As featured in the International Musician, June 2001.
How Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique
Will Improve Your Playing
by David Nesmith ©2001
Musicians' health is a hot topic these days, with good reason, for the
demands on professional musicians can be incredible. Orchestra players
are often required to play week after week of masterworks, sometimes with
more than one major program each week. Freelance musicians may feel the
need to accept as many gigs as possible to make a living and to stay in
the "loop." Many musicians also augment performing with teaching.
Days off can be few and far between, making it more and more difficult
to balance the cycle of stress and recovery of our physical, mental, and
emotional resources. Unfortunately, as we go out of balance, we become
susceptible to pain and injury.
Our Body Is Our Instrument
For every sound we can conceive, there is only one combination of movements
that creates it. This is why it is said that our body is our instrument.
If movement in our body is pinched or tense, our sound will be pinched
or tense. Even so, much of our traditional music training has distracted
us from movement, focusing instead on technique, musicality, and, more
recently, the psychology of performing. The movement of playing is rarely
taught at all, let alone with the needs of the body in mind. This needs
to change--the movement of playing needs to be taught directly, and musicians
need to be specifically instructed on how to move freely.
A new field of study has arisen in the last 50 years or so and can be
of great help to musicians. It is called Somatics and is the study of
the body in motion. Two tools from the array of somatic disciplines include
Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique. These are simple and practical
methods that help musicians learn to be more natural in their approach
to playing or singing and reduce the chance of injury.
Body Mapping is the conscious correcting and refining of one's body map
to produce efficient, graceful, and coordinated movement. The body map
is one's self-representation in one's own brain, one's assumptions or
conception of what one's body is like, in whole or part. If our representation
is accurate, movement is good. If our representation is faulty, movement
suffers. When our map is corrected, the movement improves. Progress can
be very rapid and a musician can, over time, learn to play like a natural.
Our body maps are like directions to a gig. If the directions are good,
you will arrive easily and in plenty of time. But if the directions are
incomplete or wrong, you might end up being late or not arriving at all!
Body maps need not be conscious. Many performers, often seen as "naturals,"
exhibit fine, free body use. By experience and effective modeling during
their development, they have managed to maintain complete and accurate
maps unconsciously. Musicians who do not move efficiently may benefit
from correcting or enhancing their body maps by observing and imitating
the natural movers whose body maps are good.
One of the first things we must inquire of our body map is whether it
includes the understanding that we have six senses, not five. The sense
usually sadly left out is kinesthesia. This sense tells us about our movement
and its quality. In order to improve our movement and monitor its freedom
or tension, we need to know about and cultivate our kinesthetic sense.
How do we do this? By keeping our attention broad and "listening"
with our kinesthesia--similar to listening with our ears, only using our
kinesthetic receptors in our joints, which give us information as rich
and immediately important to making music as our ears do.
Here is an example of another fairly common body map error: many musicians
(pianists, flutists, and string players in particular) suffer from Carpal
Tunnel Syndrome and tendinitis. These maladies can be alleviated if a
clear understanding is acquired of what the arm structure is actually
like and how it is meant to move. Does your body map include four arm
joints for each arm beginning at the joint of the collarbone with the
breastbone? If not, you may be unnecessarily stressing the other three
joints forcing them to do more of the movement of playing your instrument
than they can handle. Over time this will result in pain. The arm joints
are (1) collarbone with the breastbone, (2) upper arm with the shoulder
blade, (3) elbow, and (4) wrist. Think of your arms beginning at the top,
front and center of the torso. Notice how long your arms are now! Accessing
the additional rotation available at the true first arm joint will allow
an even, efficient distribution of movement, easing all of the joints.
Here is the basic Body Mapping process: simply inquire of yourself what
you think your arm structure (or spine, jaw, lungs, diaphragm, etc.) is
like. (Draw it!) Then compare this internal representation with anatomy
photographs or models of the truth of your structure, function, and size.
The key to integrating this new information lies with how we use our
awareness. While exploring the movement of playing your instrument, an
expansion of awareness yields more ease in the body. Don't concentrate
on any one body part, but instead invite your awareness to broaden to
include all of you, plus your surroundings. This allows the brain to integrate
new information more quickly without effort.
Correcting and enhancing your body map will automatically improve the
movement of playing your instrument. As your movement becomes freer, you
will gain more control over your technique and sound--and become less
prone to pain or injury.
Through the Alexander Technique, we can learn how to eliminate excess
effort that gets in the way of free movement. It is a process of unlearning
habitual ways of using ourselves and allowing more natural movement to
emerge. The technique was developed by F. M. Alexander, a talented actor
who frequently lost his voice in performance. Alexander recognized a predictable
pattern of tension throughout his body, which, among other things resulted
in the loss of his voice. By learning to free his neck and allow his head
to float back to balance again on top of the spine, his body lengthened,
becoming free of the tension, liberating his natural postural responses
and allowing him to perform at the peak of his abilities.
Here's another way to think about this. If someone were to make a very
loud sound near you such as a cymbal crash, you and anyone else in close
proximity would instantly do three things: (1) tighten the neck muscles,
(2) fix the eyes, and (3) clutch the breath. This is a result of our natural
protective mechanism called the flight/fight/ freeze response or the startle
pattern. Unfortunately, we don't often fully release out of this pattern
of shortening and narrowing of our stature. This means that our freest
movement is not available for playing our instruments.
In an Alexander Technique lesson one learns to develop a more reliable
kinesthetic sense, to cooperate with the mechanical advantage of the skeletal
system, and to think more constructively. As we learn the process we are
free to make better choices about how to use ourselves in relation to
our instruments. Lessons are often done in the context of an activity,
such as playing an instrument. Many Alexander Technique teachers incorporate
Body Mapping into lessons accelerating students' progress.
Finding a Teacher
If you live in a medium to large metropolitan area, it's very likely
that there are many Alexander Technique teachers. Consult the Alexander
Technique organizations listed below, or ask around. It's likely one of
your colleagues knows of an Alexander Technique teacher who works with
Barbara Conable, a world-renowned Body Mapping specialist and teacher
of the Alexander Technique, began training musicians in 1998 to teach
Body Mapping in their studios and classrooms. Her organization, Andover
Educators, instructs musicians worldwide through a course called "What
Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body." Visit the Andover Educators'
web site below for information about the course, as well as a list of
teachers, articles, books and information about training to become a certified
The shape of music education can indeed be changed. Musicians need not
play in pain nor have their careers shortened by injury. By orienting
ourselves to the movement of playing (developing a kinesthetic imagination
right along with our musical imagination), we enhance the total experience
of being musicians and ensure that future generations of music students
do the same.
- Andover Educators (www.bodymap.org)
- Alexander Technique International (www.ati-net.com)
- American Society for the Alexander Technique (www.alexandertech.org)
- Canadian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (www.canstat.ca)
- Conable, Barbara and Conable, Benjamin. What Every Musician Needs
to Know about the Body. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1998. ISBN
- Conable, Barbara and Conable, William. How to Learn the Alexander
Technique, 3rd ed. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1995. ISBN 0-9622595-4-3.