Fine-tuning your musical body: A violinist’s impression of the Alexander Technique and the artistic benefits of optimal playing health.
When I tell my musician colleagues I’m studying the Alexander Technique, one of the first reactions I tend to get is “I must sit up straight!” It’s as if the posture police have entered the room so we mustn’t slouch. This is quite a feat to maintain throughout the tea break let alone a six hour rehearsal day.
Most performing musicians are aware of the Technique and many colleagues happily share their experiences of Alexander work and other disciplines such as yoga, mindfulness and Feldenkrais. These are the active professionals who cope with very busy performing schedules and gruelling touring hours. These are the ones who are successful and not thwarted by injuries, and have developed their own ways of managing themselves in what is a high pressure career. It seems sensible to make room in a performer’s life for some supportive work in terms of injury prevention and some of the strongest incentives for a player to change something are back pain, RSI, stress and nerves. However, the benefits of Alexander work for a musician can go far beyond a therapeutic level. Even more rewarding is to listen to the quality of the playing change, seeing how it can be transformed when we reconsider our body use and general playing health, much like an athlete would. With the tools from the Technique as a foundation, a player can fine-tune their body for optimal playing health and find refreshing ways to be increasingly at one with their musical intention and musicality. Perhaps some have this quality at their instrument more naturally than others to begin with, but there’s no reason not to actively cultivate it.
Many of the artists I most admire have an amazing ease about their playing, with a commanding and genuine stage presence through which their musicality flows effortlessly. I use the word ‘ease’ in the sense that their body and instrument are at ease with one another, working together at the player’s total command. It is not easy but it is an effortless concentration. It takes a tremendous amount of effort not to work too hard. This is where the Alexander work can help.
The Alexander Technique is first and foremost a thought process, from which evolves a body education. The essence of this process is to learn how to become aware of the body’s automatic and habitual reactions that could get in the way of performance. This awareness is developed by briefly stopping before action and catching ourselves before the automatic habit kicks in. This creates a space between stimulus and response. By stopping, we are not freezing or restricting any movement, but giving ourselves a brief moment to get in touch with our body and see how it is reacting in any given activity. The stimulus for those reactions could be a difficult technical passage, exposed solo, bad acoustic or public speaking in a concert. Typical reactions we may want to inhibit are holding the breath before playing, tensing when shifting high or fixing the eyes too intensely on the music. Once any habits and tensions are identified, it’s up to us to choose whether or not to change them in the moment, and by changing them, allow a freer movement to take place. With skill and over time, this ‘stopping’ because instantaneous.
Working on body use, both with and without the instrument, can have striking results in a musician’s playing. Rather than spending hours doing repetitive exercises, technical studies, working hard to build tone production, there can be fascinating ways of approaching the instrument from the perspective of the body. For instance, rather than considering precisely how the bow hair pulls the sound from the violin in the moment of the bow stroke, one can look at how the arm and neck are working, especially in the moments before the bow even reaches the string. Instead of anticipating the bow stroke, create space to look at the body’s habitual reactions. Even just thinking of doing the bow stroke is a strong enough stimulus to which there could be interesting responses happening in the body. These could be habits of tension in the neck or arm which, once released, allow the hand to move more freely to the string and produce a more resonant and flowing sound.
It is fascinating to look closely at the body use of some of the greatest players. Rather than focus on exactly how they hold their bow or execute technical work, shifting, vibrato etc, take a look at the bigger picture and see how, for example, their back, neck and feet are working for them. A style of bow hold may work for one player but not for another, a type of chin rest or shoulder rest may only suit certain people, so instead consider the flow in the arm, the back and overall body use. Steven Isserlis, Julia Fischer and Isabelle Faust are some of my favourite string players around today. Each produces the most glorious resonating sound with incredible musicality. They flow with their instrument, their bow seems to be an extension of their arm, and their body use appears very natural and free.
Using the Alexander Technique to identify and address any unwanted and ingrained habits and tensions, not only promotes optimal playing health in the muscles and good overall body use, but can liberate a performer, allowing them to become more spontaneous and creative in the moment.
One of the unexpected delights with my own experience of the Technique has been realising how working on my body has fundamentally changed my mindset to playing – after all, what happens in the body is a result of what happens in the mind. I have begun developing useful tools for concert days and am learning how to sense my body, just as sensitively as I have been trained to approach my violin and listen to the sounds I make. During performances, I also try not to worry about, for instance, demanding technical passages around the corner. I do this by neither visualising playing well nor imagining the perfect performance or how I want to affect the audience. None of these things a performer can control in any case, so I simply play and endeavour to stay in the moment. Letting go of perfectionism on stage and a sense of ‘trying too hard’ is ironically making my playing more immaculate. My sound is freer, nuances more effortless and body language more integral. As a chamber musician, this is a healthy foundation on which to build a good group dynamic. It is the core of how an ensemble works, and what an audience will respond to and enjoy.
It is a musician’s Holy Grail to be spontaneous and free on stage, allowing the strength of our own musical force effortlessly through. Along with countless players, I am finding the Alexander Technique to be a fascinating and highly effective way not just for working, but for thriving in our engaging musical world.
Published Jan 2016, Classical Music Magazine