A TECHNIQUE FOR MUSICIANS
By Frank Pierce Jones
There are musicians — some say there were more of them in the past — who get as much pleasure from a performance as they give, who always perform easily and well, and who use themselves so efficiently that their professional lives and their natural lives coincide. There are others, however, with equal talent and training, to whom performance and even practice are exhausting, and whose professional lives are cut short because they lose the mastery of the skills they have acquired. They put forth more effort in solving technical problems than the results warrant, and ultimately discover that they have used up their reserves of energy. If they understood the use of themselves as well as they understand the use of their instruments, such breakdowns would be far less frequent.
In practice and performance, however, a musician’s attention is given almost exclusively to what he is doing with his hands or his feet or his vocal organs, and to the sounds they are producing. Of what he is doing with the rest of his body, he usually knows very little. In attacking a difficult problem of technique, the average performer uses two approaches: He “tries hard” to master it, using all the skill at his command; and if his trying builds up too much tension and fatigues him, he “relaxes.” In both cases he is working on a trial-and-error basis. He has no way of knowing exactly how much tension is needed, or how to limit it to the time and place where it is wanted.
To take a concrete example, a double-bass player, in order to get the force and control he wanted for finishing the downstroke of his bow, habitually built up so much misdirected tension in his arm that he could not start the upstroke smoothly. Furthermore, he built up a corresponding overtension in other parts of his body — his back, neck and legs. Since he concentrated his attention upon his arms and hands, he was unaware what was happening elsewhere until it showed up in the form of pain and fatigue.
Any performer who continues in this way runs the risk of becoming progressively more muscle-bound, and of losing his freedom of movement. If he recognizes the trouble and attempts to remedy it by relaxing, he runs into the danger in reverse. Either he becomes limp and relatively incompetent, or in achieving relaxation in one part he pays for it by becoming overtense somewhere else. I know a pianist who succeeded in getting almost complete freedom in her arms, so that her fingers showed a remarkable sensitivity and power of fluent movement. But in the process she developed an extraordinary amount of tension in her neck and an aching heaviness in her back and legs. Her attention was given exclusively to her arms and hands, and she did not realize that what she was doing with the rest of her body exhausted her.
It has often been said that our senses deceive us. This statement is especially true of the sense of muscular movement, or kinaesthesia. Often it can be shown that a person is doing something quite different from what he things he is doing. A pianist, for example, once complained to me that in playing he had a sense of great weakness in his hands, which increased whenever he struck certain chords, until it seemed as though he scarcely had the strength to push down the keys. I discovered that just at the moment of attack he was tightening the muscles of his lower arms in such a way that his hands were actually drawn back from the keys. To overcome this backward pull and strike the chord, he had to exert a tremendous amount of force. What he sensed was resistance in the keys and weakness in his hands. The cause, which he failed to recognize, was misdirected strength. As in the other examples which I have cited, the muscular misuse was not confined to his arms and hands. He “got set” all over, with an increase of tension through his neck, shoulders and back, so that the tension in his lower arms was literally “locked in” from above. The amount of tension and the pattern of its distribution were determined by his past experiences in using his arms, both in playing the piano and in other activities, and he did not know that there was any other way of using them.
In most cases, I am convinced that it is futile to attack these problems directly, because the use of the hand or any other part of the body is so closely linked to the manner in which the body as a whole is used. But if a person can be made aware of his muscular movements as a whole, and learn to distinguish their general, overall pattern, he can make constructive changes and corrections on the basis of knowledge rather than of trial and error. Armed with this knowledge, a musician can become, in effect, his own “expert.”
This new approach to the problem of change has been made possible by an important discovery F. Matthias Alexander, of London, made about the nature of reflex action. To my knowledge, Alexander was the first expert, working with human beings in ordinary activities of life, to show and prove that there is what he called the “primary control” within each individual. He defines the primary control as “a certain use of the head and neck in relation to the rest of the body.” By observation and experiment upon himself, “using,” as John Dewey said, “the strictest scientific method,” he learned that the mechanism that determines the character of all reflex action lies in the reflexes governing the relation of the head to the neck. When the primary control is functioning as it should, it is sensed as an integrating force that preserves freedom of movement throughout the system, so that energy can be directed to the place where it is wanted without developing strain either there or elsewhere. Misuse of the primary control, on the other hand, is always reflected by misuse somewhere else; this appears in the form of awkwardness, fatigue and what Wilfred Barlow, a London physician and a pupil of Alexander, calls “maldistributed muscle tension,” or overtension at one place accompanied by undertension (lack of tone) at another.
G.E. Coghill, the American biologist, has pointed out that Alexander’s findings agree with what is known of animal movement in general. The importance of the head in animal movement is well known, and the dominance of the head-neck reflexes in the reflex pattern was established experimentally by Rudolph Magnus and his co-workers.
Alexander showed that in human beings under civilized conditions the head-neck relationship is unconsciously interfered with, to a greater or less degree. His great contribution to education was the discovery of a means by which a person can become aware of this interference and regain the normal use of the primary control. From this discovery and the deductions he made from it, Alexander established, as Bernard Shaw said in the introduction to the volume entitled London Music, “the beginnings of a far-reaching science of the apparently involuntary movements we call reflexes.” John Dewey, who introduced Alexander’s work in this country, said that the discovery was “as important as any principle that has ever been discovered in the domain of external nature.”
The principal is general in its application, and not confined to the problems of musicians. In my experience, however, musicians have been unusually quick to grasp its significance and put it to practical use. Perhaps this is because musicians as a class are keenly aware of the kinaesthetic side of experience. In this article I have directed attention to the problems of instrumentalists; but the principle can be used equally effectively by singers and conductors. Sire Adrian Boult studied with Alexander in London, and many singers have made use of his teaching. The value to singers lies in the fact that the primary control, when it is functioning as it should, prevents interference in the reflexes that control the vocal organs and the breathing mechanism. In this connection, it should be noted that Alexander made his original discovery when he was seeking to find the cause of his own loss of voice in speaking. An account of his procedure is given in The Use of the Self (1932).
In teaching the principle to a musician (or to anyone else, for that matter), the aim is to increase the pupil’s awareness of himself as a whole, until he can detect the interference in the head-neck relationship, which is the first link in the reflex chain of “getting set” to do something — to sit down, to pick up a bow or to strike a chord. In order to accomplish this, the teacher helps the pupil to carry out the activity without the habitual interference, and to realize by actual experience the lightness and freedom of movement that come when the primary control operates normally. Through repeated experience of this kind, the pupil gradually builds a new standard of kinaesthetic judgement. With this standard he has the power at any time to know whether he is obtaining the maximum of freedom and control in what he is doing. If he is not obtaining it he learns how to find the cause of the trouble and eliminate it.
Because the principle is general in its application, a musician is learning something he can use to advantage in whatever he is doing. And conversely, his improved use of himself in everyday life will be reflected in his music. The double-bass player of my first illustration reported, as the first tangible results of his lessons, that he had mowed the lawn without tiring his back, and had kept his equanimity while asking trespassers to leave his property. The same kind of conscious control appeared in his playing and in the ease with which he learned to adapt himself to the demands of his instrument.
I have not meant to suggest that a primary knowledge of the primary control can take the place of natural talent or eliminate the need for technical training and practice. But as a complement to professional study, the musician will find the knowledge invaluable. Over a period of years I have watched the progress of musicians who have learned to use this new approach to their problems, and have witnessed the increasing gain it has brought them in ease of performance, lessened fatigue, and the confidence that comes with a true self-knowledge.
From the book Freedom to Change: The Development and Science of The Alexander Technique, by Frank Pierce Jones <Mouritz Press, 1997>. Originally published in Musical America, January 1, 1949.