Play Better While Standing By Following This Simple Principle

The other day as I was giving an Alexander Technique lesson to a saxophonist, I noticed something in my student that I often see in other musicians who stand as they play. Specifically, my student wasn’t allowing the weight of his body to pass through his feet into the floor as he played.

I could see him bringing his weight to the outsides of his soles as he played, stiffening his neck, back and legs as he did so. He did this especially as he perceived some kind of “effort”, such as playing into the altissimo register, or articulating a very rapid passage. Put simply, he was pulling himself out of balance in an attempt to play his best.

It was as if he were refusing to let himself be on the floor, trying to defy the laws of gravity as he played his instrument.

I won’t digress here as to how I approached his issues (that’s for another article), but I can tell you that for him to stop the habits of tension in his feet, he had to start with thinking about the stiffness in his head and neck as he played. (In Alexander terminology, the relationship between the head, neck and torso is called the primary control; it’s called so for a good reason, as it conditions what we do with the rest of ourselves in any activity.)

Instead, I want to talk a bit about a very simple principle to help you play better as you stand: For you to be in good balance as you stand (mobile, flexible, light and easy), you must allow the weight of your body to pass through your legs into your feet and into the ground (or floor, as the case may be).

To help you understand this principle, it might be helpful to explain a little about how your feet bear weight most efficiently. You can think of your foot as a three-legged stool. One of the “legs” being your heel, another leg at the base of where your big toe meets the rest of  your foot, and the third leg being at the base of where your small toe meets your foot.

You can think of each of these “legs” as the  most essential points of contact between you and the ground. Between each of these points an arch is formed. You actually have 3 arches in each foot: one between the base of your large toe and your heel; another between the base of your small toe and your heel; and a third between the base of your large toe and your small toe (see image above).

It is the dynamic relationship between these arches that help you stay in balance. Whenever you interfere with this relationship, you interfere with your balance, ease and coordination. The most common ways this interference occurs is by placing your weight too far forward, or by pulling your feet up off the floor from either side.

When you stand in natural balance, your head is poised on top of your spine in an upward release, and the rest of you is sort of stacked underneath all the way down to the ground. No tense shoulders. No thrusting hips. No locked knees. No stiff feet or toes.

The weight of your body is free to pass directly downward through your spine, into your pelvis, through your legs into your ankles and then very slightly into your heels (one of the legs of your “stool”) as you allow your feet to spread toward your large and small toes (the other legs of your stool).

When you allow yourself to stay grounded this way, you’ll find that you play better:

  • You’ll have more stability, so your hands, arms and fingers move more easily and accurately.
  • You’ll breathe better.
  • You’ll maintain a better sense of time. (Really! So much of your rhythmic perception is based upon your balance. Notice what happens to your balance the next time you rush the tempo.)
  • You’ll have greater access to your creativity and expression. (For the same reasons mentioned above.)
  • You’ll feel so much better and experience less fatigue as you play.

Whenever you can, play without shoes. Letting your feet connect directly to the floor helps you access all the receptors of the nerves in your feet to keep the delicate dance of balance alive. When I practice I never wear shoes. I advise all my students to lose the shoes whenever possible. (It’s okay to wear socks.)

So notice what you do with your feet as you practice. Remember to let your feet do their work. Allow your weight pass through them into the floor as you direct your thoughts upward. Please let me know how it goes!

Comments

  1. says

    I’m never practicing with shoes again if I can help it. I’m kind of amazed in how much shoes nullify sensitivity. When i’m kind of losing it its extremely apparent in how my feet are relating to the floor. I currently don’t have shoes on. Neil Young performs without shoes if I recall correctly.

    • Bill says

      Hi Trevor, Shoes do indeed interfere with our feet’s ability to sense information and respond. But we sometimes have to perform while wearing shoes, so it’s a good idea to wear them from time to time as you practice, just to remind yourself that you can still release and find balance with them on. That way, when you have to perform wearing shoes, it’s no big deal. (You might be surprised at the amount of performers who get absolutely flummoxed during a performance because of some “unfamiliar” sense of the type of clothing they have to wear that they’re not accustomed to, such as a tuxedo, heeled shoes, etc.) Having said that, I’m with you. I like to feel the floor with my feet, and leave the shoes off most of the time if I can (not just when practicing, but in general).

  2. says

    In my ancient past as an A.T. student, I once did this interesting experiment using a feedback process while using Alexander Technique in bare feet. This might be an interesting feedback experiment to do with music students.

    What I did, was I stepped in paint and then “printed” an image of my feet by stepping on paper, while balanced however I usually do that. That was the “before” evidence. Then I used Alexander Technique to enhance my balance to see what sort of foot image would occur. I again stepped into the paint with my bare feet and onto the paper while I was directing, Alexander Technique style.
    The differences between the two pairs of printed feet images were fascinating. I can describe what happened for me, yet I’m sure everyone would have a different result because people do so many unique things with their balance as a starting point.
    I realized that I was imposing a ideal of what balance was and was compensating for that in how my feet were contacting the surface I was standing on. I wasn’t taking into account that I had a forefoot as well as a heel to stand with. It was as though I had habitually figured out I “must” balance on a point closer to my heel rather than using my whole foot. Because when I used A.T. and stepped onto the paper to make a printed foot image, it appeared that my whole foot distributed my weight much more evenly and that could be discerned in the delicate quality of the print my feet made.

    Sometimes its really useful to have some hard evidence to look at to consider and ask questions about – whenever you conduct an experiment.

    • Bill says

      That is a wonderful story, Franis. I have no doubt that simply using a clearer direction when standing will change how the weight is distributed through the feet. Using paint as the “hard evidence” is a brilliant idea, bringing together the kinesthetic and visual information to the observer. Thanks for sharing that!

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