Playing with Ease

For every musician who can perform at their best when they need to, how many fall by the wayside?

How many show great potential but are unable to realise that potential due to pain, injuries, inconsistency, or not handling the demands?

What if you had a generic model of movement that could help you to identify and rectify faults of carriage and movement?

My own beginnings with the Technique may be relevant at this point. After I left school I studied at the NSW State Conservatorium in Sydney. The trombone was my instrument and my aim was to set the world on fire! Playing in an orchestra was fun and I wanted more as well. So I practised very hard indeed. I would never practice for less than four hours a day, often more, on top of rehearsals with different groups. So I was doing a great deal of playing. I was ambitious and I tried hard, and this was my undoing.

Trying hard, of course, involved a certain physical effort and in my case a lot of that physical effort was misdirected. Because of the hours I was putting in, I was deadening myself to the feel of this effort. It was just there, all the time.

Pretty soon I was locked into a vicious circle of increasing tension which I was almost completely unaware of. I had a few problems with my playing and a few aches and pains, but I tended to ignore them and just push through regardless.

A few months later it became clear that ignoring the problem was not working, for, despite a continued programme of diligent practice, my playing was now in fact steadily deteriorating.

As far as I was concerned there was nothing really wrong with me anyway, just this little problem with my lips, a sort of “overuse of the mouth”, which was stopping me playing.

With hindsight I can see that I’d tied myself into knots with tension, and that was moreorless why my mouth wasn’t doing what it was told, and why I was having breathing difficulties.

So here I was, 23 years old, supposedly a hot shot player, who had been through the Conservatorium, played in the ABC Training Orchestra, the Opera orchestra, been a state finalist in the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition and I couldn’t play a note! I’d ground to a complete halt. You can probably imagine how I was feeling. At this point, I learned that I’d won a scholarship to do a postgraduate performance degree in Germany. I was desperate.

With mounting panic I spent months going from one specialist to another and finally had myself referred to a doctor in Harley Street, London. This man told me, “If I were you, I’d look at a different career”. This was not an answer that appealed to me in the slightest. All I was interested in was playing music.

As chance would have it, just before I left for London someone lent me a book on the Alexander Technique by Dr Wilfrid Barlow, which many of you may have read. He was both a rheumatologist and Alexander Technique teacher, and I went to see him. He said, “Well, I don’t know if we can cure your lips, but you could certainly improve the environment within which they have to function”.

It seemed logical, so I started having lessons and was quickly astounded at what my teacher was able to show me about what I had physically been doing to myself in the pursuit of perfection in playing music.

All those years of dedication to my career had resulted in a particular maldistribution of tension. It involved elements that had built up unconsciously over years, which I had taken for granted, and which I was battling without understanding why, as well as other elements that I wasn’t even aware of.

I had intensive bursts of lessons and over the next year learnt to leave out of my playing many of the tensions that had complicated it to the point of breakdown.

In the process, I discovered a great deal that I didn’t know before about playing the trombone. The biggest surprise was what I learnt, in a very practical way, about breathing. After playing for 10 or 12 years at this stage, I thought I knew a bit about the subject, but discovered that my knowledge was largely theoretical – I wasn’t putting it into practice. This is where a qualified Alexander Technique teacher comes into his own – he can give you the actual experience of moving/balancing/breathing more freely – he knows whether you are tensing or if you are doing it economically.

I learnt that the relationship of the head to the rest of me conditioned neuromuscular activity throughout my body. This is a principle which holds true for any vertebrate. This head-neck-back relationship influences the amount of effort required for any particular task, how that effort is distributed, and ultimately how that effort is perceived. We can be putting a great deal of effort into an activity without being aware of either the effort or the imbalance in the rest of the body that the effort encourages.

A disorganised playing position might not seem to matter too much in the earliest stages of learning an instrument. However, habits thus formed, slipping very quickly below the level of one’s conscious awareness, are hard to change. If they are bad ones, they may provide an insurmountable hurdle at a later stage of technical development.

As I continued having Alexander lessons, I realized that I was being taught to “play the instrument which plays the trombone”, that is, myself. My Alexander teacher was showing me how it was that in my efforts to play the trombone, I had actually been getting in my own way.

My way of playing had involved tightening up, and since I practised a great deal, I had eventually become very good at being tense, particularly when playing! This grossly inefficient way of playing had placed so much strain on my embouchure that it eventually broke down.

Unravelling all this misdirected energy took a change in attitude and a bit of time. The embouchure problem gradually sorted itself out and after a year I could earn my living from playing again.

In trying hard to become the best player we can be, we lose sight of our basic equipment, ourself, our own body. We lose touch with the sensitivity and delicacy of which we are capable. Our effort is at odds with the easy, strain-free attitude which we are striving for.

The result can be a complicated tangle of tensions, and poor posture. It can affect breathing, the way we hold our instrument, and indirectly even our attitude to playing, performance anxiety and our enjoyment in playing. We may encounter unexpected technical blocks which limit our musical expression. The player may be aware of sore spots or of some of the tensions, but unravelling and backtracking out of a pattern which has been practised, is a complex task. Simply “relaxing” is no longer possible.

Our musculature is a bit like a very complex system of pulleys, each balancing its opposing number. If anything is too tight, or too loose, sooner or later everything else in the system is affected in the effort to keep the system working. F. M. Alexander’s great contribution to education was the discovery of a means by which a person can become aware of this interference and regain normal use of themselves. The principle is general in its application and not confined to the problems of musicians. Many people who have Alexander Technique lessons come because of back or neck pain or some other musculo-skeletal problem. They come wanting a longer-term approach to self-management. Musicians are usually quick to grasp the significance of the Alexander Technique and to put it to practical use.

The process of having Alexander Technique lessons is similar to that of having instrumental lessons. Like learning an instrument, it ideally needs steady application over time.

The job of a teacher of the Alexander Technique is to bring to your attention things you are doing that you are unaware of. This can help you extend your choice in the way that you move, act and react, helping you out of the monkey-trap of habit.

I found that applying the Alexander Technique to my playing changed it dramatically for the better. In removing the various interferences to my own functioning, and restoring a balance between effort and relaxation, I ironed out a lot of the inconsistency and unreliability in my playing.

It would be interesting to know how many players either didn’t “make it” at all or are playing well below their potential, simply because of unrecognised harmful habits of movement or holding in their playing.

In working with musicians, my aim is to help the player (or singer) develop a sensitivity to the quality of their movement and how it is affecting their performance. Instead of fighting the instrument and yourself, discovering that there is a “softer” approach, which is easier and gets results, comes as a surprise to many players. As a complement to instrumental study, musicians find a knowledge of the Alexander Technique invaluable. For students and established players alike, it gives them a way of avoiding tension and pain, while potentially liberating their playing. The rewards are poise, ease of performance, lessened fatigue and the confidence that comes with self-knowledge.

© Michael Stenning Canberra 2004

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