How Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique Will Improve Your Playing
by David Nesmith © 2001
As featured in the International Musician, June 2001.
Musicians’ health is a hot topic these days, with good reason, for the demands on professional musicians can be incredible. Orchestra players are often required to play week after week of masterworks, sometimes with more than one major program each week. Freelance musicians may feel the need to accept as many gigs as possible to make a living and to stay in the “loop.” Many musicians also augment performing with teaching. Days off can be few and far between, making it more and more difficult to balance the cycle of stress and recovery of our physical, mental, and emotional resources. Unfortunately, as we go out of balance, we become susceptible to pain and injury.
Our Body Is Our Instrument
For every sound we can conceive, there is only one combination of movements that creates it. This is why it is said that our body is our instrument. If movement in our body is pinched or tense, our sound will be pinched or tense. Even so, much of our traditional music training has distracted us from movement, focusing instead on technique, musicality, and, more recently, the psychology of performing. The movement of playing is rarely taught at all, let alone with the needs of the body in mind. This needs to change–the movement of playing needs to be taught directly, and musicians need to be specifically instructed on how to move freely.
A new field of study has arisen in the last 50 years or so and can be of great help to musicians. It is called Somatics and is the study of the body in motion. Two tools from the array of somatic disciplines include Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique. These are simple and practical methods that help musicians learn to be more natural in their approach to playing or singing and reduce the chance of injury.
Body Mapping is the conscious correcting and refining of one’s body map to produce efficient, graceful, and coordinated movement. The body map is one’s self-representation in one’s own brain, one’s assumptions or conception of what one’s body is like, in whole or part. If our representation is accurate, movement is good. If our representation is faulty, movement suffers. When our map is corrected, the movement improves. Progress can be very rapid and a musician can, over time, learn to play like a natural.
Our body maps are like directions to a gig. If the directions are good, you will arrive easily and in plenty of time. But if the directions are incomplete or wrong, you might end up being late or not arriving at all!
Body maps need not be conscious. Many performers, often seen as “naturals,” exhibit fine, free body use. By experience and effective modeling during their development, they have managed to maintain complete and accurate maps unconsciously. Musicians who do not move efficiently may benefit from correcting or enhancing their body maps by observing and imitating the natural movers whose body maps are good.
One of the first things we must inquire of our body map is whether it includes the understanding that we have six senses, not five. The sense usually sadly left out is kinesthesia. This sense tells us about our movement and its quality. In order to improve our movement and monitor its freedom or tension, we need to know about and cultivate our kinesthetic sense. How do we do this? By keeping our attention broad and “listening” with our kinesthesia–similar to listening with our ears, only using our kinesthetic receptors in our joints, which give us information as rich and immediately important to making music as our ears do.
Here is an example of another fairly common body map error: many musicians (pianists, flutists, and string players in particular) suffer from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and tendinitis. These maladies can be alleviated if a clear understanding is acquired of what the arm structure is actually like and how it is meant to move. Does your body map include four arm joints for each arm beginning at the joint of the collarbone with the breastbone? If not, you may be unnecessarily stressing the other three joints forcing them to do more of the movement of playing your instrument than they can handle. Over time this will result in pain. The arm joints are (1) collarbone with the breastbone, (2) upper arm with the shoulder blade, (3) elbow, and (4) wrist. Think of your arms beginning at the top, front and center of the torso. Notice how long your arms are now! Accessing the additional rotation available at the true first arm joint will allow an even, efficient distribution of movement, easing all of the joints.
Here is the basic Body Mapping process: simply inquire of yourself what you think your arm structure (or spine, jaw, lungs, diaphragm, etc.) is like. (Draw it!) Then compare this internal representation with anatomy photographs or models of the truth of your structure, function, and size.
The key to integrating this new information lies with how we use our awareness. While exploring the movement of playing your instrument, an expansion of awareness yields more ease in the body. Don’t concentrate on any one body part, but instead invite your awareness to broaden to include all of you, plus your surroundings. This allows the brain to integrate new information more quickly without effort.
Correcting and enhancing your body map will automatically improve the movement of playing your instrument. As your movement becomes freer, you will gain more control over your technique and sound–and become less prone to pain or injury.
Through the Alexander Technique, we can learn how to eliminate excess effort that gets in the way of free movement. It is a process of unlearning habitual ways of using ourselves and allowing more natural movement to emerge. The technique was developed by F. M. Alexander, a talented actor who frequently lost his voice in performance. Alexander recognized a predictable pattern of tension throughout his body, which, among other things resulted in the loss of his voice. By learning to free his neck and allow his head to float back to balance again on top of the spine, his body lengthened, becoming free of the tension, liberating his natural postural responses and allowing him to perform at the peak of his abilities.
Here’s another way to think about this. If someone were to make a very loud sound near you such as a cymbal crash, you and anyone else in close proximity would instantly do three things: (1) tighten the neck muscles, (2) fix the eyes, and (3) clutch the breath. This is a result of our natural protective mechanism called the flight/fight/ freeze response or the startle pattern. Unfortunately, we don’t often fully release out of this pattern of shortening and narrowing of our stature. This means that our freest movement is not available for playing our instruments.
In an Alexander Technique lesson one learns to develop a more reliable kinesthetic sense, to cooperate with the mechanical advantage of the skeletal system, and to think more constructively. As we learn the process we are free to make better choices about how to use ourselves in relation to our instruments. Lessons are often done in the context of an activity, such as playing an instrument. Many Alexander Technique teachers incorporate Body Mapping into lessons accelerating students’ progress.
Finding a Teacher
If you live in a medium to large metropolitan area, it’s very likely that there are many Alexander Technique teachers. Consult the Alexander Technique organizations listed below, or ask around. It’s likely one of your colleagues knows of an Alexander Technique teacher who works with musicians.
Barbara Conable, a world-renowned Body Mapping specialist and teacher of the Alexander Technique, began training musicians in 1998 to teach Body Mapping in their studios and classrooms. Her organization, Andover Educators, instructs musicians worldwide through a course called “What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body.” Visit the Andover Educators’ web site below for information about the course, as well as a list of teachers, articles, books and information about training to become a licensed Andover Educator.
The shape of music education can indeed be changed. Musicians need not play in pain nor have their careers shortened by injury. By orienting ourselves to the movement of playing (developing a kinesthetic imagination right along with our musical imagination), we enhance the total experience of being musicians and ensure that future generations of music students do the same.
Andover Educators® (www.bodymap.org)
Alexander Technique International (www.ati-net.com)
American Society for the Alexander Technique (www.alexandertech.org)
Canadian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (www.canstat.ca)
Conable, Barbara and Conable, Benjamin. What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1998. ISBN 0-9622595-6-X.
Conable, Barbara and Conable, William. How to Learn the Alexander Technique, 3rd ed. Columbus, Ohio: Andover Press, 1995. ISBN 0-9622595-4-3.
The Author David Nesmith is an Andover Educator and a teacher of the Alexander Technique.