It wasn't long after my first lesson in Alexander-Technique that I noticed I wasn't into so many knots when I played the violin. I felt the effects quickly because I had already been to a chiropractor and an acupuncturist, and although each gave me short-term relief from pain, they hadn't inspired me to rethink how I played the violin. My search for an effective therapy was running out of options. I also needed something that tapped into an organic way of thinking and playing. Instead of being technique-driven, my playing had become more connected to my ear and intuition…
I took for granted every moment of my daily routine, both with the violin and without. This injected a lot of stress and tension into my body. My Alexander Re-Educator, Pam Hartman, didn't ask me to play the violin for her because she readily admits that she's not a violin teacher. … If she showed me how to balance and align my body when I walk and sit, then I could apply that knowledge to my playing. She understood that my sound and general feel for music were inextricably linked to my inner muscle movements, both the health and unhealthy ones. By encouraging me to apply changes in my playing at my own discretion, Pam's instruction enabled my style to retain a sense of wholeness.
The origin of bad habits
Playing the violin always made both of my hands tense up, let alone my arms, shoulders, upper torso and anything else that got in the way. When my bow changed direction it would grind down into the change and away from it. Shifting up and down wreaked havoc with my bow speed, and when the bow was out of control, I compensated with painful inner muscle movements. I was a laboratory for anyone who wanted to study the fast network of dysfunctions in violin playing…
By the time I scheduled my first appointment with Pam I was in an advanced state of pain in which two or three regions of my body had tied themselves together to form a tourniquet of intense pain. My lower neck, shoulder and lower back were so tied into knots that I would wince from getting out of bed or stepping out of the car. When I had gotten treatment in acupuncture a month earlier, the pain returned as soon as I got off the table and left the office…
Learning from Animals
Pam said I was lucky that I hadn't waited a moment longer to see her. My body was more in a state of emergency than I had realized. I faced the mirror in her studio as she assessed the nature of my alignment.
She noted how my feet conformed to the floor, the angles at which my arms hung by my sides, and the amount of weight that my head had on the rest of my body. What resonated with me was the miniature porcelain dog with the bobbing head that was sitting on the fireplace mantle. That simple visual image of the perfectly balanced head showed me, in a lighthearted way, the object of my Alexander lessons.
Any exercise that strengthens or stretches the back, shoulders and tendons will have only short-term benefits, if you slouch the rest of the time. Remember the nursery rhyme, "There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile?" Chances are that if you have bad posture 99 percent of the time, you will also have it while you are doing your therapeutic exercises. Once you set up for yourself the constant reminder not to slouch, your body approaches the permanent status of being fully flexible.
Natural alignment of the head, neck and torso sets up a healthy interplay among all the moving parts. It is not to be confused with the stereotype image of "good" posture. A military carriage creates a visual image of what standing upright is like, but it is not necessarily resilient or balanced.
Alexander deals with the problem of compression within neighboring joints of the body. If one sits in a slumped position, the head sinks into the neck, which in turn weighs heavily and unevenly over the shoulders. The spine supports not from a position of strength but from weakness. Gravity is an inevitable force that makes itself felt at every moment, so it bends and twists as a reaction to huge gravitational forces. However, Alexander teaches you to apply anti/gravity forces to counteract the negative side effects of bad posture. If you observe the difference between slouching in a chair and sitting with better alignment, you start appreciating the differences. The beauty of such simple instruction is that it confronts gravity as one of the most important causes of back pain.
Alignment and strength
I began every lesson standing up with my legs together , knees touching and slightly bent… I learned the importance of keeping each section of my body strong and independent. The centrifugal forces that are produced while playing the violin need an outlet of flexibility… Any residual movement from bowings and finger activity can be minimized to suit the personality of the performer, but if it's stifled or eliminated it will add tension in the elbows, writs, and neck.
The pain from my lower back, neck and shoulders began to subside within a couple of weeks of my first session. Once I understood the concept that my motions in sitting, walking and violin-playing were vulnerable to enormous amounts of stress, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Alexander not only observes the sequence of any movement, but makes you especially aware of how the movement begins… The history of my forty years of physical twisting and compressing was ready to be examined in detail...
Looking inside the arm
The most effective changes in either arm occur in areas that you can't see. I didn't need to change anything drastically like raising my wrist or elbow, but instead I found great benefit from relaxing the inner regions of my wrist, fingers, and so on… When the muscles overreact, tension and pressure increase greatly. There was a lot of housecleaning to do in my own bow arm, but the reward of removing one ounce of tension was immediately felt…
Every couple of weeks I walk out of Pam's studio with better posture and a feeling that my newer alignment (what Alexander calls lengthening), is nudging the old rigidity out. She told me at the end of the first lesson to adjust my rear-view mirror, because I had grown a couple of inches. Even those words made me feel taller, and sure enough, I had to adjust it when I got in the car.
With the new awareness of lengthening ringing in my ears, I could apply its commonsense lessons to the complex web of my violin playing… The link between internal changes and the resulting sound had become a straight line.