The first of two guest posts by Jennifer Mackerras exploring the benefits of Alexander Technique for musicians
Injury to musicians: everyone knows it happens, but very few like to talk about it. For professional musicians, this is entirely understandable: nobody wants to endanger their career by being open about the pain they might be experiencing. And with amateur musicians, very often discomfort while playing becomes such a problem that they stop playing entirely – they vanish from their ensembles or music groups, and no one really questions why.
What distresses me, as a musician and an Alexander Technique teacher, is that so often the problems that cause musicians such distress are entirely preventable and treatable. It just takes a little time to find the cause, and find the right person to help you overcome it.
The clinician’s view
Christopher B. Wynn Parry’s 2004 article on ‘Managing the Physical Demands of Musical Performance’ makes for fascinating reading. He includes details of an analysis of musicians who attended clinics run by the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) to that date. 48% had a clear-cut diagnosis of conditions like focal dystonia or tenosynovitis. But the other 52% had no specific diagnosis. Just over half of the musicians had non-structural performance-related problems.
That’s a shockingly large percentage!
We are talking about musicians who were struggling with symptoms that had no obvious clinical cause. They were problems caused by a coming together of over-practice, stress, muscle tension, poor posture, and insufficient technique. All of these problems are solvable. All of them.
There are lots of disciplines out there that can help you: your teachers, performance coaches, fitness instructors… Each has its own benefit. But I’m an Alexander Technique teacher, and I want to give you an overview of how Alexander Technique could help you avoid injury.
What Alexander Technique can do
Alexander Technique is taught in music schools and conservatoires precisely to combat and prevent the ‘non-specific’ symptoms that cause musicians to call for professional help. It isn’t about feeling nice – although that often happens. It won’t force you into ‘perfect posture’ – though other people will notice that you seem to sit and play more easily.
As an AT teacher and performance coach, I help people change their manner of using themselves in activity, so that they can truly fulfil their technical ability and achieve their artistic aims. My job is about helping you free yourself from a manner of using yourself (physically and mentally) that is getting in your way.
I see some common themes in the musicians I teach: too much tension while playing; effort put in the wrong places; and unhelpful ideas about practice and performing. I’ll explain what these are, and give you a hint about how to change things if you think you have this problem.
Too much tension
Do you bang your fingers down on the keyboard? Can you hear your fingers slapping the fingerboard on your cello, or on the wood of your recorder? Do your arms and shoulders feel tight and sore after playing? If so, you’re probably using too much muscular tension. In these cases, I give students the 50% less game: can you play with 50% less effort? This is best first attempted on easy pieces or scales. You may be astonished at how little effort you actually need to use to make a sound!
Effort in the wrong places
This can show up in attitude – 2, 3 or even 4 hour practice sessions with no breaks – or more physically. For example, have you ever thought about what joints you actually need to use to get your fingers to your keyboard? What muscles and joints raise the violin to your chin? It would astonish you how often I work with players who create a tremendous amount of unhelpful physical tension simply because they have never really thought about how to approach their instrument.
Before your next practice session, spend a couple of minutes thinking about the minimum number of joints you could use to achieve a playing position. If you don’t know where the joints are, there are really fantastic phone and tablet anatomy apps that can help you.
All of us, whether amateur or professional musicians, can sometimes have unhelpful ideas about practising and performing that can suck the joy from our music-making. Do you know anyone who has these ideas:
- Needing to be perfect
- Looking on the audience as an adversary
- Focussing only on the mistakes in the performance, not the good things
- Being afraid of ‘messing up’, to the point where you don’t want to perform
- Fearing the audience ‘judging’ you
- Believing that the only relevant practice time is on the instrument
Because we are a mind-body unity, the ideas that we have can have physical manifestations. If we believe in perfection, for example, we can begin to create a physical tightness as we try not to make mistakes. The physical tension then contributes to us making mistakes, the thing we most wanted to avoid! Try sitting down before your next performance or exam, and note down the ideas and feelings that you have about it. Can you find any twisty thinking going on?
Making music can be one of the most joyous and fulfilling of human activities. I know I’m biased, but I think that Alexander Technique is a great tool for helping musicians to rid themselves of the unhelpful ideas and physical traits that get in the way of musical expression. I hope that you give my ideas and games a try, and please do let me know how you get on. I wish you success!
Christopher B. Wynn Parry, ‘Managing the Physical Demands of Musical Performance’ in Williamon, A., ed. (2004) Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance. Oxford: OUP. 41-60.
Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher