In the morning, I ran a group session with the lower sixth pupils working with each other to see how small changes to the posture can bring a huge reduction in muscle strain. And then in the afternoon I gave one-to-one lessons with the upper sixth students. These thirty-minute sessions allowed me to focus on them while playing their instruments and to suggest specific techniques relevant to them.
A musician is no different to an athlete training for the big event. Both require long hours practising to perfect their skills, and both have to perform well under pressure under the scrutiny of a knowledgeable audience. Unfortunately, they also share a propensity for injuries, and the aches and pains that come from longs hours of training. However, for musicians they can often be worse due to the stationary nature of playing an instrument.
And to continue to comparison to sport, competition for a place at a top music college is fierce, just like any sports team. To have a chance, students will be expected to practise for a minimum of two hours a day, and once at college this will rise to four or more just to keep pace. At Julliard in New York, anything less than six hours a day is frowned upon!
The common ailments a musician will experience are lower back pain, stiff necks and sore shoulders. Long periods sitting at a piano, twisting to play a violin, or holding a trombone, or worse a double bass, can put tremendous strain on the muscles. And when focusing on playing correctly, a musician may not notice they are tightening their neck, shoulders or lower back.
The Alexander Technique is taught at all top music colleges around the world. It is an essential skill to learn that enhances a musician’s ability to perform with poise and therefore less effort. The technique develops self-awareness and improved ‘body-knowledge’, or what Seb Coe calls ‘physical literacy’. It may be a cliché, but a musician is also an instrument, and one that is far more complex than the one that they play. If they are balanced and poised, it makes it easier to play. If they are tired and in discomfort, it’s not so simple and they will more likely make mistakes, and maybe even come to loathe their practice and instrument.
Learning how to stand, sit and hold an instrument with minimal effort is one benefit of learning The Alexander Technique. The other is mental. The technique promotes the ability to focus and be mindful while playing a complex piece. This also helps with reducing the impact of performance anxiety – essential for auditions and the big occasions.
I really enjoyed working with the students. They are understandably enthusiastic about their music and have ambitions to make a career out of their passion. I hope the sessions will see them through to the next stage of their study, and prepare them for the exciting (and tough) times ahead.
Post by Roy Palmer our Alexander Technique teacher.