The Alexander Technique: A Practical Lesson
The Alexander Technique is an eminently practical method of solving problems. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) sustained that most complications that people face - physical or mental, health- or work-related - are manifestations of a single constant: the influence of use upon functioning. By "use" Alexander meant the way one reacts, with the whole of one's being, to any given situation. When, for instance, I pick up my bow to play a note at the cello, I use my entire self - from head to toes - in an individual way determined by a wealth of factors. These include habit, my perceptions of myself and of the world around me, my intentions as a cellist and musician - in other words, the sum total of my experiences and yearnings. My attitude and my coordination are one, and as such synonymous with my use.
At the cello, I may collect myself, direct my energies, and play a note without preconceived ideas about the possible outcome, thereby allowing something creative and fresh to happen and to come across through my gesture. Or I may become intent on fabricating a sound, producing an effect, or inducing an emotion in myself or in my listener. If I do so, I interfere with something that will finally happen not through me, but because of myself or, worse still, despite myself. In my struggle to succeed I start playing in a laborious and awkward manner, and before long I risk developing rigid habits of thought and behavior to compensate for my lack of lucidity. Alexander called this pattern "end-gaining," and considered it the ultimate cause of all difficulties.
Alexander demonstrated that a certain orientation of the head, neck, and upper back allows the body to coordinate itself ideally. We see this in animals, both domesticated and wild. A cheetah spots a prey in the distance. Suddenly it points its head forward and up, and its body becomes taut, dynamic, ready to run and pounce. Alexander called this coordinative trigger, which is operative in all vertebrates, the "primary control." When I end-gain I disturb the workings of my primary control first and foremost, and my entire coordination suffers as a result. My misuse puts things wrong within myself and in my relationship with the external world, including my instrument and my public. I need therefore to give up my end-gaining impulses, a process that Alexander called "inhibition."
To stop end-gaining and obtain the many benefits of a well-directed primary control would appear simple from the outside. Yet two major obstacles stand on our way to freedom. Perhaps you have had the experience of looking at a photo of yourself and exclaiming, "Impossible! I do not hold myself in that way!" The unsettling truth is that there is a nearly constant gap between what you do and what you feel that you do, as demonstrated by the irrefutable evidence of the photograph measured against subjective feeling. Alexander called this gap "faulty sensory awareness," and explained it as a function of habit - we tend to ignore that which we do all the time, better to pay attention to what is new and different - and one of the results of misuse. The body contains sensors, called "proprioceptors," that give us feedback on matters of position, movement, balance, effort, fatigue, and so on. The neck is particularly rich in proprioceptors. If you misuse your head and neck habitually (and the photos of you at your cousin's wedding do not lie), you are most likely to receive distorted feedback from those vital sensors.
Tricky though it may be, faulty sensory awareness is not the greatest obstacle in the road to freedom. The key to mastery, according to Alexander, lies not in what we do, but in what we stop doing and in what we prevent ourselves from doing. And in our ever-present urge to do and to be seen to be doing, we find it impossibly hard not to do. "Non-doing", the essence of the Alexander Technique, is the hardest thing to do in this world. I am fully aware of the contradiction inherent in this last sentence; it is this very contradiction, of course, that causes us to go wrong again and again.
To see how the Technique applies in practice, I propose that we study the contrast between these two cellists, a woman depicted by the Hungarian painter Robert Berény and the Italian concert artist Antonio Janigro (1918-1989). Let us suppose that the woman is an amateur, and that her name is Roberta. (Keep in mind that the observations that follow apply, with only slight adjustments, to all musicians and not to cellists only.)
According to the principles of the Alexander Technique, the best way to analyze the coordination of these two cellists is from their head downwards. Janigro wears his head high, allowing his spine to stay fully stretched upwards. The slight rightwards tilt of his head does not interfere with either the poise of the head or the length of the spine, proving that the mark of a well-coordinated person is not the position of the head but its direction. Roberta pulls her head forwards and downwards, with a corresponding loss of spine length. Janigro's neck and spine are integrated into a unit, and his head (this we imagine easily) is mobile and unconfined - that is, to some extent separated from the neck. Roberta reverses the points of integration and separation: her head pulls her neck away from her spine, so that the neck and spine are wrongly separated and the head and neck wrongly integrated.
Janigro's shoulders create a unit with his back, and are directed outwards away from each other, without even a hint of their being pulled upwards. Roberta's shoulders are raised and contracted, separated from the back but over-integrated with the arms. Janigro's arms are natural extensions of his back and shoulders; Roberta's are raised upwards and tightly held. Janigro's wrists, hands, and fingers form a fluid, smooth line that continues the connection from the back and shoulders through the arms. Roberta's wrists are contracted and twisted, breaking the line of the arm. In both of Janigro's arms the elbows point outwards (away from each other) and the wrists point inwards (towards each other), which establishes an opposition between the elbows and wrists that is missing in Roberta. Janigro's supple fingers are lengthening, and active only to the extent needed to do their work. Roberta's fingers are crooked, over-tense, and asymmetrical, gripping the bow and fingerboard with excessive force.
A good bodily position is partly defined by your ability to change it with great ease and speed. In other words, all that is static must contain all that is dynamic and, to some extent, vice-versa: in movement, you should be able to reach repose easily. Janigro places his legs and feet in such a way that he could stand up at once if he so wished, a physical impossibility for Roberta. She manages the contradictory feat of splaying her legs while at the same time holding the cello tightly with her knees, thereby choking the instrument and reducing its resonance. Janigro's cello rests lightly on his legs; the cello does not impede the freedom of the legs, and the legs do not impede the freedom of the cello. Janigro's feet are primed like a dancer's, in firm yet light contact with the floor. Roberta's ankles are twisted in a mirror image of her wrists, and her heels and toes are positioned so that the feet seem to be hindering the body rather than helping it.
Images sometimes tell misleading stories. And yet, even if Roberta were but a painter's model holding the instrument for the first time in her life, her coordination would illustrate, to a degree less exaggerated than you might think, the habits of posture and movement of many cellists I have heard over the years, including beginners, children, amateur adults, and some experienced professionals. Therefore, I shall use Roberta as an imaginary but plausible cello student, and I will now give her an Alexander lesson.
There is a marvelous circus act in the Chinese tradition. The performer (picture a young woman juggler in your mind's eyes) spins a plate on top of a long stick until the plate achieves dynamic equilibrium. She then inserts the stick, together with the spinning plate, in a hole on a wooden horse. She goes on to spin a second plate on top of a second stick until the new plate is dynamically stable, at which point she inserts the stick holding the spinning plate in a second hole on the wooden horse. She continues this way with a third, fourth, and fifth plate, by which time the first plate is beginning to wobble precariously. She runs back to the first plate and spins it afresh. Then she spins a sixth plate, a seventh one - by now the second and third plates are starting to wobble, so she runs back and revives the momentum of their spinning. The act goes on, ever more excitingly and dangerously, until she has balanced fifteen plates on top of fifteen sticks, inserted in three wooden horses. It takes dexterity, alertness, sangfroid, and much more besides to accomplish this seemingly impossible exploit.
Playing the cello presents innumerable challenges. Let us make a partial list.
- the placing of a large instrument against the body of the player;
- all the elements of left-hand technique characteristic of stringed instruments, such as the articulation of notes by the fingers, changes of position of the hand along the fingerboard, finger extensions, left-hand pizzicato, intonation, vibrato, and so on;
- the activities of the right arm, including the drawing of the bow along a precise path, changes of string, different bow strokes, and so on;
- the synchronization of left-arm and right-arm activities;
- and the requirements of the musical text: notes, phrases, nuances, and so on. These too could be made into a very long list.
In many ways, then, the cellist is like the Chinese circus artist of my example. She needs to attend to a large number of variables (or plates) at the same time, in alternation, in combination, and in varying sequences. Like the juggler, the cellist needs dexterity, alertness, and sangfroid. And, also like the juggler, she needs to slow down her psychological time - that is, to become so comfortable handling each variable by itself that putting all variables together has the feel of moving in slow motion. Indeed, the circus artist rushes from plate to plate only for the benefit of the paying public; she herself feels as if she has all the time in the world to spin all the plates in the world.
I ask Roberta to put the cello aside - there are plenty of plates for her to spin before she adds the cello to her act. I ask her to sit. In this position as in many others, we look for a combination of latent mobility and latent resistance. Latent resistance would allow Roberta to oppose me if, for instance, I stood behind her, placed my hands on her shoulders, and tried to push her down, or if I pressed my fist on her spine between her shoulder blades and tried to push her forwards. This is not to say that I expect the page turner, say, to leap suddenly behind Roberta and attack her during a concert. Resistance, latent or realized, is simply one of the requirements of good coordination. It serves to create connections between all the parts of the body, which becomes strong and stable as a result.
Latent mobility would allow Roberta to stand and sit again with the least possible effort, to rock on her buttocks from side to side, to lean her trunk forwards and backwards from the hip joints, and to combine some of these movements and turn her upright trunk in circles, half-circles, or ellipses clock- and counterclockwise. To do so she would need to sit fairly far forwards on the chair, resting the weight of her upper body more on her sitting bones than on her thighs. Many cellists (and other orchestral musicians) practice and perform leaning with their backs against the back of the chair. It is a near-certain way of making the body inert, thereby increasing the amount of work that the upper limbs have to do. It seems paradoxical at first, but to release wrong tensions in the neck, shoulders, and arms you need to increase the right tensions in your back and legs - right in quantity, quality, placing, and timing. Therefore, it is best to avoid situations and positions in which the back is made to relax wrongly, such as leaning against the back of a chair.
Mobility and resistance are not mutually exclusive: Roberta can move her body sideways even as I apply downwards pressure on her shoulders. Mobility may be latent or realized. Roberta does not need to sway her body from side to side with every bow stroke. Indeed, most of the time it may well be preferable for her not to budge. But she ought to be able to move if she wishes, without losing her directions or her capacity to resist. Resistance, too, may be latent or realized without loss of direction or mobility.
The freedom of the head to move sideways, forwards, backwards, downwards, upwards, and in infinite combinations of the preceding is an integral part of the body's latent mobility. When he played the cello, Janigro would certainly be able to look at the public, at the conductor, at his left fingers, at the bow and the bowing arm, and elsewhere. Yet the movements of his head would not cause his spine to shorten. For Roberta to be able to do likewise, she must first and foremost orient her head upwards in such a way that the very direction of the head lengthens her spine. Let us describe this relationship between the head and the spine by saying that "the head leads, the body follows." The head leads the body upwards, pointing it into an optimal stretch, independently of any position or movement; and the head leads the body during movement, in and out of various positions. The head plays therefore a double role: in orienting the body upwards and in moving it along any trajectory. You can observe this phenomenon easily in animals, in healthy young children, and in exceptional adults such as Fred Astaire and Artur Rubinstein.
The first plate that Roberta spins, then, is the direction of the head, neck, and upper back, which we may call "primary directions". The second plate is her latent mobility and latent resistance, either or both of which may be made active at any moment. We now place the cello in its playing position. Most cellists tend to lose their directions once they take hold of the cello - that is, they break a couple of all-important plates. Cello technique, however, in no way requires that a cellist lose her primary directions. If anything, the presence of the cello against the body should stimulate the well-coordinated musician into greater clarity of direction. One can learn how to use an outside force acting upon the body to trigger all sorts of opposing forces within the body, giving it more vitality that it might have in the absence of such a stimulus. Just as a horse thrives under the weight of the rider on its back, the cellist ought to thrive with the weight of the cello against her sternum and left knee. Likewise the violist who places the viola against her shoulder and neck, the sax player who straps his instrument around his back and shoulder, and so on. Opposition is both powerful and pleasurable. To be in opposition to your partner when you ice-skate or dance the tango, for instance, would make you feel more stable and lively than if you danced or skated alone. (Stability and dynamism, first cousins of resistance and mobility, are complimentary, not contradictory.) Riding a car going up a mountain, you set up an opposition between gravity and the thrust of the motor. If you are alert to it, your own body responds to this opposition by lengthening and widening.
By the time Roberta has become comfortable with the cello against her body, she will have added another spinning plate to her act, which already includes her primary directions and the latent mobility and resistance of her whole body. I now spend some time getting her to rock sideways with the cello in playing position. The rocking serves several purposes. Ultimately, the source of a cellist's power comes not from her arms, but her back and legs. In ideal coordination, the back and pelvis belong together, in a unit that remains undisturbed in all circumstances. To be truly useful, the rocking requires that the unity of back and pelvis be maintained, even enhanced in movement. To rock, then, is a challenge that can improve Roberta's playing depending on how she goes about it. As long as she directs her head, neck, and back, her rocking heightens the participation of the back and legs in the act of playing the cello, thereby supporting the work of the shoulders and arms. If Roberta rocks badly, however, she will break yet another plate.
In ideally coordinated people, the arms support the back as much as the back supports the arms; good dancers and athletes demonstrate the point whenever they perform. Roberta's rocking therefore is made easier and more beneficial if she uses her arms to enhance the use of her back. This she can do by readying her left ring finger to play a D an octave above the open D string. (It happens to be the position in which Janigro has his hand in the photo, though this is a simple coincidence; Janigro's left hand was well coordinated in all positions.) Roberta must now start directing her left elbow, wrist, hand, and fingers. In all likelihood she will momentarily neglect her primary directions and break a few plates. But little by little she becomes able to attend to each variable in turn and concomitantly.
I ask her to take her bow and play the note her left hand has prepared to sound. As she plays, she rocks from side to side, but not randomly: she rocks her trunk to her left when playing a down-bow, and to her right - on the up-bow. Her bowing arm, in other words, moves in opposition to the body, thereby heightening the connections between the back and the arm.
When playing the cello, both of Janigro's arms are pronated, rather than supinated. The terms "pronation" and "supination" are useful for all musicians. Stand with your arms hanging along the side of the body. To pronate your arms, turn them until the palms of your hands are facing back. To supinate the arms, turn them until your palms face forwards. If you lie on your back, you are supine; if you lie on your stomach, you are prone. If you lie on your back with your legs bent and the feet flat on the floor, you are semi-supine - an excellent position in which to rest for a few moments after a long day's work. Adroit people can use their arms equally well in pronation or in supination. In my teaching experience, however, I find that it is easier for a beginner to sense the connections between the back and the arms (and through the upper arms to the forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers) when she pronates her arms. And most of the situations musicians face require them to pronate both arms: at the cello, the piano, the clarinet and oboe, and elsewhere. If Janigro supinated his left arm ever so slightly, he would soon imitate the tensions and distortions that we see in Roberta's left arm and hands. For all these reasons, I now ask Roberta to pronate her arms. The pronation of the arms and the opposition between the elbows (which tend outwards, away from each other) and the wrists (which tend inwards, towards each other) become another plate for her to spin permanently.
The use of one arm will tend to affect the use (and functioning) of the other arm. You can test it by tapping your head with your left hand and rubbing your stomach with the right one. To this mutual influence between right and left arms we give the name "bilateral transfer". If, for instance, Roberta lifts her left elbow too high or drops it too low, thereby lessening the connections between her back and her arm, she will tend to misdirect her right arm as well, in sympathy with the left. Depending on the way she uses herself, however, bilateral transfer may work to her benefit. If she finds a clear connection between the right arm and the back, for instance, and a steady contact between her bow and the cello strings, the left hand will also improve automatically and become stable on the fingerboard. Because of bilateral transfer, musicians sometimes misdiagnose their technical problems, becoming convinced that the left hand, say, is to be blamed for some technical accident when in reality it is the misuse of the right hand that causes the left hand to go awry.
The use of the legs also affect the use of the arms, and vice-versa. We may therefore speak of "quadrilateral transfer" - the interplay of tensions between all limbs. Quadrilateral transfer is one of the reasons why all musicians must pay good attention to how they use their legs. It is nearly impossible to have well-coordinated arms and hands if the legs and feet are misdirected, the way Roberta's were before she started her Alexander lessons. As Roberta plays the cello, then, she must pay equal attention to all her limbs, however simple the exercise she is performing; quadrilateral transfer becomes one of the plates she needs to spin constantly to remain poised at the cello.
Roberta may now be ready to perform a scale. I ask her to play a G Major scale in two octaves, four notes to a bow. Needless to say, she must continue to direct her head, neck, back, legs, feet, shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers; cultivate her latent mobility and latent resistance; rock from side to side, drawing her bow in opposition to the back; and put quadrilateral transfer to a constructive purpose. The scale presents endless problems for Roberta. She spends her bow too quickly and finds herself stranded for space at the end of each bow stroke. She forgets to anticipate the changes of string, which are therefore uneven and needlessly accented. Her bow skids on its point of contact on the string, making her sound by turns scratchy and unfocused. All the while, she needs to take care of intonation, vibrato, and changes of left-hand position. There are broken plates all around her.
But Roberta's biggest trouble is that she makes her scale sound like a physical exercise empty of all musical content. She forgets that she is first and foremost an artist, and behaves at best as a craftswoman, at worst as a robot. It does not matter how many plates you spin and how cleverly you spin them - if you separate your technique from its musical substance, you break the biggest and most precious of all plates, and your prowess will fail to move your audience.
The most fundamental musical element is rhythm, and to help Roberta play more musically I ask her to sense a specific aspect of rhythm. A unit of two notes of which the first is a stress and the second a release is called a "trochaic foot," a term we borrow from poetics. The word "NE-ver" is an illustration of such a foot in the English language. If two notes are organized not as a stress followed by a release, but as a preparation followed by a stress, they constitute an "iambic foot." The English language abounds in iambic feet: "To BE or NOT to BE." ("Iambic" and "trochaic" are adjectival forms; their respective nouns are "iamb" and "trochee.") I ask Roberta to organize her scale, which she plays four notes to the bow, into iambic units - that is, a sequence of preparation/stress, preparation/stress. It is as if Roberta ought to count her notes not this way:
ONE-two… THREE-four… ONE-two… THREE-four…
ONE… two-THREE… four-ONE… two-THREE… four-ONE…
Before she starts thinking in this way, her playing is either wholly unrhythmic, or - perhaps by accident and habit - tediously trochaic, which is the way many average musicians feel, hear, and perform music. If she pays conscious attention to the rhythmic construction of her scale, she can quickly make it sound musical, uniform, and alive, particularly if she infuses it with the propulsive energies of the iambic foot. I like calling this rhythmic construction "prosody" - a term that, like "iambic" and "trochaic," I have borrowed from poetics. It is easy for musicians to take for granted the prosodic aspects of rhythm, but this inattention is often costly; in some cases, unprosodic playing becomes so problematic as to affect a musician's health. I am currently writing a book about it, tentatively titled The Integrated Musician.
At first, Roberta's very efforts to play prosodically will make her play worse, not better. She tries to "feel" the iambic feet by choreographing them with her head and neck. With every "iambic nod," so to speak, she loses her primary directions and breaks a plate. Moving the head would not be a problem as long as Roberta kept it well directed, but right now she is sacrificing her directions for the sake of prosody. The trade-off is not profitable, though, as the loss of the primary directions makes the entire coordinative edifice crumble, and prosody with it. To externalize musical prosody with gestures of the head, neck, back, legs, feet, and so on is often an effort to compensate for the lack of inner clarity - a manifestation of what Alexander called "end-gaining." Roberta's playing will be most prosodic when she manages to attend to her own directions at the same time that she nourishes the rhythmic directions of the music she plays.
Once she becomes able to perform the iambic prosody without losing her directions, I may well ask her to perform the scale as a series of trochaic units - after all, music contains occasional trochaic sequences, the prosody of which the musician must perform as skillfully as any iambic sequence. My point is not that Roberta must always play iambically; rather, that she must play prosodically, and most passages in music have an iambic character. Further, the iambic sequence, when well executed, organizes the physical gestures in such an organic manner that playing the cello becomes easier. For instance, I mentioned earlier that Roberta tends to overspend her bow at the beginning of each bow stroke, thus creating a heavy downbeat that nearly overwhelms the offbeat that follows it. If she strives to play iambically (which requires a lively preparation followed by a downbeat), her prosodic intentions will necessarily entail a more economical departure for each bow stroke, so that she can better connect that lively note of preparation with the first note of the following group (two-THREE… four-ONE!).
Roberta is now integrating her neck to the spine and separating her head from her neck; integrating her shoulders to her back and separating her arms from her shoulders; integrating her pelvis to her back and separating her legs from her pelvis. She directs the head, neck, back, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, legs, and feet. Her head leads, her body follows. She rocks sideways or not, as she wishes, and is ready to resist any force that acts upon her body - for instance, my leaning down on her shoulders. She draws her bow in opposition to her body. She pronates both arms in such a way that her elbows tend outwards, away from each other, and her wrists inwards, towards each other. Her playing is prosodic and iambically organized. Life is good.
But my duty as a teacher is to bring Roberta to an ever higher level of skill, so I now require her to spin yet more plates. Good primary directions would be nearly useless if they were not present in every situation, including challenging ones. Having asked Roberta to face a number of tasks that she saw as mostly physical (although in truth they engaged her whole being, not just her body), I now challenge her with tasks of intellect, creativity, and musicianship. These too will engage her whole being and may at first cause her to lose her primary directions and break plates. In her daily practice as a musician, however, she must learn and memorize pieces, rehearse with chamber music partners, perform in front of an audience, and so on, and my new demands prepare her for all these activities.
As she plays her scale, I ask her to modulate: first to g minor, then to Bb Major, then to c minor. I ask her to play a scale in whole tones, found for instance in the music of Debussy; or in the pentatonic scale typical of many folk traditions; or in a mode like the Phrygian, which Miles Davis employed so exquisitely in "Flamenco Sketches." I ask her to improvise a lullaby in the style of Brahms. The very word "improvisation" sends Roberta into a frenzy of misdirecting; she, like so many classical musicians, is scared witless by what she perceives as the threat of improvising. Improvisation therefore will deserve a whole series of lessons to itself. I ask her to give me the earth below and the heavens above. And she gives me all of it, spinning more plates than she ever thought possible and breaking many more still.
At the end of our work session, does Roberta sound like Antonio Janigro? Of course not. That was never my intention. Now at her best, she sounds uniquely like herself.
Bilateral transfer the influence that a side of the body exerts on the opposite side - for instance, the effect that using the left hand may have on the right one. This influence can be harmful or beneficial.
Direction a form of thought; a command, conscious or not, from the brain to the muscles that causes a flow of energy. Direction exists independently of movement. Healthy movement is suffused with direction.
End-gaining a form of thougthlessness; the desire to obtain results at the cost of a healthy process.
Faulty sensory awareness the gap between what you do and what you think or feel that you are doing.
Iamb two syllables, notes, or other elements (two measures, for instance) organized so that the first is a preparation or upbeat, the second a stress or downbeat.
Inhibition the ability to know when to react, when not to react, how to react, how not to react.
Primary control the orientation of the head, neck, and upper back that regulates the coordination of the entire body in all vertebrates.
Pronation a rotation of the hand and forearm so that the palm faces backwards or downwards; the word may be applied to a position of the body as well.
Proprioception the body's processing of information that originates inside itself (in contrast with the other senses, like hearing or sight, which process information coming from outside the body).
Prosody the study of versification, in particular of the rhythms of a poem and how other elements (syntax, diction, alliteration, rhyme, and so on) relate to rhythm in giving the poem its meaning.
Quadrilateral transfer the influence of any one limb on the activity of any other limb - for instance, the effect of the left leg on the right arm.
Supination a rotation of the hand and forearm so that the palm faces forwards or upwards; the word my be applied to a position of the body as well.
Trochee two syllables, notes, or other elements (two measures, for instance) organized so that the first is a stress or downbeat, the second a release or offbeat.