Many musicians have heard of or had some exposure to Alexander Technique through workshops, group classes, or perhaps private lessons. It is often thought that it is about posture training or relaxation, and while those may improve with Alexander work, the Technique is far more complex than that. The Alexander Technique is an educational method that teaches students how to change faulty patterns of body use, enabling improved mobility, posture, performance and alertness. This can relieve chronic stiffness, tension and stress as the student develops an awareness of the body as a whole, an understanding the mind-body connection, and becomes conscious of habits that may cause problems or pain.
As a freshman music major I experienced tendonitis in my right arm, and I adopted the faulty strategy to ignore the pain and “power through,” assuming it would eventually subside. That plan failed, and within months the pain escalated into severe tendonitis and bursitis that developed into debilitating pain, making it difficult to function in routine daily activities. I underwent the standard treatment of PT/OT, anti-inflammatories, and frequent practice breaks. This was ineffective, and by my fourth semester as a music major I had no choice but to stop playing oboe.
To my surprise, removing the oboe did nothing to change my condition. Simple daily tasks were still a challenge; while I took notes, extreme pain would radiate through my entire arm and into my shoulder, neck, and back. It became clear that I would also have to quit school, and at the suggestion of several people I decided to try the Alexander Technique.
In my first AT lesson, I did not understand anything my teacher did, but I left with a sense of physical lightness that was new and welcome. As I learned more about the Alexander principles, I found that the Technique offered a way to be in control of my body, instead of being a victim of it. I soon joined an Alexander Technique training course and learned that the oboe was never the problem, but a general and habitual misuse of my body led to my state of chronic pain.
During the three year training course I took a hiatus from college and from playing the oboe. When I finally returned to the oboe with a newly developed sense of awareness, I discovered that all of my damaging playing habits were still there. The oboe was a trigger for old patterns of misuse, and the previous years spent developing oboe technique were also spent ingraining faulty use that would take just as long to unlearn. It was discouraging at first, but also quite fascinating to experience how strong physical habits can be.
Many musicians wait until there is a problem to study Alexander Technique, just as I did. I encourage musicians to approach AT study, not only as a solution to pain, but as a way to enhance physical and mental approach to music making. The Technique does not change your technique at the instrument but can enhance it so you can use your body efficiently and effortlessly, allowing you to perform with a sense of lightness, more coordinated use, and presence of mind.
One main principle of the Technique is the concept of directing, which means to subtly engage the musculature in a way that energizes the body in order to have more freedom and ease of movement. The first direction we teach and always return to is “to direct the head forward and up.” Think about how gravity can pull down the back of the head, putting downward pressure on the neck, shoulders, and spine. Directing forward and up can begin to alleviate this pattern of misuse. Imagine that you are wearing a 10-pound hat and how much effort it would be to hold your head up. Now imagine taking that hat off, and notice that your head feels a sense of lightness as it releases forward and up, away from the back of the neck. This simple direction can allow freedom in the neck and shoulders and allow the back to lengthen and widen. When we employ directions into our overall body use, it also can allow for more efficient use of the arms, legs, and the breath.
Although students may come to Alexander Technique for a specific reason, the Alexander teacher will begin by addressing the body as a whole. One portion of the lesson is spent working with everyday movements such as standing, sitting, bending, or walking, while the other portion is spent on a bodywork table. Through the course of a lesson the teacher helps the student release excess tension allowing the body to move more freely, naturally, and with more coordination. Once a foundation of the principles has been established, the teacher can guide the student in applying the technique to specific activities. Laura Medisky, DMA, M.AmSAT, has taught Alexander Technique for over 15 years. If you are interested in lessons, workshops for your department or studio, or more information about the Technique, please visit www.lauramedisky.com or www.amsatonline.org. Click here to Book An Appointment Online for lessons at Dane County Family Acupuncture.
This article was first published in the Madison Area Musicians’ Association, AFM Local 166 Newsletter Issue 1506 June, 2015.