In Place of Unity
When we learn to cultivate the Use of the Self, we can choose how to use our bodies better.
I began studying Alexander Technique during my undergraduate degree at New England Conservatory. I developed tendonitis and had to take some time away from playing. In my search for solutions and relief, a member of my viola studio recommended that I try some Alexander lessons with Ruth Kilroy. During our lessons, I recognized that it was the way I was using my body while playing, and at all times, that was causing pain and inflammation. I continued having weekly lessons from 2006-2009, and then when I completed my Bachelor's degree, I began the certification program at the Alexander Technique Training Center, in Newton, Mass with Ruth Kilroy instructing. I studied for three years until 2012, when I completed certification.
Training at ATTC was a pivotal experience for me, and continues to give me endless material to apply to living and playing. I have participated in the AGM, a conference for teachers and trainee's at Julliard school, where I studied with Rivka Cohen, Tom Vasiliades, and Mischa Gorem. I have also taken a workshop with Pedro de la Cantara.
I currently teach in my home in Brooklyn, NY.
F.M. Alexander (18691955) was an actor who found that during performance, his voice felt strained and sometimes he would loose it entirely. He tried vocal rest between performances and mental practice instead of reciting, still when it came to performance time, he would strain his voice. Nothing he tried alleviated his symptoms, so he began to observe himself. He noticed that whenever he would recite, he would tense his head and neck, and contract the muscles around his throat. He realized that his habit of tensing his neck caused his loss of voice; he was using himself in a harmful way.
The Superficial Front Line Here
We see a connection between the base of the hips (the Sitz bones), through the entire spine and torso, all the way to the skull. For violinists and violists, if we contract at the head and clamp down on the instrument, then it creates a downward direction through the entire torso (again, affecting the arms). For wind players or singers, any contraction of the head and neck, tension in the muscles of the core/abs region, or collapse in the hips, will diminish the lung capacity, interfere with the motion of the diaphragm, and create tension throughout the rib cage. Similarly, we can see that there are connections from the hips all the way to the tips of the toes. Any misuse, downward pull, or tense stiffing of the legs will have an impact on the hips, and therefor the spine, neck, and head. Alexander called this connection throughout the self, the Primary Control. He writes that the primary control is relationship between the head-neck-back-ground, and when it works well, it creates an antigravity flow that supports the whole body.
Unity and the Primary Control
The Primary Control is brought about through the thought. It is an internal flow that a person learns to send or 'direct' throughout the body. Our movements and tensions originate in the thought, so if an area is locked or pulling down, somewhere within our thought, we are initiating that idea. Most of the time, we are unaware of what we do with our bodies. The more aware we become, the more we can change the way we use ourselves. We can learn, though a better use of the primary control, to a unite the individual parts of the body through sending directions, so that the whole body can oppose gravity. When, a shoulder or any area is locked in a tense position, that area cannot be functioning as part of the whole. This often results in pain, the body's message mechanism of alerting us that something is wrong.
We can learn to substitute stiffness of the shoulders which creates pain and limited mobility, for an upward support flowing through the whole self, which creates flow and alleviates pain. We can learn to use the strength and power of a unified torso to lift the arms, hold an instrument, or support the breath.
How the body is used affects its condition. If we use the body with a lot of tension and strain, it is often painful and even damaging. If we use our bodies well, we can experience better circulation, freedom of movement, fluidity, and flow. The way we carry ourselves, move, play music, live our daily lives, can become habitual. One gets used to doing things a certain way, and after a while, that feels normal and natural. Unfortunately, if we do things in a tense and locked way all the time, it can cause a lot of problems. Alexander technique a skill for developing awareness and learning to use oneself in a better way.
As a violist, I have thought a lot about my shoulders. I initially held my instrument exclusively with my shoulders, and after a full day of playing, I would experience a lot of headaches, neck pain, and lower back pain. I even had numbness in the fingers of my left hand, and eventually, tendonitis. I realized that I was using only my shoulders and arms to play, while the rest of my body was not engaged in a helpful way.
The Deep Front Arm Line, and the Superficial Back Arm Line.
This shows clearly the connective tissue throughout the musculature of the back, chest and the arms. When thinking of Alexander's concept of use, we can see that what we do with the back, affects on the arms, and vice versa. When we collapse or pull down with the back, then we also create downward pressure on the arms. For musicians who have to hold their arms up for long periods of time, having to support the weight of the instrument itself is often very challenging. When we add the pulling down of the torso, the downward pressure exerted on the arms can often lead to injury. We effectively create a 'tug of war' within our own bodies; torso aiming down, arms pulling up. This is an example of using the body in a way that works against itself.
These are some pictures from Thomas Myers' Anatomy Trains. Myers looks at how the fascia (connective tissues within the muscles) form long structural tracts.
A helpful metaphor, is magnetic force. When an object becomes magnetized, the individual atoms reorient themselves, so that their north/south directions are aligned. The affect is that all of the atoms are working together. Similarly in the body, most of our individual parts are not working together, or aiming in the same direction. When standing, most people's hip joint and the lower back, are aiming forward and down to the ground, the knees are locked, and the head is contracting downwards on top of the spine. Just as gravity is acting upon us all the time, we must be actively opposing its continuous downward pull with an upward internal direction.
Superficial Front Line
Thomas Myers 'Anatomy Trains'
I've been actively teaching since I graduated from the New England Conservatory. In Boston, I had a studio of forty students; teaching in Elementary schools, adult fiddling classes, and privately around the greater Boston area. Since living in New York, I've taught for Brooklyn Youth Music Project Summer Camp and Summer Strings, teaching chamber music, and viola sectionals. I also teach a weekly violin class for the Performing Arts and Creative Classes after school program within the Lefferts Charter school, as well as maintain a private studio of twelve students around Brooklyn.