One of the things I usually discover early on when teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, is that part of the problem that led them to seek my help has to do with counterproductive pedagogy.
With a wind instrumentalist, for example, I might observe what appears to be a forced, tense, noisy, unnatural-looking inhalation before playing a note or phrase.
When I ask about this breathing habit, as often as not, I learn that it’s something that has been deliberately cultivated. In other words, it is something that they do consciously as they play.
When I ask, “So why do you do it that way?”, the answer is usually something like, “Because that’s the way ‘so and so’ (insert name of highly respected musician here) says it should be done.”
Then I ask a second question: “Why do you think he/she does it that way?”
The answer that follows usually falls into one of two categories:
They don’t know why this great musician does it that why, but it obviously works best for them.
They “know” why this great musician does it that way, but the explanation they provide isn’t in accordance with the acoustical principles of the instrument and/or with the design of the human mechanism.
And so yet more misinformation by well-meaning experts gets perpetuated. Some of it benignly inefficient, some of it downright harmful (and everything in between).
So why/how do these “myths” get perpetuated?
- Trusting without testing.
- It works (to a certain degree).
Let’s look at this first one, trusting without testing:
No matter what we might think about how our bodies work, or about how our instruments work, there are certain solid, measurable, scientific realities about how they really work.
As a serious musician, it is your responsibility to continually improve and broaden your understanding of these things.
The more clearly you understand the real “hows and whys” of your organism (including how your thinking impacts this organism!), the better your sense of cause and effect becomes when being introduced to any new pedagogic principle and/or procedure.
If you comprehend the science behind playing your instrument, you’ll see that “some musicians do well (in part), not because of what they do, but despite what they do.” (All of my students, and some of my readers, will recognize this as one of the recurring themes in my teaching.)
It is not enough to trust and expert. You must also build a solid faith in the efficacy of a particular pedagogic element because it stands the test of actual, measurable fact. Cause and effect.
The second reason these inefficient practice ideas get perpetuated sounds contradictory to the point I’m trying to make here:
They work (to a certain degree).
It’s the “certain degree” part that opens the door to trouble. The reason for this is actually fairly simple.
Let’s go back to my earlier example about inhaling when playing a wind instrument. If you believe that you need to noisily suck in air as you try to force the air down into your abdominal region, in order for you to get a sufficient breath, you are simply working against nature.
You can’t put air “down into your gut”, because you have no lungs there. (And don’t talk about pushing the diaphragm outward to “make space for the air”; it doesn’t work like that, either.)
Yet the noisy, gasping, overly energetic breathing often accomplishes one thing: It creates a more “active” inhalation that engages more muscles (not necessarily in the most efficient way, mind you!), and that does seem to draw in more air than when you inhale in a more passive, unintentional way.
But there is some unwanted baggage attached to this way of breathing.
To begin with, all this effort creates undue strain in your jaw, glottis and facial muscles. Not to mention the strain it puts on the rest of your body. I’ve had musicians come to me for help with chronic neck and back pain that is clearly related to these poor breathing habits.
Equally important, you lose touch with what it is like to have a free, naturally reflexive inhalation.
It’s the free movement of the ribs, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and other muscles in the body that creates the kind of necessary expansion to draw in a deep breath. Combine this with the intention of the musical phrase and expression, and you’re good to go.
Yet, as long as you need to “feel” this forced inhalation as a “complete and full breath”, you will continue to work in this inefficient way.
And unfortunately, you’ll likely pass this advice onto your students. In Alexander Technique slang, we sometimes say that this is a case of “specifically focusing on a part, while neglecting the whole”.
So stay clear about these two things as you practice, explore and expose yourself to new ideas about playing your instrument. You’ll be better off (and so will your students!)
I’ll leave you with a quote from F.M Alexander, the founder and developer of the Alexander Technique:
If I went to a man to take singing lessons, it wouldn’t matter what he taught me, he couldn’t injure me.