Working to Principle

The problems of a musician have many causes and many possible solutions. While working conditions, stress, and instrument and furniture design are all significant factors, the most important aspect of the life of all musicians remains not what is done to them, but what they do to themselves. The Alexander Technique offers a diagnosis as well as a remedy based upon this assumption. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) saw the individual as a whole, and talked not of "the body," but of "the self"; not of "posture," but of "use." The aim of his technique is not to teach you to do what is right, but to help you stop doing what is wrong. The Alexander Technique consists of a series of practical procedures which increase your total awareness and create the conditions for you to use yourself in a way that is natural, economical, elegant, and efficient. The principles and procedures of the Technique apply to all areas of musical activity, from technique, sound production, and interpretation, to daily practice, rehearsal routines, and the mitigating of stage fright and health problems.

My first book, Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique, was released in English by the Oxford University Press in 1997. In it I discuss the principles, procedures, and applications of the Alexander Technique in detail. This essay you're about to read was included in my second book, The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life. In it I highlight a few of the points I elaborate in my book, in particular those concerning a musician's daily practice. For practical purposes, I address this paper to an imaginary musician reader, although I should like to think that non-musicians could benefit from reading it too.

1) When considering any problem ("technical" or "musical," "physical" or "mental") always keep in mind that, as a human being, you are individual and indivisible in all your actions. Carrying a cello up four flights of steps may be a more eminently physical activity than reading a musical score, but both are activities of your whole being. Your daily practice may seem to you mostly a matter of training your body, yet there never exists a separation between body and mind. "The formal dichotomy of the individual [into 'body' and 'mind']," wrote the biologist Sir Charles Sherrington, "(...) which our description practiced for the sake of analysis, results in artefacts such as are not in Nature." Think of your daily practice, then, not as a matter of training the body, but a matter of restoring and refining the connections that exist ideally between body and mind.

2) No exercise is intrinsically healthy; it may become so according to the way it is executed. Over-eagerness, doubt, hurry, confusion, or indifference all could stop you from performing an exercise properly. Even as you execute a simple finger exercise, scale, or arpeggio, your mental attitude will determine whether or not the exercise is beneficial. Since badly executed exercises can easily harm you, have a clear mental picture of what you are trying to accomplish, and how you can better accomplish it. Approach every task in your practice room with clarity of mind, imagination, and humour.

Despite what many musicians believe, "concentration" may not be the best frame of mind for the purposes of daily practice. The Alexander teacher Patrick Macdonald wrote that "the meaning of the word 'concentration' has been debased. It used to mean to relate a set of surrounding factors to a central point. It now very often means to separate a point from its surroundings."

It is easy to tell when a musician is "concentrating": he gazes into space without blinking, constricts his breathing, and stops speaking or listening. We could also call this "self-hypnosis." These are clearly not the best conditions for co-ordinating yourself. Good co-ordination requires a quickening of the conscious mind, which increases your awareness of yourself, of others, and of the environment around you. Bruce Lee, the great martial artist and teacher, wrote that "classical concentration (...) focuses on one thing and excludes all others, and awareness (...) is total and excludes nothing. (...) A concentrated mind is not an attentive mind but a mind that is in the state of awareness can concentrate." As you practice, then, be aware-and do not concentrate.

3) The way you execute a task is strongly influenced by the way you use your whole body as you execute it. As you play an open string at the cello your head, neck, torso, and legs all play a role in determining how well you use your bow arm. If your back is not stable, for instance, the movement of your arm could possibly cause a certain loss of balance, and you risk tightening your neck and shoulders as a compensating mechanism. Needless to say, this would affect your ability to use your arm freely.

The better you use your head, neck, and back, the better you will use your limbs. Indeed, your primary consideration should be not your limbs (as you play or conduct) or your lips, tongue, and jaw (as you sing or play a wind or brass instrument), but the ideal co-ordination of your whole self, of which the use of the limbs or the mouth is only a small part. The biologist George Coghill wrote in an introduction to one of Alexander's books:

In my study of the development of locomotion I have found that in vertebrates the locomotor function involves two patterns: a total pattern which establishes the gait; and partial patterns (reflexes) which act with reference to the surface on which locomotion occurs.

(...) Now the reflexes may be, and naturally are, in harmony with the total pattern, in which case they facilitate the mechanism of the total pattern (gait), or they by force of habit become more or less antagonistic to it. In the latter case they make for inefficiency in locomotion.

(...) Mr. Alexander, by relieving this conflict between the total pattern, which is hereditary and innate, and the reflex mechanisms which are individually cultivated, conserves the energies of the nervous system and by so doing corrects not only postural difficulties but also many other pathological conditions that are not ordinarily recognized as postural.

The "mechanism of the total pattern" which Coghill mentions is a certain relationship between the head, neck, and back. Alexander called this relationship the "primary control." Ideally the total pattern (hereditary and innate, in Coghill's words) should take precedence over all the partial patterns (individually cultivated). In other words, every localized action-the activity of limbs, hands, and fingers, and of lips, tongue, and jaw-should be executed in harmony with the co-ordination of the head, neck, and back.

Some musicians equate this co-ordination with a position. "I maintain that the best position of the hand on the keyboard is one which can be altered with the maximum of ease and speed," wrote the pianist Heinrich Neuhaus. This point is valid for all positions: of the hand at the keyboard, of the seated body, of the head in relation to the back. Note, however, that what makes a position easy to change (and to maintain) is not bodily relaxation, but necessary tension-the right kind of tension, in the right amount, at the right place, and for the right length of time.

4) If you use your left arm poorly, your right one will suffer, and vice-versa; let us call this phenomenon "bilateral transfer." If you use one of your legs poorly, both the other leg and the two arms will suffer; let us call this "quadrilateral transfer." Bilateral and quadrilateral transfer can be a force for good too; if you use your right arm well, your left one will benefit.

When executing every exercise, however localized, make sure that you are engaging all your limbs constructively, so that quadrilateral transfer can be a positive, not negative, factor. This does not mean that you need to move arms and legs as you execute a trill. Rather, make sure that you are not unduly contracting or collapsing any limb.

5) "The musician's bible", said the great conductor Hans von Bülow, "begins with the words: 'In the beginning there was rhythm.'" Good rhythm improves the way you use yourself, at the same time that good use improves rhythm: they feed each other. Breathing, circulation, love-making, locomotion all demonstrate that healthy functioning is naturally rhythmic. The singing teachers Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling wrote:

By rousing a muscle's rhythmic sense, deep-seated energies within it are released (as in all forms of organic life, muscles are rhythmically constituted). This makes for ease and freedom of movement. Life without rhythmic content is never very vital. A muscle that works unrhythmically is always a hampered one, and to practice unrhythmically means that in time every muscle is certain to deteriorate. As Plato defined it, 'rhythm regulates movement.'

Perfect rhythm includes precision, but also energy, dynamism, impetus-what musicians usually call forward motion. This is nearly indescribable. Forward motion is part of the quality in music that makes you want to tap your foot or pretend you are the conductor. Speaking of the rhythmic element in Sviatoslav Richter's playing, Heinrich Neuhaus quotes Goethe: "You think that you push but you are being pushed." Forward motion makes music compelling, and it adds a liveliness to rhythmic discipline that is lacking in mere metronomic precision.

It is practically impossible to benefit from an exercise if you do not execute it rhythmically. Therefore, perform every exercise, however simple or complex, with the greatest rhythmic precision and forward motion.

6) Technique has often been equated with co-ordination, and co-ordination with the ability to play fast notes. Speed and accuracy may be important aspects of technique, but so are clarity, evenness, intonation, and many others. We hear it said of someone that he has "great technique" but an ugly sound. This is a patent absurdity. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote that "technique must make free regulation of the rhythm possible, and go beyond this to influence the tone." Heinrich Neuhaus concurs: "Work on tone is work on technique and work on technique is work on tone."

The musician with an ugly sound may have great dexterity, which is but one aspect of technique, but he does not have a great technique. A complete technique implies the ability to play legato and sostenuto, in a wide range of dynamics and articulations, in every imaginable colour. Indeed, good technique contains in itself the seeds of musicianship. If you practice "technique" in isolation from "music," you risk mastering neither. You could easily find that you can play a passage well as long as you keep it empty of all expressivity, but that you lose technical control as soon as you attempt to make the passage expressive. Therefore, never execute a gesture or a phrase without disregarding its musical character.

To sum up the above points, you should always practice with the whole of yourself. Attitude, posture, intelligence, self-awareness, necessary tension, bilateral and quadrilateral transfer, rhythmic precision and forward motion, musical content: leave one of these elements out and practicing could cause you more harm than good.

Back to top