Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

Even as news broke of Andy Murray’s imminent departure from men’s tennis, another article in the Guardian caught my eye: a piece on Roger Federer[1]. Though not a massive tennis fan, I’ve come to admire Federer and frequently use him as an example of stunningly graceful movement in my Alexander Technique classes. But what can we as musicians learn from Federer? What can we take from his approach to tennis and apply to our own endeavours?

Balance and efficiency of movement

Journalists have been remarking on the beauty of Federer’s play since early in his career – David Foster Wallace’s seminal article on Federer ‘as Religious Experience’ was written in 2006 and still feels current. Here is Wallace on Federer:

Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to… His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game … All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.”[2]

What do I as an Alexander Technique teacher like about watching Federer? If you look at photos of him, or watch him play on TV, he never seems off balance. There is an efficiency of movement – he doesn’t use more energy than necessary, and he rarely seems to place muscular effort into anything that would detract from his shot. Even at extreme levels of exertion one never feels that his energies are being misdirected or overdone. This is Federer himself on his style of play:

maybe it’s also the way I play tennis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”[3]

I think this is directly transferrable to music. As we play, we could make it a guiding principle to make our physical movements suitable to the task at hand – neither too much, nor poorly directed. I’m not suggesting that we try to limit our movement or our energies; rather that, like Federer, if the situation demands exertion and exuberance, that we fulfil those demands in the service of our musical goals. I would love to feel at the end of a recital that I had carried out what was necessary to make the music speak, and no extra!

Rhythm, routine, and fun

Federer has an unchanging routine to determine when he changes his racquets during the match, and a little ritual set up with the ball boys and girls when the new one is unwrapped. He is known to be meticulous about taking off his jacket before the match and putting it over the back of his chair, smoothing away any creases. These things may give us aesthetic pleasure as spectators, but why might he do them? One answer might be, ‘control of environment’. By having a set plan over when he changes racquet (and how it is done) he doesn’t need to think about it, leaving him more mental space (working memory) to devote to thinking about the game.

But he also likes to allow himself moments of creativity and fun. Journalist Tim Lewis:

it was Mats Wilander, the seven-time grand slam winner from Sweden, who noted that to really understand Roger Federer you have to watch him between the points. Wilander especially enjoys how Federer returns a ball to the ball boys after a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a simple, utilitarian interaction: instead, he’ll curate a viciously kinking drop shot that bounces into their hands or a razored slice that makes a satisfying thwock into the canvas behind the court.” [4]

The idea of creating routines and patterns of behaviour is a sensible one, as it can help free up the mind before performing and may also have a beneficial effect against stage fright. It does this by removing the necessity of the performer having to use vital mental energy deciding how to prepare themselves, their instrument and music for the performance; it also reduces the risk of forgetting something, thereby lowering the general ‘irritability’ of the performer’s systems.

I also like, though, the inclusion of creativity and fun within Federer’s routine structure. Perhaps some playfulness over warming up, or while tuning between movements/pieces may help to keep a sense of freshness and presence? I’ll leave it up to you to work out how adding some creativity might work for you!

Follow-through

A friend on Twitter remarked that one of the noticeable elements of Federer’s play is his follow-through – it is graceful and flowing, and very much part of his shot. This is possibly where Federer most neatly exemplifies a key Alexander Technique principle, which I and some of my colleagues label ‘additive thinking’.[5]

FM Alexander wanted us to reason out strategies (routes of travel, or protocols) for each activity we undertake. But so often it becomes easy to look at the elements of the protocol one has designed and view them as a kind of checklist. The tennis checklist, simplified hugely, might read:

  • pull racquet back
  • hit ball
  • follow through

But if one were to use these three steps in practice as a checklist, one would end up with a very jerky and unconnected set of movements – quite the opposite of the easy and ‘holistic’ quality we are trying to attain. What FM Alexander wanted instead, and what Federer does brilliantly, is for the player to think of each thing additively at all moments of the shot. In other words, even as one is preparing for the shot, one is also thinking of the follow-through, and vice versa. This ensures that every element of the protocol is retained in mind as the protocol is followed. And what Federer also does brilliantly is to use the follow-through from one shot as the preparatory conditions for the next shot.

How would this function in music? A pianist, for example, would not think of single notes individually, but rather think about each note and each finger movement as encompassing each note in the phrase. The way each note ends is the preparatory state for the next note (or rest, or silence).

Self-belief

Federer exhibits a solid belief in his own abilities; he believes that he can win. And this belief isn’t only visible while he’s winning. Journalist Tim Lewis notes that this belief stuck with him even in the period where he was losing matches and falling down the rankings:

When he spoke about the brick walls he was coming up against, Federer’s response was stoic, hubristic: he was playing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was something deluded about his obstinacy, and it made me both desperately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same.” [6]

Federer, like other great sportspeople, is prepared to investigate change: he did change his preferred racquet size. But his belief in his training and ability is paramount:

The core difference between Federer and his rivals is his unshakeable belief in his talent, to trust his genius.

“I’ve always believed I can play tennis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the confidence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pressure.” “[7]

Because he knows that he has trained intelligently and consistently over decades, Federer is able to rest confidently on the knowledge that he has attained a level of proficiency in the game that will carry him to success. Equally, he knows that if he continues to train intelligently, he will be able to do fewer hours of physical work than many of his competitors, protecting him from injury while still preparing him for tournaments.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from this as musicians. As Noa Kageyama pointed out in his seminal blog post [8], the number of hours one spends in a practice room aren’t the key to success – intelligent practice is a far greater predictive of success. So we all need to do the things we’ve been told are sensible: mental practice, interleaving, slow practice, and so on. If we ‘work smart’, we design our success. We pay attention to the process, and then have faith that it will carry us through, because we have designed it with success in mind. Or as FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends must be a genuine trust…”[8]

Balance, routine, follow-through, belief. Which one will you start working on today?


Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com


[1] Kevin Mitchell, ‘Roger Federer: Methuselah of sport still has unshakeable belief in his talent’, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/roger-federer-methusalah-of-sport-still-has-unshakeable-belief-in-his-talent, accessed 14 January 2019.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html, accessed 15 January 2019.

[3] Roger Federer quoted in Mitchell, op.cit.

[4] Tim Lewis, ‘The Pleasure (And Pain) Of Watching Roger Federer, The Greatest Tennis Player Ever’, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a22019668/the-pleasure-and-pain-of-watching-roger-federer-the-greatest-tennis-player-ever/, accessed 15 January 2019.

[5] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, pp.41-2.

[6] Lewis, op.cit.

[7] Mitchell, op.cit.

[8] Now Kageyama, ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’, https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/, accessed 16 January 2019.

[9] Alexander, op.cit., p.45.

 

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

Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

A performer with “presence” has something to say and is communicating effectively, with focus, commanding the audience’s full attention

– Mark Swartzentruber, concert pianist

Occasionally one attends a concert where the performer’s presence seems so modest and yet so powerful, commanding awed silence from the audience… I think such an ability comes from a deep love and respect for the music and a willingness to set aside one’s ego in the service of the music. Loss of ego brings powerful presence and creates an empathic relationship with the audience.

– Frances Wilson, pianist and blogger on classical music and pianism

The topic of stage presence is one that is often subject to heated debate. Who has presence? Is it the person with the biggest or loudest personality? Is it the performer who gives the most original interpretation of a work? Or is it something rather more personal and less showy – the performer whose focus and commitment to a work is so total that the audience is compelled to enter their musical world? Fran certainly came to that conclusion in her excellent post, quoted above.

So how do you learn to set aside your ego? How do you learn to put yourself in the service of the music? Here’s some practical advice on how to move towards that goal, coming from the work of FM Alexander.

The Private Universe theory

Back in 1923, FM Alexander wrote a sentence that I keep coming back to in my teaching:

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. – FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual

In other words, all of us have a psycho-physical make-up – a unique melding together of mind and body – that is composed of all the influences, individualities and quirks created by our upbringing, friends, schooling, environment, media… We create our own little private universe of ideas and beliefs about the world and how we interact with it, and we act according to its rules. We think and act according to our private universe – our psycho-physical make-up.

Now, some of the ideas in our private universe will be fantastic, but some of them will be rather less so! Sometimes our ideas of what we need to do to fit into the world really don’t help us. Just think about the kid at school who tried to hide his insecurity and lack of self esteem by bossing other kids around. Or the girl who spends her teenage years hiding behind a wall of hair so that she doesn’t have to interact with the world.

When it comes to performing, each person will approach the performance according to the rules and assumptions of their private universe. If their private universe says that people only like them if they’re loud or very extrovert in their presentation, then they’ll approach the performance of music that way. If their private universe says that people are naturally judgemental in nature, and particularly if they assume that the judgements will be negative, then they will approach performing in such a way as to protect themselves from the negativity.

These private universes then begin to manifest themselves physically. Perhaps one performer will tense muscles in order to shield themselves from the negativity they assume they’ll receive. Another performer might be so concerned to ‘get the music across’ that they add in lots of unnecessary movement and tension that ultimately detracts from the piece they’re playing.

My job as an Alexander Technique teacher is to help performers get out of their own way. I work with a lot of musicians – amateurs, students and professionals. Typically, when they reduce the physical tension they create, they report feeling more vulnerable. But they also report an improved ability to achieve what they want technically, an improved sound, and improved ability to ‘get inside’ the music.

The best performances often come from the performers who are most prepared to ‘sit with’ the audience; to be wholly and unapologetically themselves. They are not trying to hide themselves because they are nervous; they are not trying to project an image of themselves, nor are they trying to ‘present’ the music. They are simply placing themselves at the service of the music and the audience

How can you begin to achieve this state for yourself? Here are a few ideas.

  • Really know the music. If you feel unprepared, you are more likely to be nervous, and more likely to increase the mental and physical tension prior to performing.
  • Come up with a one phrase (or even one word) key to your goals for each piece that you are playing.
  • Before you play, acknowledge that being nervous is completely normal and reasonable.
  • Remember that mistakes are normal. Everybody makes them!
  • Before each piece in your programme, take a moment to settle yourself and remember your key word or phrase.
  • Really examine your attitudes towards the audience. Do you view them as adversaries, or as a group of friends?
  • When you’re an audience member, are you judgemental? Or are you there to enjoy yourself? Perhaps remembering that audience members come out of enjoyment may be a helpful thought before you perform.

If you work on changing your thinking, you can begin to change the muscular tension that is getting in your way. And if you can do this, everyone will benefit: you, the audience, and the music.


 

jen_working6Jennifer Mackerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com

 

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.

Unhelpful ideas

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!


Reference:

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.

 

jen_working6Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com