The Impact of The Alexander Technique: Experiences of My Former Teacher and I
My sophomore year came with a lot of changes. A new major, a new horn and mouthpiece, new studio members, and a new schedule. That Fall, I decided to take a voice class as an elective just for fun! I always had a soft spot in my heart for singing. I signed up for the class, attended and immediately fell in love. My teacher was knowledgeable and shared so many insightful things throughout the course of the semester. She shared exercises for breathing and breath support, showed us videos on how the body works when breathing, and also taught us how to properly use our bodies when singing. A few times over the course of the semester, my teacher, Valerie VanHoven, spoke about the Alexander Technique and how she would accept 2 students in the Spring to do an independent study with her. I didn’t know much about it, but was told that it could really benefit my playing, and boy at that time in my life, I really did need the help. So I contacted her and became one of her Alexander students.
I jumped at the chance and dove right in. I shared with her many things I struggled with such as migraines, shoulder tendonitis, and this weird issue of not being able to play loudly. For whatever reason, I just could not do it. Quickly, Valerie helped me discover some other, deeper seeded, issues that were causing some of my discomfort when playing. Things like how I propped up my foot on the side of the chair to make my leg higher because my feet never touched the ground in most chairs, or how I furrow my eyebrows and change facial expressions throughout playing. Things I knew I did, but didn’t realize were a problem.
Valerie got down to the nitty gritty. She talked to me about books and gave me readings weekly that we’d discuss at the next lesson. What caught my attention? What did I find the most interesting? She went in depth and taught me about anatomy, the muscles in the body and how they worked together. We talked about what I was feeling and why. She dove right into the fundamentals of the technique such as Alexander’s Directions and chair work. Why do we use ourselves the way we do? A question we don’t ask ourselves often enough. Because of this woman’s help and dedication to the practice and to me, her student, I was able to overcome many obstacles.
The first obstacle I overcame was how to sit in my chair and hold my horn properly. I was NEVER comfortable. My hands were too small and my horn fell out of them often. I was more comfortable playing on my leg, but chair heights varied and I could never find a comfortable solution to sitting. We addressed several concerns about this problem. First was my head, neck, and back alignment; making sure I am always sitting directly on top, and feeling my sit bones. The second was the chair heights. We found and determined that I was most comfortable playing in heels, or boots with a small heel that gave me just the right amount of height. This adjustment allowed for the horn sit on my leg so it wasn’t too high or too low. Having my horn on my leg also gave some relief to my right shoulder. We talked about my eyebrows… a lot. What was I thinking about? What was my subconscious doing and thinking, that it manifested in my face this way? Was it the fast passage coming up? Was it a high note I was afraid of missing? We didn’t worry about the “why”, right away. We talked things through and worried about how to fix the problem rather than harping on why it kept happening. We always talked about, “softening the eyes”; a reminder that allowed me to be more conscious of my furrowed eyebrows and to release the tension held in my face. I find now, that this habit reoccurs during stressful situations, for example, the Covid 19 quarantine.
My biggest challenge? Finding my sound and really coming into myself as a musician. I went through phases with my horn teacher, Jeff Scott, just asking me to play louder and louder and louder. I physically could not. I would think I was, and I just could not provide. I was not a bad player, just timid and I didn’t understand the concept of “solo” dynamics. I had a bad mental block that wasn’t allowing me to surpass a certain dynamic. Working with both Jeff Scott and Valerie VanHoven during this time was an extremely important turning point in my development. After working with Valerie to locate tension spots and problems, we began working on music and sound and production development. With fewer issues, came better results. Alexander Technique challenged me to really tune into my body. I began to hear differences in my playing, no matter how small. I tuned in to being able to identify and release tension on my own. I broke some of my bad habits that really impacted my playing. Eventually, things came together. Jeff began noticing big changes in my playing and so did I. I felt more confident with the product I was putting out in my performances.
I continued my studies with Valerie in both Voice classes and Alexander Technique for another year. When juries came at the end of my Junior year, after a year and a half of working with the Alexander Technique, the entire panel of brass faculty had noticed a HUGE change in my playing. I remember this jury day vividly. I was scheduled for an 8:30 am jury time, playing En Foret by Eugene Bozza. Ideal? Nope. I would have much rathered perform a jury in the middle of the day. However, with everything I learned from the technique, I was prepared to put on a good performance and that’s exactly what I did. The feedback I received from the panel was that of how much improvement I made and demonstrated within that year. I began to be recognized as a competitive horn player at my school. I have continued this dedication to the technique, most recently taking an Alexander course with Cynthia Reynolds as I complete my Masters work at The New School. Watching people new to the technique begin their work was inspiring. I was able to use my time in this class to continue to find myself and experience new parts of the technique, while also using my previous knowledge to look at things with “Alexandrian Eyes” and watch the transformation of others. This technique is something really special.
Please welcome my former teacher, Valerie VanHoven! A graduate of both Montclair State University and the American Center for the Alexander Technique. Valerie VanHoven is now an adjunct at both Montclair State University and Kean University teaching Voice, Piano and Alexander Technique. She also is the owner and teacher at VanHoven Music, Inc.
VanHoven grew up playing piano for as long as she could remember and later moved to mallet percussion and drums once entering high school. She began her studies at the Hart School as a percussion primary, left to study at SUNY Purchase, and later ended up at Montclair State her Junior year in the Music Education program as a piano primary. She played piano for a theater company where she then began to sing, attended theater workshops and dance lessons. Later, she became a certified Alexander Technique teacher from the American Center for the Alexander Technique.
How did you hear about the technique and what was your experience with it?
I heard about the technique from a voice teacher that I had. I was probably in my early 30’s and I had chronic laryngitis. So the teacher I was studying with had also studied the Alexander Technique and told me that I should go try that technique because the problem was not with my singing. My problem was more deep-seated than that. Thank goodness he could see it. So he sent me to a teacher in the city. The lessons lasted for 3 1/2 years.
It was the best thing I ever did and I didn’t understand how or why it worked. All I know is my laryngitis got better. I learned some things to do to help myself not fall into the habits of tension that were causing my problems in the first place. It was really tough; Really hard to do. Teaching school and trying to stay easy in yourself was a feat, let me telll you. It was the best thing I’ve done and the most difficult thing I’ve done, but completely helpful.
Why did you decide to become a certified Alexander teacher?
I knew that every time I went into a lesson I came out of there feeling absolutely wonderful and great. It would last for about 5 or 6 days and then I thought, “I have to go back and see this person again. And how did they learn how to be like that? How does one take themselves into an independence with the work?” So I spoke to the teacher about it and she told me I’d be a great candidate for the training. So I kinda wanted to saturate myself in the work, and be able to do for myself what the teachers were doing for me. Then I thought what a great thing to be able to impart to others. Through music, through anything you can solve your issues this way. And you can be more in control of what’s happening to you. And on top of that, when you teach the technique you have to take care of yourself at the same time. In order to teach it, you have to live it. So I thought it was a win-win situation. I thought I could go into the training, gain the skill that I wanted to, to be able to maintain myself better, and at the same time help other people that were experiencing similar things as myself. Because I think there are more people in need of this technique, then are not. Or some sort of modality to help the person stay with themselves better.
What is the process to get into a training program?
You had to have a minimum of 30 lessons. There was a written application just like there is for any school that you go to. With an essay, you needed references and you need 4 admissions lessons with certified teachers who would then recommend you into the program. The program was a great place to be. Again, extremely difficult because it examines your thinking styles and every habit that you have. So over the process of three years, you go through probably the biggest changes you made in yourself and your thinking. In three years time of what a lot of people take 30 years to do.
How has this decision of becoming a teacher impacted your life and others?
Becoming a teacher has impacted every aspect of my being. I cannot teach anything without Alexander Technique. I approach my teaching in a way that automatically looks at a persons habits of use, patterns of breathing, mannerisms, everything that they do with regard to teaching piano, and teaching voice and teaching Alexander Technique. That my instructions for someone in their music usually involves addressing some sort of ordinate process whether it be in their breath, whether it be in their posture, or the relationship between their limbs to their torso. I don’t say it like that, and a lot of times they have absolutely no idea that I’m teaching them Alexander principles in their music learning. Because they’re not there for an Alexander lesson. They’re there for a music lesson. You can just use the principles outlined in the work to influence the way someone is learning. It impacts every part of someones life. It makes you more equipped to manage your personal life and relationships with others, as it gives you the ability to step back from a situation, calming in yourself, tapping into your reactions to things and to give you the ability to think. It’s not that I don’t react to things, it’s that I can read my reactions and decided whether or not I need to step back and wait until my nervous system calms down. Which is usually always the case. Instead of using that energy in a way I really don’t want it to go. And you can apply that to a student that hasn’t practiced for their lesson. And there you are with that kid, where there is obviously a difficulty, which is why they haven’t practiced. So rather than having your own energy flare up at the student, your ability to step back in your own responses really leads to a different way of dealing with your student, rather than scolding them for not practicing or pointing the finger and blaming them. You just try to ask questions and figure it out so we don’t become demeaning and repremanding. That’s very easy to do in certain settings with people. I’m a person, who by nature, is very quick to react. I have a very fast reflex system. My neurological impulses are very quick and often abrupt, which is what led me into this work. It’s biochemistry; It’s brain chemistry more than anything. So learning about how your nervous system is, I believe is key to the way you approach your world. You could have somebody who’s the total opposite, who’s reflexes are so slow that they seem to barely have enough energy to get anything out. And that also can be helped with a thinking style. Not in, “Gosh why is this person so lazy. I can’t get them to breathe enough to sing through the phrase”. They’re not being lazy. There’s something else going on there that they don’t know how to tap into. Again to be able to read the nervous system is another thing that the Alexander Technique really provides someone with to be able to help almost anyone come into their own and grow when they understand what’s going on with themselves.
Improvements in their skill come with improvements in their ways of understanding how they think. So it definitely improves your skill in any situation, if you choose to pay attention. Paying attention is a choice that has to be practiced. Everything is made easier. For some people it turns into more physical work and for some it’s less. So it depends on what’s going on in that individual.
Do you believe the Alexander Technique can help with Performance Anxiety?
I read this book, “Whatever It Is You’re doing, You Can Do It Better”. It was so interesting to read about people who’s inner voices are telling them they’re just negative on themselves. And that clarifies habitual thinking. So a lot of times habitual thinking is at the root of Performance anxiety. People are so use to their inner voices telling them things that they don’t even know. So when you start to figure out what it is at the root of your anxiety, you can start to bring your subconscious thoughts into conscious thoughts. Then we use the Alexander Technique to direct your thinking and it’s through redirected thinking that it can totally help with performance anxiety. Usually, those subconscious thoughts come out in our expressions and breathing patterns. There will be mannerisms that you can observe on someone that totally clue you in on something is going on in their thought that neither one of you know. Of course you never know what somebody else is thinking unless you ask them. So you’re going on in a phrase and the expression changes and you have to ask, “so what are you thinking?” Which you repeat several times until someone might have an idea of what they’re thinking. And they’re thinking of, “Oh no here comes the fast passage”. So changing your thoughts can be completely elusive and takes a lot of practice. But I think that it will enhance ease in performance. Because people are smart; People are smart with themselves once they understand what they’re thinking. I know you were.
What element of the technique do you find the most important?
I think staying with myself, which involves using Alexanders directions, is the biggest element. Coming back to oneself is using Alexanders directions to check in with yourself in relation to what you’re doing. And that is something that we rethink and is in the background all the time. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to come back to yourself. I can be speaking to you and thinking about whether my sit bones are moving down. I can still be speaking to you and relaxing the front of my neck. It just takes practice thinking. And I use my music to come into myself. For me, 10 minutes of singing brings me into my best coordination to be able to go about my day. And I believe it’s because it involves the whole body. It brings breath into the picture. For me, I use breath, resonance and sound as my feedback to how things are going. Alexander was an orator. He used speech and sound himself to see how things were going. In his early days, he was known for respiratory re-edcuation. It was all about the voice for him. So needless to say, in my Alexander teaching, I have started using speech a lot more than I use to. I make people read now. I will pull a passage out of an Alexander book and make them read aloud. Because you can hear so much that is going on in a persons coordination from their speaking voice. It doesn’t have to be singing. And there are times where I feel like I can’t really find my coordination. What else is new! We’re not Alexander robots. We react to things like everyone else does. The difference is I kinda know that I can’t find it. You learn too that, “Okay that’s the way that is today”. And its ever changing, so it’s not going to be necessarily the way it is a half an hour from now. If you go back to his directions, you can even learn to live with your frustrations a tiny bit better. Lets just say the frustrations are there, but I don’t react to them the same way.
If you have any piece of advice you’d give about studying the technique, what would it be?
Please find a certified teacher. Do not try to learn this from a book. Do not try to learn it only online. If we are in a pandemic and you need help and you need to start by learning online, I think you can learn a lot. But get with a certified teacher. They have three years of training and at least a semester of supervised teaching where you have a senior teacher guiding you through how to do this process. There is a lot of refinement for Alexander teacher’s just as teaching anything else. And you really are talking to someones nervous system. Thats a big deal. Teaching a piano lesson or a voice lesson is not the same as really tapping into someones nervous system. It’s quite profound even though teaching music, in a way, if you allow yourself to be really with the people you’re studying with and if your own maturity will let you, also becomes a very profound experience. People come into the maturity of this work on their own. But a certified teacher is completely necessary in my opinion.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Valerie VanHoven! Interested in studying?Follow the link below to the American Society for the Alexander Technique where you can find a teacher near you!
Stay tuned for a new entry next Friday at noon. And for now, have a productive week of positive practicing!