You are your primary instrument! How you are will affect how you play. Imagine what happens if you drive your car with the emergency brake still on: the brake gets worn out, there’s more wear and tear on the car, and you get terrible gas mileage! When we play, sing, or create music with a lot of unnecessary effort or habits that aren’t helpful, we’re creating similar conditions within ourselves. The Alexander Technique teaches us to become more aware of how we do what we do. By becoming aware of how we think and how our thinking affects us, we can make choices that truly improve our playing from the inside out. Better instrumental or vocal technique, practice habits, listening and attention, more creativity and authenticity in music-making, and more ease and comfort in playing are just some of the possible benefits. Personally, without working on it specifically, or expecting it to happen, I became a much better sight reader through a better quality of attention!
The Alexander Technique isn’t a cure or an alternative to medical intervention. I always recommend that students seek medical advice for an injury before starting lessons. If the injury was caused by “overuse”, working with an Alexander Technique teacher can help you develop better playing, resting, and work habits so that it is less likely to happen again. With any injury, or after a surgery, you can learn to be more aware, and improve your overall functioning so that your healing is better supported. When chronic pain and tension are the direct result of poor coordination, improving that can solve the problem.
That depends on your goals. Sometimes, a few lessons will help to sort out a specific problem. Other times, particularly if there is a very old and chronic pattern of misuse, it can take more time and attention. Something that is sometimes overlooked is that the Alexander Technique is also an enjoyable practice! Even after an initial problem is solved, the broader implications of the work become clear and inspire some students to study for longer periods of time. I trust each person’s innate sense about this. I have been involved in this work for many years, and am still fascinated! I consider it to be the cornerstone of my personal growth and development.
Working with an Alexander Technique teacher can help you discover the best ways to support your instrument. We were all taught playing positions and techniques that are correct and helpful, up to a point. For the most part, most of us weren’t taught how to work within the context of our best overall coordination, how to support the instrument in a dynamic rather than rigid way, or within our own unique shape, size, temperament or unique musical goals. Working with an Alexander Technique teacher can help individualize this process.
Stage fright is a way of reacting habitually to the stimulus of playing in public. Working with the principles of the Alexander Technique can help you learn to respond differently to this stimulus, and to the excitement of performing, recording and creating music. A community of musicians is an ideal way to support this kind of work and practice. Group lessons with other musicians can help bridge the gap between individual work and playing in public. I consider private lessons to be most helpful for in-depth study but group lessons can be beneficial in certain situations such as this.
The first instrument of each musician is him or herself. The principles of the Alexander Technique are the same: awareness and thought in action, whatever we choose to do. Because I am a musician, I have a special interest in helping musicians reach their goals, and many years of experience in my own process as a player and a violin teacher. If I am not familiar with an instrument, I ask a lot of questions! My goal is to help musicians do what they want to do more easily. By finding out what a person’s goals are (from playing louder, to shifting more accurately, to more easily tapping into one’s unique expression) I can help them find new ways to approach their practice.
Lessons are traditionally taught one-on-one, similar to private music lessons. Just like in music lessons, the student’s interest and experience guide the teacher. Lessons can involve some combination of table work, upright work, and activities relevant to the student’s interests. Table work is a restful, hands-on practice. Upright work can involve everyday movements such as sitting, standing, walking, and bending. Throughout, student and teacher are each involved in thoughtful activity, noticing what is helpful, what isn’t, and how thinking differently can change the quality of an action. This lays the groundwork for application to a skilled activity, such as playing an instrument.
This is very individual, but I can say that my students who think about and put the concepts from the lessons into practice in their daily lives benefit more than those who don’t. It’s just like practicing anything, but sometimes the practice involves doing less instead of more!
The educational philosopher John Dewey said that the Alexander Technique “bears the same relation to education that education, itself bears to all other human activities”. In other words, there are basic principles of attention and awareness that help us use appropriate effort for any activity. We’re not learning to do something new, so much as we are learning to think about how to approach what we do in a new way. Many Alexander Technique students and teachers also have movement practices such as Tai Chi and Yoga, and use their understanding to help them in these practices.