The Alexander Technique for Musicians
Working to a Principle by Pedro de Alcantara
The principles and procedures of the Alexander Technique apply to all areas of musical activity, from technique, sound production, and interpretation, to daily practice, rehearsal routines, and the mitigating of stage fright and health problems. My first book, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, was published by the Oxford University Press in 1997. In it I discuss in detail the applications of the Technique to music-making. Here I propose to highlight a few of the points I elaborate in my book, in particular those concerning a musician’s daily practice. Although I address these observations to an imaginary musician reader, I should like to think that non-musicians could benefit from studying them too.
‘A person who learns to work to principle in doing one exercise,’ wrote Alexander, ‘will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just “to do an exercise” will most assuredly have to go on learning to “do exercises” ad infinitum’. Let us establish a series of constants which, taken together, create the working principle to which Alexander refers.
1) When considering any problem (‘technical’ or ‘musical’, ‘physical’ or ‘mental’), always keep in mind that, as a human being, you are individual and indivisible in all your actions. Carrying a cello up four flights of steps may be a more eminently physical activity than reading a musical score, but both are activities involving your whole being. Your daily practice may seem to you mostly a matter of training your body, yet there never exists a separation between body and mind. Sir Charles Sherrington, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, wrote that ‘formal dichotomy of the individual [into “body” and “mind”]… which our description practised for the sake of analysis, results in artefacts such as are not in Nature.’ (2) Think of your daily practice not as a matter of training the body, but of restoring and refining the connections that exist ideally between body and mind.
2) No exercise is intrinsically healthy; it may become so according to the way you execute it. Over-eagerness, doubt, hurry, confusion, or indifference can all stop you from performing an exercise properly. Even as you practise a simple finger exercise, a scale, or an arpeggio, your mental attitude will determine whether or not the exercise is beneficial. Since you risk harming yourself by badly executing an exercise, have a clear mental picture of what you are trying to accomplish, and how you can best accomplish it. Approach every task in your practice room with clarity of mind, imagination, and good humour.
Contrary to what many musicians believe, ‘concentration’, depending on how you define it, is not necessarily the best frame of mind for the purposes of daily practice. To concentrate may mean to organize and co-ordinate a series of aspects around a central point. This was the original meaning of the word: a number of circles that share a centre. To some people, however, to concentrate has become, in practical terms, to isolate some aspects and eliminate others. Defined in this second way, ‘concentration’ is a state to be avoided rather than sought.
It is easy to tell when a musician is ‘concentrating’: he gazes into space without blinking, constricts his breathing, and stops speaking or listening. We could also call this ‘self-hypnosis’. Trance-like conditions have their uses, but to co-ordinate yourself you need to quicken your conscious mind, thereby increasing your awareness of yourself, of others, and of the environment around you. When you become aware, you will not find difficult to think of several things at the same time, in an orderly and constructive manner. You can think of your head, neck, and back as well as your bowing arm and your left hand, the evenness of your rhythm, the beauty and strength of your sound, your playing partners, and much more besides. Let us call this state ‘awareness’, and a state of unbreathing, unblinking stiffness ‘concentration’. The mind that is aware can concentrate; the concentrated mind is often unaware. As you practice, then, be aware—and keep concentration at bay.
3) You engage your whole body whenever you perform a gesture, however small the gesture may be. When you play an open string at the cello your head, neck, torso, and legs all play a role in determining how well you use your bow arm. If your back is not stable, for instance, you risk unbalancing your trunk as you draw your arm across the string, and tightening your neck and shoulders to compensate for the loss of balance. Needless to say, this would affect your ability to use your arm freely.
Indeed, your primary consideration should be not your limbs (as you play or conduct) or your lips, tongue, and jaw (as you sing or play a wind or brass instrument), but the ideal co-ordination of your whole self, which depends on the orientation of your head, neck, and back. The biologist George Coghill wrote in an introduction to one of Alexander's books:
Coghill's ‘mechanism of the total pattern’ is the orientation of the head, neck, and back which Alexander called the ‘Primary Control.’ Ideally the total pattern (hereditary and innate, in Coghill's words) should take precedence over partial patterns (individually cultivated). In short, every localized action—the activity of limbs, hands, and fingers, and of lips, tongue, and jaw—should be executed in harmony with the co-ordination of the head, neck, and back.
Some musicians equate this co-ordination with a position to be held in a more or less fixed manner. The pianist Heinrich Neuhaus wrote that ‘the best position of the hand on the keyboard is one which can be altered with the maximum of ease and speed.’ (4) This point is valid for all positions: of the hand at the keyboard, of the seated body, of the head in relation to the back. Note, however, that what makes a position easy to change (and to maintain) is not bodily relaxation, but necessary tension—the right kind of tension, in the right amount, at the right place, and for the right length of time.
4) If you use your left arm poorly, your right one will suffer, and vice-versa; let us call this ‘bilateral transfer’. If you use one of your legs poorly, the other leg and the two arms will all suffer; let us call this ‘quadrilateral transfer’. Bilateral and quadrilateral transfer can be a force for good too; if you use your right arm well, your left one will benefit.
When executing every exercise, then, make sure that you are engaging all your limbs constructively, so that quadrilateral transfer can be a positive, not negative, factor. This does not mean that you need to move your arms and legs about whenever you use your fingers. Instead, make sure that you are not unduly contracting or collapsing any limb, and that every limb is well-connected to the back.
5) ‘The musician’s bible’, said the great conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, ‘begins with the words: “In the beginning there was rhythm.” ’(5) Good rhythm improves the way you use yourself, at the same time that good use improves rhythm: they feed each other. Breathing, circulation, locomotion all demonstrate that healthy functioning is naturally rhythmic.
Perfect rhythm includes precision, but also energy, dynamism, impetus—what musicians usually call forward motion. Forward motion is part of the quality in music that makes you want to tap your foot or pretend that you are the conductor. Speaking of the rhythmic element in the pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s playing, Heinrich Neuhaus quotes Goethe: ‘You think that you push but you are being pushed.’(6) Forward motion makes music compelling, and it adds a liveliness to rhythmic discipline that is lacking in metronomic precision.
It is practically impossible to benefit from an exercise if you do not execute it rhythmically. Therefore, perform every exercise, however simple or complex, with the greatest rhythmic precision and forward motion.
6) Technique has often been equated with co-ordination, and co-ordination with the ability to play fast notes. Speed and accuracy may be important aspects of technique, but so are clarity, evenness, intonation, and many others. We hear it said of someone that he has ‘great technique’ but an ugly sound. This is a patent absurdity. Wilhelm Fürtwangler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1954, wrote that ‘technique must make free regulation of the rhythm possible, and go beyond this to influence tone.’(7) Heinrich Neuhaus concurs: ‘Work on tone is work on technique and work on technique is work on tone.’(8)
The musician with an ugly sound may have great dexterity, which is but one aspect of technique, but he does not have a great technique. A complete technique implies the ability to play legato and sostenuto, in a wide range of dynamics and articulations, in every imaginable colour. Good technique contains in itself the seeds of musicianship. If you practice ‘technique’ in isolation from ‘music’, you risk mastering neither. You could easily find that you can play a passage evenly as long as you keep it empty of all expressivity, but that you lose technical control as soon as you attempt to make the passage expressive. Therefore, never execute a gesture or phrase without taking into consideration its musical character.
To sum up the above points, you should always practise with the whole of yourself. Attitude, posture, intelligence, imagination, humour, self-awareness, necessary tension, bilateral and quadrilateral transfer, rhythmic precision and forward motion, musical content: leave one of these elements out and practising could cause you more harm than good.
The information in this article is fully developed in Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique. A shortened version of the article appears in The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life. Permission to post this paper generously granted by Crowood Press.
1. The Universal Constant in Living (Long Beach (CA): Centerline Press, 1986; facsimile of the 1st (1942) ed.), 216.
2. The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947, 1961), p. xvi.
3. 'Appreciation,' in The Universal Constant in Living, p. xxviii.
4. The Art of Piano Playing, trans. K.A. Leibovitch (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1973), 101.
5. Ibid., 33.
6. Ibid., 32.
7. Notebooks 1924-1954, trans. Shaun Whiteside, ed. and with an Introduction by Michael Tanner (London: Quartet Books, 1989), 9.
8. The Art of Piano Playing, 79.
Pedro de Alcantara earned a Master's degree in cello performance from Yale University School of Music in 1983. After studying the Alexander Technique with Patrick MacDonald and Shoshana Kaminitz in London, he taught for three years at the Alexander Institute under the supervision of Dr. Wilfred Barlow. His first book, Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique, was published by Oxford University Press in 1997 and won plaudits from Alexander teachers and musicians alike. Pedro de Alcantara lives in Paris and presents seminars all over the world.
Contact the author Pedro de Alcantara
Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique Foreword by Sir Colin Davis. London: Oxford University Press, 1997. Available from Amazon.