Playing music requires sound mind and body. We’ve already shown you how yoga and even herbal supplements can improve your playing—now here’s a method of learning music that addresses inefficient habits of movement and patterns of accumulated tension that interfere with your innate ability to move easily. It’s called the Alexander Technique. But as Michael J. Gelb says in Body Learning, his book on the subject, the technique itself is difficult to define because it involves a new experience—gradually freeing oneself from the domination of fixed habits. It’s like “trying to explain music to someone who has never heard a note.” Nonetheless, here is a brief overview.
As noted in The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, the method has a long history of helping musicians and singers perform with less stress and less likelihood of injury. By improving the quality of the physical movements involved in playing an instrument or singing, the Alexander Technique can also boost the quality of the music itself.
For example, a violinist’s stiff shoulders and arms may impede his pleasing sound, while a singer’s tight neck or jaw will cause her voice to become less resonant. The Alexander Technique can release undue tension in the body to create a more fluid and lively, less tense and rigid, performance.
The technique has been used and endorsed by well-known musicians such as Paul McCartney, Sting, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, classical guitarist Julian Bream, flutist James Galway, conductor Sir Adrian Boult, and many others.
Where does Alexander Technique come from?
Australian F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), a Shakespearean actor who kept losing his voice during performances, first developed the methods. When his doctors could not help him, he embarked on a journey of self-discovery. He realized that excess tension in his neck and body were causing his problems, and he began to explore new ways of speaking and moving with greater ease.
Following Alexander’s success in improving his own situation, his friends, and even several of the doctors he had consulted earlier, persuaded him to teach others what he had learned. He refined his method of instruction over more than 50 years, and eventually trained others in what became known as the Alexander Technique.
Why use Alexander Technique?
Martha Hansen Fertman, director of The Philadelphia School for the Alexander Technique, started out working with dancers, but gradually began working with people from all walks of life. “Musicians make the best students,” she says. “They are so dedicated and the work becomes so pertinent.”
But Fertman says that musicians don’t necessarily need to be experiencing pain or discomfort to see an Alexander teacher. “It is not just for issues around pain,” she clarifies. “It’s for overall musicianship and being able to technically do what it is that musicians need to do. It’s not only for physical therapy—it is a much deeper study.” An Alexander teacher’s focus is on the musician’s overall coordination, which can actually help prevent future ailments.
“With a guitarist, for example, the shoulder strap may be causing them to ‘pull down’ and interfere with their overall use,” she says. “It’s the same with a person sitting down and playing guitar. Guitarists tend to wrap themselves around their instruments, which interferes very much with their overall coordination, as well as the mobility and suppleness of their fingers.”
Fear and anxiety also creep into the mix. “What happens is they stiffen up and they fall back into all of their worst habits of misuse and they interfere with themselves,” she notes. Recognizing when and how that happens is an essential component of the training. Why it happens is a bit more complex, and can be associated a musician’s personal history, including psychological issues, she explains.
“Alexander Technique tends to work in small increments of change and a healthy person can manage the levels of change—they don’t need me to help them through it,” she says. “And if they do need help, I refer them to a psychologist because we are dealing with the habits of a lifetime and they can be deeply personal and psychological.”
As with most endeavors, commitment to change is essential, says Fertman. If someone is told they should try the Alexander Technique to help them play better, and they don’t really want to, it’s not going to do much good. “Whereas for someone who plays piano, who has developed a great deal of pain in their forearm and has difficulty playing—their commitment to understand and change is vital,” she asserts.
The length of time it takes to improve with the Alexander Technique can depend on your level of involvement. “You can go on learning and finding out new ease and freedom for the rest of your days on earth,” she says. “And if you stop interfering with yourself, your very best will come through. You’ll realize your potential.”
This article is from our September-October issue.