Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique
A child prodigy who once played like an angel loses his innocence and becomes self-conscious about his instrument, his music making, and his adoring public. Despite much soul searching, he’s unable to prevent his performances from becoming ever more erratic.
A young woman of flair and ability is marketed by her record company as a classical-music sex kitten. She admits to having developed three distinct personalities—with her family, on stage, and by herself—to cope with the expectations and demands made upon her.
Many orchestral musicians live in a state of apprehension and insecurity. Some drink heavily before and after performances (and during the intermission as well). Others take tranquilizers and anxiety suppressants. Most complain of multiple illnesses seemingly related to work, including backache, headache, tendonitis, and a plethora of nasty mental conditions.
The behavior of many eminent conductors, singers, and soloists deviates sharply from accepted standards of human decency. The temper tantrums, canceled performances, and generally outrageous comportment of the diva make the stuff of gossip columns. We’re told that this is a necessary evil, a sign of an “artistic temperament.”
In sum, the waste of talent, the shortened careers, the inadequate performances, the objectionable behavior, and the frustration, suffering, and pain are the norm of the music profession.
Why is this so?
Many explanations come to mind: too much stress, the limits of the human body, the harsh exigencies of modern life, music competitions, other people.
In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote that “the most prevalent—and, for all we know, most serious—health problem of our time is stress, which is defined by Hans Selye, dean of the stress concept, as the ‘rate of wear and tear in the human body.’ This definition would thus embrace any demands, whether emotional or physical, beyond the ready capability of any given individual.”[i]
This very definition of stress is problematic. Let’s borrow a concept from engineering. A bridge is under the stress of traffic flow, for instance, or of the action of the elements. Responding to the stress, the bridge strains—bending here, buckling there. Over time the bridge suffers wear and tear and may finally crack or collapse. What causes it to collapse? Not stress itself, but the way the bridge strains under stress. Stress alone can’t cause a bridge’s collapse; proof of it is that many bridges have withstood centuries of unremitting stress without suffering much at all.
It may be difficult to define stress unambiguously. People react so differently to the same stimulus that we can’t affirm that any one thing is, in itself, absolutely stressful. Some musicians, for instance, tremble at the thought of public exposure, while others enjoy going on stage and baring their soul in front of thousands of listeners. Performing in public, then, isn’t necessarily stressful. An orchestra packed with musicians who live in pain will have a number of players who enjoy their job. Playing in an orchestra, too, isn’t obligatorily stressful.
The stimulation of life is permanent and inevitable, and in itself it’s neither negative nor undesirable. In fact, without stimulation there is no life. Something becomes stressful to you only if you react to it in a certain way. Depending on how you think about it, then, stress—that is, stimulation—is a really good thing.
Ultimately, it’s the strain that hurts, not the stress. When Hans Selye defines stress as the rate of wear and tear in the human body, he seems to be talking about strain, not stress; a response, not a stimulus. It’s an all-important distinction, and understanding it can change your life.
You may argue that well-built bridges withstand stress by design and construction, but that the human body wasn’t designed or constructed to bear what is made to bear today. A small body isn’t made for playing the viola, a small hand isn’t made for playing the piano, the human voice isn’t made to sing above the sounds of a modern symphony orchestras.
Here, too, things aren’t so clear-cut.
The violist William Primrose wrote that, for playing the viola, “having a large hand and being of medium to large stature is an advantage, but certainly not a requirement.”[ii] The pianist Heinrich Neuhaus, whose students include Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Radu Lupu, went further. He wrote in The Art of Piano Playing:
The anatomy of the human hand is . . . ideal from the point of view of the pianist and it is a convenient, suitable and intelligent mechanism which provides a wealth of possibilities for extracting the most varied tones out of a piano. And the mechanism of the hand is, of course, in complete harmony with the mechanism of the keyboard.[iii]
Small hands with a small stretch have quite obviously to make much greater use of wrist, forearm and shoulder; in fact the whole of the “hinterland,” than large hands, particularly large hands with a large stretch. . . . Sometimes this is just why gifted people with small and difficult hands have a better understanding of the nature of the piano and of their “pianistic” body than the large-handed and broad-boned[iv]. . . . In short, they turn their drawbacks into advantages.[v]
The human body, wondrously beautiful and richly endowed, is capable of meeting all the demands of music making. To paraphrase Neuhaus, the secret lies in acquiring an understanding of the nature of music making and of your musicianly body, and in turning all potential drawbacks into advantages.
The human body may be perfectly designed for music making, you might say, but not for the exigencies of the modern world. Have you tried to sit for six hours on the crappy chairs typical of a rehearsal hall? Have you gone on long tours? If our lifestyles are unnatural, it’s inevitable that we’ll hurt and suffer.
Horrible chairs are horrible, of course. But would a better chair eliminate our health problems? In Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the Clown speaks a few lines that help us recognize the limits of furniture design: “It is like a barber’s chair, that fits all buttocks,—the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn-buttock, or any buttock” (II.ii). Such a chair will never exist; there are too many types of buttocks out there. But even the most perfectly designed chair can’t give you health if you don’t know how to use it. Badly designed furniture increases the likelihood of discomfort, and well-designed furniture decreases it; no certitudes arise from either.
Indeed, the whole world redesigned to perfection will not give you health if you don’t know what to do with the world.
The logical consequence of blaming modern life for our problems is to wish to go back in time—a sneaking desire we all feel on occasion. Indeed, people already felt this way thousands of years ago. And, already then, it wasn’t a good idea to hunker for olden times, as illustrated in the Bible: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this” (Eccles. 7:10). In other words, yearning for the past isn’t smart. If our capabilities to meet life’s demands are inadequate, then we need to increase our capabilities, rather than decrease the demands made on them.
Competitions are another scourge. You might say that competitions have poisoned the music profession, destroyed the careers of young musicians, and perverted the tastes of the public. In truth, competitiveness is an irrepressible human instinct, and every culture at every junction of history has had a competitive element. Would music be better served had the great singers of the bel canto era not been pitted against one another in competition? Should Wales outlaw its annual Eisteddfod, the competitive and yet celebratory festival of music and poetry?
Realistically, we can’t blame competitions themselves for the woes of any musician, young or old, winner or loser. It’s the attitude of the competitor that makes competing either beneficial or harmful. Rod Laver, the great Australian tennis champion, said about winning and losing:
You do the best you can. If you don’t play your own game, you’re going to lose it anyway. If you start to worry about the importance of the win before it happens, you’re going to have yourself in a complete panic. You play the shots as you see them. That, and don’t start wishing the shots to go in. When you start wishing, you are in trouble.[vi]
In a few lines Laver said many wise things. “Do the best you can.” “Play your own game.” “Play the shots as you see them.” “Don’t start wishing.” In other words, let go and be yourself. Laver’s words apply to the game of tennis, the game of music, and the game of life.
Another favorite explanation for a musician’s problems is other people. Pushy parents, you might say, cause young people to “lose it.” Record-company executives pervert the public’s tastes. Conductors and administrators run orchestras into the ground—unless it’s the fault of the musicians’ union.
Strangely enough, there exist happy and healthy musicians who had lousy parents, and emotionally wrecked musicians who grew up in a loving environment. Other people certainly play a big role in your life, but they don’t determine your life outright.
Stress, human design, civilization, and other people, then, have all been considered part of a musician’s problems. For each of these causes, appropriate therapies suggest themselves. Pushy parents cause psychological problems; the solution is psychotherapy. Small hands cause tendonitis; the solution, physiotherapy. Bad chairs cause backache; the solution, ergonomics. The stress of concert life causes performance anxiety; the solution, beta blockers. Modern life causes unhappiness; the solution, a return to Nature.
A diagnosis implies a remedy. Get the diagnosis wrong, and the remedy may threaten the patient’s life. We can safely say that the way musicians diagnose their problems has become part of the problems themselves, since stress, body design, and furniture are demonstrably misleading factors.
Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869–1955) had a crippling health issue in his youth: he tended to lose his voice when performing as an actor on stage. Doctors and coaches couldn’t help him, so he set out to learn for himself what was causing the problem. His years of self-observation and experimentation led not only to a permanent cure for his vocal ills but also to insights on the essence of all human ills.
Alexander found the cause of our troubles not in what is done to us but in what we do to ourselves. He saw that the problem was not in the stimulation of modern life but in our response to it; not in the stress, but in the straining. The straining he calledmisuse of the self—its cause not human design, civilization, or other people butend-gaining. I explain both terms and their relationship in the next chapter.
Alexander found the common thread to apparently disparate problems. Instead of saying that pushy parents cause neuroses, Alexander would say that end-gaining causes misuse . . . and neurosis is but a form of misuse. Alexander didn’t think that bad chairs caused backache. On the subject of children’s desks and their alleged harmful effect, he said that “what we need to do is not to educate our school furniture but to educate our children.”[vii] Alexander would similarly reformulate the equation between body design and tendonitis, civilization and stress, and the other explanations that we habitually give ourselves for our difficulties. In all contexts, Alexander offers a single equation: end-gaining causes misuse, and misuse causes our malfunctioning—that is, our aches and pains, and also our unhappiness and even despair.
What is the solution to end-gaining and misuse?
The answer is simple but elusive. It’s called non-doing —a powerful concept that bridges the physical, the psychological, and the metaphysical, and that offers profoundly satisfying answers to our quest as musicians and as human beings.
Non-doing, like all important existential concepts, is difficult if not impossible to define—and, needless to say, difficult to learn as well. In Indirect Procedures I offer you my understanding of Alexander’s insights, with a mixture of intellectual argument and practical suggestions for you to explore creatively. The gist of Indirect Procedures is that you carry within yourself the solutions to your problems, most of which are of your own making to begin it. My companion volume, Integrated Practice: Coordination, Rhythm & Sound, takes what might appear at first a contradictory view: music itself is a sort of map toward health and integration. If you know how to read the map and follow it, music will heal your hurts. We might reconcile these two views by saying that your habitual response to music causes problems; if you learn how to respond to music differently thanks to non-doing, you might become able to solve your problems.
Integrated Practice is supported by a dedicated website with 72 video clips and 25 audio clips illustrating its concepts and exercises. Indirect Procedures and Integrated Practice are self-contained books; you don’t need to read one to understand the other. Nevertheless, you might find it useful to study both together, or in alternation or in sequence. To help you link their materials, throughout Indirect Procedures I refer to the relevant sections of Integrated Practice, with an emphasis on the video clips that you can, if you wish, watch without having to read their explanations within the book.
Non-doing merits your attention over the long run. Study the materials on these two related books over a few years. If they don’t help you, then you’ll be fully justified in buying an expensive chair and firing the cheap conductor.
[i] Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 65.
[ii] David Dalton, Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 7.
[iii] Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated by K. A. Leibovitch (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1973), 72.
[iv] Ibid., 109.
[v] Ibid., 111.
[vi] Richard Williams, “Age of the Rocket Man,” The Independent on Sunday Review, 20 June 1993, 11.
[vii] Frederick Matthias Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (Kent, UK: Integral Press, 1957), 91.