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Alexander Technique

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By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Violin
Last updated: 21/11/2010
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Tags: recommendations (study materials), violin
Violin



 Alexander Technique

  by Yin Qian

 

During 20 years of violin studies I had often heard some sad stories: one talented cellist, aged 20, had to give up her musical career because of wrong bow hold which resulted in pain in her right hand. Another promising violinist, aged 21, had to abandon professional violin performance, because of pain in her left hand. However, as far as I concerned, I never cared deeply about these tragic stories because I did not think such sad events happen to me. As a young, healthy and energetic violinist, my purpose at that time was only to pursue the most difficult pieces. Nevertheless, in my first year of study at the Royal Academy of Music, I suddenly felt my left hand was so painful that I had to rest just after practising for 20 minutes. My violin teacher also had to change my repertoire from the Sibelius Violin Concerto to Saint-Saens Violin Concerto. As a result, I was always thinking about this problem: How did it happen? Why did I used to be able to practise for several hours without any pain but now could only practice for 20 minutes?

The reason why I chose this topic is because I experienced this problem and got a lot of help from Alexander Technique lessons. I also want to use the knowledge of Alexander technique to help not only injured musicians, but also healthy ones. After all, prevention is better than cure. In the next paragraphs, I will explain how Alexander Technique helps us and how to apply the knowledge I have gained in my teaching career.

 

Alexander Technique lessons are relevant to violin/viola playing

In recent years, hands or arms injury has become the most terrifying threat to musicians, especially to violin/viola players. The reason is that violinists or violists have several unnatural stresses which are placed on their bodies: they have to hold the violin all the time which easily leads to sticking their shoulders out and squeezing the violin with their chins. Moreover, the relationship of the neck, shoulder, head, and chin is very important for violinists or violists. A tiny degree of incorrect position in these areas will cause them to lock their left shoulders and cause some injuries in players’ forearms and hands. In addition, the neck’s muscle is very fragile and it needs to be as free as possible under these unnatural conditions. The other problem is the bow arm; so many musicians only focus on controlling the bow with their arm instead of letting the bow lead the arm naturally. Some problems will occur if they hold the bow tighter or if their wrist position is stiffer than necessary.

The Alexander Technique has a strong relationship with musicians. First of all, the aim of Alexander technique is to improve ‘use of self’, chiefly through a better understanding of alignment of the head, neck and spine. Dorothea Magonet[1], who taught Alexander Technique at the Academy, explains some of the effects for instrumentalists: “I think you will have a greater awareness of where things are in the body---you would be amazed at what different ideas there are of where the diaphragm is, for instance, and how it works! I think once that falls into place in your mind then you can use yourself quite differently, with much less strain and stress.” Thus, a basic understanding of human posture, anatomy and muscles will help students to perform more comfortably within their own physical abilities and limitations and also enable them to find the balance between rest and practice.

Secondly, Alexander Technique is a very valuable method to relieve musicians’ muscular tensions. The teacher of Alexander Technique, Glyn Williams[2] believes: “the Alexander Technique teaches how to relieve muscular tension. Once this is achieved, the body will tend to run more smoothly and efficiently.” Playing a musical instrument for several hours a day is a very unnatural activity, but musicians usually do not recognize that they are pushing the body too much even when it passes the point of their fatigue. When our body takes on a certain imbalance in other parts, it will influence our capability of performing and even create some pain. In the Alexander Technique lessons, students feel reassured and relaxed under the teachers’ help. They are asked to stand up, and then to sit down in a chair for a few times. Sometimes, students lie on a flat table; the head is supported by several books. The role of the teacher is to correct the student’s bad movement and also to let students feel their body and extra tension. Frederick Matthias Alexander thought that misuse was not merely created when you played violin/viola, but came from ordinary life and habit. That is why so many people in sport and music are taking Alexander Technique Lessons.

 

The knowledge of Alexander Technique develops sound and a fluent violin/viola technique

I believe there are four areas where Alexander Technique can help us to improve and develop our sound and technique in violin/viola studies.

(1) Natural Technique

Dorothea Magonet,[3] tutor in the Alexander Technique, thinks: “Movement in Alexander Technique means learning to use and recognize the appropriate amount of effort and not wanting to improve on that by doing more, but actually doing less. Letting it happen does not mean that nothing is happening, but simply letting it flow.” I think this theory can be completely applied to develop our sound and technique in violin/viola studies because we know that the more natural and easy one’s physical movements, the less the body will be tired and the less vulnerable it will be to injuries[4]. As an example, if a river is flowing along a smooth path, its speed will be faster to arrive at its destination because its route will be so easier to follow. Similarly, after observing some distinguished violinists performance, I have often found that they just used the simplest, most natural and least strained method to play, which took away unnecessary tension from their body and enabled them to express music more naturally and fluently.

(2) Posture

In order to possess natural technical competence and pure sound, mastering a good posture is indispensable. However, there is no exact rule that explains how to hold the instrument. If we have a chance to look at some pictures of outstanding violinists’ postures, we will find that their postures are completely different. Galamian[5] wrote in his book, Principle of Violin Playing and Teaching: “How to stand or to sit should not be the object of exact prescriptions other than that the player should feel at ease.” As a result, I think that the principle of Alexander Technique, keeping neck free and not letting the spine curve or twist and making the head to be balanced on the neck, can be applied to the area of posture in violin/viola playing. By learning Alexander Technique’s approach, we can develop our poise and balance through becoming more centered and relaxed, and then this will be reflected in the quality of the sound produced.

(3) Balance

As we know, all of our activities are under the influence of gravity. Maintaining balance reduces our possibility of collapsing under gravity’s influence. Being an extra weight, a musical instrument can make us collapse even more[6]. Nevertheless, Alexander tells us that if we can add the natural stretches in our body, the weight of the instrument will be distributed. ”We should know that lack of balanced posture will prevent body from being free and also will make our back and shoulder more and more stressed, which not only will create unnecessary strain on our body, but also our fingers and arms also will be tense as well”.

(4) The body as a whole

Alexander has a very famous theory that “every part is always connected to every other part.”  When we want to move a finger fast, the movement is always linked to our other parts, like arm, shoulder and neck. Similarly, if we want to own a beautiful voice, we should understand that the sound produced is also connected to our body, especially to the shoulder and back. Pedro De Alcantara[7] depicted a true case in his book “Indirect Procedures”, which will help us to understand it better. “Daniel, a famous violist, wanted to get some help from Alexander technique lessons because he thought his sound was scratchy at the heel of the bow and feeble at the tip. The tutor of Alexander Technique found that he tends to look intently at his left hand because he thinks he can perform better by looking at his hand. As we know, there is no fret in a string instrument, but looking at the left hand will not guarantee precise intonation. He looks at his left hand even when playing in a darkened room. Tutor Pedro thinks that Daniel misuses himself by looking at his left hand. He twists his head and contracts his neck, thereby tightening his shoulders, torso and left arm. Moreover, this misuse affects his other problems. His intonation is faulty and his vibrato constricted and also his back hurts and his left wrist shows sign of tendonitis.” Alexander found a mechanism, which is a regulation of the whole body, including the connection between head to neck, the relationship of shoulder, back and neck. He called this “Primary control” which not only helps musicians to conquer many problems which they cannot sort out by themselves, but also improves their performance level and solves them technical problems.

 

Other physical exercises also can keep physical injuries from practice and performance

It is well-known that when an injury is created, it is very difficult to cure and recover. It not only will last for months or years, but also interrupts or destroys musicians’ performing careers. Therefore, it is very important for musicians to learn how to prevent or reduce the possibility of the injury occurring by doing some physical exercises.

In the next three paragraphs, I will provide two kinds of physical exercises, which will be helpful for musicians to keep away from pain and injury.

(1)   Stretch exercises

Most musicians have already got used to practising for several hours per day. However, this will lead to injuries and strain the body. Doing some stretch exercises will release our body, maintain our joints more flexible and keep our muscles more relaxed from the tension. Moreover, from the physiological angle, regularly extending or stretching our joints in the opposite direction will help our muscles to rest and enable them to work more readily. Taking a regular break after every 20 minutes of practice time and trying to do some stretch exercises, it will make our practice become more efficient. In the book Musician Injuries[8], there are some instructions about the stretch exercises for musicians. For example,

  • Lift your left arm up to the ceiling, and bend your body to the right.
  • Stand up straight; put your hands on your hips. Then arch your back so that you are leaning backwards.
  • Bend the neck forwards as far as it will comfortably go, and then backwards.
  • Bend you wrist gently backwards, using the other hand to hold the stretch in place

 

(2) Tai Chi

 In addition to stretch exercises, I believe that a Chinese form of exercises, Tai Chi, is an effective method of relaxing and calming musicians’ body and mind.  Many Chinese people do Tai Chi exercises everyday in order to keep their joints supple, muscles toned and internal energy circulating. There is a reference to Tai Chi in his Book of Violin and Viola, written by Menuhin[9]: “Tai Chi, with its gentle, flowing movement, consists of delicate adjustments in the body to a shifting centre of gravity.” The next paragraph will introduce some method of exercising using Tai Chi movement:

When lying on the ground on your back, you raise your right arm, the support which the weight of the right arm gave your body is lost and your body rolls slightly, towards to the right.

Using this knowledge in raising a student’s awareness of the physical aspects of playing the instrument

To be honest, I am still a student and have little teaching experience. Therefore, it is difficult for me to give some specific examples about Alexander Technique from my teaching experience. However, throughout my student career, I experienced hand’s injuries which are still affecting me; especially I have to take extreme care of my hands when practicing Paganini Caprices for the Technique Exam.

Nowadays, the only thing which helps me relax and reduce extension of my injuries is Alexander Technique Lessons. After having the Alexander Technique Lessons, I feel more relaxed and also try to use the Alexander Technique to take care of my shoulders, neck, hands, spine and knees when I practice.

Similarly, if I have a chance to be a teacher, I will use Alexander Techniques’ knowledge to remind my pupils of relaxing their hands, body and mind from the first lesson, even if they are beginners. As I said before, prevention is better than cure. If student’s injuries are recurrent, I should modify their lessons or ask them to take some time off from their intense practicing and seek some help from the Alexander Technique teachers. However, I have to mention that although Alexander Technique can help specific injuries in the long term, it is advisable to see a doctor, osteopath, physiotherapist etc, for treatment of painful injuries. Alexander’s effects are more subtle and certainly long-term[10].

 
Conclusion

I think that stress and tension may be the most terrifying factors that prevent musicians from showing their true capability. Applying the knowledge of Alexander Technique to our practice or performance will be a very good method to help us free the body from tensions and develop a more natural technique. Not only it reduces the possibility of a career-threatening injury, but also it improves the level of our performance.


[1] Magonet, Dorothea ‘A growth industry’ Magazine of the Royal Academy of Music  (1993) 20-22

[2] Williams, Glyn ‘Taking Pains: Musicians who learn to relax’ Magazine of the Health

[3] Magonet, Dorothea ‘A growth industry’ Magazine of the Royal Academy of Music  (1993) 20-22

[4]Culf, Nicola Musicians’ Injuries (UK: Parapress Limited, 1998).

[5] Galamian, Ivan Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (London: Faber and Faber).

[6] Williams, Glyn ‘Taking Pains: Musicians who learn to relax’ Magazine of the Health

[7] Gelb, Michael Body Learning (London: Aurum Press, 1987).

[8] Culf, Nicola Musicians’ Injuries (UK: Parapress Limited, 1998).

[9] Menuhin, Yehudi Violin and Viola (London: Macdonald and Jane’s 1976).

[10] Magonet, Dorothea ‘A growth industry’ Magazine of the Royal Academy of Music  (1993) 20-22

 




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Posted by Timothy Ehlen on 2012-03-13 15:24:41

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