A Brief Introduction to the Alexander Technique

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD

 

Socrates is quoted as saying it is better to knowingly do the wrong thing (rather than unknowingly) since a person who is aware of themselves is capable of changing. The same logic can be applied to injury-prevention in most professions using a method designed by F.M. Alexander in the early 1900’s. The Alexander Technique is a combination of psychological and physical therapy that incorporates heightened self-awareness into the subject’s regular activity in order to prevent injury.

Who was F.M. Alexander?

Frederick Matthias Alexander was a successful Australian actor who regularly suffered from a sore throat and absent voice. When the severity of the symptoms began to affect his ability to work, Alexander sought the help of multiple medical professionals. He quickly discovered that there was no cure for a strained voice except to cease speaking, which would have meant an early retirement from his beloved monologues and soliloquies. After a prolonged period of self-diagnosis, Alexander determined that the cause of his laryngitis was an excess of tension in his body, specifically in the head and neck. He began experimenting with different postures in a mirror to attempt to relieve the strain on his vocal chords. Alexander’s voice recovered so quickly with these practices that his doctors urged him to share his new method with other people struggling from similar issues.

What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is comprised of three main parts; awareness, inhibition, and direction. Frank Pierce Jones, in his article “A Technique for Musicians,” defines awareness as understanding “what is going on while it s happening.” He urges students of the Alexander Technique to alter their mentality from the widely accepted separation of self and environment to a unified experience instead. Jones argues that since both the exterior and inward stimuli are occurring simultaneously, there is no reason to separate them. Students of the Alexander Technique must first become aware of their habits that place stress on the body in order to isolate and address the issue.

The second stage of the Alexander Technique is inhibition, or the ability to make minute adjustments to the body before soreness develops. The student at this point in their study has become aware of the tension in their movement and is actively working to prevent it. Joan Arnold explained in her article, “Alexander Technique for Musicians” that “repetition with excess tension breeds […] debilitating habits” and states that musicians who are capable of better “managing their bodies” are more likely to avoid physical injuries. This is especially relevant to performers who find themselves mentally “checking out” of rehearsals or performances; on auto-pilot there can be no awareness of potentially harmful tension in the body.

The final step in the Alexander Technique is direction; when the student is able to achieve a balanced posture. Students may study the method on their own or with a trained professional in a private session. A lesson or class in Alexander Technique involves a trained professional observing your regular movements and determining the origin of pain. Several prestigious institutions, including The Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, The Royal College of Music in London, and The Boston Conservatory of Music now offer lessons or whole courses in injury-prevention.

How can musicians benefit from the Alexander Technique?

When surveyed, nearly 70% of symphony musicians admitted to experiencing a Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), according to a study done by Tamara Mitchell from Pittsburg State University. Mitchell hypothesizes that professional musicians likely push through the pain in order to advance their career regardless of potentially permanent damage. Vivien Mackie, an experienced Alexander Technique educator discusses in “The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician” how the increased amounts of physical demands and psychological pressures have created an alarming spike in “musicians’ injuries” creating a growing need for physical therapy clinics.

It is necessary to understand the primary balance of our bodies in order to properly use and protect them. Methods like the Alexander Technique enable musicians to become more aware of their movements and develop strategies to alleviate tension or pain during practice sessions. Since the absence of pain and stiffness allows for a greater stamina and an engaged mind, musicians can not only prolong their performance careers but also improve the quality of the music being performed.

 

Sources:

Fair use, image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9804419

 

“A Technique for Musicians” by Frank Pierce Jones. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

          <http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/jones2/>.

 

"Preventing Performance Injury and Tension." Music Major - Majoring in Music, 21 July 2016.

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"Alexander Technique."  N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

          <http://www.theviolinsite.com/alexander_technique/index.html>.

 

"Musicians and the Alexander Technique."  N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

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"The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique - Who Was F. Matthias Alexander?" 

          N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017. <http://www.alexandertechnique.com/fma.htm>.

 

"The Alexander Technique for Musicians: Playing in the Key of Ease." American Society for the

          Alexander Technique (AmSAT). N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

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“The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician.” Vivien Mackie. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr.

          2017. <http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/mackie/>.

 

“A Painful Melody: Repetitive Strain Injury Among Musicians.” Tamara Mitchell. Pittsburg State

          University. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.pittstate.edu/dotAsset/ff1b09a9-          

          93d4-4a76-a8dc-40c1df35f5ae.pdf>

 

“Musician, health thyself.”Patrick A. McGuire. Peabody Magazine. 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

          <http://www.peabody.jhu.edu/past_issues/fall09/musician_heal_thyself.html>