen in one lesson (though most likely only at a microscopic level!) It did take some time before the effects became discernable to me, and then to others. As with learning the musical instrument, learning to use the human instrument takes an accumulation of applied practice to create meaningful improvement.
It was back pain that initially led me to the technique. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t play for more than 15 minutes. Other therapies I tried were successful only until I sat at the piano again, then the pain would return. I came to understand that the way I sat at the piano, and the way I used my self when I played was the cause of this. For me to be able to continue playing, my own co-ordination needed to be addressed.
As the way I was sitting changed, I was aware of a progressive increase in speed as I played. I habitually increased the amount of tension in my hands when I played – letting go of this gave me access to speed I wasn’t previously capable of. In 6 months my speed had doubled. Over the years it has doubled again.
One of the principles of Alexander Technique is that the co-ordination of the extremities is dependant upon the central coordination. This link is commonly underrated in traditional pedagogies of music (and in conventional medical treatment). The root of many RSI injuries is not only in the hands or wrist, for instance, but in the way the performer is changing the relationship of the head to torso as they play. This in turn affects the quality of movement further down.
It’s a frustratingly indirect way to make change, but my own experience of RSI in both wrists and both shoulders has been that any direct work is insufficient to offer sustained relief. Working with the whole body with particular attention to head and torso made constant and significant improvements in the RSI symptom.
Change in execution, or changing a learned pattern
The technique brings habitual patterns of tension into the performer’s awareness. Just as you don’t notice if you are wearing a watch after a few minutes, continued (or practiced) performance tension becomes subconscious. The problem is further complicated when a teacher asks you to make a change in technique, or your repertoire poses new demands. What tends to happen is a new set of tensions is added to the old set. Trying to modify tension by actively doing something else with your hands may merely accumulate even more tension. Alexander Technique teaches a way to avoid repeatedly using a neurological pathway which is problematic, and lays down new pathways based on learning inclusive of the whole self.
My fear of “wrong” notes was one of the things which triggered the increase in tension of my hands. With the increased tension in my hands, the chance of me executing the phrase accurately decreased proportionately. Alexander study taught me to recognise my reaction to my “wrong” notes, and the effect of my anxiety over it. It teaches a more appropriate response – basically to give permission to error, and not let that interfere with co-ordination or muscle tone. By effectively removing anxiety over wrong notes, the anxiety was removed as a cause for “wrong notes” and dramatically decreased my rate of error. There were sometimes other issues which needed to be addressed, but with the fear addressed, these became clearer and more available to change.
Precision and Clarity
As the inaccuracy and “wrong notes” decreased, the clarity of my playing improved. What I was playing was clearer because there was less sound clogging up the music and my hands were responding more appropriately to my conception of the music. I could hear the sound more clearly because there was less interference in my aural perception. By this I mean “physically” less interference, but also “psychologically” as the types of thoughts which go through my mind as I listen have changed. Essentially, I am changing the way I judge my own sound. I put “physically” and “psychologically” in inverted commas because one aspect cannot be present without the other – they are inseparable (as any Alexander Technique teacher will gladly demonstrate!)
Rather than the (musical) gesture being small, awkward and timid, as the finger hand, wrist, arms torso and whole body work in harmony, the gesture becomes effortless, smooth and graceful. This is what many people recognise when they see an Alexander trained performer.
In performance, a number of factors change in the performer. We get tense; shake, sweat, need the bathroom, etcetera. Alexander Technique teaches a practical method of redirecting performance energy to efficient uses. Often the performer is dependant on the way he feels to co-ordinate his playing because he delegates these coordinating tasks to his subconscious in his practice. When the performer’s state of being is different at the gig, he doesn’t know how to find his notes, how to phrase or execute his piece. The Alexander trained musician has a conscious way to coordinate himself in practice and performance which overcomes this problem. My own experience is that I still have the adrenaline rush in performing, but it interferes less with my coordination, execution and memory.
When I am teaching, I continually refer to the Alexander Technique’s principles (probably unbeknown to my students). The technique’s principles are part of the “plan” I teach students to overcome their difficulties. Consistently, I get rapid improvements in performance - especially in tone and rhythm. Over time the student is better able to recognise unproductive practice, and devise a practical solution which includes a positive attitude of his whole self to the task.
The piano is designed to respond to the subtlest change in the way the key is struck. Unidentified tension in the performer’s body or mind may be communicated, through his hand, to the instrument. The instrument responds accordingly by creating what we hear as bad tone. In addition to addressing the overall quality of bearing, Alexander work improves awareness and control of the subtle movements required for maintenance of tone.
The performer who slumps, looks awkward as they sit, or betrays nervous tension in their movement is challenged when it comes to rhythm. Confident, animated poise and movement are hallmarks of both Alexander technique and rhythmic mastery. Some of the most marked changes I have seen in Alexander workshops, and in my students, have been in securing a groove where it was lacking.
It is universally held that in performance conviction to action is paramount and there is no room for hesitancy. This confidence in movement is often lacking in musicians who are unaware what is actually involved in coordinating the task at hand. Form the desire, to the conception; to the execution and the evaluation, most of the processes are a mystery to the performer. I don’t think of every facet of execution when I play, but when I have trained myself consciously (rather than by rote or by feeling) I have a more reliable method of execution and I experience greater confidence.
An example of misconceptions about performing is the location of the thumbs joints. Most pianists are unaware where the third joint is, and this affects the quality of their thumb passing. More tension creeps in as the pianist unconsciously employs all sorts of movements to compensate for this confusion. Part of learning Alexander Technique is discovering how our anatomies relate to making music, and then using this knowledge to improve on these relationships.
Each time the performer practices, he is reinforcing habits. These may be for better or worse. Many performers do, as I did, spend years practicing looking at the keys. It became part of what if felt like for me to play the piano, and this was inexorably bound up with my concept of what piano playing was. I believed I couldn’t play without pulling myself down towards the keys. I was so used to doing it I was unaware of it. Learning a new coordination through Alexander Technique opened the potential to play without looking at the keys improving my posture, reading ability, communication with the band, and with the audience.
Adherence to the Alexander Techniques principles makes practice something which continually reinforces the positive aspects, whilst training in sensibilities and practical measures to avoid reinforcing the negatively influencing factors. Learning technique with this in mind is faster and far more efficient than any other method I have encountered.
The learning of music is often delegated to muscle memory. This is evident in the performer who cannot play from bar 2, without playing bar 1. By maintaining availability to variations in co-ordination, and eliminating the dependency on feeling, the performer can access deeper levels of memory. The hand responds to conception rather than to the “feeling” of what the next note is. This is more accurate, reliable and profoundly more musically satisfying.
As the accumulated patterns of response change, the connection between performer and the instrument deepens. The performer is able to think of a way of expressing whatever they’re playing, and the instrument responds. The more I study the technique, the more integrated expression becomes to the whole process of learning and performing. I no longer attempt to layer expression on top of a learned passage, but learn the passage with musical intent right from the start. The technique offers a tool to reduce the complexity of this task. It also skills the student in multitasking (the art of thinking more than one thing at a time).
In my early piano training I neglected the relationship of the player to the instrument, and of player to music. Player to other musician or player to audience was of more concern, but fundamentally my own communication was profoundly compromised by the degree of tension in me as I played. Learning to manage these and promote positive relationships continues to broaden my awareness of others when playing, as well as awareness of myself, and my relationship with the instrument audience and music.
From straining to inconsistently play a 9th, I can now confidently and comfortably reach a 10th and in time may be capable of 11ths. I attribute this entirely to the softening of my hand through continued application of the technique.
There are musical situations which present the performer with choice (particularly in jazz and improvised music forms). I might respond to the choice by choosing something I know sounded good previously - something I’ve practiced or played before. However the ensemble may have a different musical requirement or the particular context might be different – any number of aspects of performance (including the performer’s own state or co-ordination) could be different. So my practiced and familiar responses to the music may not be appropriate.
Whether it is or isn’t – my desire is for my music to sound spontaneous. By definition, spontaneity suggests that I want to be open to something entirely new happening, a new response (set of notes, interpretation, rhythm etc) which I’ve not played before. This will bring with it a new sensory experience which I’d like to be open to – by giving myself the permission to allow unfamiliar sensations to come about. This is somewhat threatening, but incredibly exciting – this is “the zone”, where anything could happen!
With the aid of the technique, the music will change the way I am using myself and the way I’m using myself will change the music. These two elements of performance, “use” and “music”, entwine like two dancers where neither partner is leading. I find more creativity flows and more inspirations appear, and I’m less stuck in playing the same old lines.
When the music asks for something, the performer needs to hear and respond appropriately. There are so many inappropriate responses apparent in performers. I myself have in the past actively cultivated inappropriate responses, believing, for example, if I did what I saw my idols do, I would get the sound they had. This was unfortunately misguided. I interfered with breathing, hunched over the instrument, made faces or noises in an attempt to get the instrument to answer the call of the music. I don’t doubt for a moment that there is still misdirected energy in my performance, but with the education of the Alexander Technique, I believe I have eliminated a great deal of misuse which interfered with rather than served the musicality.
The point of playing, for most of us, springs from some enjoyment of music or instrument. I have found that I have so much more fun when I’m in good coordination. Positive coordination leads one to more satisfying attempts and lessens the potential for repeated failures. Far from detracting from enjoyment, the most fun experiences I have had playing have been the result of improved awareness of self.
Odd though it may seem, a turning point for me was an acknowledgement of the fact that when I perform, there is an audience. I had for years been attempting to shut them out when I played – in a sense trying to play and not be heard. Desires such as these, lead to internal conflict between a wish or belief, and a reality. That conflict reveals itself through tension and anxiety. It demonstrates the Alexandrian concept of the integration of thought patterns and movement patterns.
Dynamics, Phrasing and Articulation
Dynamics, articulation and phrasing are all dependants on the overall bearing of the performer. A lively and free poise gives life and dynamism to the phrase, colour and control to dynamic, clarity and spring to articulation. The training of poise is at the very essence of the technique, and I know of no more efficient and effective method of changing poise, or empowering students with the skills to coordinate themselves.
I would be willing to say Alexander Technique has the potential to inform any aspect of music. The problematic way I once coordinated myself at the piano was the same misuse I did to myself in countless other tasks of life. The Technique’s influence has spread well beyond what I have mentioned here
I can see great potential in my continued application of the technique to piano practice, teaching and performance. Although the technique poses many challenges, and is at times frustrating to learn, the principles are so sound and thoughtfully taught that it more than rewards the effort. Some musicians play magnificently in spite of going against the principles of the Alexander work. I don’t consider myself a particularly gifted pianist, but I do I feel I have discovered something more aware and sustainable, maybe even more profound than those players. I know that my playing will not be at cost to my health. The response I‘ve had from colleagues, teachers, students and audiences supports my own belief that I continue to improve as a pianist, teacher and performer.
The Alexander Technique is not there in place of knowledge and practice of the rudiments of music and instrumental technique; neither will it necessarily make you a great musician. It does broaden the player’s perspective to include himself – to include the musician in the study of music. The more I study music, the more I see the relationship of musician to instrument, musician to music and the musician to himself, are all the same thing. The Alexander technique brings unity to the performer and via that, to the performance. Once recognised this unity is an enormously powerful force in music.
Jeremy Woolhouse 2006