It’s not unusual for musicians new to the study of the Alexander Technique to be a little bit wary of the idea of being more intentionally aware in order to change their habits when playing music.
He or she can be put off by the idea that paying attention in this new “Alexander” way (awareness, prevention of habit, and redirection of thought) will become a distraction that interferes with the music making process.
This is a valid concern (one in which I had at the beginning of my Alexander learning process). After all, what you want as a musician is freedom to express yourself, not a seemingly oppressive form of self-consciousness. You don’t need yet another “mental ball” to juggle.
For you to perform well as a musician, you already must be aware of many things simultaneously. Here are but a few:
• Your intonation
• The intonation of those with whom you’re playing
• Time and rhythm
• Notation (where applicable), including dynamics, articulation, form, etc.
• The quality of your sound, and/or attack
• The blend of your sound in the ensemble
• The conductor (where applicable)
• Your personal emotional expression
I could go on. The point is, you have to be aware of quite a few things. But understand that all these things are integrated together in your consciousness as the whole “experience of playing music”. (It is when you’re playing well, anyhow.)
But conspicuously missing from the above list is one of the most important things to pay attention to: How you are using yourself. More specifically, what you are doing with yourself in order to create music.
If you shift immediately to placing all your attention on yourself as you play, you’ll very likely play worse, feel awkward, self-conscious, and in general, disconnected to the music making process.
The idea is not to divide your attention by paying attention to yourself as you play, but rather, to gradually learn to integrate your self-awareness by expanding your consciousness.
Think about it. You’ve already developed your ability to keep many things in mind as you play (again, as an integrated whole). It’s therefore possible that you can learn to place an increased self-awareness into this whole. In my experience, I’ve found that self-awareness becomes the central organizing principle that helps me to be easily aware of everything else as I play.
In other words, self-awareness is the thing that integrates everything else (intonation, time, form, notation, etc.) into a clearer, whole musical experience. You need to include yourself into your attention if you are to play efficiently, expressively and safely (avoiding injury). And if you wish to improve, this is fundamental.
So how do you develop this ability to be more self-aware as you play music? Simple, you practice.
Here are some simple guidelines and suggestions for practicing paying attention:
• Devote 15 minutes per practice period to deal exclusively with improving your self-awareness. After that, go on to practicing whatever and however you like. By devoting your time to this on a daily basis, you shift your emphasis on “sounding good”, or “practicing something useful” to allowing yourself to pay attention to your use as you play.
• Pay attention first to how you pick up your instrument. Do you tense up (stop breathing, pick up your shoulders, stiffen your neck/jaw, etc)? You might be surprised to learn that you’re already indulging in your habitual playing tension before you even get the instrument into position. Any unnecessary tension you notice as you do this, you can make a conscious decision to prevent.
• Notice how you’re sitting or standing as you play. Do you find your sitting (or standing) balance first, before you pick or approach your instrument? Or do you find yourself coming down and forward toward your instrument as you “clamp down” to play? It’s important to find an easy balance first, before you bring the instrument to you.
• Notice what you do as you create sound on your instrument. Are you stiffening your neck? Are you lifting your shoulder(s) unnecessarily? Are you pulling yourself downward, maybe twisting through your spine to do so? Are you locking your knees? Are you holding your breath? Are you making a huge, noisy, tense inhalation to prepare to play?
• Notice what you do as you begin to connect notes. Do you lose your ease and balance? Do you begin to stiffen your neck and shoulders? Hold your breath? Stiffen your fingers and hands?
Anytime you notice yourself going into your habitual patterns of unnecessary tension in your 15-minute “awareness” period, you simply stop what you’re doing (even if it means to stop playing completely!) Every time you stop yourself from creating this tension as you play, you accomplish two important things:
First, you weaken the response from your brain that creates the pattern. If you do this over time, you gradually reduce the pattern to the point of elimination (it stops becoming your habit).
Second, you strengthen your skills in self-awareness. Your capacity to pay attention becomes more and more refined. The best thing about this is that after a while, you don’t have to make an effort to “look” at yourself to become self-aware. Rather, the awareness of what you do with yourself as you make music comes to your attention on its own.
In a sense, this is what has already happened to you with your sense of pitch. If you’re playing out of tune (or if the person next to you is), you probably don’t have any problem hearing it. In fact, it’s harder to ignore it than it is to hear it. This happens because your capacity to discern pitch has been highly refined. Through practice.
And so it is with your self-awareness. If you practice this way, you’ll get to the point where you’re old habits of bodily tension will become just as hard to ignore as the musician sitting next to you who is playing painfully sharp or flat.
So give yourself the chance to develop this very important skill. You’ll find nothing but growth and improvement if you do. In one sense, this is the chief aim of the Alexander Technique. Lessons in the Technique can help you discover an effortless way to integrate all the components of music making into a smooth running whole. (Your practicing and your performing will never be the same!)