The Alexander Technique: An Introduction For Performers
In 2016 I took a voice class as an elective. My teacher taught us a lot about how to use our bodies efficiently while singing. A few times throughout that class she referred to the Alexander Technique. She mentioned that she taught this at her own studio outside of school, but only accepted two students each semester to work with her through an independent study at the school. Not knowing too much, but knowing I had issues with migraines, tendonitis in my right shoulder, and difficulty playing loud, I jumped at the chance to be one of those two students. The semester that followed changed my life and my entire outlook on playing and performance.
The Alexander Technique is a method designed to help not only musicians, but actors, dancers, singers, and even those not in the performing arts, locate and release excess tension. This method teaches one how to use the body in a free manner, leading to successful and positive outcomes in performance. Although there are a handful of different techniques that connect the body and mind, the Alexander Technique is specifically based on how the body functions and why. Please note however, before you begin using this method, be aware that this technique needs to be studied in depth, with a certified trainer to deliver the best outcome to you as a performer.
Where did this technique come from and how was it designed?
Fredrick Mathias Alexander was an actor and reciter from Tasmania, Australia who developed this technique based on the struggles he had in his own career. Alexander suffered from respiratory difficulties, which led to him losing his voice every time he performed. Eventually, Alexander realized that the way he was using his body was affecting his performances. He set up mirrors all around him and began observing the way he used his body each day. Overtime, he observed some bad habits which he had created, such as pulling his head backwards and sucking in breath through his mouth when he breathed. These caused a compression on his larynx that made his voice become hoarse. When he went to perform, this habit was exaggerated and not only affected his neck, but also his shoulders and arms, creating excess and unnecessary tension in the upper body. He discovered that the way he used his own body was detrimental to his daily functioning as a human being.
Alexander created a technique that doesn’t dismiss pain, stress, anxiety,excess muscle tension, poor posture and coordination, but rather helps us recognize, and target these habitual and unconscious behaviors. Alexander recognized the behaviors of infants when developing his technique. As babies, people do not learn to walk until they can coordinate their head, neck and back alignment. A baby doesn’t understand how to stand up or even simply hold their head up until they figure out the ease and coordination of such movements. Alexander Technique helps us to regain the same natural, and easy function of the body that we once had when we were a child. It helps people become more aware of not only themselves, but the environment around them. It helps one identify the interferences that our bodies are experiencing and remove the roadblocks, making tasks more simple. Alexander Technique isn’t designed to release all tension. It is designed to eliminate the excess tension which comes with simple tasks such as standing up from a chair.
What are the key parts of the technique?
There are many different elements involved in the technique. So many in fact, that I unfortunately will not be able to talk about them all in this post! I will be leaving some resources at the bottom for you all to check out! I will, however, review the elements that are part of the true foundation of the technique as well as a few which I find to be specifically helpful for performers.
The hands-on entity of the Alexander Technique is an important part of identifying unwanted tension in parts of the body. A certified instructor will guide you through tasks and will be able to help you navigate how to use your body in the most efficient way possible. Chair work is an example of one of the first tasks that instructors will help guide you through. Chair work involves, sitting, standing, and the movement in between the two. This helps the student find their comfortable positions when both sitting and standing. Once you’ve found the two prime positions of sitting and standing, the teachers will guide you through the correct motion of how to stand up.
Alexander developed a system of, “Directions for Use”, to help guide one into the technique. He used Main Directions and Secondary Directions as a guide, but talks about the Right Direction as well. Alexander’s belief was that there is a right direction, but not a right position.
The Main Directions guide the student into the most important rules and steps so that primary control can be reinstated and tension in the neck area can be lessened:
“I wish to let go of my NECK so it can soften and lengthen and open
I wish to let go of my HEAD so it can release up and forward away from the top of my spine
I wish to let go of my BACK so it can lengthen up and widen and deepen and
breathe with ease…”
Secondary directions go along with the main in the sense of thinking wider and longer. Once the Main Directions are completed, the Secondary Directions can begin, some for specific conditions such as arthritis or breathing problems. Some Secondary Directions include:
Thinking of your shoulders going away from each other.
Hands lengthening and widening (for arthritis).
Thinking of dropping your ribcage (for breathing problems).
Understanding the kinesthetic element of the technique is really important! The Alexander Technique is a great example of kinesthetic learning, or learning by movement. Though studying and reading about the technique is incredibly important, the technique can only be learned by doing it. It’s easy to understand how to stand up from a chair, but to be able to physically do it correctly and have the technique be effective, it must be practiced. This applies to every other component involved in the technique as well. You must learn by doing, and doing again, and again. Breaking the bad habits you’ve learned through the years is a crucial part of having this technique work for you.
How does this technique benefit performers?
This technique can be geared to musicians, and all types of performers. Chair work is a hands-on, basic fundamental of the technique, as is hands on work with instruments and while performing is just as important. This can start with how you're holding the instrument, finding where you can release a bit of tension, and creating a bit more ease in your body. Performing does not have to be as physically strenuous as we make it sometimes. The guidance of an Alexander teacher is crucial. They can feel where you are holding tension, and can observe habits like bringing yourself to the instrument rather than bringing it to you. I’ve watched a teacher work with pianists before. The teacher advised the pianist not to bend forward and bring their head and chest down to the piano as if they cannot see what their hands are doing closely enough. Rather, she asked the pianist to sit with good posture, with the length of their arms a comfortable distance away from the piano, and their head directly on top of their shoulders. It didn’t mean they couldn’t look down at their hands; they could while still holding a position that provides the most freedom.
Have you ever imagined taking up space without physically taking up more space? A great exercise in the Alexander technique is learning to be aware of the space around you, and to not feel bad about taking up more room. For example, start halfway down a hallway and make sure there is a wall in front of you, in sight. Take a second. Stare straight at the wall, and without moving your eyes, recognize the space around you using your peripheral vision. Recognize the space to your left and right, and above and below you. Acknowledge the space in front of you, between yourself and the wall, and even behind you though you can’t see it. Once you feel ready, walk towards the wall, but don’t forget about all the room you have around you. Sometimes, in a large city like NYC, we feel so small, and so in our own space, that we forget that there is so much room around us to feel bigger than we are. So the next time you’re walking down the street, realize how much space you have and don’t be afraid to feel bigger than life.
This element of the technique is one I find to be the most beneficial to performers. Not only does the identification of tension and triggers and learning to release them benefit the physical aspect of performance, but Alexander developed something called Specific and General Adaptability that tackles the mental side of performing as well. General Adaptability can be defined as “The principle of purposely putting yourself in the wrong and learning to deal with it…” (De Alcantara, 67) Specific adaptability comes under the umbrella of General. Specific Adaptability breaks down all the variables of a performance, for example the type of chair, the height of the music stand, the temperature of the space, noise, odors, lighting conditions, acoustics, dress, hunger, sleep, health, relationships, etc. Alexander encourages the student to practice in different types of non-ideal conditions to develop adaptability to different settings. Any number of things can feel uncomfortable or unnatural in a performance setting, and by practicing in non-habitual conditions, a person will become more comfortable with types of unfamiliar settings. “The technique is not about keeping your balance, but about losing it and not being disturbed by this loss.” ( De Alcantara 67)
What Should I Do If I’m Interested in Studying the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique benefits performers in the ways I stated above, and so much more! The first steps of studying the technique is to start taking lessons or a class. If you’re in school, many of them offer either Independent Study courses or classes during the semesters. Take a look through your course catalog or talk to your advisor to see if this is an option. If not, no worries. There are so many external resources which can help you find a teacher near you. You can head to www.amsatonline.org and head over to the “find a teacher” tab. It’s as simple as that! This website shows you all the teachers in your area.
It is important to find someone who is certified to teach the Alexander Technique. It might be helpful to look into the teachers and find someone with the same or a similar background to you. Ex. A former or current musician who is also certified to teach. The American Society For The Alexander Technique is a great resource for those looking for a teacher, looking for lessons, or looking to become certified themselves.
The next step should be studying. While the Alexander Technique is a kinesthetic education, it is important for you to read about what you’re learning from various resources. Thoroughly understanding what you’re learning and why it works is incredibly beneficial. When I studied, my teacher Valerie VanHoven, would give me readings every week and the following week we would talk about what I thought about those readings. She would also take the time to educate me on the body parts and muscle types so I would understand how these are all connected and how when holding one or creating tension in one area affects the other. Just like how someone would study the elements in chemistry so they knew what kind of reactions they would have when put together with each other, you need to study the elements of the Alexander Technique to understand the action and reaction they have when used as a whole.
Once you’ve started taking lessons and reading about the technique, it is crucial that you incorporate it into your daily practice. This is part of your kinesthetic education! This technique involves breaking bad habits and the only way to do that is through repetition. You are retraining your body to do the right thing. You are trying to create a sense of freedom from tension, habitual patterns, anxiety and pain to become a person who is more at ease. Make sure you’re stretching, practicing your chair work, sitting in the correct and comfortable position for you, and keep going. The technique works wonders on anything and everything you hope to correct. It is beneficial to those with injuries, chronic illnesses such as migraines or arthritis, those who suffer from performance anxiety or stage fright. Those people who find that their necks, or backs bother them after long periods of practice or performing will also find this technique to be helpful. Anyone can partake in this mind/body method!
After studying the Alexander Technique for 11 months!
Interested in how the Alexander Technique worked for me? Check back next week to hear about my experience with AT, and an interview with my former teacher, Valerie VanHoven! For now, have a productive week of positive practicing!
The American Society for The Alexader Technique: https://www.amsatonline.org/aws/AMSAT/pt/sp/home_page
Ted Talk with August Berger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZQFdh41wXU
Pedro De Alcantara: Indirect Procedures: a Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique
F. Matthias Alexander: The Use of the Self
Richard Brennan: The Alexander Technique Workbook
Richard Brennan: Health Essentials Alexander Technique: Natural Poise for Health
Michael J. Gelb: Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique
De Alcantara, Pedro. Indirect Procedures: a Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique.
Oxford University Press, 2013.
Karu, Rebecca. The Success and Benefits of The Alexander Technique in Musicians' Performance Anxiety. December, 2019.