ITM ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE - MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ENHANCEMENT by Aingeala De Búrca
From my experience of teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians over the past eleven years, and working with many other musicians over the last three decades, I am struck (and inspired) by how many musicians continually search for ways of improving their performances. I believe it is natural for an artist to want to fulfil their artistic potential to the full. However, obstacles can arise that prevent musicians from performing to their full potential, obstacles that they themselves unknowingly create.
THE FALSE HOPE OF EXTRA EFFORT
What I notice is that often when musicians strive to improve their performances, they rely on widely accepted solutions that work for some, but not for everyone.
When musicians don’t succeed with their attempts at improvement, their usual strategy is to put more effort into their solutions, and this inevitably compounds their difficulties. They sometimes perceive that they are using extra effort in their attempts to figure out how to improve, but they are only making matters worse because the only way they know to address their problems is to do what they have always done, only harder.
THE DELUSION OF RELAXATION
There are two ideas that musicians typically believe in and attempt to work with to make improvements, the first is the concept of relaxed playing, and the second is the concept of posture.
The problem with the idea of relaxed playing is that it is susceptible to misinterpretation by the student.
When I was a young violin student, relaxed playing became one of my greatest goals because my teacher emphasised repeatedly how important it was. Years later, when I began my Alexander training, I was surprised to learn that when playing the violin, I was bowing without using the primary flexor and extensor muscles in my upper arms, despite the fact that bowing is an activity that deeply involves elbow flexion and extension. In fact, these muscles were so ‘relaxed’ that my Alexander teacher could not feel any movement in my upper arms at all as I bowed. I had trained myself to use the secondary and tertiary muscles that cross the elbow joint instead. Not surprisingly my biggest problem with bowing was fatigue and pain, as these minor muscles are not designed for sustaining such a demanding activity as bowing.
THE PROBLEM WITH POSTURE
Similarly musicians often spend years struggling with attempts to perfect their posture believing it to be the key to a high standard of playing. It is the goal for many who come to me for lessons. However, the pursuit of good posture leads to rigidity and stiffness because holding onto ‘correct postures’ is a static concept. In order to play we must move, so we need to bring motion into our movements, not stiffness. To hold onto postures and play at the same time is just not possible, but many musicians try to make this happen.
Thanks to the Alexander Technique, there is a solution. As you know Alexander’s work is a principle-based method of learning how to make desired changes in all areas of life. A study of the technique can help musicians come to realise that they are responsible for keeping themselves ‘stuck’ and give them the tools and concepts with which they can ‘unstick’ themselves.
We ourselves are responsible for our successes and our failures. We ourselves do the things with which we limit ourselves and cause our problems. The good news, of course, is that we can learn how to stop doing them. We can learn how to stop limiting ourselves.
THE REAL PATHWAY TO MUSICALITY
Sixteen years ago, I was approaching real fear and despair for my own violinp laying because of physical tension. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, because I discovered F.M. Alexander’s work.
From my study of his work, I have discovered that playing with less effort is indeed possible, through a pathway entirely different from anything I could have imagined or foreseen beforehand. I now know that the ease and ‘less effort’ in playing that I was looking for could not have been achieved by any direct means, but as an indirect outcome of learning to follow the processes and principles that F.M. Alexander left for us in his books.
When my students begin their study of the Alexander Technique with me, they become excited by the speed and ease with which they reduce their physical efforts in performance. Not only can they see changes in the use of their bodies, these changes are always accompanied by immediate improvements in their musicality. At first they ascribe these changes to some ‘magical process’ - primarily the use of my hands. I challenge them on this and with time they learn where the real power for change lies; in learning how to redirect the thinking processes which generate their movements.
BRINGING REASON TO MUSIC-MAKING
Every movement we make is the product of mental processes. If there isn’t a message to the muscle telling it to contract, the muscle won’t move. Alexander’s work provides us with a concrete process with which we can train ourselves to
enhance the quality of these messages, by introducing reason and reasoning into
our thinking processes.
Music is a specialised activity requiring specialised, learned movements. The standard of any learned activity will depend on the standard of our general use in movements. The more coordinated and effortless a person’s general use is in everyday movements, the more coordinated and effortless their specialised movements will be. All of this is dependent upon the standard of their use in general and the thinking processes that create that standard.
Every note we play is a product of our thinking processes. When we are dissatisfied with the outcome, the problem is in those same thinking processes. ‘It is only by having a clear conception of what is required for a successful
performance .......combined with a knowledge of the psycho-physical means whereby those requirements can be met, that there is any reasonable possibility of their attaining a sureness and confidence during performance.’ *1
HOW ‘STOPPING’ MOVES US FORWARD
As a result of my training and my teaching practice, I have come to see that many musicians operate from the correction model. This means that they make continuous attempts to find things to do to correct their faults when faced with their difficulties. However, training themselves to continually add new layers of ‘things to do’ results in complex and interrelated patterns of tangled thoughts and fixed movements, from which it can seem impossible to break free.
The way out of this impasse begins with remembering that Alexander wrote that the solution to problems like these does not lie in doing something new to fix the defect, but in stopping the processes that are causing the problem in the first place. *2
By learning to discipline our thinking, we can train ourselves to stop thinking the
thoughts that produce and perpetuate the unnecessary movement behaviours that prevent us performing to the fullest of our abilities.
In my classes, I see many of my students experience a free flow of ideas in their performance in lessons. These improvements come from learning how to stop thinking thoughts that create confusion in their thinking, and interference for
themselves with their physical coordination.
A DISCIPLINE FOR LIFE AND LIVING
In some approaches to the Alexander Technique I have noticed a tendency to separate the technique out of daily living. I hear people say they are ‘doing’ the technique or ‘using’ the technique as if the work was something that could be applied or practised in certain circumstances. For me, this removes it from life and our activities. For me, this work is an on-going discipline. It is how we live life in every minute. The Alexander Technique is not something we separate out from all of the activities of our daily lives, or something to put time aside to practise, like music or yoga or meditation. It is an on-going mental training, a training that can revolutionise a person’s thinking and not just once! A changed and continually changing system of thinking becomes a new way of operating ourselves in everything we do in life.
From the smallest acts of everyday life to playing a concerto, everything we do comes from our systems of thinking, which are continuous and on-going. To attempt to use the technique otherwise is to diminish the value of the work, and additionally reduces the potential for the deep enjoyment and fun that is an inherent part of a study of this work.
THE WAY TO CREATIVE FREEDOM
Alexander’s niece Marjory Barlow quoted her uncle as saying that this work “is an exercise in finding out what thinking is’,*3 confirming that for Alexander, conception and disciplined thought is what this work is really about.
Alexander defines teaching as the placing of facts, for and against, before the pupil, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. *4 In fact, my favourite aspect of Alexander’s work is the possibility of being able to develop and increase our creativity.
For me, Alexander’s quote illustrates beautifully the freedom that I believe is possible for any artist to realise. Freedom for a musician lies in acquiring an on-going ease in expressing themselves through their musical imagination, and having the ability to bring the necessary technical skill required to play well to the task. In other words, freedom for a musician means having a free flow of ideas accompanied by the skill required to express them. I believe that it is possible for anyone who trains as a musician to achieve this free flow of expression, but it seems to me that, in general, conservatory training often works to train musicians away from their potential.
My belief is that Alexander’s work has the power to teach us to imagine any goal for ourselves, and the reasoning, conscious abilities to realise those goals, especially in musical performance.
*1 Alexander, F.M. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, 1923, p341 *2 Alexander, F.M. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, 1923, p294 *3 Marjory Barlow interview with Mary Frances, Direction magazine, Vol 2 No 2, p18
*4 Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, 1918, p88
From the 2018 World Congress Papers published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT)