Several interesting themes emerge from this inspiring new book - firstly, a holistic approach to use
, secondly the importance of indirect procedures, thirdly and particularly for singers and musicians; developing a new musical 'gesture'. Agnès' vision of the Technique will be invaluable for students of AT, grappling with their own personal journey of change, and there is much to help overcome the problems associated with playing an instrument and especially the instrument of the voice.
Agnès recounts her own difficulties first as a classically trained singer and pianist, then her initial AT lessons, lastly Alexander teacher training. The powerlessness she experienced when she began to work on a piece of music, and the feeling that her path was blocked by vocal tension, all of which wound up into her throat creating a feeling as if she had no breath. These physical difficulties provided the necessary impetus to find a natural method and Agnès had the commitment to develop her own Alexander Technique style.
Prior to her Alexander teacher training she says she had 'no idea what it meant to be actively connected to my body' and had received comments, to 'sit up straight' and 'release your shoulders'. She needed to find a way back to herself.
She writes that music had been written into her body in a certain way, but this was not working for singing. So by working with AT, she could re-programme a different musical 'gesture' into her body and change things, as she discovered the principle of how the body worked. 'A voice which originates in the body, follows the laws of the body' - is a potent and thought-provoking statement.
The book is interspersed with striking black and white photographs with close-ups on hands, students working together, and on Agnès, and Agnès working and engaging with students.
Throughout the book Agnès draws on her early experiences and mis-use patterns to elucidate points of interest, descriptions of 'being terrified of destroying the hard won arch of the muscles of her palm' as a pianist, bring home her inner personal battle to find a new way. The only important parts of her were her hands - so that I could play the piano, she writes.
It is clear from reading this honest book that also, as Agnès began to trust a new process and forget her aim, she began to sing properly and with her whole body. This was a commitment to a non end-gaining route where she was able to release tension to a specific end. She found she had a 'mind instrument inside her', and only when she could feel that could she fulfill her potential, and transmit the results to others.
The chapter headings are fluidly laid out and we are invited into Agnès AT world from the beginning. In 'Alexander Technique and the Modern World' and 'A Version of the Alexander Technique' we begin to get a flavour of her creative approach to the Technique. In 'Vocal Technique and Body Technique' Agnès highlights her singing difficulties.
In the chapter about Patrice Chereau, Agnès' acting teacher, the description of his way of relating to the body as a means of artistic expression on stage is wonderful, and Agnès describes how he moves; he is everywhere, he accompanies every movement and every word of his actors. Agnès tells us he seemed to 'embody the Technique effortlessly'. A hugely important role model for Agnès I am sure, and someone who informed her teaching style.
In the chapter 'Teacher and Performer' we read about her gradual and apprehensive approach to training. Firstly with Micheline Charron near Paris applying the technique to movement, dance and drawing, then in London with Misha Magidov. Where she was able to escape her way of doing things.
In the chapter 'Hands' there are solid descriptions of hands, which she writes are the part of our bodies we still have the most connection with. We use them to drive, to prepare food, they are permanently on the move - we send them messages commanding them to 'do something'.
In 'Pain', Agnès describes different types of pain saying pain is the body's way of telling you, you don't know it very well. 'Legs' is clearly detailed with anatomical and physiological description where she writes how real support can be attained from sternum to legs including breath.
'Arms and Shoulders' should 'know' how much they weigh she says, and Alexander talks about good muscular tension, so that relaxing or letting go of the weight of the arms are odd ideas. Agnès' own arms, once healed and muscularly changed, allowed her to play the piano with complete freedom. There are lengthy descriptions of the arms, arms that need to be properly connected to the spine.
In 'Elbows' she describes how singers can often misuse their elbows in an attempt to increase capacity for breathing, in this way they actually retract and press themselves downwards. The photographs of a flamenco dancers use of the arms and elbows are superb.
In chapters 'Finding your Voice' she insists singers must have a good connection to flexible legs and of course the whole body. In 'The Column of Air' the singer's good use of breath is imperative, she writes; whilst sticking to primary control we let the air enter along the spine. Using the mind to direct the breath in this way we employ the mind-body-energy and create a holistic and dynamic support.
The chapter on whispered 'ah' raises an interesting consideration. The author seems to be suggesting that the whispered 'ah' is made on the in-breath. I donÕt think this is a quirk of the translation, but an example of the brilliant way Agnès has of taking the Technique and making it her own. She wants to allow the breath to rise to the cheek-bones. She writes that this is what Alexander meant. It does raise questions though, for the orthodox teacher.
Linking mind and body in foreign language speaking
In the chapter 'Vowels come from the Body' Agnès describes the different use of the vocal mechanism in a foreign language, the long vowels found in many other languages than French, and the associated use - an area where work may be needed if the speaker's use is inappropriate.
It is not enough to be interested in the body alone, if we do not also link this to the thought. In 'Breathing comes from the Music' I love the bounce, a dynamic upward movement between musical notes, which will certainly give a moment-by-moment aliveness for the teacher and student.
Agnès advises skilled musicians who wish to achieve ease and power in performance to ensure that rhythm does not just stay as a concept on the page, which we implement outside the natural rhythm of the body, but that rhythm and breath come from the body.
In chapters 'Applying the Technique on Stage' and 'Connecting Mind and Body while Performing' AlexanderÕs early use of mirrors is mentioned, and Agnès explains how she uses the directions to ease her own acute stage nerves, a very useful personal description, which when taken on board by performers will help their nerves tremendously.
In 'Forgetting the Technique' Agnès again places much importance on using the Technique to achieve a better psycho-physical balance, but the aim ultimately is to work until you can forget about the Technique.
'Warming Up' and 'Micro Movements' give us an overview of useful warm-ups and a description for circulating energy. In 'Back to Basics', 'Breaking Habits' and 'Lengthening in Order to Widen' we are in pure AT territory.
I personally would have welcomed a paragraph in the foreword describing the style of the book. Sometimes she addresses singer, the AT teacher or student interchangeably with 'I', 'your' or 'the singer'. It is possible that a different style of layout would be more useful.
There are personal stories from students, singers and performers at the end of the book enlivening it even more. This is a book for performers, Alexander students and teachers alike. It will be of great benefit to singers suffering pain or difficulties, who are shown here how to develop whole-body use. It is not a step-by-step self-help book, but an inspirational and important one. People who read it will be inspired to find a teacher, and I recommend this book wholeheartedly to all AT teachers.Copyright © 2015 Vida Hedley. Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2015. All rights reserved.