What Is Use Anyway? A Musician’s Take On The Alexander Technique For Musicians and Non-Musicians Alike
Thinking about ourselves as the primary instrument of our performance. By Dr Alison Loram.
I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique for almost 30 years now. I originally trained as a professional violinist, and given that I was drawn to the Alexander Technique by a persistent shoulder problem related to my playing, it was probably inevitable that I would end up spending much of my time teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians. I work mostly with students at music colleges, but also with fully-fledged professionals.
Explaining the concept of “use” to anyone is difficult. However, when beginning to relate the different aspects of the Alexander Technique to musicians and in particular, the concept of use, I often find it helpful to talk about “ourselves as the primary instrument of our performance”. This idea usually sits very well with singers – for obvious reasons – their voice is part of them. But for instrumentalists, it’s often a new concept.
Traditionally, studying music involves focussing on the instrument we play. We generally aim to have the best instrument we can afford and make sure that it works properly i.e., that it is well set-up. We learn the very specific techniques needed to play that instrument, as well as the theoretical skills and historical background which enable us to understand the music that we are going to play.
Like anyone wishing to become proficient in a particular skill, as musicians, whether we’re students, professionals or amateurs, we spend hours acquiring and honing these skills, in instrumental or singing lessons, music theory and history classes, rehearsals and, in individual private practise and study.
What studying music doesn’t generally involve, is learning about how we work as an instrument and how we should be set-up. We might have been told at some point that how we sit and stand is important, and that we need to have “good posture” in order to play or sing well, and prevent injury. But by and large, we’re not taught about the mechanical principles of how we put ourselves into activity. Neither are we taught that our mental and physical mechanisms – our mind and our body – work together as a unit rather than as separate entities. Instead, it’s generally assumed – not just by us, but often by our instrumental and singing teachers also – that our own mental and physical mechanisms automatically work at their best, and that if they didn’t, we would know about it, in just the same way that we know when the musical instrument that we are playing isn’t working well.
Learning the Alexander Technique helps us to question those assumptions and see that perhaps our own human instrument doesn’t work as well as it might, and that we don’t generally know about it. What’s more, we begin to see that how well we function affects our practise and performance before we even think about playing our instrument or singing. I’m not talking here about whether we’re feeling unwell or tired, though obviously those things are important. I’m not even referring to our posture – in other words, the particular position we adopt when we play or sing. I’m referring to something more fundamental – which is our balance and coordination – that is, how we remain upright against the force of gravity and, how all the different parts of us, including our brain, work together.
It’s obvious that our brain is involved in controlling our movement. Movement occurs because our muscles receive signals that are generated in our brain and transmitted by via our spinal cord, telling them to contract. But of course, our brain is inherently complicated and researchers are still learning new things about it. For us though, it’s important to know that our thoughts and attitudes, and how we react in different situations, can influence not only which of our muscles contract but the extent of that contraction. Negative thoughts and attitudes, and unhelpful reactions tend to be associated with increased muscular effort (which as musicians we sometimes register or think of as “tension”) which interferes with our balance and coordination. By contracting our muscles more than is required for any particular activity, we distort our very flexible framework, taking ourselves away from our ideal state of balance. Consequently, we have to use even more muscular effort to keep ourselves upright, which in turn takes us even further out of balance. This excess muscular effort has an impact on everything we do – not just how we play a musical instrument or sing, but how we function in our everyday lives. Contracting our muscles more than we need to on constant basis affects not only how we go about the everyday activities which we take for granted, but also our thinking. Any negative thoughts associated with the excess muscular tension we are creating, are reinforced and amplified, which results in us using even more unnecessary muscular activity.
So, we can become caught in vicious cycle of deterioration. The Alexander Technique enables us to break this cycle by helping us to see that we don’t always go about things in the best way. Through the Technique we can begin to recognise that the excess muscular activity underlying this less than proficient way of going about our daily activities follows a very specific pattern which is common to all of us. By learning to identify and reduce this pattern of excess muscular activity, we can bring about improvements in the way we go about our everyday activities including, specific skills such as playing a musical instrument or singing. Whoever we are, and whatever we are doing, we are constantly performing highly complex activities, and we are the primary instrument in all of them.
The Alexander Technique helps us to improve how our own human instrument works and in doing so, maximise our full potential in all aspects of our lives.
Dr Alison Loram, Violinist and Visiting Lecturer in Alexander Technique at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (2022).