The Alexander Technique for Musicians
by Carol Porter McCullough
Fundamentals of Upper String Playing and the Alexander Technique
The most fundamental aspect of violin and viola playing is how the instrument is supported and held. The “chin” instruments are held close to the neck. The importance of the head/neck and back relationship to all human movement, indeed movement by all vertebrates, has been well established in the scientific world. The optimal relationship of the head to the neck is not a fixed position, but a dynamic balance by which the weight of the head is balanced under the changing conditions of the body in activity. Alexander wrote about his discovery of the importance of this relationship in The Use of the Self:
This led me to a discovery which turned out to be of great importance... namely, that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and depressing of the larynx. The importance of this discovery cannot be over-estimated, for through it I was led to the further discovery of the primary control of the working of all mechanisms of the human organism…
The experiences which followed my awareness of this were forerunners of a recognition of that relativity in the use of the head, neck, and other parts which proved to be a primary control of the general use of the self. (Alexander 1932).
When the primary control is functioning as it should, it is sensed as an integrating force that preserves freedom of movement throughout the system, so that energy can be directed to the place where it is wanted without the developing strain either there or elsewhere. Misuse of the primary control, on the other hand, is always reflected by misuses somewhere else; this appears in the form of awkwardness, fatigue, and what Wilfred Barlow, a London physician and a pupil of Alexander, call “maldistributed muscle tension,” or over tension at one place accompanied by under tension (lack of tone) at another (Jones 1976, 184).
Herein lies the difficulty for many string players: the dynamic head/neck relationship is greatly interfered with as a player attempts to fix the violin or viola into a hold that feels secure, often by clamping the head down onto the chinrest with a vise-like grip. There are many scenarios used by players to capture the feeling of the secure instrument hold. Some players build up either the height of the chinrest or the height of the shoulder pad, often to the point of immobilization of the head, neck and shoulder.
The influence of the state of the muscles in the neck cannot be overemphasized. The neck is the “hub” of nerve receptors. There are more nerve receptors in the muscles of the neck than any other muscles. Physiologist David Garlick, who has studied the Alexander Technique extensively, writes:
Interestingly but not unexpectedly, sensory input from the neck muscles are very important physiologically. The number of nerve receptors in neck muscles is much higher than in other muscles. Thus there are many more sensory nerves from neck muscles which therefore will have important effects on the brain control of muscle.
Control of muscles in posture and movement is primarily affected by the state of neck muscles with their strong sensory input to the brain. When the head is turned, caused by contraction of neck muscles, the effect is to prepare the trunk and limb muscles for action (Garlick 1990, 27).
Inputs from the neck muscle receptors and from the balance organs (semi-circular canals) work as a duo; the information provided is essential for the maintenance of human upright posture. Together they facilitate what is known to physiologists as “the righting reflex.” (When understood that the balance organs reside in the head, the reason for Alexander's preoccupation with the head/neck relationship becomes more clear.) When a person is standing in a balanced way, his line of gravity passes through the ear, near the front of the knee and in front of the ankle joint (Garlick 1990).
It takes very little to upset the delicate balance of the head and neck. The simple act of placing a violin or viola under the chin takes on greater magnitude when these facts are considered. This simple act is likely to stimulate a faulty reflex pattern in many players: the reflex pattern has been referred to by Frank Jones as the “Startle Pattern.” The “Startle Pattern” may be briefly described as follows:
In reaction to a sudden loud noise, the chin thrusts forward as the neck muscles contract. The shoulders are lifted and the arms extended, the chest is flattened and the knees are flexed. The change, which is not instantaneous, begins in the head and neck, passing down the trunk and legs to be completed in about half a second (Jones 1976).
In the experience of this researcher, elements of the “Startle Pattern” are also apparent when an object comes close to the face. A pulling back of the head, with the consequent thrusting forward of the chin, if often seen as the instrument is lifted towards the face. This is usually an unconscious movement until it is pointed out by the teacher. There may be several reasons for this movement. If the instrument is held by the neck, rather than in the middle positions (as advocated by Rolland), the length of the instrument will force the player to pull their head back in order to avoid hitting themselves in the face with the instrument. Even when holding the instrument in the middle positions, some players so actively and habitually contract their upper arms and elbows toward their torsos; there is no room for clearance as they bring their instruments to playing position. As the pulling back of the head is unconscious to begin with, this head back position becomes a fixed point as the player begins to play.
The Startle Pattern may be taken as a paradigm of malposture in general, whether it is associated with aging, disease, or lack of exercise. In malposture, muscles in various combinations and degrees of tension have shortened, displacing the head or holding it in a fixed position. Head displacement would have an adverse effect on the rest of the body partly because of the added weight and strain put on muscles and ligaments, but largely, I believe, because of the interference in the righting reflexes by abnormal pressure on the joints of the neck.
The procedures used in the Alexander Technique establish a new dynamic balance among the forces acting on the head so as to allow more of the posture work to be done by disks and ligaments and by muscles acting at their optimum length (Jones 1974, 148).
There are many purely mechanical ramifications of pulling the head back into a fixed position. The back is shortened and the head weight must be supported rather balanced by the muscles of the neck. The nodding joint (the joint that allows the head weight to be released onto the violin for support of the instrument) is interfered with. The entire balance of the player is shifted. If a student of the violin comes to the instrument with habits of malposture already in place, the act of putting a violin in place to play may bring about a further exaggeration of already harmful tendencies.
If a student manages to bring the instrument toward playing position without pulling the head back, there is still a great chance of disturbing the head/neck relationship. Some students place the instrument so close to the neck, they actually push the weight of the head towards the right shoulder, thereby shifting body balance predominantly to the right side of the body.
In both scenarios described above, it is nearly impossible for the weight of the head to be released forward from the nodding joint onto the violin. The use of the released head weight is imperative for a dynamic, sensitive, adjustable support of the instrument.
Rolland understood the principles of leverage involved in using the head weight to support the violin or viola. Citing the cantilever principle, Rolland maintains that:
Beginners must be taught to use the weight of the head to provide better leverage on the chinrest. The farther back the chin contact, the better is the leverage. The upward support is furnished by the collarbone. (Rolland 1974, 71).
The instrument rests on the collarbone; the upward support is provided by the entire body of the player.
It must be remembered the delicate balance of the head/neck relationship is a balance and not a fixed position. This is another area where Rolland's pedagogical principles of movement in string playing are so relevant. In essence, the head/neck relationship (or "primary control") is controlled by the thought processes of the individual, whether or not the individual is conscious of it. Walter Carrington, one of the few remaining living Alexander Technique teachers who trained with F. M. Alexander, explains primary control in this way:
[primary control] isn't a thing like the inner ear mechanism or vestibular apparatus. The primary control is a psycho-physical process. It's a process that manifests itself in physical change—muscular activity, relationships and all the rest of it—but it's controlled by thought processes of wish or intention. A very big element of primary control involves automatic, mechanical and involuntary aspects, but to have it work satisfactorily the voluntary component is indispensable (Carrington and Carey 1992).
The Anti-Gravity Response of the Well-Functioning Human Organism
F. M. Alexander wrote extensively about the “universal constant in living.” The constant Alexander referred to was the influence of the habits of an individual upon the functioning of his organism. A constant to which one responds habitually to is the force of gravity. Walter Carrington writes of gravity:
Now, the thing that all living things have to cope with, as I've said so often in another connection, is the force of gravity. The force of gravity is the constant in our environment. It is the one unvarying thing, because air and food and everything else varies, every other darn thing varies, but gravity doesn't vary. Now if this constant is out there, living things can only live if they come to terms with it. The first requirement of living things is to come to terms with this constant in their lives As we all know, there are considerable degrees of gradation in how well or how badly we adapt to it (Carrington 1994, 94).
Frank Pierce Jones believes that a skilled Alexander teacher activates a mechanism that is already present within the human organism:
My strongest impression when A. R. Alexander first demonstrated the technique to me was that of a mechanism working against gravity...
In relation with human beings, gravity has generally had a bad name. It is commonly thought of as a hostile force which has to be fought against and overcome. Part of the fascination of the space program lies in the opportunity it offers to television viewers of vicariously escaping from the pull of gravity... Now I had a striking demonstration that the picture was wrong. I had not been oppressed by gravity but my ignorance of the role it played in posture and movement. If it were an indomitable force...it is hard to imagine how man could have achieved upright posture in the first place....Obviously a mechanism to neutralize the effects of gravity must always have existed as long as there was life on earth (Jones 1976, 139).
The anti-gravity response of the human structure is the upward thrust from the ground through using the extensor muscles. When the anti-gravity response is fully functioning, there is no sense of effort needed to achieve the full length of the back. Hence, if a string player's back is fully functioning, there will not be a sense of effort required to support the instrument.
The Anti-Gravity Response, the Violin Hold and its Relationship to Bowing
According to Snende and Nemessuri (1971), the range of pressure applied to the bow by the player is anywhere from zero (for mezzo forte at the frog, the weight of the bow is sufficient) to 120 grams for forte playing. Rolland writes that the self weight of the bow is about two ounces at the frog and dwindles to an ounce at the tip. The player must apply about two pounds of pressure at the tip to make up for the loss of an ounce of bow weight (Rolland 1974, 35).
But bow weight and pressure are only part of the considerations of sound production. What of the surface that is being bowed against? A firm, stable bowing surface is an essential ingredient for producing large, full sound. Alexander's description of [certain principles of the Alexander Technique] “The Doctrines of Antagonistic Action and Mechanical Advantage” could well be a description of the mechanics of string playing:
In the process of creating a co-ordination, one psycho-physical factor provides a position of rigidity by means of which the moving parts are held to the mode in which their function is carried on.
This psycho-physical factor also constitutes a steady and firm condition which enables the Directive Agent of the sphere of consciousness to discriminate the action of the kinesthetic and motion agents which it must maintain without any interference or discontinuity.
The whole condition which thus obtains is herein termed “antagonistic action,” and the attitude of rigidity essential as a factor in the process called the position of “mechanical advantage” (Alexander 1908).
After locating the fulcra and power of the most important levers in the arm, it becomes obvious that the whole limb is fundamentally governed by the body. Another system of levers supports the body, i.e., the legs, so that in tracing these levers back we shall finally discover the true source of support to be the ground on which we stand (Hodgson 1958, 8).
A way of understanding this principle is to discuss what happens to a player and their sound when this principle of “rigidity” is absent. All string players are taught to increase the amount of weight going into the string through the bow to make a larger sound. However, there must be a corresponding increase in the resistance of the violin to the increase of weight or pressure. If there is not sufficient support of the instrument, as is the case with many players, the increase of weigh through the bow will actually force the violin downward. The violin is then actually moving in the same direction as the bow, thereby eliminating any possibility of resistance or “antagonistic action.” This is analogous to trying to saw a piece of wood while the wood itself is moving in the same direction as the saw, rather than being firmly supported and stationary.
Many players may instinctively increase the support of the instrument as they increase the weight through the bow. This is often accomplished by clamping down on the chinrest with the head, causing over-tensing of the neck muscles; drawing up of the left shoulder, requiring relatively vast amounts of energy; or using the left arm as a rigid support beam, thereby impeding the left arm movements necessary to playing the violin or viola. A given player may exhibit a combination of any or all of these tendencies. A lucky few will accomplish the necessary increase of instrument support in response to increase of bow resistance through the use of the leverage in the largest muscle groups of their body, those of the back.
Here is where being able to direct a lengthening of the back and torso can be of great assistance. As the body lengthens and widens, the upward thrust of the hold of the violin increases the antagonistic of the bow to the string. The player must make the necessary adjustments as the bow reacts to the increase in antagonistic action. He is not only trying to increase the amount of weight on the string with bow, however, he is also increasing the resistance of the string to the bow. Instead of trying to accomplish a larger sound through the increase of weight on the string (which chokes the upper partials), the increase in sound is achieved through resistance between the bow and string. In his 1934 study, Motion and Bowing, Percival Hodgson states:
The volume of the sound is decided by the amplitude, or width, of the vibrations. An increase in power is therefore achieved by adding to the pull or push exerted sideways on the strings. Downward pressure in itself tends to prevent free vibration, and thus strangles the tone. It is only used comparatively slightly in order to pull the string, and will obviously need to be proportionate to the sideways force employed at the time (Hodgson 1958, 150).
Thus the action of producing a large sound is accomplished with the largest muscle groups of the body possible, those of the back, as well as with the least amount of perceived effort. Correspondingly, less sound can be achieved by lessening of the upward thrust of the player's body.
This upward thrust, combined with the downward pull of gravity on the bow, is the vertical form of the bi-lateral motion advocated by Paul Rolland. Rolland believed that bilateral movement (in which the bow is moving in the opposite direction of the body) is an essential element of string playing. Perhaps the upward thrust of the player combined with the downward pull of gravity with the bow could be termed “bi-vertical.” In essence however, this phenomenon of movements in opposite directions is a three-dimensional entity. The spiraling mechanism of the human structure, explored in the next section, facilitates bi-lateral movement (movement in opposite directions) in both the vertical and horizontal planes.
The Double Spiral Arrangement of the Human Musculature and its Relevance for String Players
String players traditionally speak of left hand and right hand technique as if they were entirely separate entitities. When an understanding is gained of the spiral arrangement of the musculature, such terms should become only a means of designating the specifics of the tasks each hand performs. The hands themselves are the ends of a unified process that involves the brain and entire human structure of the player.
Raymond Dart identified and drew attention to the double spiral arrangement of the human musculature (Carrington and Carey 1992, 113). Dart, Australian by birth, emigrated to London after graduating from medical school in 1917. He was appointed Professor of Anatomy in Johannesburg in 1923, retaining the post until his retirement in 1958. For many years, Dart was dean of the medical school at University of Witwatersrand. Dart enjoyed a varied career, becoming famous for anthropological investigations, as well as for his work in anatomy. Dart and his family had Alexander Technique lessons with Alexander's assistant, Irene Tasker, in 1943. Dart had a single lesson with Alexander in 1949, but maintained that Alexander influenced him for the rest of his life (Dart 1996, 26).
The spirals of the human musculature are mirror images of each other. Designating the right side of the pelvis as a starting point, the muscle sheet of one of the spirals travels diagonally around the side of the torso, crossing over the front mid-section to wrap diagonally upward to the left side of the torso, where the road of muscle makes a “Y,” one avenue junctioning with the muscles of the left arm, the other avenue snaking its way diagonally across the back, continuing on its diagonal journey across the neck to hook onto the head behind the ear in its original hemisphere of the right side (Dart 1996, 69), (figure 5).
The diagonal pull of these spirals of muscle accounts for the flexibility and upright capabilities of the human structure. These diagonal pulls may be likened to pulling on the bias (diagonal) of a piece of cloth. There is much greater flexibility in the cloth when pulled on the bias than when stretched on the cross grains (vertical and horizontal grains). The effect of an individual lengthening and widening his back is to activate the anti-gravity muscles (extensors) by causing a greater stretch on them. The Alexander Technique, mistakenly called a “relaxation” technique by some, is not about relaxation at all.
The pelvis and the head are connected not only by the bony, vertical structure of the spinal column, but also by the winding diagonal ribbons of muscles that make up the voluntary musculature of the torso. It is because this musculature is under voluntary control by the human nervous system that difficulties arise in an individual's use, and consequently, potential exists for improvements in an individual's use. Voluntary control should not be confused with conscious control. It is the unconscious control of voluntary musculature that gets one in trouble. By definition, voluntary muscles have the potential for being under the control of the individual. For an individual to have voluntary control of his voluntary musculature, he must be conscious of how he is using it. The essence of the Alexander Technique is learning to exercise conscious control of the voluntary musculature.
Anatomists have traditionally divided musculature into various muscle groups. This is useful for identification purposes but not useful for understanding the working whole of human movement. Because of the large “sheets” of muscles that form spirals around the human torso, the simple act of raising the arm to place the bow on the string cannot be made without involving the muscles of pelvis. The act of turning the head and placing it on the violin affects the musculature in the lower back, conversely, the muscular condition of the lower back affects the act of placing the head on the violin.
Support of the violin with the head involves both sets of spirals and the support of the whole back. It is when violin support is taught as a localized task of the head and shoulder that holding the violin becomes a “posture.” When the spiraling action of the human musculature during movement is considered, from the smallest movement of putting a finger down on the string, to a larger movement of shifting, to even larger movements of using the whole bow, any action involved with playing becomes an affair of the entire torso and total body.
Percival Hodgson, in his 1934 study Motion Study and Violin Bowing, made the discovery that bowing motions themselves describe arcs and spirals. Through the use cyclegraphs (“a photographic record of the track covered by a moving object”), Hodgson was able to photograph the bowing paths of artist players (Hodgson 1958, 58).
Dart himself believed in “the universality of spiral movement.”
I recalled an elderly otologist named Miller, 30 years ago in New York City, demonstrating by means of examples ranging from the spiral nebulae to the human cochlea, and from the propagation of sound to the propulsion of solid bodies, that all things move spirally and that all growth is helical (Dart 1996, 57).
The Asymmetrical Placement of the Violin and Viola
Violin and viola playing have usually been defined as using an “asymmetrical posture” because of the placement of the instrument on the left side of the body. Richard Norris, an M.D. writing on injuries endured by musicians, states:
Over months and years, such asymmetrical posture can
result in muscle imbalance, with the muscles on the left side
becoming shorter and stronger than those on the right. Muscle
imbalance can lead to joint dysfunction and so on (Norris 1993,
This is a scenario that describes many violinists and violists after years of playing. The above excerpt reflects the mind-set of string playing as a set of postures, rather than a system of continuous movement. No account is made of the fact that the bow is an “instrument” and much of the time is moving in the opposite direction away from the support of the head and neck (described by Rolland as bi-lateral motion). Frederick Polnauer in his article “Biomechanics, A New Approach to Music Education,” put forth the idea of whole body mechanics in playing in 1954 when he wrote:
It is insufficient to look at bowing as a mechanical-physiological problem of the bowing arm only. The needs of a highly perfected violin technique require that bio-mechanical functions of the entire body be included. The older concept of the arm performing the bowing is being replaced now by the concept of the body performing this function. It seems to us more useful not to think any more in terms of a “right” and “left” hand technique, but rather of an “entire body” technique. (Polnauer 1954, 254).
Polnauer was a proponent of bi-lateral movement. Paul Rolland used the above quote in his book The Teaching of Action in String Playing. Polnauer's ideas was a source of verification for his own principles of movement in string playing. Rolland’s description and teaching of bi-lateral motion in string playing may be used to address the problem of “asymmetrical posture.”
In the Project, the weight shift is introduced with a simple exercise, the “Flying Pizzicato,” in which the movement of the body in bi-lateral (in the opposite direction to the bow stroke). Bi-lateral movements benefit strokes of fast or medium speed. Polnauer recommended bi-lateral movements exclusively (Rolland 1974, 34).
When viewed from the perspective of relationships of the bow arm to violin support system, the placement of the violin does not seem so asymmetrical.
That one can learn to use one’s neck and back for greater strength, agility and coordination is not part of our cultural or educational heritage. Learning this “use of the self” is fundamentally a kinesthetic experience. Musicians have come to the Alexander Technique because their use of themselves quickly manifests itself through the playing of their instruments. Frank Pierce Jones sums it up in his article to musicians titled “Awareness, Freedom and Muscular Control”:
There are musicians—some say there were more of them in the past—who get as much pleasure from a performance as they give, who always perform easily and well, and who use themselves so efficiently that their professional lives and their natural lives coincide. There are others, however, with equal talent and training, to whom performance and even practice are exhausting, and whose professional lives are cut short because they lose the mastery of the skills they have acquired. They put forth more effort in solving technical problems than the results warrant, and ultimately discover that they have used up their reserves of energy. If they understood the use of themselves as well as they understand the use of their instruments, such breakdowns would be far less frequent...
I have not meant to suggest that a primary knowledge of the primary control can take the place of natural talent or eliminate the need for technical training and practice. But as a complement to professional study, the musician will find it invaluable. Over a period of years I have watched the progress of musicians who have learned to use this new approach to their problems, and have witnessed the increasing gain it has brought them in ease of performance, lessened fatigue, and the confidence that comes with a true self-knowledge (Jones 1976, 184).
Learning to use oneself well, both in everyday living and while playing an instrument, is not a simple matter of being told (or telling oneself) to “stand up straight.” A direct sensory experience must be gained of the directions that Alexander gave to himself and to his students: “neck to be free, head to ease forward and up and back to lengthen and widen.” Those who worked with Alexander in his later years assert that, for the most part, he abandoned giving those verbal directions, as the words were descriptions and not the experience itself. Alexander instead gave the student the sensory experience through the use of his hands. The foregoing chapter is a simplified description only of some of the mechanics involved between the player, his instrument and the process of producing sound. It is not a substitute for the direct sensory experience of the psycho-physical mechanisms that are discussed.
Copyright 1996 Carol Porter McCullough
Alexander, F. Matthias. 1995. Articles and Lectures. Ed. Jean M. O. Fischer. London: Mouritz.
Alexander, F. Matthias 1932. Reprint. The Use of the Self. Los Angeles: Centerline Press. Original edition, New York: E. P.Dutton & Co., Inc. (Page references are to reprint edition).
Carrington, Walter. 1994. Ed. Jerry Sontag. Thinking Aloud. San Francisco: Mornum Time Press.
Carrington, Walter, and Sean Carey. 1992. Explaining the Alexander Technique: The Writings of F. Matthias Alexander. London: The Sheildrake Press.
Dart, Raymond A., 1996. Skill and Poise. Ed. Alexander Murray. London: STAT Books.
Garlick, David. 1990. The Lost Sixth Sense: A Medical Scientist Looks at the Alexander Technique. Kensington, Australia: by the author, the University of NSW.
Hodgson, Percival. 1958. Motion Study and Violin Bowing. Urbana: American String Teachers Association.
Jones, Frank, P. 1976. Body Awareness in Action. With a foreword by J. McVicker Hunt. New York: Schocken Books Inc.
Jones, Frank, P. 1997. Freedom to Change. London: Mouritz.
Norris, Richard, M.D. 1993. The Musician's Survival Manual: A Guide to Preventing and Treating Injuries in Instrumentalists. St. Louis: MMB Music.
Polnauer, Frederick F. 1952. Bio-Mechanics, a New Approach to Music Education. Journal of the Franklin Institute 254, No. 4; 297-316.
Rolland, Paul. 1986. The Teaching of Action in String Playing. Revised edition. New York: Boosey and Hawkes.
Szende, Otto, and Nemessuri, Mihaly. 1971. Translated by I Szmodu. The Physiology of Violin Playing. Budapest: Joint edition published by Collet's (Publishers) Limited and Akademiai Kiado.
The complete text of The Alexander Technique and the String Pedagogy of Paul Rolland is available from AmSAT Books.
About the Author
Carol Porter McCullough held advanced music degrees from Florida State University and Arizona State University where she studied viola with William Magers. She was on the music faculty for five years at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she taught viola and was Director of the String Preparatory Department. She played in numerous orchestras, including the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Peoria Symphonies, the Arizona Opera Company and Sinfonia da Camera in Urbana, Illinois. She participated in music festivals across the U.S., including the Luzerne Center for Music, where she was a member of the Luzerne Chamber Players. Carol was a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, completing her training with Joan and Alex Murray. She conducted workshops for the Alexander Technique for string players, musicians in general and other performing artists.
For more information about Carol McCullough's work, contact: Brian McCullough.