Why I Take Lessons in the Alexander Technique as a Piano Teacher

In Spring of 2015, a fellow piano teacher and I were having a conversation during which she told me how much she has benefited from taking Alexander Technique lessons in the past. She spoke so highly of the experience, stating that everyone — not just musicians — should consider taking at least three months of Alexander lessons. In fact, she told me I was lucky in that there is an Alexander Technique teacher in my area, because there isn’t one in the major city where she currently lives.

Her enthusiasm intrigued me, as did her bold statement regarding the benefits of the Alexander Technique. So, I decided to follow her suggestion to take lessons for three months, just to satisfy my curiosity.

As of this writing, I’ve been taking Alexander Technique lessons for over a year-and-a-half. I’m completely hooked, and I have no intentions of stopping lessons anytime soon.

The Alexander Technique’s way of looking at all movement in life — not just “posture”, and not just one’s physical approach to the piano — has been revolutionary for me. It changes the way I move and the way I think about moving as I go about each day. I see things differently in other people, too — I recognize unique tendencies and movement patterns in others, including my piano students.

In this blog post, I’m going to share with you:

  • What the Alexander Technique is.
  • What a typical lesson in the Alexander Technique is like.
  • How users of the Alexander Technique think differently about movement.
  • The potential the Alexander Technique has to help pianists and piano teachers.
  • Takeaways for piano teachers reading this article.

What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is sometimes referred to as “the AT” or “the Technique”.

alexander-headshot“The Alexander Technique is a subtle method of integrating mind and body in such a way that each functions with maximum efficiency and ease and minimum stress and tension. The Technique is an educational process, which provides an individual with the means to identify and change habits and attitudes interfering with ‘the proper use of oneself.’

“The Technique was developed in the late 19th century by F.M. Alexander [1869-1955], a Shakespearean orator. Having lost his voice, Alexander undertook an intensive program of self-observation that lasted for nearly a decade in order to discover the source of his problem. In the process, he not only regained his voice but also laid the foundation for the Alexander Technique” (source).

The Alexander Technique is useful not only for musicians. Nor is it useful only for individuals experiencing carpal tunnel, back pain, or other difficulties. It is sought out by speakers, athletes, actors, dancers, public speakers, and — in short — anyone interested in personal development and improving performance ability.

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Individuals who use the AT pay increased attention to their bodies as they move in their everyday lives. They learn to recognize less-than-optimal habitual patterns and strive to “not do” them. This activity of “not doing” is referred to as “inhibition.”

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Perhaps most importantly:

Practitioners of the AT recognize that there is no existence of a “correct position”; there is only the possibility of “good use” in activity. The goal is ease, freedom, and efficiency.

AT teachers are highly trained and skilled. An AT teacher observes the whole body, looking to determine what unnecessary muscle tension is present as an individual carries themselves — whether in movement or sitting in a chair. Through verbal directives paired with skilled physical contact for feedback, an AT teacher coaches the individual towards increased kinesthetic awareness and ability to “think in activity”. The “basic directions” practitioners of the AT remind themselves of are: “Let the neck be free, allow the head to go forward and up, and allow the back to lengthen and widen.” An AT teacher helps the individual recognize his/her habitual patterns and learn to inhibit them.

Over time, as experience with inhibiting is built, the student can increasingly reproduce the same “not doing” experience into daily life activities.

Meet my Alexander teacher, Nancy Crego. Nancy has a great interest in helping piano teachers explore the useful applications of the Alexander Technique to piano playing.

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A typical Alexander lesson has three parts: chair work, table work, and then back to chair work. During chair work, the teacher uses verbal and physical feedback as the student engages in awareness and inhibition while sitting and coming into standing (or other positions).

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During table work, the student does a “lie down” on a massage table. Table work allows us to rediscover how our body feels when it has the support of multiple contact points — the head, the shoulders/back, the hips, and the bottom of the feet. When returning to chair work at the end of the lesson, the table work provides a helpful reference for “good use.”

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“Lie downs” can be used anytime at home or elsewhere as a way to “reset” the mind and body.

Other than perhaps the “lie down”, there are no prescribed exercises or assignments in the AT. After all, there is no such thing as a correct position. The AT is practiced through mindful awareness, inhibiting unnecessary muscular tension in order to allow ease — regardless of the activity.

Although I’m still somewhat new to the AT, I feel I’ve gained a pretty good understanding of the basic theory and principles underlying the AT. And I’ve become aware of some of my habitual patterns and how I can inhibit them.

Before the AT lessons, “good posture” to me meant what I now understand to be having an over-curved spine. This is more common issue than you might think. I’ve been learning how to keep my head, neck and back as a whole unit working together during activity. Can you see a difference in the photo below?

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In addition, I previously carried good amount of tension in my shoulders, due to holding them slightly lifted. Over time, I have learned how to release my shoulders — as constantly as needed, throughout the day. With time, this will increasingly become a new normal.

Those are just two examples of areas of progress I have experienced towards finding more ease and “good use.” I know there is still much more for me to learn.

Perhaps more interestingly, I have found that the AT provides a useful perspective on learning in general. Essentially, the AT is about “learning how to learn.” I love the mental challenge of finding awareness, paying attention, and “not doing” in order to create room for a better way.

Three of us (Nancy, another piano teacher, and I) have also been meeting as a group on a regular basis to together discuss the possibilities for integrating elements of the AT into our piano teaching.

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Here are a few of my takeaways for piano teachers from the Alexander Technique.

1.  There is no such thing as a “correct position.” There is only the possibility of finding “good use” in whatever activity or movement taking place.

2.  Finding “good use” occurs through inhibition — “NOT doing” — versus through doing. “Doing” leads to tense, strain, and overuse. “Not doing” opens the door to experiencing ease. For example: Rather than asking a student to curve their fingers, the teacher can help them learn how to NOT expand their hand open and flat.

3.  The piano teacher should be deliberate in observing the WHOLE of the student at the piano, rather than over-focusing on the hands and fingers. Often, fine-motor movement issues are solved through first addressing large motor issues. For example, inefficiency in the hand/fingers might actually originate due to tension in the shoulder, neck, or back.

4.  Learning begins with awareness. An individual cannot learn or solve a problem unless they are mindfully “thinking in activity.” The key is for the individual to learn to “stop, think, and act.”

For further reading:

Which idea from the Alexander Technique will YOU experiment with incorporating into your teaching? Tell me what you think in the comments below.

PG
Joy Morin is a piano teacher in Perrysburg, Ohio (United States) who enjoys keeping her teaching fresh with new ideas and resources. ColorInMyPiano.com serves as a journal of her adventures in piano teaching as well as a place to exchange ideas and resources.

Joy has blogged 1116 posts here.

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4 Comments

  1. Connie
    Posted 15 November 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to have Alexander Technique offered as a course in undergrad at Ohio State back in the 80’s! Thank you for reminding me about the concept of what not to do! The one visual that has always stayed with me that I use with students is to think of yourself as a puppet with a string that runs up through your body, neck and straight up through the crown of your head. When you need to correct position, imagine a puppeteer pulling up on that string to reposition and realign your head, neck and back while keeping the rest of your body (arms, shoulders) relaxed. That visual has always served me well, even 30 years later!

    • Posted 15 November 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Wow, you were lucky indeed, Connie, to have experienced an Alexander Technique course during undergrad!

      The visual you shared of the puppet string is a very interesting one. I will definitely have to try that imagery out with my students.

  2. Susan Hamblin-Dennis
    Posted 16 November 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you for reminding me how I can better take care of myself as I suffer from “too much computer” aches. While I know what the Technique covers, it was helpful to read your perspective because you have practiced this technique long enough to see the benefits. Hours sitting and reaching to the piano to teach is wreaking havoc for me. Have you gained insight into how to teach with better posture?

    • Posted 16 November 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Good question, Susan.

      When it comes to posture, the Alexander Technique would say that there is “no correct position”. There is only “good use”. In other words, it is a pitfall to think of posture as stationary. We humans are almost never stationary — we are usually moving in some way, or at least should be. :) (Regular breaks from the computer is a good idea! Google “the Pomodoro Technique”.)

      So, we can either avoid the word “posture” because of our connotations with the word, or we can redefine the word for ourselves. Either way, it’s about “thinking in activity”: paying attention to the body in order to discover tension that can be released as we are doing things. When we first learn how to “not do”, we can open the door to the natural “good use” or “good posture” that our bodies have lost touch with.

      So, this is becoming my approach with my students: I help them notice what tension they are adding when they are trying, and ask them to “not do” that. Developmentally, humans normally have excellent “use” when they are babies/toddlers. So, working towards good use with children is easier than with adults!

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