Standing And Sitting To Play Music: Two Important Mechanical Principles

Practically without exception whenever I give a musician an Alexander Technique lesson, I witness habits of imbalance and tension in the acts of sitting and standing that sharply impact the musician’s coordination, comfort and sense of control and satisfaction.

Because they are so deeply ingrained, the sensations of these habits fall below the kinesthetic “radar” of the musician (i.e., they don’t feel “wrong” at all.) In essence, there is general lack of an accurate body awareness involved in the music making process.

This lack of awareness is usually accompanied by a misconception about how their bodies function best in gravity. This is where I usually introduce two concepts (which are actually related mechanical principles):

support, and suspension

Support

Whenever I give an Alexander Technique lesson to a new student, I ask, “What is supporting you as you stand?” I get a variety of answers:

“My feet.”

“My legs.”

“My hips and back.”

“My entire body.”

(And sometimes, after some reflection by my student, I even get, “I have no idea.”)

But the truth of the matter is that when your standing, the ground (or the floor) is supporting you. Yes, that’s right. Gravity is drawing the mass of your body downward, and the ground is accepting and holding that mass.

Now, this is an important concept to grasp, because if you’re not allowing the ground to support you, you’re most likely tensing your body unnecessarily in an unconscious attempt to hold yourself up: stiff ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, neck…even your jaw.

It’s important that you let your weight pass through your bones into the floor (if you’re standing) or through your sitting bones (if your sitting). Let the stable surface of the floor or chair support you.

Suspension

But you need more than support to stay upright and in balance. You need an “anti-gravitational” energy source to counter the pull of gravity. This is where suspension comes into play.

Wired inside of you is a neuromuscular response to go up against the pull of gravity. (In fact, all organisms on the face of the earth have an anti-gravitational response system; even plants rise up from the ground, defying the pull of gravity.)

The muscles in your spine, from your pelvis to the top of your neck, and the muscles in your legs, are sending you lightly, yet powerfully upward you up as you stand.

If you let them. And this is where habit comes into play.

You see, you were born with (and cultivated in your earliest days after birth) this upward tendency: your head releasing at the top of your spine, your back lengthening and widening, your legs releasing out of your pelvis extending you upward, and your feet spreading out onto the floor. All of this upward suspension is  expansive, springy, flexible and responsive by design.

Yet, many of us lose this dynamic suspension as we get older through habits of bracing and/or collapse. When we un-learn these habits, our upwardly mobile suspension system returns to functioning optimally.

Why is this important?

No matter what instrument you play, if you are perpetually out of balance, you are creating tension that interferes with the freedom and functioning of the parts most directly involved in playing your instrument.

As an example, If you’re saxophonist (as I am) and you stiffen your legs as you play, you’ll also stiffen your pelvis (in an unconscious attempt to compensate for the lack of mobility involved in balance.) If you’re stiffening your pelvis, your shoulders will stiffen for the same reasons. If you’re stiffening your shoulders, your arms (because of their structual relaitonship with your shoulders), are stiff as well. If you’re stiffening your arms, you’re interfering with the freedom in your hands.

And so on. If you doubt this at all, as an experiment, stand on a very wobbly surface as you play your instrument (an Airex pad, or Bosu ball, for example). You’ll experience the above mentioned responses of tension immediately, and will have a noticeable loss of control over your instrument.

All this doesn’t even take into account the effect this has on your breathing. Can you play well with these habits of tension and imbalance? Sure. Skilled musicians do all the time.

But you’ll play better without them. I can vouch for that, both as a teacher and as a musician.

Integrating and optimizing

Support and suspension work best as an integrated system. Here are few things to keep in mind to help you take advantage of how your bodily design functions best in gravity:

  • Begin by thinking of yourself as being light. Seriously. There is a powerful connection between how you perceive yourself and your neuromuscular responses and organization.
  • Allow your weight to release into the floor (if you’re standing; if you’re sitting, allow your weight to release directly through your sitting bones onto the surface of the chair), as you imagine your head releasing lightly upward off the top of your spine.
  • If you’re standing, let your weight pass directly through your legs and through your ankle bones and heels into the floor. Think of your legs as releasing out of you hips. As you shift toward balance, your weight might shift slightly toward your heels. Let that happen as you also allow your feet to gently spread out onto the floor. Give yourself a moment to notice the stability of the floor.
  • Allow your ankles to be free and mobile to accept the support of the floor. The same with your knees and hips. No need to lock joints . Think that you have lots of space in your joints and lots of mobility (whether you’re sitting or standing).
  • Imagine each of  your feet as a three-legged stool (heel, base of your large toe, and base of your small toe). Ask yourself if you are putting too much of your weight into any one of these legs.
  • Think of your shoulders as widening, as they release one away from the other in response to your lengthening spine.
  • Don’t try to lift, or hold yourself up. Remember, “up” is already there in your body as a response to the pull of gravity. This is true, whether sitting or standing. Imagine unlatching yourself to release upwards.
  • Remain mobile, both in thought and movement. Don’t try to maintain posture. Instead, renew the wish for this springy, light upward organization in your body

It may seem counter-intuitive, but you’re allowing the weight to pass through your body as you direct your thinking in the opposite direction. In the simples sense, your weight goes downward, but your head releases your spine upwards. Two different directions, working together to integrate support and suspension, so you can play your best!

As a final thought, keep in mind that there is a difference between being grounded (supported, suspended, mobile and free) and being planted (held, stiffened and/or collapsed and immobile). Aim for being grounded, and you’ll improve your chances of success.

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