Piano playing and the Alexander Technique

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

People think the Alexander Technique is about posture. Or about how to stand up and sit down. But actually it is about our use, or most often misuse of the self. In all walks of life this misuse is going to have a negative impact, both physically and mentally, but as a pianist it is at the piano where I most often have shown back to me what needs to change, both at the piano, and then emanating outwards into the rest of my life.

We often complain “I have a bad back” or “my shoulders are tight”, rather than accepting our role in their demise: “I have misused my back”, “I have tightened my shoulders”, or “I can’t play fast passages”. But “the workings of the mind are not separate from our the behaviour of the mind’s owner” (Pedro Alcantara – from his book ‘Indirect Procedures’ – aimed at all musicians, not just pianists, and highly recommended).

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The first step in our desiring to be different is to know that we have to do different. And do differently all the time; not to expect to find one ‘fix’ but to find a way of being that is organic and responds to each moment as it presents itself. This takes a lot of attention, as over years and years we become a mass of reactions to stimuli, reactions that might have been helpful at one point, but which on becoming habits, are now less so! Take playing a fast passage. If we try to do it before we have an understanding that we can let it happen,  ‘trying’ creates tension and then…we are lost. No amount of tension will make for fluidity.

Digging deep into our habitual nuances is challenging because they are very subtle and ones to which we are so used that they feel ‘comfortable’. Why would we try and change something that feels so?  One of the challenges of utilising the Alexander Technique is that we have to be constantly and acutely aware of what is going on and prepare to feel UNcomfortable and unfamiliar. We need to try different things, and/or do the same things but differently, often with a completely different mental as well as physical approach.

Another misconception of the Alexander Technique is that one has to be relaxed. On the contrary. We’d end up in a heap if we relaxed our muscles all over. What we need is the right tension, in the right place, for the right length of time that is necessary. The ‘wrong’ tension is usually compensating for the right tension elsewhere. Again, we feel we need to ‘try’, but trying mostly creates the tension of which we desire to let go. More accurately we need a very careful ‘undoing’ of our habitual response. It took me ages to figure that one out. Doing so little felt slightly ‘naughty’ in a time and with a personality that feels ‘trying hard’ is ‘good’. But learning over time to do less, my fingers are now able to create flowing passages, and not being in a fixed ‘position’ I can mould the music more than if I were constantly in rigid tension. Before I discovered these ideas, I used to play my scales, major and both minors, from C/C#/D/Eb etc etc until I felt tired, thinking the goal was to do more, or for longer, until I got tired. Now I know that being tired means I’m misusing myself. Depressing a note means letting go of energy into the key, so a constant letting go should not create an increase of tension…  At this point it should be said that one cannot ignore posture, but just that using oneself correctly is not just ABOUT posture. Sitting with, again, right tension and an ‘upward’ direction rather than a curve or slump is necessary, but just the beginning of a whole way of using the self.

I have written about being curious when practising, something that musicians often fail to recognise during their time at the piano. They are too keen to ‘fix’, rather than spend time working out quite which needs ‘fixing’. Exercises that aim to solve problems are played in a way that embeds those problems and which can be ultimately harmful.  Played with inattentiveness, overeagerness, a fear of forgetting, a fear of missing out, a fear of being wrong, preconceived ideas, hurrying, all prevent any real new outcome. Buddhists  talk of ‘beginners mind’. We too have to lose everything we THINK we know and start finding out what is true, i.e. necessary.  Daily practice is often used as a search for control but over repeating one thing means overworking one mechanism and underworking others. Intelligent practice and the whole use of self is a much more economic and valuable use of time.

One of the dangers we have is to get something ‘right’ (for instance a flowing run) and then try to recreate what we did to get it. To retain an organic and responsive technique at the piano, to use Alexander’s words, we need to ‘reproduce not the sensations but rather their co-ordinative processes. The experience you want is of getting it, not having it. If you have something give it up.’

This of course seems illogical and tiresome, but it is also engaging and exciting and keeps the music and our experiences at the instrument alive.

It is extremely hard to describe specifics in writing so all this short article can do is whet an appetite for what is possible. A good teacher hopefully will direct you to ask the right questions for yourself, and show you the possibilities of how to approach the text with a different perspective.  From then it is an ongoing but fascinating journey.


Alexandra Westcott, BA

Piano teacher/Accompanist
Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott