Alexander Technique Essay Mary Elizabeth Kelly BMus3
During the course of my study of the Alexander Technique, I have noted that it is widely observed, by many myriad sources that the application of the Technique
"has also been known to help performers with getting past the plateau effect, performance anxiety, getting beyond a supposed "lack of talent" and to sharpen discrimination and descriptive ability. It has also helped people control unwanted reactions, phobias and depression." 1
This interests me, as over the time I have had an active interest in studying the work of Alexander, I have noticed a difference in my use, which I believe, in turn, has made a positive impact on my viola playing. After my Alexander Technique sessions, I feel as if I am literally floating above the floor and rehearsal and practicing for the rest of the day, and often the next, is a real pleasure. It makes me feel invincible insofar as hours of music-making is concerned, which any musician will testify, is a fairly tall order given the physical effects of an 8-10 hour day of playing.
Since coming to study at a prestigious London Music College, I have come to hate performing on my viola in a solo situation. I go out of my way to avoid solo performance opportunities, going as far as getting myself into a panic if a chamber work involves a brief exposure of the viola line. This is surely counter-productive; if I do in fact, wish to pursue a career in music. The irony is that I do enjoy performing, as long as it is in a group situation. The high I experience from live performance, and in some cases, rehearsals of truly great music rivals, in my opinion, any other positive feeling. The rush of adrenaline is similar to that experienced when falling in love, experiencing a beautiful sight, or riding on a roller coaster. I do not believe it can be replicated by any substance, legal or otherwise, so I am secure in dedicating my life in the pursuit, and refinement of this thrill. So why the hatred of playing on my own?
After some time spent discussing my fears with many people, including a psychologist, I recorded a general consensus. People view those of us in high pressure academic or artistic environments to be a lot more harsh on ourselves than the average student. Not satisfied with our talent, or refusal to accept its presence, we chip away at our self confidence with tools of our own creation, leaving ourselves wide open to destruction from outside. Promising students can be so intimidated by the atmosphere of the conservatoire that they can't "take the pace" and leave, while many of those who do stay the course opt to have career free from any kind of performance. For those outside of the conservatoire system, this must seem like madness - after all, these students must have demonstrated a remarkable level of skill and talent in order to gain entry to such an establishment. They have also demonstrated that they possessed a drive and passion, in auditioning for such a college - to commit four years to the often lonely process of refining an art at the age of eighteen or nineteen is a pretty serious undertaking, but those who pursue this avenue are determined, and love music above all else. So why the anxiety?
"Performance anxiety or stage fright...can mean either a depressing burden or a heightening tingle of the nerves." 2 This is an interesting statement. The "tingle of nerves" she speaks of could be interpreted as the adrenaline rush necessary to give a really good performance. The hormonal "fight or flight syndrome" kicks in as we become nervous as performance time draws ever closer. "What if I forget the notes? What if my string breaks? I hope I don't miss the run on the third page! Maybe no one has come to the concert? What if I fall flat on my face?" The "fight or flight" response is accompanied by several physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action; including the acceleration of heart and lung action, constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body and dilation of the pupils. Many people who experience this kind of reaction before performing can experience immediate relief from breathing exercises, such as basic Pilates or calm the symptoms with herbal aids such as rescue remedy. The nervous energy, when it is present can contribute to making the atmosphere around the stage truly electric, when it is properly managed. The "depressing burden" however, is quite a different matter.
For me, at the current stage of my musical development, my personal manifestation of performance anxiety is that it occurs in a huge weight of despair whenever I have to play alone, whether this is at an audition, in an exam, or even sometimes in a lesson. I play timidly, apologetically, fishing for notes, and making "schoolboy errors" many weeks after I have done the "note-crunching" stage of my practice. I dread exam time, and obsess over tuning when playing with chamber groups, in case anyone should think to single me out and question why I am there! Conversely, when I am safely ensconced within an orchestra, I barely feel a thing, secure in the knowledge that should something go terribly wrong, I alone cannot be held responsible, and even if it was my fault, it is unlikely that the audience will identify this. This scenario is not ideal. Regarding the orchestra as a safety net does nothing to improve my nerves, as it only numbs me to the experience, leaving me unable to truly get inside the performance, and get carried away on the music, as I am concentrating, and worrying too much to allow the adrenaline to rush forth.
Following a logical thought process, the sensible action plan would follow thus: Practice every piece to within an inch of its life. Repeat this process over and over, until your hands follow the melodic pattern unconsciously. Practice it at half speed, double speed, backwards, upside down and standing on one foot! Play to all your friends, play with an accompanist. Listen to a few different recordings, and practice the notes some more. Sadly, if the process were that simple, there would be an orchestra of the Berlin Philharmonic's standard in every small town! But logic would seem to prevail. So what is standing in the way?
If the hands and fingers can be trained into repeating actions in order to produce music, where is the role of the mind left? Surely it is redundant, because if the music has been logically learned by rote, then the music is physically "in the fingers" and there is no need for the tunes and harmonies to spring from the memory. This is where the logical argument falls down. Music is so closely linked to emotion. I once read a book in which music was described as making you long for something you have never experienced. It is an intangible thing, capable of stirring up powerful emotions within anyone, whether a concert soloist, or a first time visitor to Classic FM. the musician needs to be conscious of the way they are using their own body, striking a balance between actions and reactions of the body and mind, a balance between movements and thoughts, be aware of the mind and body unity and consciously
work with it. This is where the Alexander Technique comes in.
I believe that through the correct practice of the Alexander Technique, it is possible to gain a conscious control of one's mind and body. Identifying the habits that hinder us in all facets of life, and working to recognise them, and learn new ones in their place. Since I started having Alexander Technique lessons, I have become aware of my neck and shoulders, how my head rests on my spine, my eyes, my arms, and my knees. I have also noticed that it is very easy to fall back into the old habit, even with the best will in the world, although it is constantly improving, and I am positive that this will continue.
The Alexander technique is regarded by its practitioners as a powerful tool which makes it viable to observe all reactions of the body and mind in relation to daily life’s happenings: happiness, excitement, fear, tiredness, discomfort, pain, frustration, sadness, stress, etc. When about to give a performance it is natural to feel excited about it, the longer we wait the more excited we feel. All that excitement can accumulate in the body in the form of unreleased energy. During the performance itself one is bound to feel a release for the enormous amount of energy which the excitement of anticipation has produced. One can feel extremely strong and confident in his/hers capacity to deal with the 'emergency', yet for having a good performance the releasing energy needs to be directed. On the other hand that unreleased energy can become such a frustration for the body that getting to the stage or to ‘the danger area’ can become an impossibility. Too big a dose of excitement and all the unreleased energy can be translated into the body as fright, which is a form of panic, and anxiety.
Anxiety is an unpleasant combination of cognitive, somatic, emotional and behavioural components. The cognitive part recognises danger, somatically the body is preparing to deal with the cause of the threat, the ‘panic reflex’, or "fight or flight syndrome" mentioned earlier. When in panic we instinctively can relay on what kept us alive throughout times: the 'panic reflex' also called the ‘fight or fly’ reflex. The panic reflex takes form of pulling the back of the neck closed, disturbing the head, neck and trunk relationship. The panic reflex is easy to observe on animals: think of a cat about to get into a fight, her head is pulled to the back and while her whole body is getting ready to fight or to get away from the source of the fright.
The relationship between our head and neck i.e. our primary control, organises the reflex of posture and movement. When the neck is free the head is allowed to be poised in a subtle way on top of the spine and the whole intricate web of musculature of the body will naturally find the right amount of tension so that the desired movement can happen, including the free movement of breath. When about to give a performance the over excitement can be translated into the body as fright and if one is not aware of it the head will be pulled to the back disturbing one's primary control, making it hard to breathe. Before (and during) the performance the whole organisation of body and mind is preparing for immediate action, the body will produce the necessary adrenaline, which is a hormone released into the bloodstream in response to physical or mental stress, and the chemical processes that normally will help you to adjust to a dangerous situation in this case will disorganise you and make the waiting time tortuous.
By learning how to consciously say no to the pull of the head one is able to stay alert and have a conscious control of the emotional patterns that goes on through the body. Of course one won't stop '"feeling", never the less it is possible to have the overflow of emotions and energy under control. Emotionally, anxiety causes a sense of dread or panic and physically causes nausea, and chills. Behaviourally, both voluntary and involuntary behaviours may arise directed at escaping or avoiding the source of anxiety. These behaviours are most extreme in anxiety disorders. However, anxiety is not always pathological or maladaptive: it is a common emotion along with fear, anger, sadness, and happiness, and it has a very important function in relation to survival. Anxiety brings a disturbance in the breathing patterns, which leads to fear. Anxiety leads to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is no more than an unstable breathing rhythm. One gets to have unstable breathing patterns due to unconscious erroneous habits. An acute state of hyperventilation paralyses the body. The level of gases increases and decreases too much, the person is loosing too much CO2, the O2 level is than too high. The body can’t get used to it. The body has a sympathetic side responsible for the fight or flight reflex and a parasympathetic side, responsible for digestion and reproduction. Hyperventilation occurs when the parasympathetic depresses and the sympathetic stays alert. 3
When thinking about the breath from the Alexander principle one can not separate the use of one’s whole body. When the body is free, the breathing will be free, eventually one helps the other: a freer body provides a freer breath and a freer breath helps to have a freer body. The way we use ourselves determines the way we breathe and the way we move. Movement is using what is given to us by nature, using all reflexes. Reflexes are a kind of puzzle that brings parts together and all together they create movement. Reflex is movement. When shortening or narrowing the body due to unconscious habits one misuses the reflexes. The awareness of how one uses one’s own body increases the possibilities of reflex. It is possible to re-educate, recover or reorganise reflexes.
While thinking about all this, I have undertaken to attempt to change the way I approach my solo playing in the hope that, it time, it will become different for me. I know all too well that a moment's thought is enough to make my body realise that the state we usually call “nerves” or “nervous tension” could more accurately be described as “excess of nervous tension”. Since “excess of nervous tension” equals “excess of muscular tension”, any improvement in the ability to perform muscular movements with lightness and economy must mean a corresponding lessening of nervous tension. The excess of “nerves” associated with public performance generally lends to a preoccupation with one or two technical problems which are most obviously (from the performer's point of view) giving trouble. The Alexander Technique enables one to learn how, by the use of a few basic self-directions or reminders, during a performance, to prevent the obsessive preoccupation with certain details, and keep the whole musculature, and hence the nervous system working for instead of against one.
I am attempting to have a constant "reminding voice" within me to remind me of how to use myself when I play, the most important, as pointed out to me by my professor on a weekly basis, being how to breathe! While playing in a chamber group, I become conscious of my breathing patterns, noticing how we all breathe together, with the music. I am striving to introduce this to my solo playing, but am struggling as I am often so worried, even in practice, that I forget to breathe, and ended up taking, or expelling huge amounts of air through my nose at random intervals, which in turn is leading to the tightening of other muscles, and straining my primary control.
The Alexander technique brings about the consciousness of the way one uses the body, one gets to be aware of the unnecessary muscle tension and through out the movement one is able to say no to that extra tension reorganising one's reflexes. The Alexander technique brings the awareness of the way we use ourselves in our daily lives and provides the best preparation for the demands of the performance, one is able to have the 'panic reflex' and fright under control, to 'tune up' the survival mechanism and use it into one's own benefit, being able to release and let the energy continuously flow during the performance.
I hope that this essay can serve as a note to myself, to be referred to every time I feel my use become hampered by environmental factors, so that in the future, it will not necessarily lead to muscle tension and the overwhelming feeling of dread and fear of the concert platform, examination room, or even just of someone overhearing me practicing a difficult phrase. I feel that so far, I have made many positive changes to my everyday use and that in time, and with much thought and practice, I will achieve a sense of calm when playing solo, and that the performance anxiety will more often than not, be a pleasurable rush of adrenaline that aids the performance.