Introducing the AT to Groups of Musicians

In recent years a number of Alexander teachers who work with musicians have asked me for advice on how to introduce the Technique to groups of musicians. Here are a few suggestions, some of which will be good for this or that presentation, some to be used in the future, some to be transformed by your creativity. Let me know what use you make of them – I’d love to clarify and expand them in the months and years to come. My thanks to Eddy Malave (New York), Käthe Jarka (New York), Matt Jones (London), and Ana Landa (San Sebastian, Spain) for instigating these remarks.

1) A portfolio of photos always comes in handy (perhaps with a PowerPoint presentation). I’ve been collecting photos for more than 20 years now and have a huge visual library, some of which I travel with and show to private pupils and seminar participants. Good sources of images are card shops, particularly those in museums; newspapers and magazines, which you should skim and clip obsessively, including in public places such as dentists’ offices; and your own private pupils, whom you can engage in a permanent exchange of visual information. Pupils often own elucidating photos of themselves or family members; I use quite a few such photos in The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life. At first when you start collecting photos you might not be too certain how to choose an image and what to do with it. But the more photos you gather, the more context you’ll have in which to place new photos and have comparisons of attitudes, postures, gestures, faces, head-and-neck orientations, and so on.

2) Incidentally, I think it’s much, much better not to "talk theory" and give first-timers abstract explanations of the principles (like saying, "Inhibition is this and that… the Primary Control is this and that…"). Instead start from something practical, let people see and hear things, then – if pertinent – bring in a little theory to clarify matters. Sensing and observing come before understanding.

3) When preparing lecture-demonstrations for musicians, let the participants know in advance that you need one, two, or three volunteers, preferably players of different instruments. Get one of them to perform something right away, and go from there! You’ll see patterns of misuse that you can talk about and propose solutions for. For a 75-minute lecture you only need two volunteers; the rest of the group watches and listens, asks questions, and so on. It’s almost like you’re giving a private lesson in front of a group, but you need to remember to address the group, not to the volunteer alone. In preparation for such situations, it’s useful to ask a private pupil of yours to bring in a friend to watch a lesson – then you can practice the skill of coaching a musician while explaining what you’re doing to an observer.

4) Read my article The Alexander Technique: A Practical Lesson. In it I compare music-making to an act from the Chinese circus, which I describe in detail – in essence it consists of performing an ever greater number of actions at the same time without losing one’s cool. When coaching a musician in public, you can use the general principle of first simplifying the music-making activity into something very easy (in which the musician can learn how to direct), then making it ever more complex (so that the musician learns to continue to direct while facing the different challenges of music-making). The procedure creates an excellent opportunity to talk about end-gaining, inhibition, and direction.

5) I do an exercise with musicians that's interesting and useful; it can be taught to non-musicians as well. Take a sports ball (soccer or volleyball, or, in its absence, an inflatable party balloon) in your hands. Stand in front of a partner and ask him to put his hands on top of yours (his palms flat on the backs of your hands, the palms of which are flat on the ball). Then ask him to follow your arm movements while you turn the ball sideways, up and down, or in every which direction. The partner is likely to misuse himself terribly and lift his shoulders, twist his head and neck, contract his trunk, instead of making the necessary adjustments with the articulations of shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, and fingers. After the partner notices this and makes it better, do the same exercise and ask him to sing a children's song at the same time – he'll stiffen his arms anew, not being able to do something (singing a song) while allowing something else to happen (keeping his arms loose and letting them follow a movement). After he makes it better, do the same exercise and ask him to walk in place and sing a song at the same time – more misuse (which should lead to more insights about inhibition and direction). If your partner is a violinist or violist, you can after a while move the ball (and his hands with it) in the usual trajectory of the bow along the string, above an imaginary instrument. Your partner can then sense how to bow without misusing his arms.

6) If you want to engage the whole group in the exercise, bring a bagful of party balloons and have them blow them up to have a ersatz-volleyball to play with. Blowing balloons is very hard for a lot of people, who end-gain in remarkable ways while struggling with a humble balloon – in itself blowing balloons can become a fine exercise in self-awareness.

7) Take a length of pipe or a stick of wood or metal about as long and thick as a flute or an oboe, and use as a kind of baton or martial-art weapon to be twirled and played with (continuing the movements learned with the balloons above). The fact that it's just a stick, not an instrument, removes a whole layer of habit and expectation from the exercise – you won’t need to deal with the flutist's emotions or his aesthetic and professional preoccupations at this point. Have a flutist move the stick about, then have him or her slowly turn the stick into an imaginary flute, to be brought up to playing position without losing the playful aspect that has been cultivated so far.

8) There’s a simple children’s game that brings out the most amazing patterns of end-gaining in people. Two partners stand facing each other, arms loosely extended in from of them; one has his palms facing upwards, the other places his palms, facing downwards, on top of the other’s palms. The one with palms facing up tries to strike the back of the hands of the other one, who must try to remove his hands as quickly as possible. People not only misuse themselves terribly in the process, they sometimes display intense frustration – bordering on anger – thereby demonstrating the intimate connections between their aspirations, their emotions, and their gestures. Starting with an observation of their behavior you can bring misuse, direction, inhibition, and so on to their attention. Keep in mind that there are people who hate games and anything with a whiff of competitiveness to it! More broadly, nothing that you’ll do, in a lesson or in life, will be universally appreciated; people are very different one from the other, and it’s impossible to address everyone in a group equally well. The main thing is for YOU to have lots of fun. Learning is secondary to enjoying the experience, both for you and for the public.