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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


Just stop and notice what you are doing as you read this article on your laptop or mobile

STOP AND NOTICE how you are using your laptop or mobile as you read this. We have habits which are out of our awareness.

If you are sitting  are you sitting in a slump ? Are you sitting on your sitting bones? Are your shoulders hunched forward? Are your feet wrapped around the chair ?

Sitting well using a mobile phone
Sitting well using a mobile phone


Sitting with good use with a laptop
Sitting with good use with a laptop

If you are standing is your weight equal through both of your feet? Are your knees locked back? Notice if your shoulders are hunched  and your neck is poked forward.



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).

Lying in semi supine

Semi supine
Semi supine is a daily practice that helps to improve your posture and calm your mind.

Why lie in semi supine? What are the benefits?

Your spine will re align itself

If you are stressed with adrenalin in your bloodstream semi supine gives your body the opportunity to remove it and let your body return to normal.

You stop which really is a challenge in the busy world everyone lives in .

You can practice your Alexander Technique Directions, Preventative thoughts.

When you get up in the morning your discs you have between most of your vertebra are fully pumped up but by lunchtime because of gravity all the liquid from the discs moves to the surrounding tissue. Lie in semi supine for 15-17 minutes and the liquid is reabsorbed. Remember to drink enough water because if you are dehydrated your discs will suffer.

Doing daily semi supine is a good way of helping to look after your back.

How do I do semi supine? It’s also known as Active Rest

Lie on a mat on the floor with your knees bent and you hands resting gently on your hips elbows out to the sides. Your head is resting on books so it is in line with your body. Be aware of the room, daylight, noises, the smell of flowers in the room using your senses. Keep your eyelids open.

Notice the contact of the floor below your feet, shoulder blades and pelvis and notice the books below your head.

Think the Alexander Directions as you lie there :-

Your neck is sinking down, the top of your head is moving away. Think along your spine asking it to lengthen and widen. Imagine your elbows are moving away from each other.

Think along your collar bones ask them to go out to the sides as you widen across the tops of the arms.

Think up thighs and shins to knees then up strings which go up from your knees to the ceiling.

Lie for 15 minutes daily.

Slowly get off the floor with awareness, standing and let 60% of your weight go through your heels. Scan your body and notice how you feel.

Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s

I have given an hour’s presentation ( including working with some volunteers) about the Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s to 30 Physiotherapists and Occupational therapists from the Durham and Darlington NHS Trust at Bishop Auckland Hospital. Research has been done and the Alexander Technique is recommended by NICE ( National Institute of health and Clinical Research) to help people with Parkinson’s. It was well received with many people asking questions at the end. The Senior Occupational therapist, Emma Carr wants to set up 6 week courses for people with Parkinson’s and this would include an Alexander workshop.

The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons (AT), for management of disability by people with Parkinson’s

Evidence for the efficacy of Alexander Technique lessons for patients with Parkinson’s

A randomised, controlled clinical trial was funded by the Foundation for Integrated Medicine, the Parkinson’s Disease Society, REMEDI and the University of Westminster. It showed that the skills learnt in Alexander Technique (AT) lessons, when applied in daily life, lead to sustained benefit for people with Parkinson’s.1,2 The trial was designed and led by Dr Chloe Stallibrass.

Clinical trial details in brief

All contact with the trial participants, apart from the AT lessons and the massage sessions, was with the Research Manager, Peta Sissons. The two AT teachers were both members of STAT.

A total of 93 people with clinically diagnosed idiopathic Parkinson’s were recruited into the trial, mainly through publicity in the national press. They were randomly allocated to three groups:

  • a control group (no intervention)
  • a group who received 24 lessons in the AT (two lessons a week for 12 weeks)
  • a group who received 24 sessions of therapeutic massage (two sessions a week for 12 weeks) to control for the likely effects of touch and personal attention in AT lessons.

The groups were balanced for age, gender, and duration and severity of illness using a randomising computer program. All participants continued their pharmacological treatment for Parkinson’s throughout the trial and received usual care.

Outcome measures

The main outcome measure was the Self-rated Parkinson’s Disease Disability Scale. Participants rated their performance of everyday activities both at best and at worst times of day: the ‘worst’ times excluded periods of freezing. There were five secondary outcome measures, including one for depression.

Results: One-to-one Alexander Technique lessons provide significant and sustained benefits for people with Parkinson’s

The results of the main measure clearly showed:

 Of the approaches tested, lessons in the AT provided the most benefit. Following 24 AT lessons, participants performed everyday activities with less difficulty than the control group, at both best (p=0.04) and at worst times of day (p=0.0004).

 At 6-months’ follow-up the comparative improvement was maintained both at best times (p=0.03 and worst times of day (p=0.01).

 The improvement in the massage group was not statistically significant. This indicated that the benefits from the AT lessons were due to learning and applying skills over and above any improvement due to touch and personal attention.

 Post-intervention, ie during the follow-up period, the AT group was significantly less likely to have adjusted their Parkinson’s medication to cope with worsening symptoms during the trial than were the other two groups (p=0.001). This intriguing finding merits further research.

 At 6-months’ follow-up, of the participants who had not changed their medication for whatever reason, a smaller proportion of the AT group than the other two groups, reported worsening symptoms, (p=0.045).

The secondary measures showed the AT group to be less depressed after 24 lessons compared with the control group (p=0.03) on the pre-determined questions in the Beck Depression Inventory.

In an open-ended questionnaire, 41% of the AT group said that they felt more positive/hopeful as a result of the AT lessons; 35% said they felt less stress/panic, and 28% said they had improved self-confidence. When asked to list activities that had improved for them personally, 59% mentioned improved balance/posture, 48% mentioned improved walking, 38% improved speech and 28% reduced tremor. These answers were provided spontaneously rather than being elicited via specific questions

What is the Alexander Technique?

The AT is a thoughtful self-help method for the life-long enhancement of an individual’s way of functioning and wellbeing. Learning and applying the AT leads to improvements in balance and mobility, postural tonus3, coordination and functioning. This is because one-to-one AT lessons enable an individual to recognise, understand and avoid poor postural habits and ways of moving that can interfere with the working of movement control systems.

Alexander Technique lessons

Teachers use sensitive hands-on contact and spoken explanation to help people attend to head poise and lengthening of the spine in a way that facilitates improvements in postural tone, coordination and control of movement. Lessons are tailored to individual needs and capabilities and applied to daily activities. The aim is that people develop sufficient skill and understanding to begin applying the AT in daily life on their own, in order to manage their disability better and benefit their health and wellbeing.

Other applications

The benefits demonstrated in regard to Parkinson’s might also apply in other chronic conditions where a person’s manner of standing, sitting, moving and speaking is thought to contribute to their problems. Learning and applying the AT is a means for improving general mal-coordination and has been shown to help patients with non-specific low back pain (ATEAM trial, BMJ, 20084).


  1. Stallibrass C, Sissons P, Chalmers C Randomised Controlled Trial of the Alexander Technique for Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease. Clinical Rehabilitation 2002 Vol. 16: 705-718
  2. Stallibrass C, Frank C, Wentworth K Retention of skills learnt in Alexander Technique lessons: 28 people with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 20005 Vol. 9; no. 2: 68-75
  3. Cacciatore, TW, Gurfinkel, VS, Horak, FB, Cordo, PJ and Ames, K (2007). Alteration of muscle tone through conscious intervention: increased adaptability of axial and proximal tone through the Alexander Technique. Proceedings of the International Society for Posture and Gait Research, 18.
  4. Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, 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. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/337/aug19_2/a884

Contacts for further information

Questions about the Parkinson’s clinical trial: Dr C Stallibrass,10A Greencroft Gdns, London NW6 3LS. Tel: 0207 2093625 Email: chloestallibrass@gmail.com

For further information about the Alexander Technique: Website: www.stat.org.uk

STAT, Grove Business Centre, Unit W48, 560-568 High Road, London, N17 9TA, Tel.: 020 8885 6524

Alexander technique Summer School 2015


Alexander Technique weekend course
Group of alexander technique pupils lying in semi supine

Saturday 8th – Sunday 9th August 2015
10am – 4pm each day to be held at
Skeeby Village Hall, Skeeby,
Richmond, North Yorkshire DL10 5DX

Come along and explore a deeper way of connecting with yourself learning how our thoughts can interfere or enhance your natural poise. We will explore our skeleton through anatomy and movement discovering a more accurate map of ourselves. In addition we will look at the principles of the Alexander Technique in a practical and experiential way helping you to improve your posture, de-stress, ease back ache as well as moving with less effort and tension.

The course will be related to everyday activities and will include going for a walk (weather permitting). Each student will have one individual 15 minute lesson. The course is suitable for teachers, trainee teachers, students with some experience of the technique and beginners.

For further information about the Summer School, accommodation in the Richmond area and to book a place please contact Hilary.