"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

In November, 2013, I gave a two-day workshop at the Trossingen music school in Germany, thanks to an invitation from Prof. Wolfgang Guggenberger. One of the participants, the young trumpeter Fynn Müller, wrote the article below for the music school's magazine.

 

"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

An Alexander Technique Workshop with Pedro de Alcantara

A special workshop took place at the conservatory. At the invitation of the trumpet class, the internationally renowned author, Alexander teacher and cellist Pedro de Alcantara gave a seminar on the basics of the Alexander Technique.

We, the participants – in addition to the students of the trumpet class, our number included guests from the trombone and the percussion class – had little or no experience or previous knowledge. We thus brought excitement, curiosity and a small measure of skepticism to the weekend. The first day involved group and partner exercises without instruments. The objective was not only to understand the principles of the Alexander Technique but to learn and experience them with our own bodies: the connection between head, neck, shoulders, spine, pelvis and the resulting changes in our habits of movement.

For one exercise, we leaned against a wall with outstretched arms and fingers. Question: with which body part are we actually supporting ourselves? We began to sense that all body parts are connected: the finger is connected to the hand – the hand to the arm – the arm to the shoulder – the shoulder to the back – the back to the hips – the hips to the legs and the legs to the feet and the ground. All parts of this chain are connected and work together to keep us balanced and poised.

In another exercise, we were asked to apply light pressure with our hand to the lower back of our partner. The partner was instructed to resist the pressure and not to allow himself to be pushed away. His “resistance” should be neither stiff nor relaxed. The aim was to achieve a powerful yet flexible energy balance. Rather than concentrating solely on the strength in his arm, the “pusher” was able to practice executing the movement with his whole body. Exercises such as these help to develop our body awareness. And we can then use this new awareness to execute all kinds of procedures. When we move, if we focus our attention on connections throughout the whole body, the movement becomes more natural, more organic and more powerful. Through attentiveness and presence, we gain a new ease of movement.

But the Alexander Technique is about much more than “just” harmonious movements or mastering a complex sequence of motions. A human being is an inseparable alliance of body and mind; work on one cannot be separated from work on the other.

Why do we tense up when we play a difficult passage? Why do we indicate the stresses with our head when we speak a complex rhythm? Why does our body tension go awry when we feel frightened or insecure? Internal emotional states (e.g. fear, insecurity) nearly always have an external physical “echo” and vice versa. When we feel overwhelmed, we become restless, think negatively or feel paralyzed. The Alexander Technique teaches us to maintain internal and external “poise” in such situations, to observe our breathing (there were many exercises on this, too) and to stay mindful. As a result, our perception remains in the moment and we do not allow ourselves to be ruled by insecurity or fear. The disquiet, the fear are there but we are able to perceive them calmly without “losing our heads.” This helps us to cope with difficult situations and deal better with stress, such as pressure to perform and stage fright.

On the second day of the workshop, the participants had the chance to give a performance or play audition pieces or a study. Then they were able to work with Pedro de Alcantara on applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to the practical situation with their instrument. Many mental “side issues” came up that negatively affect our work irrespective of problems with playing technique: how do I deal with my mistakes? What effect do my thoughts and emotions have on my inner calm and concentration? A trumpeter misses the high “E flat” in the Haydn concerto – and curses.  The simple advice of Pedro de Alcantara is: “Don’t judge – perceive only.” Do not evaluate, do not classify with the labels “good” and “bad.” Perceive what is happening and do not deprive yourself of the power of clear thought by getting caught up in emotions. False, lacerating self-criticism, a reproachful inner judge can be damaging, too. Pedro de Alcantara’s “mantra” for such a situation is simple: “I don’t know / I can’t do – but I have a pretty neck!” This means: keep your outer and inner poise. A mistake or a failure does not make us “worse human beings” and our poised neck and head remind us of this. In this way, we gain the calmness, power and confidence to overcome our shortcomings.

Of course, experience of working on ourselves not only plays a role at the instrument. It affects our lives in general. The way we play our instrument (relaxed or tense, precise or imprecise, over-critical or superficial, etc.) reflects our personality. The Alexander Technique provides the opportunity to learn to deal with ourselves healthily – as musicians and people, in our physical movement and in our thoughts. In this respect, the course with Pedro de Alcantara was a considerable enrichment and an “integrated” course in the truest sense.               

-- Fynn Müller

Translated from the German by Annie Edwards

Photos by Pedro de Alcantara


 

Not Flamenco

I know close to nothing about flamenco. Like many other people, I've seen bits and bobs of it on the Internet or in the movies; I've heard flamenco-inspired guitar playing, recorded and live; and I've play-acted my ignorant version of flamenco for fun, stomping my feet and clapping as I twirl around the room. But this blog post isn't about my scant knowledge of flamenco, or even about flamenco, period. It's about a voyage we all take in our lives. It starts in innocence, passes through crippling self-consciousness, and ends (for some of us) in mastery.

As young kids we dwelled in experience and sensation, not spending much psychic energy on discernment  (anything goes into the mouth!) and only occasionally on judgment (hunger not good!). Our minds were free from constraints, preconceived ideas, "shoulds" and "musts." And we were so, so very adept at learning! We learned our "mother tongue" like we learned breathing and walking--without intellectual calculation, playfully, easily, joyfully.

The toddler below is learning his "mother dance" of flamenco through a process of observation, imitation, and improvisation. He already has the spirit of it, the energy of it, the flamenco-ness of it. He "embodies flamenco."

Talented children can take this native ease very far. The young fellow in the next clip embodies his native flamenco with terrific virtuosity. He's called Juan Manuel Fernandez Montoya, better known as Farruquito. To my eyes, he's focused, centered, and "invisible," by which I mean he allows us to watch "the wonder of flamenco" without getting distracted by "the particular individual who here embodies flamenco." His dancing isn't about Farruquito; it's about flamenco--something much bigger than him. Flamenco itself seems to be about the paradox of holding energies tightly within, the better to propagate them in every direction. The young Farruquito "becomes" containment and propagation, and watching him "I contain and propagate, by proxy."

Farruquito will grow up and leave his child-prodigy years behind him. Tragedy will struck--real-life tragedy, in the form of a hit-and-run accident that landed Farruquito in jail; and existential tragedy, in the form of a loss of innocence, a loss of freedom . . . in short, a deep loss. The invisible dancer who let us "watch flamenco" becomes visible, and begs us to "watch him." It's not the same kind of show, and it doesn't have the same effect. Don't get me wrong; the adult Farruquito is very accomplished, and obviously he dances the flamenco a thousand times better than I dance it myself. But the clip below leaves me uncomfortable. In earlier times, Farruquito danced with a steady core that rendered him stable despite his gyrations, and watching him "I became stable, by proxy." Now Farruquito is making the periphery (arms, clothes, hair, surface) more important than the core, and watching him "I become unstable, by proxy."

Farruquito is the grandson of a masterly dancer: Antonio Montoya Flores, El Farruco. In movement and in expression, El Farruco does very, very little . . . and yet he lets us know how much he's capable of doing. It's as if his flamenco were completely internalized, "not needing to come out anymore." Containment has become "it," and propagation is now only latent. El Farruco has nothing to prove, and watching him dance "I myself have nothing to prove, by proxy." I find it very healing. Perhaps Farruquito will one day pass from self-consciousness to self-forgetting again.

There you have it: innocence, loss, mastery. As I said, it's not about flamenco.

Transformations

I performed a solo recital program at a beautiful little museum in Tallinn, Estonia. I played a couple of pieces by Bach for unaccompanied cello, plus a number of my own compositions employing the cello and the piano, as well as singing, whistling, and howling.

To open the program, I decided to devise an improvisation that would make me comfortable and confident, and that also concentrated the audience’s minds. So, I chose something emphatic and declamatory, and I practiced it a few times over two or three days.

Before I went to Estonia, I had a chance to record my improvisation at a studio in Paris. My recording engineer edited and mixed the improvisation. Here it is.

 

Then I tweaked his mix, adding a little resonance; and I tweaked my tweak, adding an echo that created the illusion of multiple instruments. Is it the same piece, or has it become something else?

Then I added my tweaked tweak as a soundtrack to a slideshow of mine. The slideshow, too, is a transformation: I took a small section of a painting by Anselm Kiefer and I submitted it to a series of editing decisions.

My desire to connect with the cello and with the audience materialized itself in gestures and sounds. Captured by a recording device, these sounds underwent a series of transformations. Now the sounds are a string of ones and zeros, beamed into your home from a satellite high above the Earth.

You might find it interesting to listen to my sound engineer’s version of my “thoughts and emotions,” then my tweak of it, before hearing it as a soundtrack to a slideshow. You’ll have your own thoughts and emotions about these ones and zeros. Transformation is the name of the game.