The Vault

Alexander Technique & the Musician

Elizabeth Waterhouse


The Alexander Technique is concerned, among other things, with ongoing growth, change and awareness of 'self' at any moment. The implications for the musician are evident: they grow and change as they acquire skill and experience, and they depend on being able to do what they want to when they want to. Musicians search for ways to improve their performance and often need to have some way of dealing with physical and mental obstacles that may confront them. The Alexander Technique helps to develop their potential as artists by offering them a road along which to travel. Aldous Huxley described Alexander's work as a 'means whereby' the great gap between idealistic theory and actual practice may be bridged. Many parallels may be drawn between teaching the Alexander Technique and teaching an instrument. Both teach the good use of the psycho-physical whole and seek to develop the important ability we have as humans to think before we act. Here are some thoughts on how this learning may be applied to children, to conservatoire students and to professionals.

What is a Musician?

Musicians are people who, while functioning like everyone else, also sing and/or play an instrument. The most common instruments are: strings—violin, viola, cello, double bass and guitar; woodwinds—flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon; brass—horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba; percussion; keyboards—piano, harpsichord and organ. Each of these instruments makes different demands on the player; these include the sophisticated control of breath and a high degree of physical co-ordination. Every student has to spend a lot of time and effort to learn these skills. Many will have started playing as children: their teachers will have been good or less good, and they will have changed them a number of times as they continued through school and music college. In order to keep studying from an early age, a high degree of motivation, discipline and perseverance is needed. These qualities are often reflected in other facets of their lives; thus it is no surprise if the good instrumentalist at school also features in the sports team and is in the top group academically. There will always be a few people who find no difficulty in playing their instrument—these we call natural talents.

When they become adults they may teach or play professionally in an orchestra. The latter involves long hours of sitting and often repetitive movements; these can cause conditions such as tenosynovitis, lower back pain or frozen shoulder. Having Alexander lessons can mitigate these problems. The best time to have lessons is before any trouble starts, ideally when they are still students: prevention is better than cure.

The Early Years of Learning

Children learning instruments fall into one of three categories:

1) they learn because they want to;
2) they didn't choose to learn, but do so willingly;
3) they learn under pressure from their parents.

Occasionally a young child has an inner desire to play an instrument. However, this is the exception; most children learn an instrument because the parent wishes them to. Many of the world's finest musicians were born into families where music was part of life. In the case of Mozart, his father was a distinguished teacher who played violin and piano and who encouraged his son and daughter to do the same.

One of the ways children learn is by 'mimicking' and wanting to do what the parents or other children in the family do; it is important that their model is a good one. F.M. Alexander said: "The stupidity of letting children go wrong is that once they go wrong, their right is wrong; therefore the more they try to be right, the more they go wrong". From this it follows that the better a musician the teacher or parent may be, the better the student. However it is significant that, in the case of the very young pre-school child, there is less chance of going wrong. He won't do what he doesn't want to; therefore if he wants to play, he will do so with good use.

Another important aspect of learning is that children love to be successful. Therefore repeating a piece which they can play is always more fun and thus more worthwhile than attempting something too far beyond their ability. With a well chosen repertoire, the mastering of each piece will pave the way for the next. Listening often to a recording, so that they get to know it first, will greatly help them to learn it.

The ability to play is truly a combination of thinking and activity. Many teachers are not able to communicate this to their students as they play well themselves but do not know how they play.

If the attitude towards learning to play is good—then the whole psycho-physical person will grow as a unity. Creating conditions for this to happen is the task of every teacher and parent and requires both years of patience and encouragement at each step. The confidence which this teaching brings to the child creates a foundation of thinking in activity for life. It is immaterial whether or not the young player takes up music later on as a profession; the skills of co-ordinating thought and activity which he has acquired through learning an instrument when young will be of immense benefit to him later on.

Later Years—The Value of Awareness

"Learning to be aware that one is aware" may not be the aim of everybody, but it is certainly of great importance for the musician. He needs awareness on three levels: physical, emotional and intellectual.

Physical Awareness

The student at music college needs to be educated with regard to the mechanics of the body and to increase his observation of the movements made by the limbs in co-ordination with the head, neck and trunk. The words 'balance' and 'poise' are key words in the use of the body. It is vital to understand the importance of the 'Primary Control' and to realise how, by thinking of the balance of the head on the top of the spine and by keeping the head and neck free while directing the head 'forward and up', the body will more readily do what is asked of it in the most efficient way.

Just as someone who is about to run a race gets ready to start and 'tuned up' immediately before the whistle blows, so the musician, before he plays, pauses (inhibits) and thinks about what he is going to play (gives himself directions) which promote a state of poise and alertness before playing. With regard to balance in standing (with arms hanging by the side), there is an optimum relationship of the head to the back, to the knees and to the feet on the floor. When the arms are lifted in front to play an instrument, the centre of gravity changes: it must be noted that the balance of the 'whole' in standing is determined from the ankles and not from halfway down the back, (a common fault of which most people are unaware). In sitting, the back must be lengthening and not shortening or pulled in, particularly in the lumbar region.

Nowadays new and improved accessories have been designed to ease the playing of certain instruments. For example, guitar players no longer need to put the left foot on a stool (which sets up a twist in the whole body). An adjustable support has now been devised which attaches to the bottom of the instrument and rests on the left thigh of the player, thereby offering a more balanced way to sit with both feet on the floor. A similar kind of adjustable support has been designed for the french horn player, this time resting on the right thigh, thus relieving the shoulders of the entire weight of the instrument (which these days is considerable). Violinists have a variety of shoulder and chin rests from which to choose. For those with long necks the building up of the chin rest is a good idea, as then the left arm does not have to be raised so high to play. The bassoon can be played with a spike—like the cello; this allows the not inconsiderable weight to be borne by the floor; when the weight of the instrument is borne by the player's neck, this puts the head and shoulders out of gear.

These and other new ideas for various instruments are continually being invented—chiefly because of the awareness brought about by teachers of the Alexander Technique.

Emotional Awareness

What does the musician feel before a concert? Ideally he looks forward to it: he loves music, is confident of his abilities and wants to play. But there can also be an emotional response which is a kind of fear—the 'fight or flight' response. He or she needs a strong nervous system to cope with the demands of playing before others. There are many 'stress situations' in a young musician's life: the public concert, competition, end of term concert, audition for a sought-after job, exam, the next lesson, all of these may induce a certain level of fear that can stimulate the adrenal gland into activity. This heightens awareness and in small doses adrenalin is positively favourable for playing well. Indeed, an emotional response of this sort to music is a necessary part of the artist's equipment; its absence indicates a lack of musicality. The player will often play better for being somewhat nervous; by accepting this situation and not worrying about any wrong notes caused thereby, his performance is likely to be enhanced.

Attitude of mind matters a great deal. One of the worst to deal with is the fear of being judged by other people, such as one's peers. There is a great deal of competitiveness in the music world of today, which is not helped by the present fashion for music competitions. This can cause destructive attitudes and detract from the true aims of playing music; these are forgotten in the desire to please the teacher, agent, parent etc.

Intellectual Awareness

Albert Einstein said: "The imagination is more important than the intellect". Nonetheless, it is important to be interested in the structure of the music (this can help the memory), and to have an intellectual curiosity about the composer and the period in which the piece was written. The performer, as intermediary between composer and listener, needs a clear knowledge of the composition, a clear conception about the emotional significance of what is being played and the necessary technical equipment to play the music. Much can be learned if the music is read through and studied without playing it: this is a brilliant exercise in 'inhibition'. The student reads the music away from the instrument, imagining it and hearing it in his head. Much can be decided about phrasing, fingering, dynamics and tempo of the piece in this situation. This exercise also helps to stimulate the player's musical imagination.

Valuable Aspects of the Technique for Musicians

It is during the weeks before an important concert that work on directing and connecting the arms and legs from the back will be useful—to become aware of breathing, to consider the balance of the whole person and to learn to think up and down at the same time. Confidence grows as musicians become more aware of where they are in space and are able to direct their movements more consciously. They also find that their playing becomes more technically fluent, and more expressive with a wider range of dynamics; this is a direct result of releasing the joints and freeing the breathing. Working with the Alexander Technique never stops—it is a constant and ongoing way of life.

In actual performance, many musicians 'try too hard' to put their message across: unaware, they use more effort than is necessary for the given task. The Alexander Technique shows them how, by actually 'doing less', they will achieve more in the way of tone and expressiveness. The moment of performance is the time when the music should be allowed to play itself, to just 'happen'. He can attend to the music without undue concern for the physical aspects of playing. The performer allows his musical imagination to take over the reins; a fine performance will seem to play itself. To quote Eugen Herrigel—Zen in the Art of Archery (when the Master explains how best to loose the arrow): "It is all so simple: the snow falls on the bamboo leaf, which gently bends under its weight: at a certain moment the snow slips to the ground without the leaf itself having stirred".

Two further quotations from F.M. Alexander:

"Don't you see that if you 'get' perfection today, you will be farther away from perfection than you have ever been?"

"Talk about a man's individuality and character: it's the way he uses himself."


Elizabeth Waterhouse was born in Kent, England in 1933. After starting the piano at age five, she went on to study at the Royal College of Music (1949 to 1954) in London and at the Musikhochschule in Munich (1957 to 1960). She has also played violin and viola from the age of 12. Her first Alexander lessons were with John Skinner in 1961, and she later trained with Walter and Dilys Carrington from 1974 to 1977. Since then she has taught the Technique at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London), violin for the London Suzuki Group, and helps to train teachers at the Hampstead Alexander Centre. She has organized an annual summer school for young string players since 1974. She enjoys piano accompanying and playing chamber music.

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