I’ve been playing, composing and teaching music for nearly 40 years. In that time I’ve come across many different approaches to improving what I do. Nothing has come close to helping me as effectively and as completely as the Alexander Technique.
I came to study the Technique after struggling with some serious coordination problems that were threatening my career as a saxophonist. I was so impressed with how I’d been able to help myself with the work, that I decided to commit to the three-year training program necessary to become qualified to teach (completing my training in 2006). It was easily the best decision I’ve ever made in my musical life.
Everything I do in my musical practice is informed by the Alexander Technique. I would even say that I approach composition and improvisation with the Alexander principles very close at hand. And of course, the Technique is at the heart of what I teach when I’m teaching musicians.
So what is the Alexander Technique?
In the simplest (and most practical) sense, the Alexander Technique is a way to learn to recognize and prevent unnecessary (and potentially harmful) muscular tension in any activity. (This alone is quite helpful for musicians!)
But I would also say that it is a a way to more effectively connect thought with action. Clear intention combined with efficiently directed muscular energy leads to a highly satisfying musical experience in both practice and performance. This clarity between thought and action also makes me a more effective, and more authentic composer and improviser.
The Alexander Technique is the technique I apply to all other musical techniques, whether I’m working on tone, articulation, velocity, reading, or improvisation. Anything, really. My brother-in-law, Celio (who’s also an Alexander Technique teacher), calls it the “pre-technique” to any activity. I couldn’t agree more.
Here are eight ways the Alexander Technique helps me the most in my work:
1. It provides a lens through which to evaluate good coordination. In Alexander slang, we talk about the primary control, which is the working relationship of the head, neck and back. This head/neck/back relationship conditions the quality of everything we do in our movements: breathing; using the mouth, lips, tongue and jaw (as well as the other vocal mechanisms); using the arms, hands and fingers; sitting standing and walking; the eyes…as I said, everything.
The primary control is the lens through which I discern and evaluate all my (and my students) movement habits as they pertain to playing music. By learning to stop interfering with the natural coordination of this primary control, I (and my students) play with greater ease, efficiency and control.
2. It places the emphasis on the quality of the process. Rather than aiming only for specific results (with no consideration to how best to attain them), the Technique helps me grow my faith in working by principle, using reason and discernment, always aiming for a good use of primary control (see above). This not only helps me play better, but also, keeps me from harming myself as I play. As long as I take care of the quality of the “how” in what I do , the end takes care of itself.
3. It helps me to improve by doing less. This is perhaps the most important principle I’ve learned. I’m playing better than ever not because of what I’m doing, but rather, because of what I’m not doing (my old habits of excess tension) as I play. Addition by subtraction, as the cliche goes. I see far too many musicians making their playing more difficult by adding yet more things to “do” in a forced and unnatural way (breathing and embouchure are prime examples). No need for this added effort.
4. It teaches me when (and how!) to stop. To me, this is the most essential skill for a musician to have during a practice session. Learning to strategically stop and redirect my thinking has helped me improve more than anything. By doing so I prevent myself from reinforcing the habits that are interfering with my playing, and give myself the means and opportunity to truly change.
5. It provides tools for self-care. Constructive rest, breath work, taking care of how I use myself (in all my activities) have helped me significantly to practice music without pain or worry of injury.
6. It helps me maintain a better balance between the internal and the external. I’ve greatly improved my ability to stay connected to internal things as I play, like sensing time, imagining pitch and tone color, following my creative impulses, and what’s going on with my body; with external things like hearing my sound, hearing the other musicians, and my visual and spatial senses. This balance of attention (rather than the imbalance of over-focusing on certain things at the expense of ignoring others) has deeply enriched my musical experience. (It has also improved my pitch, sound, time and creativity.)
7. It helps me observe and improve my thinking. If I’m facing a particular challenge as I play, I immediately go to my thinking. When I ask myself, “Where are your thoughts going as you play this?”, I usually find that my thoughts are not supporting what I’m trying to do as I play. So I simply redirect my thinking. Improvement always follows. As an improvising musician, this has been especially helpful.
8. It clarifies my understanding of cause and effect. There is plethora of useless, even harmful, pedagogical information out there for instrumentalists and singers (much of it disseminated by highly respected musicians with limited knowledge of anatomy and physiology). By understanding how I work best in nature (again, see primary control, above), I can easily filter out the bad information, and stay with what truly works. I get a clearer idea of how “A” influences (or doesn’t influence!) “B”, so I can more accurately answer the question: Am I playing well because of what I do, or despite what I do?
Besides these eight, there are even more ways the Alexander Technique has helped me. I just wanted to list a few of the ones I personally consider most essential. By staying with the Alexander principles, I continue to develop a set of tools that I can use with confidence and consistency.
I’ve also enjoyed the privilege of teaching the Technique to a variety of musicians, from jazz artists, to Indian classical musicians, to musical theater performers, to principle players in symphony orchestras and more, with measurable benefits. It is remarkable work. I encourage you to find a good teacher and give it a try.