The main thing I look for whenever I’m giving an Alexander Technique lesson to a musician for the first time is preparation.
I want to see what my student does those brief seconds before she or he starts to play.
Playing music involves movement, and movement requires preparation, whether it is done consciously or unconsciously. In short, this preparation could be described as habit.
But before I observe my student play for the first time, I spend lots of time asking questions. I want to get an idea not only of the challenges that have led this student to seek my help, but also, the thinking involved in playing music. It is this thinking that is often the foundation of the habits.
These musicians will have a large array of preparation habits, and I’ve never yet encountered two musicians who share identical habits.
Having said that, I can say that all of the musicians who come my way for help have one habit in common: They begin preparing to play by tensing themselves up.
In other words, the movement organized to play that first note involves lots of muscular contraction. A good deal of this muscular contraction is not only unnecessary to sustain the act of playing the instrument, but it is also unnecessary to begin the act of playing.
Much of this muscular organization can be attributed to attitude and belief. If you believe you need to tense yourself up to play, then you certainly will, for better or for worse.
But here’s the thing about virtually all human movement: It can begin with release instead of tension.
That’s right, the movement can start by letting something go, but un-latching something in yourself.
For example, if you’re standing and you wish to begin to walk, you can tense your neck and shoulders as you pull yourself down into your pelvis onto one side of your body to de-weight the leg necessary to start the first step, then pull your leg up into your pelvis in order to bend your knee. (This is a fairly apt description of what many people do as they begin to walk.)
On the other hand, you can move from standing into a walk by having these three things coming into play:
1. The intention to walk.
2. A light, upward organization in your body from your feet to the crown of your head (which involves letting your spine lengthen by releasing up and away from the ground).
3. A release in your ankles to allow your upwardly directed weight to fall forward to begin the walk as you release your knee to bend a leg.
(Try this sometime, and notice the difference. You’ll most likely feel lighter, taller and freer as you walk.)
Now to be clear, this isn’t a matter of relaxing every muscle in your body before you move. Even if you were able to do so (you actually can’t), you would fall into a heap on the ground.
No, what I’m talking about is a very simple principle: By starting the movement from muscular release, the rest of your body is free to make the muscular contractions necessary to carry out the movement in a more efficient way.
You can take this model into other common activities. For example, to speak or sing, you can start by the movement by releasing your jaw to let your mouth open.
Even picking something up off of the floor, you can begin the movement by releasing the joints necessary to let you bend down to take hold of the object on the floor. And then as you take the weight of the object you, rise by letting your weight release forward and up over your feet as you also let your shoulders release and widen to accept the load. (Now the tension necessary to carry the load is in play.)
And so it can be with playing your instrument. All you need to do is observer and redirect. Here are few things to pay attention to:
- You can start by noticing all the gestures you make as you go from a state of “not playing” to “playing” as you hold your instrument.
- Notice in particular what you do with your head, neck and shoulders that brief moment before you begin to play. Do you brace yourself by tightening your neck and pulling your head downwards onto your spine? Do you begin to pull your shoulders down into your ribs? Or pull them up toward your ears?
- Do you begin to lock your knees? Stiffen your ankles? Grab the floor with your feet? (instead of letting your feet release into the floor)
- What do you do with your eyes? Does your gaze become intense and focused? Does your brow furl up?
- Does your jaw begin to tense? How about your tongue? Your facial mask?
- And how about your breathing? If you’re singing or playing a wind instrument, are you making noisy, gasping inhalations as you suck in the air by overly tensing your neck and back muscles? (And if you’re not playing a wind instrument, are you beginning each phrase by sucking in air?)
If you find yourself starting to play with any (or all) of these gestures of tension, start by changing your attitude. See where you can substitute muscular contraction with muscular release.
For example, rather than tensing your neck and tightening your chest and shoulders to noisily suck in air before blowing that first note, think instead that the breath can come in as a quick and light reflexive movement made possible as a result of letting go of the muscles in your neck, shoulders, ribs and back. You might be surprised at how easily and how quickly and fully your inhalation becomes when this actually happens.
So pay attention to yourself as you play. Find ways to initiate those first movements of playing your instrument with as much release as possible. Then let the muscles in your body respond naturally and effectively to the task at hand.
By changing your attitude about movement in this way, you’ll gradually begin to redifine how little effort is actually needed to play your instrument. In doing so you can expect a lifetime of growth, improvement and increased satisfaction.