Whenever I present seminars on the Alexander Technique, I am often asked to give my own account of how I came to the work. This is something that I’m glad to do, because my passion about the Alexander Technique stems from my own experience of not only how the Technique helped me solve my problems, but also the many other unexpected ways in which it has enriched my life. Usually, I give a somewhat brief telling of my story, but here I would like to offer a more detailed version.
I have been a professional musician for just about all my adult life, performing on saxophone and flute. For most of my musical life I continued to improve and grow at a steady rate. There was always a clear relationship between my improvement and how much practicing and studying I was doing. The more time I spent, the better I became. From this I developed a confidence in hard work and thoughtful study.
An Australian actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander discovered the Technique over 100 years ago. In finding the solution to his own vocal and respiratory troubles, he came to develop a practical technique applicable to improving any human activity.
Problems with my hand
All had been going well by this principle until I reached the age of about forty. I very gradually began to notice that my performing and practicing were becoming inconsistent in quality. This was caused mainly by an intermittent lack of coordination and functioning in my left hand. Though this was somewhat frustrating, I reasoned that all I needed to do to solve this problem was to work harder. It seemed to me that some of my problems were because I was somehow losing some of the strength in my left hand.
I began to do exercises to strengthen the muscles involved with my left hand. At the same time I began to practice music more hours, working a great deal on fingering exercises. Not only did this not help my condition, it actually seemed to make it rather worse.
Prior to this, I had no noticeable pain when I played music. Now, not only was the coordination of my left hand getting worse, I was beginning to feel quite a bit of pain in other places in my body, most notably in my hips, back, neck and shoulders.
Playing music became more and more unsatisfying, filled with great discomfort and frustration. Yet regardless of this, I began to work even harder. The loss of coordination had been very gradual in my left hand, but suddenly things began to rapidly change for the worse.
Time to seek medical advice
Being more than a little alarmed about this, I sought the advice of a doctor, thinking perhaps that I had had a stroke, or that I was experiencing some other kind of pathological problem.
I went to see a very good doctor of internal medicine, who not only had me take the necessary tests (blood, MRI, etc.), but also, was very observant of me when I was in his office. He asked me a great deal of questions, and even tested my basic motor coordination, which he found to be satisfactory.
Then, an interesting thing took place in his office that made me think very differently about my condition. As I was sitting in his office telling him about the specific lack of coordination in my left hand as I played saxophone, he asked me to think about playing the saxophone. As I did so, he asked me to tell him to what my hands were doing without looking at down at them. (First he asked me to notice my right hand, then my left hand.)
He asked me what my right hand was doing. I told him that it was lying palm side down on my leg. He asked me if my hand seemed relaxed. I said that it did. He then asked me what my left hand was doing. I told him that it was doing exactly what my right hand was doing, lying palm down in my lap in a relaxed state. Finally, he asked me to look down at my two hands. What I saw was startling: My right hand was indeed relaxed as it lay palm down on my leg. But not my left hand. It was lying palm down on my left leg, but was in a state of considerable contraction, almost halfway to making a fist!
The doctor wasn’t exactly sure why this was. He said that I might have something called a focal dystonia. (In short, what that means is that the part of my brain that activated those muscles wasn’t shutting off when it needed to.)
Discovering the Alexander Technique
Coincidentally (and fortunately) I had starting reading a book about the Alexander Technique for musicians entitled Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique, by Pedro De Alcantara. The author in this book makes a very clear, nearly indisputable case for the fact that most of the problems musicians have are because of what they are doing with themselves as they play music.
In essence, musicians tend to develop harmful habits in playing music that very often stay below the level of consciousness until real problems begin to arise.
This seemed reasonable to me. I figured that if I developed these harmful contractions habitually, I could certainly unlearn them. I eventually found an extraordinary Alexander Technique teacher by the name of Frances Marsden. From the very first lesson, it became clear to me how strong my habitual patterns of contraction were. Frances helped me to notice the relationship between my head, neck and back, and how that was influencing the use my arms, and ultimately, my hands. With her hands she was able to show me an easier, much more efficient way to proceed.
The road to recovery
It was a long journey, but I began to make real, noticeable progress. After spending several Alexander lessons improving my general coordination (how I sat, stood, breathed, etc.) Frances thought it was time to work with me as I played saxophone. I remember telling her that my saxophone playing had already began to greatly improve just by applying the principles I had explored so far.
The entire process of how I practiced saxophone and flute changed radically. Instead of learning to do something to help me improve, the emphasis began to shift onto learning to undo the things that were causing my problem. This was something that called upon all my will forces, and I had to be very persistent and patient. After all, the mere thought of playing music was enough to put me into my harmful patterns, if I were to let it. With the Alexander Technique, I was learning how to not let this happen.
As time went on, not only did the functioning of my hand greatly improve, but also the amount of pain in my body was now only slight to non-existent. I recollect this as my first unexpected gift from studying the Technique. Even though I had been in pain, it was not the thing that motivated me to have Alexander lessons. It was wonderful to play with such ease and comfort, more so than I'd ever known before as a musician.
Unexpected benefits from studying the Alexander Technique
But it didn't stop there. As my functioning improved, so did my artistic range and expression. Because of applying the Alexander principle of inhibition to improving my hand, I was able to apply this same principle to all aspects of making music. Being primarily an improvisational musician, I began to notice huge differences in how I played. My playing became more present, genuine, spacious and clear.
Also, I became more able to take in the music being made by the other musicians I was playing with. I was listening better than ever before. I really liked what I was hearing as I improvised. It was as if I found my most authentic voice.
I remember a musician friend of mine came to see me perform about a year after I began my Alexander process. He was quite familiar with my playing, but hadn't heard me perform for a couple of years. After the concert he said to me, "Man, you sound great, but you sound so completely different than when I last heard you. What are you doing different?" I remember telling him, rather automatically, "It's not what I'm doing that's different. It's what I'm not doing." And so it is with the Alexander Technique.
The way I interacted with other people was changing, too. I was a much better listener. I was not so quick to judge, or to lose my temper. I was interacting with my son in a more constructive way. It was from these unexpected changes that I came to fall in love with the Alexander Technique, finding it to be the most important thing I had thus far discovered in my life.
Wanting to share the Alexander Technique
It was at that point that I decided to train to become a teacher. I had a deep desire help people with the Alexander Technique the way it had helped me. The three-year teacher training was one of the greatest experiences of my life, full of discovery, enthusiasm, and personal growth. I was trained by four of the finest Alexander Technique teachers that I've ever encountered.
What I've learned since then is that the teacher training is just the beginning. It is said that in some of the oriental martial arts, such as Karate and Judo, that achieving the rank of black belt means that you are a competent beginner. So it is I think with the Alexander Technique. As a competent beginner I was able to help many people, and am helping many more as my teaching skills grow and improve.
Enjoying continuous improvement
As a musician, I can easily say that I'm playing better than ever. When people hear my story of dysfunction and restoration, they almost always ask, "Did your playing eventually return back to normal now?" to which I answer, "No. As it turns out, normal wasn't working for me anymore. I did find a much better way to play than I normally used to, however. " And it's as simple as that. I've once again restored (and actually greatly improved) the relationship between practice and progress. Because of this, I'm much clearer as to what and how I need to practice.
Now in my sixties, I can honestly say that I am more comfortable, pain free, clear thinking, and flexible than I was at age twenty. The exciting thing about the Alexander Technique is that it is not about perfection, just continued improvement. We have no idea how far that improvement may take us. I take great comfort in that.
Bill Plake the Alexnader Technique and Music,
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