The Alexander Technique for Musicians
The Alexander Technique
A talk given at Indiana University School of Music, Bloomington, March 10, 1975
by Frank Pierce Jones
It may not seem logical to go to an Alexander teacher who can't sing or play an instrument and expect to learn something about musical performance. It isn't illogical, however. The reason is that an Alexander teacher is concerned with unlearning rather than learning—with non-doing rather than doing, with subtracting rather than adding.
The Alexander Technique is a method for getting rid of unwanted habit patterns that interfere with smooth performance—not just musical performance but any performance. It is a method for looking into amicroscope or painting a ceiling or playing the violin, without getting a stiff-neck; for playing the piano or shoveling snow, or working at a desk, without low back pain; for listening to a lecture, or playing a familiar piece of music without mind-wandering.
For a performer, the technique is a method for using kinesthetic cues—the sensations of tension, effort, weight and the like—in order to organize his field of awareness in a systematic way, so as to take in the whole of what he is doing instead of just a part, and to accomplish what he aims to do without unwanted side effects.
Between a stimulus and a response—any stimulus and any response—between the thought of doing something and putting the thought into action there is a characteristic preparation or “set” (“Ready, on your mark, get set, go”) which strongly affects the character and quality of the response. In fact, you might say that the set determines the response. Sets are difficult to change, however, because they are largely unconscious. They are acquired so early in the learning process that they usually remain undetected even when they cause trouble. They are most likely to be observed when the expected—what you are getting set for, doesn't happen—when the suitcase you thought was full turns out to be empty, when there is one more or one less step in a stairway than you were prepared for.
A striking example was reported in the Boston Globe a few years ago: Mike Andrews, a second baseman for the Red Sox was being interviewed just after he had recovered from a batting slump. Andrews said it was through Eddie Keako, the Red Sox manager, that he found out what was wrong with his hitting. Kasko pitched a few balls to him, then on one delivery, he went through the motions of pitching but stopped and didn't release the ball. “That” Andrews said, “was when I learned what I was doing wrong. Although Kasko had stopped and didn't throw, I had already lunged at the ball before it was pitched.” When Andrews became aware of his wrong set he was able to correct it, but as long as he was unconscious of it he could do nothing about it.
The Alexander Technique was developed from a similar discovery. Back in the 1890's, F.M. Alexander was a “recitationist” who gave what are now called “one-man shows.” Early in his career he began to lose his voice when he was reciting (“readings from Shakespeare” were his specialty). He had no trouble in ordinary conversation but under the stress of public performance he became progressively hoarse until he feared his career was coming to an end. He decided that it must be something he did while he was reciting that caused the trouble, and he made up his mind to find out what it was. He set up three mirrors and watched himself while he was reciting. He discovered a whole series of changes in his head, neck, shoulders and chest that preceded and accompanied the hoarseness. He concluded after experimenting with them that they were not isolated factors but were organized into a unified system or pattern and that the key to the pattern was a change in the axis of his head (he was pulling it back and down). When he was able to prevent this (“inhibit” was the word he used) he found that he was able to prevent the other changes that led up to his loss of voice. At first he was successful only when he had the mirrors around him. But eventually he learned how to translate his knowledge into kinesthetic terms: he could perceive what he was doing from the inside as well as the outside.
He realized that he had discovered a new kind of indirect control over his voice. He resumed his speaking career and began teaching what he had learned to others. As he went on he discovered that this indirect control extended to other functions. By inhibiting the maladaptive changes in the head relation he was facilitating breathing and locomotion and the use of his arms and hands as well as voice production. Doctors began referring perplexing cases of maltension to him and he stopped being a specialist in the use of the voice and became what he called a “generalist” in the use of the self.
His major discovery at this time was that he did not need to depend on words to instruct his students but could give them information directly through the kinesthetic sense. By using his hands he found that he could prevent a maladaptive set from developing and could give his pupil the direct conscious experience of carrying out an habitual action in a non-habitual, easier, and more efficient way. This is a way that usually seems better to the pupil so that, in Skinnerian terms, he is reinforced for changing his old habit pattern.
This approach has great advantages in teaching. Instead of telling your pupil what he is doing wrong or even showing him (by means of video or audio playback) what he is doing or exhorting him or admonishing him to change, you give him the experience of doing it a new way and letting him judge the difference for himself. I remember a bass player who came to me when I first began teaching the Alexander Technique. He was in Boston for an audition with Koussevitsky. He had worked himself up to a high state of anxiety because of difficulty he was having in making the transition from down bow to up bow in a particular piece he was preparing. In trying to overcome this difficulty he was building up so much tension in his neck, shoulder and back and even in his legs, that when he finished the piece he was completely exhausted and was scarcely able to move. I could see that he was “getting set” for the upstroke before he had finished the downstroke and that he was locking-in his malcoordination by pulling his head down into his collar. It was easy by working with him for a few minutes to make change in the head-neck relation. As soon as I had done so the transition took place quite easily.
Another pupil with a similar problem was a harpsichordist who was getting ready for a concert. At one point he had to cross with his left hand from a lower to a higher keyboard and was finding it very difficult to do so. As I watched him from the back I could see that about four measures in advance of this crossing, his left shoulder began to move up and to the right. When I prevented him from doing this he made the crossing easily, much to his surprise. But, you might say, why not just record the performance on videotape and let the pupil see what he is doing. Often, in my observation, this is not enough and can even make a person more anxious by making him conscious of a fault he is convinced he can do nothing about. It is much simpler and saves argument to give him the experience of performing without it.
I saw an interesting example last year in a hammer-thrower on the Tufts track team who had developed a habit of pulling up his right shoulder just before he let go of the hammer. He knew he did this because the coach told him so again and again and he had seen himself doing it on video playback. But it was not until he perceived it kinesthetically and realized that he was not only lifting his shoulder but also pulling down his head that he was able to stop it. As soon as he did he added six feet to his throw.
When the technique was first demonstrated to me by Mr. Alexander's brother I noticed a number of changes that seemed to be taking place at more or less the same time. One of them, the one I was hoping for, was a change in breathing (which became much easier) but what impressed me the most at the time was decrease in my feeling of weight and in the amount of effort I needed to move.
This experience and others like it convinced me that what Alexander discovered and was able by his technique to correct was an interference in the anti-gravity response system—that system of reflexes which brings an animal up in the gravitational field—which maintains tonus in muscles and fluid in joints and facilitates posture and movement. When the system is working as it should, it not only orients the animal to its environment but, as its name implies, effectively counteracts gravity, so that for initiating a voluntary movement there is no inertia to overcome. The antigravity system is organized around and integrated by the reflexes controlling the position of the head in space and its relation to the rest of the body. These reflexes, which are commonly referred to as the head-neck reflexes, have been extensively studied in animals. If they are interfered with, the whole anti-gravity system is bound to be affected in some degree. (When a horse falls, it can't get up if the head is held down. In an animal's body the place where the back of the head joins the neck is the most vulnerable area. That is where a terrier attacks a rat; where a rat attacks a mouse; and where a mongoose attacks a snake.)
There is no question but the head-neck reflexes play an equally important role in human posture. In humans, however, the system is in a more delicate balance than it is in animals and under civilized conditions the head-neck relation is commonly interfered with. Because of habituation and adaption, the interference is not generally recognized as such. You get used to the feeling of heaviness and compensate for it by strengthening muscles but the pattern of interference can often be observed when it is exaggerated by stress of any kind, by pain, or anxiety, or by extreme effort. What the Alexander Technique does is to bring this interference up to the conscious level where it can be inhibited and the antigravity response facilitated.
Reprinted courtesy of Alexander Technique Archives, P.O. Box 400087, Cambridge, MA 02140.
Frank Pierce Jones was a professor of classics at Brown University and Professor Emeritus of Classics at Tufts University. In 1938, in the hopes of improving his health, Jones began having lesson with A.R. Alexander (F. Matthias Alexander's brother). In 1940, he began lessons with F. Matthias Alexander. A year later, Jones entered the three year teacher-training course being offered by F.M. Alexander in Massachusetts.
After completing his training, Jones decided to devote himself to helping to establish the scientific validity of Alexander's work. Jones was strongly encouraged by John Dewey to proceed with scientific research into the Alexander Technique. Jones left his teaching position at Brown, and, in 1954, began to conduct experimental research at at the Institute for Psychological Research at Tufts University into the physiological and behavioral principles underlying Alexander's method. He became a full professor of psychology at Tufts University in 1972. His studies of the Alexander Technique have been reported in several professional journals. Drawing on F.M. Alexander's writings, his own scientific studies, and his long association with F.M. and A.R. Alexander, Jones wrote a book published under the title Body Awareness in Action—A Study of the Alexander Technique. This book has recently been republished under Jones's original title Freedom to Change (available from Mornum Time Press).
Jones continued his research and teaching of
the Alexander Technique, and concurrently continued to teach
Classics at Tufts until his death in 1975.
Alexander Technique for Musicians