The Alexander Technique is just one among several mind/body disciplines which can be of great benefit to performing musicians. Having had personal experience with Alexander Technique, I thought it would make a good blog topic. I’ll give a bit of informal background, and relate my experiences with Alexander Technique as a performer.
The captivating photo to the left is from the cover of Michael J. Gelb’s book Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique, which we used in Alexander Technique classes at Appalachian State University during my undergraduate degree. While these classes were not required for music majors, they were extremely popular among all concentrations, and I ended up taking the course and private Alexander Technique [referred to from now on as A.T.] lessons for seven consecutive semesters. This does not make me an expert in A.T. by any means, but I do feel like I have enough background to talk about its benefits (and limitations). There are lots of definitions of the A.T., but I think the following, taken from the website The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, is straightforward and easy to understand.
“The Alexander Technique is a method that works to change (movement) habits in our everyday activities. It is a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support and coordination. The technique teaches the use of the appropriate amount of effort for a particular activity, giving you more energy for all your activities. It is not a series of treatments or exercises, but rather a reeducation of the mind and body. The Alexander Technique is a method which helps a person discover a new balance in the body by releasing unnecessary tension. It can be applied to sitting, lying down, standing, walking, lifting, and other daily activities…”
Based on that definition, it does seem that the A.T. would have several applications for performing artists, as we rely in many ways on balance, coordination, and efficiency to do what we do. Experiences among musicians who have studied Alexander Technique differ because of the different approaches that the teachers take. Just like horn teachers, A.T. teachers can be direct/indirect, active/passive, demanding/undemanding, and the whole range of possibilities in between. Some teachers are very hands on, while others prefer to coach students through subtle physical guidance and verbal prompting. In my classes at Appalachian State, we met once a week for a master class of sorts, with students either performing on their instruments or doing some sort of other physical task under the guidance of the instructor. Students could also set up private lessons with the teacher (Jane Comfort Brown) during the rest of the week to focus on specific things. One thread that ran through all of these experiences was the idea of replacing undesirable responses with more desirable ones. For instance, lets say that every time you get up from a chair your head has the tendency to drop back onto your neck, collapsing your vertebrae and causing unnecessary tension. A trained A.T. teacher would be able to notice this habit and help you retrain your response to the “getting up” impulse. As most teachers in any discipline will agree, it is much easier to stop an undesirable habit when you replace it with a desirable one, rather than just thinking “o.k., when I get up I shouldn’t drop my head down and back.” Likewise, if you have the same tendency when you begin an upward slur on the horn, A.T. lessons could help you replace that response with a more efficient, less tense action. This is just an arbitrary example, and as I said, different A.T. teachers can have very different approaches for achieving the same goal – namely the use of the whole body in as efficient a manner as possible in everyday tasks, and extending to more complex ones like horn playing.
Reflecting back on all those master-classes and private lessons, I can say that A.T. had some very positive effects for my playing, many of which I am still discovering even several years later. Of course, the idea of approaching the horn with a minimum amount of tension has been very important, and although I am not a certified A.T. teacher, I do try to communicate this concept to all of my students. In my personal experience, and I can’t speak for anyone else, A.T. did not suddenly make me a better player – it didn’t increase my range or make my technique lightning fast – but it did help me improve upon those things I could already do. I still use A.T. every day, both in horn playing and in the everyday tasks I mentioned above, and I highly recommend it to all performing artists.
To close out this post I’ll leave you with a few A.T. resources specifically for musicians. Also, I’d love to hear about your own experiences with the Alexander Technique, or other disciplines like Feldenkrais Method, Aston Patterning, etc.
David Nesmith, “What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body,” published in The Horn Call: Journal of the International Horn Society,” Aug. 1999.