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Fine tuning your musical body

Read about a professional violinists view of learning the Alexander Technique

Fine-tuning your musical body

– 9 January 2016

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.

The ayes have it: Jane Gordon says yes to Alexander technique

The ayes have it: Jane Gordon says yes to Alexander technique

With the tools from the technique as a foundation, players 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.

Good group dynamic: Rautio Piano Trio ‒ violinist Jane Gordon, cellist Victoria Simonsen and pianist Jan Rautio

Good group dynamic: Rautio Piano Trio ‒ violinist Jane Gordon, cellist Victoria Simonsen and pianist Jan Rautio

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. 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 performers, 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 demanding technical passages around the corner, for instance. 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, I find 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.

Jane Gordon is the violinist in the Rautio Piano Trio. She performs extensively as a chamber musician, soloist and concertmaster at major festivals and concert halls in Europe and beyond

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/opinion/fine-tuning-your-musical-body/

How is your head balancing on your spine?

Notice how your head is balancing on top of your spine imagine it’s like a ping pong ball just floating.

Look straight at a mirror then  put a finger in the hollow at the back of  each ear and slowly nod your head. Notice where the movement is happening, this is your head neck joint. If this joint is tight it will affect your overall use, the way you move. Imagine space in the joint and fill it with oil. Doing this regularly will help you get more awareness of the atlanto occipital joint (head neck joint).

Recent medical research shows that Alexander Technique lessons can help people with chronic neck pain

The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT)

The Alexander Technique: What it is and how lessons can help people with chronic neck pain

What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is a self-care method that helps people improve the way they carry out their daily activities, move, stand, sit, work and play. Although the lesson experience itself is enjoyable, often leaving one feeling lighter, taller and less stressed, lessons should be viewed as a form of personal re-education, rather than as therapy. To gain lasting benefit, people need to incorporate what is being taught in lessons into their daily lives. In this way it becomes possible to reduce or manage pain that is related to negative reactions to life or to poor postural and movement habits that are often the underlying cause of problems.

Learning and applying the Alexander Technique can lead to improvements in balance, mobility, postural muscle tone, coordination, and general functioning − changes that can all contribute to a reduction in chronic or recurrent neck or back pain. Learning the Technique enables people to be more in control of their health and wellbeing and reveals how much the mind and body work together intimately as one.

Alexander Technique lessons

Teachers use skilled, sensitive hand contact together with spoken guidance to help people become calmer, improve overall postural muscle tone, let go of unwanted effort and allow free head poise. This enables subtle spinal lengthening, observable as a gradual reduction in undue spinal curvature, probably through changes in related muscle activity. The resulting more comfortable carriage of the head, neck and back is associated with improved postural tone and coordination that often bring relief from neck and back pain. People are shown how to continue looking after themselves while walking, using a computer, sitting etc. Lessons are individually tailored to meet needs and capabilities, and applied to the performance of daily activities. The aim is for people to develop sufficient skill and understanding to use the Alexander Technique in daily life on their own, so reducing their neck pain, and ultimately preventing it.

Lying in semi-supine with the head supported and the spine free to lengthen, provides an ideal situation for practising the fundamental Alexander thinking skills and observing the beneficial effects

The evidence

A randomised, controlled clinical trial (the ATLAS trial) at York University, funded by Arthritis Research UK, has shown that Alexander Technique lessons can result in long-term benefit for people with chronic neck pain. The trial involved people with neck pain lasting 3 months or more, with an average (median) of 6 years. Participants were randomised to one of three groups and offered 20 one-to-one Alexander lessons provided by STAT-registered teachers along with continued usual GP-led care; or acupuncture along with usual GP-led care1; or usual GP-led care alone.

1 In this trial, acupuncture led to benefits similar to those obtained from attending Alexander Technique lessons.

The trial showed the following long-term benefits for people who attended Alexander lessons:

• They experienced nearly a third less pain and associated disability (a 31% reduction) at the end of the trial, 1 year later.

• This reduction was significantly greater than that experienced by the group who received usual GP-led care alone, and was large enough to be considered clinically relevant.

• The extent to which people were able to manage their pain (‘self-efficacy’) increased more in the Alexander group than in the usual care alone group, and this increase in self-efficacy was associated with a greater reduction in pain and associated disability at 1 year.

• Following Alexander lessons, improvement was also seen in people’s mental health at 1 year, as revealed by a self-report quality-of-life questionnaire.

• No safety issues related to Alexander lessons were identified.

Other benefits of Alexander Technique lessons

Since Alexander lessons help people change the way they stand, sit, and move in everyday life, the benefits for chronic neck pain patients might also apply to sufferers of other chronic conditions when the way that someone performs these activities causes problems or makes existing ones worse. The Alexander Technique provides a means for addressing poor coordination generally. There is good evidence that taking lessons can lead to significant long-term reductions in chronic back pain. A large randomised trial showed an 86% reduction in back pain and a 42% increase in the number of everyday activities that could be carried out without being limited by back pain, one year after Alexander lessons began. There is also evidence that learning the Technique helps those with Parkinson’s to manage their condition better and reduce their level of disability. Preliminary evidence exists for benefits of Alexander lessons in several other areas, in addition to improvement in overall wellbeing.

References

MacPherson H, Tilbrook H, Richmond S, Woodman J, Ballard K, et al. Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture sessions for persons with chronic neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2015;163 (In Press).

Cacciatore TW, Gurfinkel VS, Horak FB, Cordo PJ, Ames KE. Increased dynamic regulation of postural tone through Alexander Technique training. Human Movement Science 2011;30:74–89.

Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, Evans M, Beattie A, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal 2008;337:a884.

Woodman JP, Moore NR. Evidence for the effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons in medical and health-related conditions: a systematic review. International Journal of Clinical Practice 2012;66:98–112.

Stallibrass C, Sissons P, Chalmers C. Randomised controlled trial of the Alexander Technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease. Clinical Rehabilitation 2002;16:705−718.