Three Musicians Talk about the Alexander Technique


Bill Benham (violin), Melbon Mackie (bassoon) & Joseph Sanders (oboe)
Photographs supplied by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique

MEL: Bill, can I first ask you the question that I find terribly hard to answer if somebody asks me, "What is the Alexander Technique?"

F M Alexander
F M Alexander

BILL: It's always difficult to answer and it really depends on who you're speaking to because images mean different things to different people. What it isn't about is posture, because "posture" implies a static position. What I think it's about is conscious control in movement and regaining the full functioning of the natural supporting reflexes of the body with which we were all born. We can interfere with the working of these reflexes by the way we carry out voluntary activity, so if, for instance, you touch a red-hot plate, the instinct is of course is to withdraw the hand: the spinal reflex arch goes into operation. But if someone holds a gun to your head and says, "You are not to drop that plate," you can consciously veto (inhibit) this reflex reaction, hang on to the plate and burn your fingers!

MEL: The image that comes to my mind is one that we see on television quite often in nature films of a leopard or cheetah running at full pace and shown in slow motion. Obviously the animal is expending a tremendous amount of energy and yet the impression is one of almost total relaxation.

The head is still and travels in a straight line parallel to the ground, and the head leads and the body follows. My feeling is that we were born with good use, in other words the body is used with the least effort with maximum efficiency, and as we grow older the conscious part of the mind interferes with that process on an unconscious, habitual level.

BILL: Basically young children up to age 3 or 4 have pretty good use compared with adults and as, gradually, they copy the adults and older children around them and they sit hunched up at school, they gradually lose their natural movements, and so then we need a way to get back: to re-educate ourselves. That means we have to inhibit or stop doing those things which are harming us. Of course "inhibit" needs explaining. Most people think of it as a Freudian word, of being an inhibited person. The word "inhibition" as used by Alexander is not that at all - it is a positive decision not to act. The animal world is full of examples. A cat will wait to assess the distance before jumping, and until exactly the right moment to pounce on its prey, even though it might be very hungry and desperate. It will inhibit the desire until it can have the best chance of succeeding in catching its meal.

The involvement of the eyes is crucial to the Alexander Technique. Musicians very often forget the eyes because we are so much involved with listening. We develop hearing but vision gets forgotten. Alexander wouldn't like people to shut their eves to try to feel what was happening. He'd get them to look out of the window and to take notice of things going on around them.

MEL: I had a teacher who on the odd occasion used to turn on the television as a way of stopping me getting over-involved. I think he was trying to distract me from what he was doing - to stop me interfering.

BILL: That's right, because we're all trying hard to "do" it. Say someone tells you that you're raising your shoulder. Suddenly you are aware of it, so then you do something to stop it going up and perhaps make it worse than before - you hold it down and you're stiffer than ever.

MEL: Yes that's a nice distinction: not raising it is different from holding it down.

BILL: You have to inhibit the habit of raising it and then you can substitute another movement [reaction] which involves less tension, and leave the shoulder alone. When someone goes to a new teacher on an instrument the teacher will say, "You are doing this or that wrong; play like me" or "like this", and he'll demonstrate it and then you try and add on the new ideas to your usual way of playing. You can end up in a mess and confused.

MEL: If you have had experience of the Alexander Technique and you then teach an instrument (as I do), you can often find yourself in something of a quandary. You can be aware that your pupils are doing something which you would describe as very bad from an Alexander point of view and you can see is very much impeding their progress on the bassoon. The question is then, what do you do? Ideally you would like to tell them that they should go off and have Alexander lessons, which is maybe an impractical suggestion. First they're not that cheap for a struggling student and also, this person may not want to have Alexander lessons. They are something a person has to realise the need for, for himself. He may become receptive, but not necessarily at that time.

BILL: It's interesting, in the book by Walter Carrington [Explaining the Alexander Technique: The Writings of F Matthias Alexander, by Walter Carrington and Sean Carey, Sheildrake Press, 1992], that when people rang up Ashley Place for lessons the secretary would ask, "Have you read Mr Alexander's books?", and if they hadn't he would advise them to read one before they came for a lesson. That would save an awful lot of explaining. Alexander would expect his students to do some work. He didn't want people coming to him and just being completely passive: to take without giving. He wanted them to be involved in their own improvement.

MEL: That's something a lot of people don't realise, even people who have had lessons. I had one colleague who used to talk about going off for a lesson as a treatment. He had a physical problem and he used to regard an Alexander teacher almost as a medical person. He would go off to his lesson, lie on the table and wait to be "done to". I suspect there are a lot of other people who see it that way as well.

BILL: Anyway, Mel, what made you start having lessons?

MEL: It was one day out of the blue. I suddenly decided my breathing wasn't right. As a student, nobody had ever mentioned breathing to me at all, it was just something one did. I wasn't aware of any particular problems with it but anyhow I began to think, "I don't think the right bits of me are moving when I breathe". So I thought, "Right, now I'll start breathing correctly. I'll make sure all the right bits move." And I ended up in a real fix. I struggled along for a year and ended up in such a tangle, and then someone suggested Alexander lessons. It took a while, in fact one never stops trying to learn. What you have to be prepared for is that it's not going to be a quick fix. Also, you go along to an Alexander teacher and say, "I want to learn to breathe correctly," and what you have to be prepared for is that the teacher isn't then going to start teaching you how to breathe. Good breathing comes as a result of other things, and other things come as a result of good breathing. Each resonates from the other. This is something I've learnt from trying to apply the Alexander Technique to playing the bassoon, especially in a performing situation; that we are a whole. The emotional state resonates with the physical state and vice versa. I'm convinced that relaxation is the key to so many things and is a state that is quite difficult to achieve, especially when the pressure is on.

BILL: People who haven't had Alexander lessons usually misinterpret the word, "relaxation". To a lot of people this implies "collapse", or that's what they do. They collapse and slump. But relaxation in Alexander terms isn't that at all. It's more to do with getting the natural supporting postural mechanisms working, but that often takes several lessons. Until the back is working well, the breathing can't happen in a relaxed way. To use Alexander's clumsy term, the "means whereby" relaxed breathing can take place is when the back is working: tending to "lengthen and widen" as opposed to narrowing and shortening.

F M Alexander teaching [Picture 1]When 'F M' was making his initial discoveries he had been suffering from voice and breathing problems. He kept losing his voice during recitals. He was a reciter of Shakespeare, dramatic monologues and such like. He began to observe himself in mirrors and saw that certain things happened when he recited. In particular he gasped air in and tightened his neck and throat muscles. He developed a way of changing this damaging way of reacting and went on to teach others. He became known as the "Breathing Man". In his teaching he talked a lot about breathing at first, but as he got older he explained less and less in words, because people would misunderstand: the words got in the way. People's ideas about how to do things and what feels right are so bound up with their own habits and preconceptions. He developed a subtle way of using his hands to help people experience what he meant.

MEL: In a way you are trying to describe something for which there is no [common] vocabulary. But is it possible to describe what might happen in a lesson?

BILL: Yes. I suppose with particular reference to wind players, I think there is a tendency for the breathing to be tight and the rib cage to be held rigid. The more difficult the music, probably the more tension you get in the rib cage. What an Alexander teacher will do is try to calm it all down, and he will usually begin by putting a hand on the head and back of the neck to bring the head more freely into balance on the spine.

MEL: So the teacher would not necessarily say to himself "This is a wind player so I must treat him in a particular kind of way"?

BILL: No. An Alexander teacher should be using his eyes so that from the very first moment he would be observing. The interesting thing is that if Alexander himself had a young enthusiast who was very keen on a sport or an instrument, and he observed that playing messed them up he would say, "Why don't you stop?"

MEL: Yes. In fact my first teacher actually said to me, "In an ideal world I would ask you to give up playing for a year and continue having Alexander lessons". In my own personal experience it's actually very difficult to have Alexander lessons but at the same time continue doing the things which have been messing you up - that is playing the bassoon - because you continue to do things wrong. You have no choice. You're sitting there, the conductor puts the beat down and you have to produce the notes. It can be quite nerve-racking to have to bring to that situation something new and to try to change what you're used to doing.

BILL: That's right, and in a performance you can't really be thinking too much about it. You've just got to get on with the job.

MEL: Yes, but the danger is, of course, that you start to! That's happened to me, I've been about to play something and suddenly I've been concerned about whether my neck is free or not. And I've had to say to myself, "Hey, cut it out, what do you think you are doing!" An Alexander teacher I had at the time said, "Look, you can only think about one thing at a time." And that's true if you are doing it in a concentrated way.

BILL: Of course, what you need to think about in the concert is the music.

MEL: One has enough to think about - the conductor, colleagues and fitting in: being an individual and part of a group, etc... It's complicated enough, but to put a whole layer of stuff on top of that as well, and to cope with it, is quite difficult.

BILL: Well, Alexander used to advise professional people to take time off, but as a violinist I wasn't able to do that for my Alexander teachers' training course; but I feel that I would have benefited more, had I given the instrument up for six to twelve months. But that's easier said than done. The teacher training was expensive, especially for me at the time, so I had to earn the money. In fact you find that most students on training courses are working hard to earn money in work that isn't very well paid.

MEL: So having scared people off by saying it's a very difficult thing to do, do you think it's a worthwhile thing to attempt to do?

BILL: Definitely. I think it's taken me a good ten years since finishing the training to apply the Technique to the violin, but I was up against extra problems with the violin in that I am very tall and have a very long neck.

MEL: Why did you do it, Joe?

JOE: Well, I was at the Royal Academy of Music studying the oboe with Janet Craxton and she didn't talk about anything else other than playing. And that was marvellous, because obviously that was what she was good at and she stuck to what she was good at. Anything you wanted to do in your spare time was up to you, and I started Alexander lessons because someone else had had them. In fact I had seen Jean Gibson before. [Jean Gibson, now in her eighties, has helped many musicians. She has had some Alexander training in the past, but over the years has developed her own ways of working to correct poor use.] She knows about the Technique although she didn't recommend it. There was nobody teaching Alexander at the Academy at that time and I had about twelve lessons. I did it because I thought it would make playing the oboe easier - and in fact it did.

MEL: That's a good way of putting it: it's something that makes things easier. If you suggest to music students that they should have Alexander lessons and they turn round and say, "Why?", the perfect answer is to say that it will make things easier...

JOE: ...for them and for their teacher to teach them.

MEL: Of course the student is lucky to have such an enlightened teacher in that way and to have got into the Alexander Technique at a comparatively early age, because the older you are, in a way, the more difficult it is.

BILL: And I think that makes it very difficult for professionals to accept it very often. You see, what is their technique but a whole lot of habit patterns, and most are probably disadvantageous! And it's very frightening. The psychological stress of having to say, "All the way I've been playing the instrument for the past 20 years is rubbish and I've got to undo it" is very threatening and it puts a lot of people off. They don't want to face the challenge. They'd much rather go and have some osteopathic treatment where they can be just passive and get by: to forget about the backache. The alternative seems too drastic.

MEL: Okay, so we get lots of people who end up with problems like a pain in their neck, a stiff right arm or whatever it is, and it becomes self-evident to them that they have a problem that needs fixing, and a lot of people come to the Alexander Technique as a result of that. But it seems to me that the Technique has got a lot more to offer than just that.

JOE: Yes, that's the threatening bit. When people come to me I always suggest something like osteopathy, because it might help them in the short term. If you know you've got some way of controlling the pain, then maybe you're more inclined to put up with it and then to change your lifestyle in the long run. I do suggest they try everything from beta-blockers to God knows what to open the options for them so that they feel there's a safety net to fall into.

F M Alexander teaching [Picture 2]MEL: It seems to me that the Alexander technique is a very powerful technique in the long term because it gives the individual an insight into what's going on, and the means to deal with these problems for themselves. The image that comes to my mind is that it's like taking a torch and shining a light into some dark corners of ones own way of being. I think most of us are pretty much unaware of ourselves in many ways and the Alexander Technique is a bit like a probe for exploring what's going on inside oneself on different levels. Obviously the more you go into it the deeper those levels can become and you can choose more or less for yourself how far you want to take it. The obvious physical level is probably the initial one, isn't it?

JOE: Yes, people come because they are in pain.

MEL: And also people come because they see it has potential for improving their performance. Coming back to the teaching situation, you can say to someone, "Don't tilt your head to the right" and they say, "I'm not", but you can see perfectly well that they are. They get so used to having their head tilted to the right that, to them, it feels upright. I often tell people to go away and practise in front of a mirror and people get big surprises when they see what they are actually doing.

JOE: That's the big problem: getting accurate feedback of yourself. That's why you go to an Alexander teacher or good instrumental teacher, because hopefully they tell you useful objective truths.

BILL: But in an Alexander lesson the teacher's hands tell you something. The pupil will feel the hands on him and the hands will indicate where the tension is. So one of the functions of the teacher's hands is to make the pupil more aware.

MEL: Could I ask a question that I suspect a lot of people would ask, "Why is the Alexander Technique necessary? Why is it that we can't pick up a musical instrument and play it to good physical advantage and not suffer ill effects?"

JOE: I don't think it's the musical instrument so much as the person who comes to the instrument.

MEL: I'm not sure I would agree with you there. I personally feel that the way musical instruments are designed and made presents problems. I think the basic problem is that the human frame has to accommodate itself to the instrument and not the other way around. The violin, I'm sure, is an horrendous thing to have to play. Not being a string player I could not physically get my left hand fingers onto the strings.

JOE: The thing about playing a musical instrument is that we need far better use than, say, to drive a car or to do other things...

MEL: ...because the level of physical co-ordination it requires is extremely high. In life generally one could say that the most basic actions give rise to bad use of the body - sitting down in a chair is a classic example. But as you say, playing a musical instrument is of a higher order...

JOE: ...because the demands you are making of the outcome are so much higher. You can't perform a Mozart concerto in a slumpy sort of way. People will think, "Oh that was a slumpy performance". You just can't get away with it. Your fingers, your breathing and mind have all got to be working.

MEL: Its a very complex process when people are playing a musical instrument, and on all levels: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual states all resonating with each other, or maybe conflicting with each other, as the case may be.

JOE: And the Alexander Technique touches on all those.

BILL: So in the early lessons Alexander teachers will tell you to forget all about it between lessons and try to come regularly. Three lessons a week is the ideal, though you don't often persuade people to come that often! They used to say you need thirty lessons to get a grounding, but people don't realise how long it takes.

MEL: In actual fact, once you become involved in it, it's almost impossible to say "Alright, that's it. Finished", because it is new knowledge, and you can't ignore knowledge. And even though you may forget about it for lengthy periods every now and again it will come back - and it's brilliant when it does.

JOE: And also you are changing as a person all the time. You go to music college as a student and then you come out and you think, "Now I've finished music college; I'm the finished product". But of course it's not so. You and all the circumstances in your life change, and if you have not got a technique for adapting, you come unstuck pretty quickly.

MEL: Just on a different point. I have often been aware of students going into music college and thinking, "This is it. My career's assured"!

BILL: But I also think that with young people they can get away with a certain amount of misuse. It happens with the violin. There have been countless prodigies who have been marvellous at the age of twelve playing Paganini concertos. And then as they've got older (at the age of thirty-four or something) they can't play it. They struggle because their technique wasn't physiologically sound. It wasn't based on sound mechanical principles and they've incorporated so much misuse. You can get away with it when you're twelve. For instance, you've got a different bone structure - ossification isn't completed until you're twenty-four or so. So really Alexander should come into training much earlier than music college - say, in secondary schools.

BILL: But unfortunately unless people realise for themselves they need the Technique, they don't appreciate it. In a way you have to have to be in agony and suffering.

JOE: Well, Alexander, he was an artist, he was a vocal reciter and he was dead set on this. We all know the story. He was like all of us. We've got this career and it starts to go really well and we think, "Brilliant!" And then his voice just wouldn't work. And from about the age of about twenty-one he set out to sort it out. It took him about ten years. I don't know anyone else in that situation who's going to spend all that time and effort to sort things out. Because, there's no question about it, the Technique does need a lot of work. But it repays all the work.

MEL: What he achieved is unbelievable. The persistence of a young man like that is extraordinary.

JOE: But it is just like the work you put into an instrument. I mean, it's no new thing for musicians. You don't get anywhere by doing nothing - unless you're really lucky.

MEL: One hears professional players maybe with a little passage that they haven't yet mastered, and they will just play it again and again, making the same mistake each time. In fact what they don't realise is that they are actually practising the mistake. One could draw an analogy on a broader level and say when people misuse themselves they are confirming themselves in that misuse. This is why, as you say, as you get older you find you can't do the things you could when you were younger.

JOE: You've compounded the misuse by repeating it over and over and you've established the bad habit. Well the Technique certainly chops through all that. A friend of mine rang up recently. He was asking me about performance nerves and what to do. So I said, "Well there are lots of things you can do. In the short term take beta-blockers, hypnosis, whatever." And I talked to him as an Alexander teacher about the Technique as a long-term thing. Then I was talking to an oboist friend of mine in Germany who works with a modern music group. (She's also had a lot of Alexander work.) One day she was doing some Stockhausen thing with a big passage, one of those where you think, "Oh God it's not going right. What am I going to do about it? I've got to go on stage and do it." So eventually - she was at home - she lay down on the floor and began working on herself in an Alexander way. And then she realised, as she was playing it through in her mind, that she was tensing her neck like mad. Which is like number one "No, no!" of the Alexander Technique. Just making that simple connection for her showed that the mere thought of playing the music was causing her to tense her neck. So obviously if you are running it through in your mind and you are tensing your neck, then what's going on when you are on stage? Anyway, having taken herself out of a concert situation, she had a chance to change things at a less stressful moment, and it's very powerful. She said, "It was amazing. Tell your friend that."

BILL: The great piano teacher Theodor Leschetizcki (1830-1915) used to advise his pupils to spend as much time thinking about the music away from the instrument as in actually playing.

JOE: I had a singing teacher who is about 90 - must be 92 now - and he said, "Singing is ninety per cent meditation". He's an old man looking at it from a panoramic perspective and he's absolutely right.

MEL: In actual fact, basically what the Technique is about is teaching yourself just to let that little glint of daylight in between reacting to something in an unconscious way and reacting in a conscious way. You can say to yourself "No. I'm not going to react yet... Now I will react." Because when you react in an unconscious way you are not in control. When you react in a conscious way you are in control. For example, if someone makes you angry it doesn't mean you are going to "control" that anger and not get angry. It simply means that you choose to get angry.

JOE: Yes, you can choose to sock them one or not! And also, afterwards you wouldn't be stuck with your anger. It would tend to flow through more quickly.

BILL: Yes, I don't think Alexander would have been in favour of inhibiting ones emotions.

MEL: But some people do have this idea that Alexander people don't react, and go around like zombies. I think that anyone who is like that has got the Technique wrong.


Our sincere thanks to Malcolm Williamson (who himself teaches Alexander technique at the RNCM) for his help in transcribing this interview, and to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) for supplying photographs. Readers who would like to contact an Alexander teacher are invited to send an SAE to STAT, 20 London House, 266 Fulham Road, London SW10 9EL for information and a list of teachers in their area.


Biographies

Melbon Mackie was born and educated in New Zealand, coming to England in 1969 to do a post-graduate year of study with Gwydion Brooke at the RAM. At the end of that year he went to the Royal Opera House as a Principal Bassoon, a position he still holds. His interest in Alexander Technique came about as a result of wishing to learn more about tone production and breathing, and a realisation that greater physical effort was not the correct means of obtaining a better result in these areas.

Bill Benham was a quirister at Winchester and went on to study the violin with John Sealey, Jean Pougnet and Alfredo Campoli. He led the London Festival Ballet Orchestra for several tours, and then joined the Bath Festival Orchestra under Yehudi Menuhin. At 21 he became a first violin with the London Symphony Orchestra under André Previn, where he remained for five years. After co-leading the Northern Sinfonia, and leading his own quartet he returned to freelance work in London. Last year, he formed a successful duo with Nadia Lasserson.

Mr Benham is a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and has applied for a patent for his high chin-rest.

Joseph Sanders: I first encountered the Alexander Technique whilst studying at the RAM. I had a series of lessons with Meredith Page in the Autumn of 1979, and thereafter intermittently whilst continuing my oboe studies in Germany and then whilst freelancing in London from 1983 onwards. Wanting to find out more, I trained as an Alexander Teacher with Patrick MacDonald from 1988-91 and, all along, I have found the combination of oboe playing and the Technique fascinating and rewarding.

Double Reed News No.24, August 1993, pp.4-10


JW, 30-Dec-1999