By Peter Ribeaux
David J, aged 26, a male violinist, was referred for Alexander lessons by his music college. He is tall, 6’3”, well built with a pleasant easy personality. He is quietly spoken, highly intelligent, with a strong ambition to succeed as a musician.
In January 1998 at the age of 23 he had been suffering progressive severe pain and stiffness in the right arm, his bowing arm, particularly towards the wrist and hand. This severely restricted his ability to play the violin. Indeed, he could only play for about a quarter of an hour at a time before the arm seized up completely. Various treatments included steroid injections and physiotherapy for his suspected repetitive strain injury (RSI) or work-related upper limb disorder (WRULD), but relief was short lived.
General Social Aspects
David was in the process of taking a postgraduate performance diploma at Music College, but he was forced to cut short his studies in January 1998. He started Alexander lessons immediately (initially once per week and from March onwards twice a week) hoping that this would enable him to resume his studies in the following September. There was some improvement and in the summer he decided to take a chance and go on a long planned orchestra tour in the Far East. He had to cut the tour short in spite of the ministrations of local physicians, traditional and western. These helped on a temporary basis but the problems came back as soon as he started to play. This story echoes the experiences of the founder of the Alexander Technique, F.M. Alexander, with his voice problems.
In September 1998 David postponed the resumption of his course for another year. He continued Alexander lessons twice a week and as a result of noticeable improvement in his physical condition and moderation of his symptoms he became sufficiently interested in the process to embark on the three-year training course to become an Alexander Teacher. This would enable him to obtain daily support for his work on himself. He also continued to have one lesson per week in order to set aside some time for supervised work on applying the Technique to his violin playing.
David’s Alexander Lessons
The Alexander Technique is to a large extent an educational technique. Sessions are called lessons and the client is referred to as the ‘pupil’. The Alexander teacher uses both verbal and manual guidance. David’s lessons took the form of learning to stop the constant downward pulls (collapse) in his body and the tension in his shoulders and arms. Since these were aggravated whilst playing he also had to learn specifically to prevent this pattern as he approached and while playing the instrument. This process takes time and cannot be speeded up. Twenty years of habit build-up in the musculature will not easily go away in a few weeks or even months. This is particularly the case when skilled performance (as in violin playing) is superimposed on an already distorted musculature.
A number of standard Alexander procedures in thought and movement were learnt mainly involving standing, bending, sitting and lying down. By and large these procedures involve bending only at the major joints, hips, knees and ankles and making sure that the arms are able to move independently, freely and with tone at the shoulders, elbows and wrists. These procedures are important in order to replace faulty habits in using the body. The latter include hollowing the back when standing, stooping with the spine in order to bend and slumping while sitting. The major work however is the ongoing process of applying the Alexander principles? Briefly stated these involve stopping before an action, preventing the automatic distorting body habits and replacing them with more appropriate and natural ones. An action in this context is any response to a stimulus (internal or external) and it might range from scratching an itchy nose to (in David’s case) picking up a violin. The work is both mental and physical and takes time to master.
David did not give up his violin entirely. His practice regime, however, had to be radically altered. Application of Alexander principles to this work involved three main aspects. Firstly, at the start his practice time needed to be as short as five minutes. Secondly, his practice method had to change. He had to focus more (even entirely) on the manner in which he used his body while playing rather than on playing the piece at any cost. Thirdly, he could save physical wear and tear by using his mind more than his body. This meant learning and memorising music away from the instrument and very clearly conceptualising each piece before ever playing it. Psychologically this was difficult as it often felt that he had not really been practising. Once after he returned to college he reported feeling a fraud one day having got away with only playing a piece through a couple of times before being praised by his teacher in a lesson. He had to be reminded of all the hard work both in his Alexander lessons and outside that had gone into making this possible.
David returned to college in September 1999 and completed his studies in June 2000. At the time of writing (January 2001) it is now three years since his first Alexander lesson and he successfully made his first concert performance this week. He has been practising (with the violin) for up to five hours per day without ill effect. His use of his body whilst playing is vastly changed and his movements are noticeably better co-ordinated. In particular his arms move separately from the rest of his body without the fixing of the shoulder joint and the involvement of the torso in his bow strokes.
This case describes application of the Alexander Technique to a complex problem. Misuse of the body in skilled performance is likely to take longer to respond than that deriving from ordinary everyday life particularly when it has reached the point David had reached. The problem here is that the skill of playing has been superimposed on an already distorted musculature. For most people without such complications learning a sound basis in the Technique can take a much shorter time. An initial course is generally considered to be about 25 – 30 lessons.
[boxibt style=”success”]About the Author
Peter Ribeaux is an Alexander Technique Teacher of over 30 years standing and is co-director of the Centre for the Alexander Technique, which runs a teacher training course in the Alexander Technique. He has worked as a trainer in the USA, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Israel and has taught the Alexander Technique in a number of different settings to people from many walks of life including the performance arts and industry.
As an occupational psychologist he also works as a consultant, trainer and coach in the areas of personal development, stress management and back pain prevention. Stress-related illness and back pain are the two main causes of sickness absence at work. He believes that work organisations and their employees share an interest in remaining as healthy and free from dysfunctional habits as possible. The former do so in order to become more productive and the latter in order to control and enjoy their working lives better. The Alexander Technique is his main driving force in this work.