Friday, July 03, 2009
F. M. Alexander’s work is most widely known among performing artists, and is currently included in the curriculum of many Performing Arts programs, including Juilliard, New York University, Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, The Mannes College of Music and the Royal College of Music in London.
To work with a musician, I begin where I would with any other student: exploring habits. The Alexander Technique is a unique tool to learn to bring greater and greater efficiency and ease to the task of living by knowing how to identify overuse of muscles, mental and physical energy, and lessen that overuse.
With any new student, I am going to begin with the simple activity of moving in and out of a chair (chairwork). This is a rich "laboratory" in which to bring habits of thought and movement to light for a student and teach them how to interrupt those habits, allowing for new and more effective patterns to become available.
The process of learning the Alexander Technique asks the student to suspend their interest in being right. F. M. Alexander learned through his exploration that in trying to reason out a solution to his vocal problem (chronic hoarseness) he was using his sensation to tell him whether he was right or not. He was relying on his sensation to tell him he had the correct amount of muscle energy; the proper alignment; and the appropriate volume of voice to gain his end: reciting text. However, how he used his voice habitually had always felt right to him all along, and using his voice that way was how he had created his vocal problems to begin with. F. M. soon realized he would have to "ignore" sensation to find a solution to his self-created mis-use. That meant things would very probably feel wrong. So, I repeat: The process of learning the Alexander Technique asks the student to suspend their interest in being right.
For a musician, who’s greatest desire to be right is associated with the technique involved in playing his or her instrument or producing sound with their voice, the task of giving up trying to get it right will be most challenging in the activity of playing or singing. However, the skills he or she will use when addressing those activities will be the exact same skill and process they learned in chair work. Through the seeming indirect route of addressing the more over-arching use of themselves (moving around all day in activity) they will make changes in their use during playing and singing.
WORKING WITH INSTRUMENTALISTS:
I will have a musician bring their instrument to lessons and explore after they have achieved a level of skill in chairwork. We choose the timing of this carefully. For players who are not dealing with an urgent problem in their playing, I do not recommend working with their instrument when they are in the midst of a heavy performance commitment. If someone has sought Alexander work to help in a case of overuse syndrome, I will have him or her bring the instrument to lessons sooner.
In the lesson, I will ask students what problem areas they have identified in their playing and have them show me. I also watch their warm-up and have them play some repertoire, so I can analyze what habits are most obvious. Often, those habits correlate directly to habits they have in chairwork. We work simply with the basic principles they are already familiar with and help them identify one or two habits to monitor over a period of time.
I was working with a pianist on a particularly difficult passage. As he approached the run, two bars before I could hear him begin to tighten and lose notes. The two bars following the passage I could hear him recovering. I asked him first to imagine playing the run and hearing it without mistakes in his mind. Then, I asked him to play, making the decision to focus on playing the two bars before and after, not throwing them away. I suggested that since he was likely to fumble on the run, that he could at least salvage the before and after. Also, he could delay or even interrupt the anxiety and the technical trouble he had with the passage by not panicking before it even began. Sure enough, he not only played before and after cleanly, the run was much cleaner and his muscle memory was able to get him through. It’s similar to the idea of the batter choking on the pitch. When the pianist was able to inhibit his anticipation about failing, he was far more coordinated.
WORKING WITH SINGERS:
When working with singers, I will introduce breath work and awareness of breath management habits fairly early on in lessons. However, before looking at singing technique, we work with talking in conversation to reveal those habits, since all of us talk all day long and the sooner we can begin to change habits we have in conversation, the easier it is to make changes in singing.
One common use pattern I see among singers is over-contracting musculature too early in the course of a phrase, thus cutting down on ability to get more breath in and out. The range of motion in the muscles is greatly reduced, and an isometric type of immobility can set in. I work very physically with singers, having them increase cardiovascular output to make greater demands on the system while they sing. This helps them release postural setting and allow a greater range of motion through the ribcage and abdominal system, which amounts to less interference of the reflexive respiratory mechanism.
I had a singer in my studio who would run out of air and experience his throat tighten at the end of a phrase with a crescendo and a rather high note. I observed that as he approached that moment, he would tighten more and more in his abdominal muscles and his throat. I asked him to do a karate-like hitch kick for the high note and he was able to support it with more strength and less tension. My reasoning was this: what felt like strength and power to him was actually an isometric, static gripping in his muscles. When a muscle is not continuing to move through range of motion, it is not doing any work. By having him add movement to singing, his muscles were dynamically supporting his singing. I had him sing the phrase again, keeping in mind the concept of not gripping and he found he had more support for the sound.
HOW MUSICIANS CAN WORK ON THEIR OWN:
I highly recommend that after learning skills through classes or lessons, the musician choose very specifically during their practice time when and how they will explore applying their Alexander skills to playing, and allow certain technical issues to "fall apart". For example, they may let go of having to keep to a particular tempo, and allow themselves to practice inhibiting habits, working with new fingering or breath management ideas, or creating a place for exploring where there is no pressure to produce the right sound.
As the student gains greater and greater skill at releasing habit patterns, they use the Alexander Technique on their own to improve technique, manage stress and productively work through challenging material.
N. Brooke Lieb Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique Member, American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) Faculty Member, American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT) (212) 866-0679 / email@example.com
©2000, N. Brooke Lieb