The Vault

Working With Musicians

By Vivien Mackie


I am longing for the day when musicians no longer say, with such readiness and such conviction, "Ah, the Alexander Technique, that's about Posture!" Colleagues at the Brighton Congress certainly seemed to be familiar with that experience, and to agree that we want this state of affairs to change.

I used to rather like the notion that we Alexander teachers are there to tune the player, before he begins to play, as the player tunes his instrument. Since those far-off days I have come to mistrust this idea, partly through reported experiences of students who have been beautifully 'set-up' and then found themselves unable to play. Players need their habits in order to play, and it is more helpful to modify these in action than to remove them wholesale. Acquiring the habits is after all what those expensive and arduous years of study and practice have been for, and they may not be abandoned lightly. We need to be able to help our players to make changes that prompt them to say, "That's what I was trying to do all along!" so that the loss of the habits is not distressing but welcome.

Players need to do what is necessary, and only what is necessary (What else is 'good use'?) This is where the Alexander teacher who is also a player has a special place. Of course there are now very many professional musicians who have trained as Alexander teachers, (and since this Congress, thirteen more who have trained with me in Melbourne, where the consideration of their instrumental and vocal techniques in the light of their growing Alexander experience was a daily part of the course.) Because so much of what we Alexander teachers have to say to musicians may be startlingly new and different, it will obviously be easier to accept from someone who actually plays, and can actually demonstrate. I believe we should make full use of these music-expert Alexander-experts. We all know change is difficult; where years and fortunes have been spent in acquiring habits, it is all the more vital that the bolt-hole of "but my Alexander teacher doesn't understand that the violin/oboe/euphonium is different" should be kindly but firmly blocked.

That said, I think there are many many ways for all Alexander teachers to help players which are far removed from posture-as-such. Straight away, some help with picking up and carrying an instrument—and the bag of music—could be immensely valuable, and may not be offered.

Then there is what people do to get ready to play. This is a most fruitful field. There may be a hugely elaborate preparatory ritual. It should be a good exercise for the pupil to explain and demonstrate the need for each step in such a ritual, and it's always reasonable for a teacher to enquire what would happen if such and such a step were to be omitted. If it turns out that the step is found to be not necessary after all, well and good. If it is found that the student is not able not to do what he has been asked not to do, even better; he is in FM's position when he made his great discoveries, and both then find themselves at the very best place to begin!

What players and singers do with their eyes is terribly important. Singers are often taught to look at the back of the hall, and to avoid at all costs catching the eye of any member of the audience. Players will also avoid catching someone's eye and look at the sheet music as a convenient alternative, (or their own fingers). They may believe they need the notes in front of them, or that their fingers will go astray if not constantly supervised—whose fingers are they, anyway? My experience is that it is always liberating to focus on something 'out there', and that a person is actually best of all. Playing is full of risk, and ALL the risks must be taken.

'Non-doing' can prove to be rather a dreadful trap if the concept is not properly understood. A student from a Music College, where he was having Alexander lessons, once played me some exciting music by Brahms holding himself very still and playing entirely without warmth, without light and shade, and without a trace of passion. When I enquired as to his understanding of Brahms's instructions, he said "Oh, I'd always understood you hadn't to do anything with this Technique." This was a crippling misunderstanding and must not be allowed to occur.

At Brighton, a young cellist kindly presented herself to be demonstrated on. She brought her music, and set it on the stand in front of her. I believed she didn't need it, and persuaded her to look 'out'. She went in for giving her bow a couple of little swings before she made contact with the string. I asked her to bring her bow from a place of rest straight to the string and play at once, much as one would bring a paintbrush straight from the pot of paint to the surface to be painted. (Any hesitation between rest and action involves waiting with a lifted arm, and there is never a good reason for that.) These two 'no-hands' interventions on my part, rather to my surprise, did a very great deal to get the pupil 'going up'. After this, taking her head was easier and made more sense to her, since it enhanced the changes she had already enjoyed. She ended up with better posture, but it had been gained through more and freer movement.

For the stillness in activity that we so desire, we need to look at the quality of activity, and enhance that, and very possibly increase movement.


Vivien Mackie is a professional cellist who studied with Pablo Casals in France from 1952-1955. During her career as soloist and teacher, she came across the work of F. M. Alexander, and was struck by the profound similarities between his teaching and that of Casals. She trained as an Alexander teacher from 1970-1973 in London. Since 1977 she has worked with singing teacher Angela Caine as pupil, teacher and collaborator in workshops for singers. She draws on her experience in all three fields in her work with musicians around the world. She has been involved in the training of Alexander teachers for sixteen years, and has been Director of courses in London and Australia. From 1990-92 in Melbourne she directed the first Alexander teacher training course for exclusively for musicians.

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