Playing with Presence 2: Alexander Technique

Playing with Presence is a three part series geared towards pianists and those with sedentary jobs. Its aim is to cultivate awareness of the body, establishing a calmer and healthier approach to playing and working. Today’s entry will examine the Alexander Technique.

I had heard about Alexander Technique on and off all throughout my studies in music school. It’s something that’s routinely taught to students of the performing arts such as dancers and stage performers. Musicians do learn it, although it’s usually through a private practitioner. I experienced a hands-on session during the Phenomenon of Singing Symposium as part of the biennial Festival 500 choir festival in St. John’s Newfoundland in 2011. A clinician was giving free demonstrations and I volunteered to go up and try it. To the observer it would probably have appeared as if he wasn’t doing very much but after he was finished I felt a lot more grounded, in my body, and more relaxed.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I started working more regularly with a certified Alexander teacher that I began to discover the benefits of the technique. Christel Herick, whose practice is located here in Guelph, Ontario, helped me to get a better understanding of how it works through a series of private sessions. If you would like more detailed information check out her website, forwardandup.ca. The international website for Alexander Technique is also a good place to start.

Alexander technique was developed by the Australian stage actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). Though he was a talented thespian, he suffered from constrictions in his throat which inhibited his ability to speak onstage. After seeking help unsuccessfully from doctors, he developed a method which involved realigning the head carefully on the spine so that it is poised and free of tension and then extending this natural ease to the rest of the body.

Body Mapping, which I discussed in Playing with Presence 1, came from Alexander Technique, though it later developed into its own entity. I’ve found the two modalities to be complimentary. In my view, Body Mapping is more cerebral as it reprograms false understandings of anatomy and how the body moves. Alexander Technique is more intuitive as it uses more wholistic concepts such as imagining arrows moving away from the spine through your whole arm, hand, and fingers. It’s more about moving in specific directions than thinking of individual parts of the body.

Alexander Technique unifies each component of a structure in the body, bringing together what language has separated. When body parts are labelled “upper arm”, “forearm”, “wrist”, “hand”, “fingers”, this terminology can trick us into forgetting that all these structures are meant to work together as one. It’s all too easy to isolate parts, forgetting about the benefit of moving as a whole. Think of a pianist who only plays with his hands and fingers, forgetting about the role of the whole arm and torso.

Alexander Technique also address extra tension in the body. When it comes to sitting or moving people often use more energy than necessary. At the piano it’s not uncommon to slouch while playing. There may be a false belief that it takes a lot of work to sit up straight and natural; that muscles need to do all the work to keep a person upright. What I’ve discovered through Alexander Technique is that my skeleton can do the work that my muscles were previously doing. Phew! What a load off!

There are also many “posture myths” in our culture that are perpetuated. One is that to sit up straight means to roll the shoulders back, suck in the stomach, puff up the chest, and actively lengthen upwards. It’s possible that this idea of posture comes from the military as well as being instilled during grade school. If you watch children move – especially before they go to school – you will notice that they move very effortlessly and things like bending down or sitting look incredibly natural. Eventually they will unlearn these natural ways and start having issues in their bodies from myths they learn along the way 😦

When it comes to sitting on the piano bench, when the head, shoulders, spine, and hips are in natural alignment there is a point of balance where it’s nearly effortless to sit. The vertebrae of the spine are stacked naturally on top of each other. Nature has its own columns of support built into us!

So with all that in mind I’d like to share a few basic exercises that I like to do at home. For more detailed info I would consult an experienced practitioner.

  • Find an open area on the floor and lay down on your back. It can help to have a small book under your head for help your neck feel more comfortable. Have your knees bent. This is a cadence I learned from Christel Herick and you can repeat it to yourself: “Allow your head to come forward and up. Allow the neck to be soft. Allow the spine to lengthen and widen.” The key to all of this is the “forward and up” part. Imagine an arrow on the top of your head pointing upwards, while at the same time there is another arrow on your forehead pointing forwards. If your head moves towards both arrows at the same time then it will move along a 45° vector. The other very important part in the cadence is the word “allow”. This is something that took me a while to get, probably because I like being in control and to ‘effort’ my way through things. If you want your spine to lengthen and your head to move forward and up, your natural inclination would be to will it to happen. Alexander Technique operates by allowing things to happen. It’s all about doing less and letting the body sort itself out. Laying there and saying the cadence, all you need to do is visualize the arrow directions and then get out of the way. As you lay there, imagine the arrows on the top and front of your head, and allow your head to release in those directions. Allow the neck to release. Allow the spine to lengthen and widen, with arrows pointing upwards towards the head and also moving downwards. Similarly the spine widens with arrows moving away from the it to the sides.
  • Another aspect to this practice is to imagine the support surfaces like the floor and bench actively supporting you. For example, as you lay on the floor, imagine arrows coming up from the floor and supporting your body. Another technique Christel taught me is to visualize your body as if you were observing it from below a glass floor, and you could see the points of contact it made with the floor. Then go back to the arrow image, and feel the support of the ground especially in these places.
  • At the piano bench you can take a similar approach. With your feet flat on the ground and breathing naturally picture those arrows moving forward and up from your head. Allow your head, neck and spine to extend. There is no rush, everything will move in its own time. Then visualize arrows coming up through the bench and the floor beneath your feet. These surfaces are actively supporting you. At the same time you can imagine an arrow moving down from your spine and meeting the bench and floor arrows. Think of the up (bench/floor) and down arrows (body) opposing each other wherever they meet. Again remember that the skeleton does the work for you. Imagining these opposing arrows between my body and the surface, be it while laying, sitting or standing, has been an incredibly grounding experience or me. It gets me out of my head and into my body faster than any other method I’m familiar with. I like to say Alexander Technique does for the body what meditation does for the mind!

As someone who is often self-conscious and introverted I have found Alexander Technique helps balance my tendency to pull inwards. It helps me to feel more connected with my physical environment and to be more poised and confident in it.

It’s funny how we humans, with such big, “intelligent” brains, often stand in our own way by overthinking. After all, my cat moves naturally and I think it’s because she doesn’t think about it! We can learn a lot about movement from our children and our pets 🙂

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