Three Musicians Continue their Discussion of the Alexander Technique


Bill Benham (violin), Melbon Mackie (bassoon) & Joseph Sanders (oboe)

BILL: I think that book, 'The Inner Game of Music' by Timothy Galway, talks about what you're thinking, which really is like the Technique.

MEL: I heard the author on the radio when his book 'The Inner Game of Tennis' first came out and I thought, "This is pure Alexander".

BILL: You can be thinking the wrong thoughts, which will mess you up. If you've got a difficult passage coming up on the next line and you start worrying about it and think it might go wrong; you'll almost certainly muck it up. You're just setting yourself up to mess it up. He talks quite a lot in his books about fear, and as soon as we get frightened of doing something wrong it tends to interfere with our "Primary Control".

JOE: The idea of the Technique is that you can tap into that and it feeds through all the rest, a "master reflex". There is a primary reflex that controls the self and, in a sense, it's very simple. Obviously you need a certain amount of work to make the Alexander Technique simple, just as you need a lot of bassoon practice to make the bassoon simple. In the end you just blow it and move your fingers but it takes a while to get to that. And you don't always do it like that everyday. Some days it works better. The Technique too. When it's working it's a very simple thing.

BILL: "Directing the head forward and up" is another way of describing the Primary Control. It's important to realise that there is no muscle you can tighten to send the head forward and up. The centre of gravity of the head is just above the top of the ear - very much higher than most people realise. And the point of balance is just behind the ear itself - 'forward and up' is extending the line. [The head is heavier to the front of the top joint between the base of the skull and the top vertebra in the neck (the atlanto-occipital joint) so it will tend to fall forward as the neck muscles release, and it goes up as the spine lengthens.]

JOE: That's why you go for lessons. To have a teacher do it for you instantaneously. To save yourself ten years, which is how long it took Alexander himself.

MEL: Earlier on we were talking about what the Technique was about, and one of the things it is not about is slumping. People's idea of relaxation is generally a misconceived one. When you say, "there is no muscle to tighten to send the head forward and up", isn't the Alexander Technique about relaxing tensed muscles? Wouldn't you say that a muscle that is not tensed is relaxed? What people tend to do when they think they are relaxed is simply to tighten a different set of muscles.

JOE: Well it's about balancing the muscle tension [tone]. There's nothing wrong with tensed muscles - if you didn't tense muscle you'd just fall on the floor like a bag of bones. It's about the co-ordination. [Posture isn't something you can do by simply trying harder. It is an innate response to the pull of gravity among other things.]

MEL: You could say, "unnecessarily tensed", "unduly tensed" or "over-tensed".

JOE: Obviously if you want to lift weights your muscles are going to be working like mad, and to play our instruments a lot of physical activity is involved. It's how we balance that tension...

MEL: It's also to do with releasing the muscles again, once you've picked that weight up and put it down. Isn't the point that frequently one doesn't quite release the muscles to the extent they were released before, and that over a lifetime this becomes a habit?

JOE: You can even twist your bones. There was Poirot on the television the other day. It was the one on the Nile - the strychnine poisoning; someone took strychnine and it caused a muscular spasm in the jaw which broke the jawbone. The power of muscles is extraordinary.

MEL: Another example is someone being thrown across a room by an electric shock. It's not the electricity that's done that, it's the person's own muscular power reacting to the electrical charge.

JOE: That's why balance is so important. The power there is enormous.

MEL: You said something, Bill, that really hit home too when I asked, why is Alexander Technique necessary for playing a musical instrument? And you used one word, which is very largely the answer: fear. I think above all responses the one that sets up the most physical imbalances is fear. I think most professional musicians know what it's like to be afraid.

BILL: Well yes there are various theories about how we have this "startle" response. We have a response that we are all born with, so that if someone slams a door behind you and you are not expecting it you immediately crouch and shorten the neck and back and hold the breath, round the back, clench the fingers and go into a cold sweat. [Startle pattern begins with extension according to Jones & Kennedy - (M W)]. It's a procedure that we go into in a split second and it starts off with the neck. It is often pointed out that we go through a lot of fearful situations. For instance, just drive out in the car: a few near misses and we've probably already begun to shorten the neck as part of this startle response, and obviously when you get up in front of an audience and you have any fear about it, it tends to set it off again. And however many Alexander lessons you've had you are still subject to this powerful response.

JOE: It's interesting what you said earlier about the Technique being very threatening. I think that sometimes, as a pupil or teacher, you will be working at how the head is "worn" on the top of the neck and obviously you'll be interfering, ideally in a creative way, with the startle reflex. It does come up that people feel threatened because you are working with exactly that complex of emotions. They feel vulnerable because the shielding mechanism is taken away and they see their fear. Ideally with the Technique, it's done in a constructive way. In a lesson you can be working so it gives you an insight into your own fear response, so in a real situation, such as a concert, it gives you a constructive way of dealing with your fear of performing or of getting it wrong in a performance.

MEL: With the physical aspects of the startle reflex that Bill described, all these things happen. But of course what also happens is that for that brief moment the process is happening you are virtually unconscious mentally. The brain's not working. You are in a state of mental paralysis. You talk about how, when you stand up to perform, these physical things happen to you when experiencing fear, but it's the mental things as well. But if you are able to function mentally you can maybe get by these physical disadvantages. A colleague of mine describes it as the "pink mist" descending. This is what I meant when we were talking earlier on about the physical and mental and emotional all interacting with one another. If you can see there's some means of interrupting that physical response it follows that it gives you a means of changing that habitual mental response as well, so that hopefully you are able to keep a certain amount of mental awareness. We may only be talking about split seconds or we may not. These things can last a lot longer. But those split seconds tend to be the important ones.

JOE: And also, in those split seconds where you see red, disastrous things can happen and set up a whole pattern of "Oh my God the last time it was disastrous", and it sets up more and more fear in a vicious circle.

MEL: Often, if I find I'm about to go off and do something that might worry me a bit, the thing that makes me most afraid is being afraid and therefore not functioning to my best ability. If you had an experience before where fear caused you not to perform as well as you had hoped, then next time your expectation is that the same thing's going to happen again and it compounds itself.

BILL: I think we are coming up against another problem we have in that we are often required to play music that's impossible - or impossible for our technique at that time. In an ideal world we'd never try and do something that we can't do. Sometimes in sessions we rewrite the part, don't we? But it is very important to break this cycle of negative fear, actually to start performing things that are easier, or that we consider easier, and to perform them successfully, perhaps to groups of friends, often enough to build up gradually the positive feelings of self-confidence and feel good about ourselves. I went through a long period of feeling very negative and I think that at first when you decide to take Alexander lessons and try to apply it to playing, the transition period - especially for a musician who has to go out and earn a living and can't take this ideal six months off - can be very daunting.

BILL: In my case, I have such a long neck that I have had to develop my own chin-rest. It's taken me years. Basically I'm too big for the violin, so I was playing the wrong instrument to start with, and there I was stuck in the LSO first violins. So I've had to adapt the instrument to fit me. Sometimes with the bassoon you use the Dutch crutch, don't you?

MEL: Some do. I've just been thinking here we are talking about the Alexander Technique and we've hardly talked about the specific problems that musicians have with different instruments. We've talked about problems in very general terms and I don't think that is by accident. People come with a particular viewpoint, a particular problem with a particular instrument, and they may look to the Alexander Technique as a means of answering that particular problem. But I think that very quickly they are made aware of the fact that their particular problem is a result of much more general problems. So therefore it's by no means irrelevant to approach it from a general, all-encompassing viewpoint.

JOE: Yes, that's a big aspect of the Technique. You are encouraged to stand back, or, to put it another way, you are on the high diving board and you're surveying the swimming pool. You are not drowning somewhere below, you are seeing the whole thing, like you're "standing back" from your playing.

MEL: Maybe we could talk about the particular problems that are likely to arise with particular instruments. You said before that the oboe is not a particularly complex instrument, but I'm sure it has its problems.

JOE: I've fiddled around with my thumb-rest. We've talked about how we change all the time. You might play in a certain way when you are twenty-five, but that gradually changes and you have to change your playing position or reeds or something.

MEL: What happens it that you change. But if you are not aware of what you're doing that change can come simply in the form of exaggeration. Whatever you do over the years becomes more and more exaggerated and becomes a permanent feature of your physical make-up. I remember once when I was in hospital for a short period, there was an elderly man in the bed next to me, and I knew perfectly well when he got out of bed and walked down the ward that he was a dentist. Because he was incapable of standing upright. Over the years he had become so used to bending over patients that, as I said before, the muscles had never come back to quite their original state, so that over the years it had pulled his skeleton out of shape. That's an exaggerated example of what happens to most people. The problem that springs to mind for me when I think about the oboe is the mere fact of that right thumb - the instrument resting on the thumb. It would be interesting to know what sort of pressure is being applied. The weight is concentrated into a small area and that must give rise to tension all up the arm and shoulder and so on. It goes right through.

JOE: The idea of the Technique is to build up the strength in the back and the "lift" in the spine to flow in the opposite direction and counteract that.

MEL: So it's not to build up muscles, to pick up an enormous weight with your right arm, so the oboe isn't going to be a problem?

JOE: No, it's a different kettle of fish all together. Also you've got to co-ordinate the lifting up of the arm in such a way that the breathing is totally free to function. If you tense your arm your rib cage freezes so you can't play the oboe anyway. I experimented with my thumb-rest because I found it was uncomfortable. There's obviously the pad on your thumb, and that's a crucial area because it does take a lot of strain. So you don't want something that's literally digging into your skin. Now I've got one of these adjustable things that clarinettists tend to have, and you can move the thumb-rest in and out. I thought, "Who knows? I might wake up one morning and I might want to try something different."

MEL: Can I just interrupt there to make a general point? The oboe maker has probably never thought, "What effect is the instrument going to have on the player?". A lot of them don't play anyway. So you are stuck with this instrument. You take it out of its box and you have to accommodate yourself to it. Now with an oboe the amount of adjustments is fairly limited, I would have thought. But what about an instrument like the bassoon - say the old style bassoon with a sling round the neck and the crook bent at quite an angle and the instrument slanting across the body so that you have to pull your right shoulder right back to get your hand on the instrument, and with the weight resting on your left hand? A lot of players say, "Yes, I'm perfectly comfortable playing like that". But what it's doing to them in the process is appalling. It's putting them at a severe mechanical disadvantage every time they play the instrument. When you try to improve on that you can only improve certain aspects. You might use a seat strap or a spike to take the weight of the instrument, that enables you to move the instrument forward so that the right hand can move forward, free the shoulder and release the chest, so that you can breathe more easily. But as soon as you do that you find you have a problem with the left hand, because you then have to adopt a more exaggerated angle with the left wrist, and the conclusion that you come to is that the bassoon needs to be redesigned to enable you to sit normally on a chair with both feet flat on the floor, facing straight ahead with an open upper chest. If you gave me a bassoon as I sat in that position, and I put both hands on it in a perfectly normal way so that neither my wrists nor elbows were unduly bent and my fingers reasonably straight, I could not physically play it because the instrument won't allow it. It seems to me a redesign is long overdue. The shape of the instrument hasn't changed in hundreds of years.

JOE: I was in Chile and there's this clarinet player, Luis Rossi, who studied with John (Jack) McCaw in London; he is a very nice player and produces beautiful instruments and he's really into instrument design and all the rest of it. He'd played a concerto and he took us to dinner and he was talking about the design of the bassoon, and he said there have been people who redesigned it. There was some Romanian and a Russian. What happened with the Romanian chap was, he'd spent all this time building this prototype - wonderful, you could whiz all over it and it plays fantastically...

MEL: ...and probably nobody wants to play it.

JOE: He can't afford the enormous amount of money to build all the machinery to make the key-work. So what happens? Heckel say, "Oh we'll have it". They buy it, shove it in a drawer and continue making their own model. It takes an enormous amount of interest and investment to change things.

MEL: It also takes a very enlightened attitude on the part of players themselves. And maybe that's what we should be doing here to advance that a little bit. It's a closed loop isn't it? The enlightened player on his own is still going to be fed the 200 or 300 year-old bassoon.

JOE: That's getting into the politics of the Alexander Technique. You, say, go along to sort your problems out and you have lessons and things change, and then you come back to your old situation and in some ways you are politically compelled to change your original situation, and that trickles down in all sort of ways. You do have to change your life. And, say you play the bassoon, you have to sit back and consider, "Well maybe I need a short crook or a long crook", or whatever. With the oboe, you come back and you say, "My reeds: they've got to go!" And the way you play. You can't say, "I learned this school of playing". You've got to say, "Well I've got my own self and I've got to develop my own way". Things do change.

MEL: It's not a necessarily traumatic business though, is it? One ends up wanting to change. One sees advantages for oneself. Someone once described it to me like peeling away the layers of an onion. It's not a huge explosion. You go from stage to stage as you become ready for those stages.

JOE: An oboist friend of mine said that she had this lesson - or lessons - and she said she couldn't play the oboe after that. I don't remember the details but there is a fair comment in that. When you go back to the instrument it is different and you can't play it as you played it before. I remember - I had lessons at the Academy and years passed and then I had a lot more, and then I'd started training as an Alexander teacher for a few months - and one day I had a quintet rehearsal in Westminster. I was sitting on the train and I remember thinking that my arms were completely like jelly and between the shoulders and the neck, it was like a black hole, it just wasn't there. And I was just sitting there and I thought, "Well what am I going to do now?". Something changes and you can say, "It's not like I usually am" or you can take the attitude, "Well I'll have a go. I'll take the risk and see what happens".

If you can do that, take the lessons and see what happens, you'll realise it's different - but it can be wonderful. But it does take time. Taking Alexander lessons is a risk but maybe the risk is the excitement you need to freshen up your life.

MEL: Well I've had some wonderful experiences. It's happened to me once or twice, I've been sitting there in a perfectly normal situation performing something and all of a sudden it just happens all by itself. It's incredibly exciting that one can struggle for months thinking one's not getting anywhere and then suddenly you can have a breakthrough like that. Of course you come back the next time looking for the same thing again and it may not necessarily happen.

JOE: It's the risk you took in having a go without preparing yourself for the excitement of that. You think, "Well I'll just sing like a complete idiot and I don't know anything about it." I won't think, "I always do it like this, so I'll do it like this again." Because that doesn't work. You've only got as far as you've got and ideally you want things to be different. So some days, you pick up your instrument and just see what happens say in the light of your Alexander lessons. You free your neck and say "I'm not going to interfere with my neck. Maybe I'll drop the bassoon, so what?". But you have to be prepared for something different.

MEL: You have to be prepared for failure, don't you? Alexander talks about this. We were talking about fear, the fear of failure and it's amazing, even practising alone in one's own room one can still be afraid of failure; we have to let go of that fear and be prepared to fail. It can be terrifying, but also exhilarating and a great learning experience.

BILL: Maybe we should say that it is possible to play well with a great deal of misuse - many people do! They succeed for long periods in the music profession.

JOE: I've got a violinist friend who is fantastic and his use of himself is absolutely dreadful! He's about thirty-five and plays the Tchaikovsky ballet solos wonderfully.

MEL: So he's got bad use. Is that something one can just forget about and say good luck to him, or is he going to pay the price at some time in his life?

JOE: You can't tell. You never know. It's like some people smoke and they don't get lung cancer and others don't smoke and they do. But of course it's asking for trouble.

BILL: One can't always tell how much people are misusing themselves just by looking at them. It can be very misleading. But you see there again you don't know where they are starting from. Very often people who start the Technique are starting from a pretty bad level of use. A lot of musicians become good musicians because their use is above average. If your use is above average it will apply to everything you do, as a driver or golfer, whatever you do. But it doesn't mean to say it can't be improved.

JOE: And, also it doesn't mean that it can't deteriorate, even if it starts out relatively good, which is obviously why a lot of people come to the Technique.

BILL: Many who become Alexander teachers started off from a fairly wrecked sort of state with a lot of pain. I sometimes think that people look at teachers and say, "What's so special about them?", but they don't know where they started, where they have come from.

JOE: Yes, it isn't about looking good - it's the process. I trained with Patrick Macdonald and he looked absolutely dreadful, but he was one of the great teachers.

People think you're going to live long and be beautiful, but although they do tend to live longer and better, that's not the aim, its the work; finding a way of working that you can apply to an instrument as well as everything else. I think it's quite good to learn something to do alongside the Technique. You know these Zen people, they do flower arranging and archery, all these kinds of things. Zen ideas are all a bit airy-fairy, so they do a practical activity to work the ideas out in reality, to make them actually tangible. And I think a musical instrument is like that. It does make what you are doing with yourself very tangible - audible and all the rest of it.

MEL: It's not quite the same though, because if you come to the Technique through your instrument it's generally because there's some anxiety associated with the instrument. You are looking for that anxiety to be eschewed, which isn't really a very good thing. Ideally you want to be able to forget the anxiety altogether.

BILL: One of the aphorisms of F M was, "You're all trying to be right. Try to be wrong" We've got to get away from this thing we have about right and wrong and treat everything as a sort of experiment. If you play something and you fluff a note it's not the end of the world. You've got to be able to take the fact that sometimes squeaks are going to creep in or the unexpected is going to happen.

JOE: Well certainly you have to be prepared to accept your failures, and the Technique allows you to do that in a very constructive way. It doesn't just drop you in there, it gives you something to do with them.

BILL: But I think that among some musicians there is still some hostility to the technique. One of the reasons for that could be that it is so demanding and threatening and that it takes such a lot of time and effort. And that for a period your playing might actually deteriorate.

MEL: Well it leaves you a bit at sea, because as you say, you're supposed to stop doing it the old way and you haven't yet learned the new way.

BILL: Talking about applying it, you were talking about the Zen students applying it perhaps to something they hadn't done before. When we did the training course in Highgate we all had to sing, whether we'd sung before or not. Actually we all had to do something we hadn't done before, to apply the Technique, and that was very instructive. Well for me it was much more fun and enjoyable at the time than applying it to the fiddle, when it was always a disaster!

JOE: Because the whole thing about failure doesn't come into it does it? You're not trying to prove anything.

MEL: Apart from anything else, when it comes to the fiddle you've got preconceptions. I think that was probably what I was trying to say before. You're going back to it with a preconception of what it could be, what you're afraid it might be. BILL: And the longer you've been training - if you've done ten years' practice on an instrument - your whole ego is bound up with that. If you wake up one morning and think, "I can't do it" and this is the one thing you're meant to be able to do better than most other people, it's a very big psychological thing.

JOE: Of course on a basic level, that's exactly what the Technique is asking, or demanding that you do. You wake up and say, "All right I can't play - in my case - the oboe, but let's see what happens." And if you've got that state of mind it will probably work out and be fine.

BILL: But I believe it has been the case that certain Alexander teachers have taken part in public masterclasses and destroyed players. There would be a masterclass where there was an Alexander teacher present. The music student wasn't having regular Alexander lessons, wasn't actually in a prepared state to understand them, and was told all these things by a teacher and couldn't take it.

MEL: It wasn't a very enlightened teacher in that case.

BILL: It does require great sensitivity, and certainly when there are other people present I think it is much better taught in private.

MEL: Absolutely, because the main fear of failure is having others see you fail. If you fail only to yourself it doesn't matter so much, but in front of all your colleagues... It's the old phenomenon, sitting at home in your bathroom you can play anything, but to do it in front of an audience is a different matter altogether.

Double Reed News No.25, November 1993, pp.36-41


JW, 30-Dec-1999