Teaching the Alexander Technique to music students/musicians, especially in conservatoires, can present different challenges compared to working with pupils from other walks of life. What are the challenges? Firstly, the student's ever-present passionate desire to make music and to become the best performer. Secondly, the student will get many different kinds of instructions from other tutors and teachers about how to play. These may often contradict what I am trying to get the student to learn in an AT lesson. Thirdly, most instrumental musicians have learned to play the instrument at a relatively young age, throughout their formative years. The instrument has become part of their being, it is a symbiotic relationship, for better or worse. Practicing, playing and performing is a musician's daily life, and so is discomfort and pain and the wish to rid themselves of them.
While it is essential to spend sufficient time helping the musician to unlearn habitual movement and thinking patterns so as to create a better use in themselves, I find it useful to involve the instrument in this process sooner rather than later. In the context of a lesson, the player notices what happens to their own use when playing; in deed it makes them aware of the importance of their own use, themselves as an 'well-tuned instrument'. This recognition helps them to take on board the necessity of working on themselves, and then they can expand the application of the principle of the Alexander Technique to all the activities required for playing. The work with the instrument does not become an instrument lesson. Rather it becomes part of the means whereby, allowing the student to develop their capacity to question and re-think everything, the exploration and learning with the instrument continues to take place within the framework of an Alexander lesson.
As a non-musician I can ask obvious and simple questions, for example: where is the sound created, what is required to make the sound, what do you think you have to do? and so on. This kind of questioning hopefully facilitates the process for the student to look afresh at their instrument and become aware of what they are thinking and doing, in order to be able to make changes. However, a book like Benedetti's, will deepen this process and be of invaluable benefit in such an enquiry, both for a layperson, like myself, and for the player.
I would like to share two associations that came to mind when I was reading this book.
Imagine this scene. A team of psychologists set up an experiment with some pre-school children. They gave the children a toy made of lots of plastic tubes. Each tube had something different about it. One tube squeaked when you touched it. One lit up. One tube made music. One had a mirror hidden inside it. With half the children, one of the psychologists came into the room and - as if by accident - bumped into the tube that squeaked. 'Oops!' she said as the tube squeaked. The children were then left alone to play with the toy.
The other half of the children had a different experience. The psychologist came into the room and acted more like a teacher, picking up the toy and saying enthusiastically 'Look at my great toy! Let me show you how it works' and then pressing the tube that squeaked, which of course it did. The children were then left alone to play with the toy. The psychologist-team observed what happened next in each group of children. What do you think the psychologist team saw? In the first group, the one where there'd been this 'accidental' bumping into the toy, which then squeaked, they found, that the children began playing with the toy in all sorts of random ways, pulling, pushing, prodding, until gradually they discovered all the functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. Those children who'd been enthusiastically shown how the squeaking part of the tube worked - those who had their attention directed by the experimenter - they played with the tube in a much more limited and repetitive way. 'Squeak, squeak! Squeak, squeak!' - they hardly ever discovered all the other things the toy could do. *
Here we have two different ways of learning and teaching. In the first case the children are free to discover a larger range of possibilities of the toy, whereas the group that was 'taught' how the toy worked remained rather limited in the way they used the toy. Thinking about music teaching, of course a mixture of both methods is necessary, but unfortunately it seems that often the latter prevails.
I worked hard to create a sculptural form in stone. Fortunately for me, I received some gentle guidance from an experienced stonemason, who had learned his skills as an apprentice at a young age: 'Oh, Dorothea, give the stone some space', he said, 'let the stone respond to you instead of bullying it! Let the chisel sit lightly in your hand, so it can bounce back from the stone and let the hammer fall and bounce back so that you can develop a rhythm, then the stone will be like butter!' He continued 'let your eye follow the tip of the chisel, the hammer will know where top of the chisel is and you will not hit your hand, you are free to follow the line of your intention'. What a relief, how much easier, lighter and enjoyable the creative process became! With these few words the stonemason had given me the thinking tools with which to use the practical tools and enhance the creative process. His words continue to ring in my ears, each time I get tempted to push towards an end gain, as indeed the ringing in the stone changes when my use changes.
This wonderful and rich book 'Cello, Bow and You' by the cellist Evangeline Benedetti, is like the guidance of the wise stonemason. She, too, had to work out for herself how things worked and what was really required playing the cello. The book is like the 'Oops!' in the first scenario of the experiment above, which encouraged the children to explore the toy more fully. Yet, Benedetti also guides us on a journey of discovery. She infects us with her curiosity to find out how each part is designed to work. We marvel at the beauty and craftsmanship of each object, the cello, the fingerboard, the bow and of course ultimately ourselves. She finds assistance and new knowledge from biomechanical engineer, Mark Gomez, who helps her understand that the movement of strings and bow are bound up by Newton's laws and the force of gravity.She guides the player gently through explorations, always with the proviso to remain curious, to think of being an experimenter or researcher in a laboratory, encouraging the players to find out for themselves, ultimately to be able to make their own informed choices of how to play. Each section closes with a number of explorations, which can also be found on her companion website. The intention of this book is to provide the means to clarify cello playing, both for the beginner as well as the expert.
Bendetti has more than 40 years experience of playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after joining the orchestra, she became a pupil of the Alexander Technique because of physical discomfort brought on by the demands of playing. She qualified as a teacher in 1991. This is not a book about the Alexander Technique and nor is it aimed at Alexander practitioners. It is a workbook for the cellist. Yet, between the lines we can recognise how learning and practicing the AT suffuses her enquiry into the technicality of playing.
She writes: 'The intention of the book is to encourage self-exploration, with the ultimate goal of melding the knowledge of our mental, physical, emotional and even spiritual selves into the music we want to play.' For Benedetti this 'melding' together requires observation and awareness, not only through hearing, but also through vision and touch and through thinking.
Although the book is divided into four parts, the approach could nevertheless be seen as one of cyclical learning, always bringing the discoveries back to a whole.
Part One: The Sound Image: This is the music you hear in your head and the musician's capacity to transform this sound image into music with the help of an instrument or the voice. The musician either plays by ear or reads music. In a sound image of a musical phrase or an entire composition, certain elements are fixed, whereas others are left to personal interpretation and preferences and may be informed by the legacy of tradition of performance. All these elements are bound up in the emotional responses of the player. Benedetti encourages the player to become their own conductor, working by comparing and evaluating the musical image and actual sounds to find ways of aligning them. For the musician to be able to express him or herself and the composers' ideas, teachers are necessary to guide the development of the technical skill of the young musician. But there comes a time when, in order to become an artist, the musician will need to become his or her own teacher.
Part Two is carefully dissecting and reassembling the instrument showing how it works. It includes the cello, its wonderful craftsmanship and material, how it is balanced; the strings and what is required for stringing; the bow and how it is designed for bowing and what needs to be done. Understanding the change between the question 'what needs to be done' to play from the question 'what do I have to do' is important, as the former opens up the possibility of responding to the actual mechanical need of the instrument, rather than what we think we need to do.
Part Three concerns the ' ..and You'. Equally painstakingly it moves from a brief introduction of how Alexander Technique helps co-ordination and Whole-Body playing to the importance of the spine. We find out the reasons why the cellist is sitting and how best to prepare for sitting - a kind of sitting squat, one of Benedetti's pupil called this a 'squit', think of it as a 'position of readiness'. The central role of breathing when playing is highlighted. Then we study the hand, move to the shoulder girdle and through the arm, elbow and wrist back to the hand.Benedetti forensically examines the use of language and how it can at times be misleading by shying away from actually naming what it is we do, for example gripping rather than holding. When we accurately name what we actually do we can refine it. She came up with two terms, which I like - one is 'Co-handedness' and 'Opposition as Cooperation' - Co-handedness means that although each hand may have to do different things when playing, they need to work together in a constructive opposition. I think that the idea of opposition as cooperation could be expanded further to include the constructive opposition between the musician and the instrument, and the musician's back and the hands, thus providing a constructive tension or tuning in the sound team. At last everything is put together again for bowing, shifting, vibrator and energetic force of playing.
The last part is on Practice. The principles of the AT are more explicitly mentioned and described in this section, especially, the importance of recognising the end-gain and paying attention to the means whereby. Here she reiterates the importance of creative practice, practice as experiment and as research, as a process for continuous learning and developing, rather than achieving an end. There are pointers as to how to create your practice space, how to remain in a conscious constructive mode, that allows the player to be aware, intentional, purposeful, calculating and volitional rather than be engaged in mindless or absentminded repetition. It is important to set an agenda and assess by embracing the right and critically analysing what did not work, rather than reacting only to the wrong or the mistake. We learn about the importance of rhythm in music and in ourself, and rhythm as coordinator of the time-space relationship, and how to practice scales creatively. The book ends with suggestions for warming up movements for the player and Practice Techniques.
First and foremost this book is a very comprehensive companion for the cellists. The author's generosity and yet light touch in sharing her knowledge and experience makes it possible for the non-player to follow easily and to some extend transfer the skill to an enquiry into any instrument. She always encourages curiosity, creativity and attention to the process. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but enjoy the journey! It should be on the shelf of any Alexander teacher who works with musicians.
*See The Gardener and Carpenter by Alison Gopnik. She explores how infants and young children cognitively develop by using processes similar to those used by scientists, including experimenting on their environment. Copyright © 2017 Dorothea Magonet.
Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2017. All rights reserved.