To Schlep or Not to Schlep: Alexander Technique Guidelines for Music Performance Teachers
by Ethan Kind
Reprinted from American Music Teacher, Volume 45, No. 5,
April/May 1996, with permission of Music Teachers National Association.
When I was training in New York to become an Alexander Technique teacher, a graduate said that working with some students in the “real world” was like schlepping concrete. That was why he loved to assist in the training program-the technique was easy to teach to trainees. Schlep is a Yiddish word that means to heave heavy objects around, or to drag oneself or others around from place to place-getting around with great effort, resistance and usually in a bad mood.
Looking back on what this graduate said, and in light of my experiences with students in the last few years, I only schlep concrete when I allow myself to do so. From my perspective as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve come up with the following considerations for music performance teachers that will help them take care of themselves and their students.
Define Your Work
In my first lesson with Alexander Technique students, I find out what they know about the Alexander Technique, and then I offer the following definition of my work. The Alexander Technique is an educational process that uses verbal and tactile feedback to teach improved use of the student’s body by identifying and changing poor and inefficient habits that cause stress, fatigue and pain.
In defining your role up front, the student and the teacher work from the same assumptions about what the music performance teacher has to offer. By fielding any questions to clear up misconceptions, you create a verbal contract with the student, which can be clarified and broadened as the lessons proceed. In doing so, you both have a clear sense of what is being offered, and the student doesn’t create a drain on you through unrealistic expectations.
Basic Alexandrian Concepts
Opposition in the Alexandrian terminology is a statement of dynamic space retention within your body and your relationship to the student. It is this concept and thought that create space between the bones in a joint, as well as space between you and the student. For the purposes of good posture, I think of my head lengthening away from my sacrum; this allows space between my vertebrae. I think of my legs flowing to the ground as my torso and pelvis follow my head up and off of easy, open hip joints. Thus my legs are in opposition to my torso, and this allows me to be light and grounded as I work.
I also think and feel the space between my body and the student’s body as I work. This allows me to feel a neutral physical space between us. What usually happens when a teacher works with a student is, as the intention to “fix” the student grows, the space between the two diminishes. You are giving a lesson. As your desire grows to get the student to do what you want, you feel your neck tensing, your back arching and your frustration growing if they aren’t “getting” it. It is as if you are trying to push your spine through your body to get the desired results. A place of true physical power and ease is the spine remaining back in space as you teach, and you sensing how a powerful, lengthening, neutral spine backs up your words and demonstrations.
Grounding is a way of working that gives an Alexander Technique teacher a base to work from and, in my experience, is the most easily forgotten part of teaching. Most people work with their upper bodies and their legs are forgotten. The basis of grounding is op- position. As our hands move onto a student, our legs need to be remembered as moving to the ground.
When I make performers aware of their feet on the ground, the performance changes. The sound always becomes richer. Grounding is also accomplished by having performers who sit become aware of being supported on their sit bones by the chair. Pianists and organists achieve grounding on the seat because their legs need to be mobile. Other performers who sit ground doubly-through their feet and pelvis.
You can help reinforce the physical ease created by opposition by being aware of your double grounding in sitting. You lower your body’s tension level by allowing the chair to support you.
The dynamic, fully conscious experience of telling and trusting your neck to release and your head to lead the spine into lengthening is called directing. It means that if you move downward (squatting to work with a student), you don’t compress your vertebrae. Moving down in space does not have to be a loss of flow and dynamic in your back.
Direction is the mechanism whereby the body is allowed to integrate all movements necessary to perform an activity with appropriate levels of dynamic lengthening. For instance, you are making a crucial point on the performance of a piece. Instead of bracing your body for the effort, you release your neck and think of your head leading your spine into lengthening, allowing you to feel the powerful flexibility of your back backing up your words and demonstrations.
Directing is an act of full-body participation by the teacher. It is the physical equivalent of feeling your feelings, because it frees the body to move with the least expenditure of effort. We are always moving from our central nervous system, but to do so with direction allows us to do a specialized activity with a high degree of organization and ease.
Inhibition is the basic Alexandrian concept of watching how you are moving, stopping in the middle of the activity, and choosing to do what you are doing in a way that is less habitual. It is interrupting an inefficient movement pattern and choosing to move with a minimum of tension and a maximum of balance and ease.
Example: You are teaching a music student and, as you do so, you realize your shoulders are hunched, your feet are barely on the ground, your neck is tight as your head pulls toward the student and your legs are tense. You pause for a moment and allow your shoulders to rest on your ribcage, you feel your feet on the ground, you support your head and neck with your whole back, you release your thighs instead of jamming them into your hips-and you continue to teach.
This whole process of inhibition takes only a few seconds, and the student probably won’t even notice the pause. This is a perfect place to let a student in on your process, thus demonstrating the power of inhibition. (I found in a live performance that I could inhibit the old movement patterns in the middle of a piece.) Done enough times, inhibition becomes a way of working to keep yourself out of physical trouble.
Balance Versus Position
The major difference between the Alexander Technique teacher’s approach to refined, repetitive activities and other postural teachers is the idea of balance versus position. The Alexander Technique teacher sees the body as being in constant flow and movement. Good posture has an upward flow and a downward flow. The torso flows upwards from the hip joints and the legs flow downwards from the hip joints. The shoulders flow by widening horizontally as they float on a ribcage that is in constant expansion and contraction through the breath.
The terminology of the Alexander Technique is based on movement. We talk of lengthening, widening, releasing, flowing, letting go of, allowing. This is a clear recognition that, as we teach an activity that requires exceptional accuracy and subtlety, we don’t stop inner movement. The more inner movement, the lighter the performer feels at the instrument, and this is experienced as if the body is moving itself. The performer then gets to sit back and enjoy the music as much as the audience.
How can we establish set positions in a body that is never still? You can’t. For ex- ample, if I am working with a pianist, I ask her to think of her head leading her spine into lengthening, her arms releasing out of the back and her knees leading the legs out of her hip joints. All of these thoughts create an expansive flow in the body.
Care of the Student The Student’s Needs
Why do students come to you? What are their technical and musical weaknesses? Do they know what they need to be taught? All of the above questions are extremely important; they give insight into students’ minds. Knowing how students’ minds work will determine your approach to their courses of study by allowing you to communicate in ways they can understand. If they are analytical, you can explain in anatomical and mechanical detail. If they are intuitive, you may use a more experiential, feeling approach.
When I introduce new ideas to solve performance problems that create struggle or pain, I note if my suggestions conflict with the student’s beliefs on technique and posture at his instrument. I let the student know I am aware of the conflict and we discuss my solutions. I then ask the student to “try on” my suggestions, but the final decision is theirs.
I create safety by letting the student know that everything I do is within the normal range of motion. I let the student know they can stop me at any time. I always let the student know what my expectations are before I take an arm, leg or head into movement. My thoughts are for the student’s safety, and this is communicated through my open, listening, loving hands and my balanced body. Finally, we talk as much as necessary, so that neither of us is left guessing.
A performance teacher can create safety by allowing the student to err; to be able to take chances in an accepting atmosphere. Where else can an aspiring performer learn to go for it and not feel hobbled by the feeling that they’ll die if they don’t succeed?
Rules of the Lesson
What do I expect of a student? As an Alexander Technique teacher, I ask that the student be available to be taken or guided into movement. I ask that the student do their best in a lesson. My definition of “best” is very different than most other’s expectations of doing one’s best. Doing one’s best usually implies “trying” to be good at a task, but the Alexander Technique way to “get it right” is to withdraw the effort to get it right. It is to stop trying, make less effort and feel how this affects the student’s body. When the student doesn’t try, the tension level goes down and he can begin to explore what it feels like to move consciously with less effort. In other words, the student reaches the goal not at any cost, but in a way that is kind to their body. Performing with a minimum of effort and a maximum of joy and musicality creates exceptional performances.
Do you quickly make a deciscion about what kind of a student a person will be within the first few minutes of meeting them? Do you have high or low expectations from first appearances? I believe most of us do, and I believe it is something to be acknowledged and not allowed to interfere with our work.
My goal as an Alexander Technique teacher is to help the student become independent of me as soon as possible. If I hold low expectations of the student, then my thoughts will subtly manifest in my actions and words. I won’t treat the student as an equal, I get what I send out, and if I don’t have faith in another, then I introduce something extra into the lesson. Nobody under the gaze of a judge feels safe to learn. That is the tension of judgment. I also wear myself out by judging another. The effort needed to deny that any judgment of another is a judgment held against myself is exhausting and leaves me worn out at the end of the day. All attacks rebound.
The Student’s Responsibility
It is the student’s responsibility to experience through activity, listening and learning. If I am good at what I do, my work creates more than perpetual maintenance and helps the student find a new place of ease.
When I work with performance students and teach them how to escape the pain-tension cycle, I am teaching them to consciously organize their bodies. Most students come to me with no conscious organization of their bodies in activity, except perhaps to force their ideas of good posture.
Pain serves as a wake-up call for the student to change outdated physical, psychological or emotional habits that serve poorly. As music performance teachers, much of what you do is helping the student recognize the grooves they have cut into their bodies with habits that no longer work. The path of least resistance is letting go of poor habits that are creating escalating pain or technical problems in performance.
Student’s Ease in Movement
Alexander Technique teachers learn to never force anything. Our work is noninvasive, but we do take arms and legs into movement, and this is usually done on a table. I was taught to give feedback to a student when I feel resistance to taking a leg or arm into movement. Between the contact of my hands and my words, I let the student know if they are holding. Students become aware of how they hold in their bodies and develop a conscious ability to release (see Inhibition).
I ask performance teachers to verbalize (with hands on the student if they choose) where there is physical tension in a student at their instrument. Allow the student enough time to become aware of their excess tension. Why schlep concrete? Teach the student the act of consciously releasing, and the student experiences your teaching at a deeper level of awareness, and you work less.
High energy is experienced in a lesson when both the student and I are feeling so good that our bodies and feelings are vibrantly alive. Many students come to us with low energy because of fear of failure and pain. There is an exhaustion in their eyes and a manner in their bodies that is a combination of tension and collapse. I find putting someone on the table who is low energy is usually the best way to begin. As I work around the body to release tension and compression, I ask that they feel how exhausted they are, allow the table to support them, fully surrender their weight to the table and allow themselves to “go away” if necessary.
Recognize when you or the student are low energy. Accept this. Now, as a gift to both of you, ask the student to play a piece only paying attention to the sheer beauty of the music. Stay with this, and allow the music to raise your energy; it will. It did at one time, if not now. When the music has filled the room and you both with joy, then you can begin to solve problems without schlepping.
Exceptional accuracy in performance can be accomplished two ways. You can either avoid missed notes or embrace missed notes. You can either force your body to play accurately or you can trust your body to play accurately. Most performers are conditioned to avoid mistakes. The avoidance of mistakes in a performance means a fear of error is being used to control the body, which is seen as unreliable.
If I place a student’s attention on freeing his neck and lengthening his spine (see Direction), the performance always improves. If he couples directing with trusting his body to realize any piece of music, her performance will be accurate and fearless.
Avoiding mistakes is a product of fear. The posture of fear is the neck shortened and tight, and the shoulders tight and raised. Not using this posture in performance requires exceptional vigilance, if the student has built their technique on belief system of distrust and control. What if the worse the playing gets, the less the student tries to get it right? Initially, mistakes might increase, but not in the long run. If you trust your body, then you haven’t projected your distrust of yourself onto your body, which has no mind on its own. When you distrust your body, you are really distrusting yourself. Anyone who is distrusted must be in a state of denial and fear in order not to act out in rebellion. A student can be supremely accurate through trust and not fear, thus giving performances that are not subdued and safe.
You, with your clarity of intention, make the difference between schlepping or taking care of yourself. The performance teacher’s intention is to assist the student in creating beautiful, effortless musical performances. Effortless does not mean a loss of intensity in performance, rather a recognition that many performers confuse excess muscular tension for feeling the music.
I had an experience with an exceptional violinist. She played with a great deal of tension in her body. She was literally “getting down” to play. I asked her to release the musculature of her neck and back and flow up as she played.
It was incredible. Her sound became dramatically louder and richer. After a moment she stopped playing and looked very distraught. Then she broke into tears, saying she couldn’t feel the music. I was at a loss, because she sounded better and worked less. I realized then she had been confusing muscular tension for feeling the music. After I explained this to her, I said, “Now play with intensity and have an upward flow.” She did it and loved it.
How do you take care of yourselves when it is your intention to give your all in a lesson? Sit or stand in balance, as you convey information to your students. You can be joyous and excited in the creation of beautiful music and not strain your backs and necks in teaching. If you “embody” ease and balance, and demonstrate that power and intensity are not in conflict with ease and balance, then the student will consciously and subconsciously begin to realize all these qualities.
Care of Yourself
Remembering yourself is the foundation of the Alexander Technique. It means that I never sacrifice myself in giving an effective lesson. It becomes impossible to schlep when I give a lesson, because I am aware of my existence and my physical organization.
Working in balance became more and more habitual during my training period. I came to realize I usually work with good postural use, but I need to remember myself in a lesson. It is very easy to get caught up in trying to give the student what they need at your own expense. In trying to do something, you are not doing so with the minimum necessary tone level in the body. When you give the student what they need in a place of self-remembering, you don’t try-you just do it.
I acknowledge in self- remembering I am as important in the process of assisting the student to heal as he is. We both then get the “high” from the raised energy level between us. In acknowledging myself in a lesson, I also model for the student that it is not selfish or exclusionary to take care of yourself. Self-remembering is a demonstration of the teacher taking care of himself and the student.
Pace of a Lesson
The pace of a lesson is decided upon by both of you-mainly by the teacher-to suit needs and goals of the student. If I work at a pace that suits myself, then I can give the student what they need, because I am giving myself what I need. I can only give fully if I give to myself fully. This is a remarkable place to be; if the student senses your joy in taking care of yourself, then there is no way they can’t share that joy. This shared joy creates a wonderful place for improvisation, troubleshooting, learning and helping. Reciprocal learning can only take place when both of you feel safe and unobligated to each other.
Not Taking the Lesson Seriously
Anything taken seriously ties you powerfully to the outcome. Anything taken seriously puts you in a position of trying to do your best-totally caught up in your concern for and intention to “fix” the student.
Do what you do and allow what occurs to be good enough. Trust you will offer what is needed and that it will be received. If it isn’t accepted, it will be the next time. You can never be totally sure what a student gets in a lesson. They may not see the value of a lesson until days later. You have the right to feel good about each lesson by letting the student take responsibility for what they get. This frees you to do your best in an atmosphere of reasonable expectations and acceptance you create.
Acknowledge Your Expertise
My Alexander Technique training was intense. For the three years of the training we practiced what we preached. We were taught that for our hands and words to be effective on students we must do as we say, so our nervous systems could assist in the healing of the student’s nervous system. However, for all the attempts of the professors to make sure we were ready when we graduated, I heard doubts from some of the graduating students ahead of me about their ability to be effective, knowledgeable teachers.
No amount of training will give you the confidence you desire in your ability to do first-rate work. The knowledge and experience of teaching are no substitute for clearly deciding you know what you are doing and that you do it well. The choice to acknowledge your expertise and feel like an expert is the only way to avoid years of worrying whether you are an effective teacher.
The student’s body, if not the student, picks up on how secure you feel in your work. Put yourself on the line with self- assuredness and do what you want for the student. If it works, you are a genius. If it doesn’t, try something else until it works. Then the student can consider you a troubleshooting genius. Don’t be afraid of showing your process to students in solving a physical or technical problem. Showing your process can give them a framework for taking care of themselves on an ongoing, independent basis.
Trusting Your Intuition
Trusting your intuition is an extension of acknowledging your expertise. Within the first few minutes of seeing a new student, I get a great many insights about what will help the student. When I trust these quick, spontaneous thoughts and act on them, I am usually right. I’ve also noticed that expressed concerns from a student throughout the lesson trigger my next steps. In this moment-to-moment presence I improvise, and this improvisation is guided by my intuition.
For example, I may ask a student to feel what is happening in his leg, when it is his arm that is hurting. Since every part of a person’s body is in a relationship to every other part, what seems like an unusual suggestion may make perfect sense. A tension or shortening in one part of the body reverberates throughout the whole body, distorting the whole system, no matter how slightly.
Acknowledging Your Needs
What do I need from an Alexander Technique lesson? In other, words, how do I need to be acknowledged? I would like to be acknowledged sometimes as a competent-an exceptional Alexander Technique teacher. It doesn’t have to be verbalized, but how the student reacts to my work lets me know how successful the lesson has been.
In Not Taking the Lesson Seriously I talked about not being tied to results and allowing the lesson to take shape. Trusting what I’ve done is all I need. This is where I am sometimes, but at other times I really need to hear I am effective. These two viewpoints seem mutually exclusive and they are, if held at the same time. But what if you allow yourself to feel the need for acknowledgment in all its ego glory, and other times feel so intensely secure you don’t need anyone to tell you how good you are? This is feeling your feelings, which allows your thoughts and their attendant feelings to exist. Acknowledging your needs in a lesson is a remarkable statement of your consistency as a teacher.
Consistency, as most of us define it, is doing the “right” thing most of the time and reacting the same way to certain thoughts considered appropriate or inappropriate. Stop the bad ones and allow the good ones. What if we allow a definition of consistency that asks for acknowledgment in a given moment, so there isn’t a conflict within us as we work? Then our hands and words will align with ease in our intention to heal and teach, because we’re not expending energy to suppress our thoughts. I’m not suggesting that we act on needs that would be inappropriate-only to see them, accept them and only do what is professional.
Letting Go of Students
All teachers reach a point with some students when they wonder if they are doing the students any good. I thought it would be easy to know when to end a student-teacher relationship. Not now. Within this relationship are lessons of honesty for you and the student. Are you doing your best with the student? Are you allowing your lessons to be places of creating the necessary information exchanges that take a student to a new level of awareness, comfort and expertise?
Is the student there to be a non-participatory body? Can you let the student know they are worth the effort? Do you want to do this? If you want to, then do it. If a student refuses to take responsibility after a reasonable period of time, out of self-love let them go-but gently.
Embracing Your Dis-Ease
Accepting where you are emotionally is the best way to work with clarity in your hands and words. To “not feel good” and try to push these feelings away as you work only increases your desire not to be doing your work. This whole process of teaching is one of accepting where you are emotionally, and being open to all the myriad surprises that occur in a lesson.
I have never given a lesson in which I acknowledged my upsets and didn’t see them become something else in the course of the lesson. If you are expending much of your energy denying or trying to change your mood, you are not fully present with the student. Teaching is a chance to do something over and over in a calm atmosphere-to learn to accept your dis-ease and know it doesn’t have to affect the quality of your work.
Be Kind to Yourself
Being kind to yourself as a teacher is not something I’ve seen often. We are a helping profession, which usually means we help others but not ourselves. We schlep concrete, for any number of reasons, to prove we are loving, caring individuals. I even see this with Alexander Technique teachers, who have been taught to take care of themselves in a lesson. They may remember to take care of themselves physically, but be so concerned with helping the student they still end up exhausted.
Being kind to yourself in a lesson is a thought with a feeling. If I think of being gentle to myself as I work on somebody, then my work feels whole. I truly want to be kind to a student when I am feeling loving toward myself. This makes the lesson a place of healing and not a karmic exchange. Kindness offered both ways from a teacher allows a lesson to be a gift-not a payment for some denied debt that a teacher must pay over and over because helping is not enough. A lesson offered where the kindness moves in both directions means you get twice as much as the student. You get paid and you get self-love.
Can a teacher work a full day and not be burned out? What would have to happen so that you don’t use yourself up by the end of the day? How can you end the day feeling high energy physically, mentally and emotionally? The answer is your ability to supervise yourself-as if you aren’t doing the work. You supervise your body as you teach.
The ability to supervise yourself as you work allows you to be in opposition to yourself (see Opposition) as well as the student. In a sense, you access a third party to take care of you as you take care of the student. I experience this Supervisor as a loving detachment. I am loving, very peaceful and totally present as I work from this place. It is timeless-I am not fighting myself by dreading a long day or a difficult student.
This place of loving safety is the most important space a teacher can find. Your work flows, you don’t physically hurt, you love what you do and you are protected from your students’ “stuff.” Identification with your Supervisor is the secret to not taking your students’ “stuff” home with you.
Think about it. “Stuff’ is of the human ego, and if you work on your students identifying with the Supervisor and not your body, as the ego does, then how can you take on another’s “stuff’?
Identifying with your Supervisor is a place of affirming life. Instead of saying no to a student’s needs, it says yes to a part of yourself that has no need to say no. Saying no to a student requires you to maintain a wall between you and your student, and I have yet to meet a teacher who didn’t exhaust herself maintaining a wall all day.
Teaching provides a structured setting where we can choose to step back, identify with the Supervisor and not be pulled outside of ourselves in relation to others. The previous considerations of this article play a greater role than their obvious points. They are intended to free us of the limitation of our egos in our work. Each section points to an ending of mental, emotional and physical struggle as a way of working. When this happens our work isn’t work. It is an act of loving, divine creation and affirmation. In the “now” of the Supervisor, time is suspended and we don’t want to be anywhere else but working with students as they flow in and out of our offices and studios.
At the deepest spiritual level we are teaching because we don’t have a choice. There are so many lessons to be learned and we can refuse to learn them. But if we don’t refuse, we may change the lives of the two people who may help change the world-ourselves and that one ready, special student.
F. Matthias Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1985).
Man’s Supreme Inheritance (Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1985).
The Universal Constant of Living (Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1985).
The Use of the Self (Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1985).
Luigi Bonpensiere, New Pathways to Piano Technique (New York: The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1953).
Deborah Caplan, Back Trouble (Gainsville, Fl: Triad Publishing Co., 1987)
Michael Gelb, Body Learning (New York: Henry Holt and CO., 1987).
Judith Leibowitz and Bill Connington, The Alexander Technique (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1990).
Reprinted from American Music Teacher, Volume 45, No. 5, April/May 1996, with permission of Music Teachers National Association.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ethan Kind is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, who trained at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York. He also has a master’s degree in performance on the classical guitar and attended the Royal College of Music in London.
After completing his Alexander Technique certification, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and worked for three years with a doctor treating whiplash victims. He has been published in this country and abroad in the “American Music Teacher”, “American String Teacher”, “Massage Therapy Journal”, and “Yoga and Life.”
Ethan Kind resides in Albuquerque, NM, and has a private Alexander Technique practice. He can be reached at (505) 294-8483 or through his website www.ethankind.com.