Is Playing Your Instrument a Pain in the Neck?

Is Playing Your Instrument a Pain in the Neck?

 

Many musicians suffer from neck, shoulder and back pain while practising or performing.  But help is at hand with the Alexander Technique, a simple method used by performers including Sting, Madonna, Sir James Galway and Yehudi Menuhin. But what exactly is it, and how can it help you? Daren Banarsë, an Alexander Teacher and professional musician gives us the low down…

 

A musician’s perspective

Jamie was a talented piano student, studying at one of London’s music conservatoires. But he had a problem. When he practised for more than half an hour, a dull ache would emerge from his left shoulder. If he carried on, the pain would engulf his entire back and neck, causing pain and stiffness throughout his upper body.

‘I forced myself to play, because I love the music. I wanted to be a good player’, he says. And after a few drinks and a good nights sleep, he’d wake up the next morning without pain and start again. It wasn’t until after leaving college that he decided to look into the Alexander Technique.

‘My back was getting worse. I was in horrific pain. Sitting at the piano was torture’, he says. ‘By the end of the first (Alexander Technique) lesson, I knew I’d found something. My teacher got me thinking about things in a new way. I was causing my own back pain. I was doing it to myself. And she was going to show me where I was going wrong’.

He took a break from playing his instrument, giving his body a chance to recover, while continuing with lessons. ‘We’d make simple movements, like sitting down into a chair. But I was learning to do this from the beginning again. Really observing everything in detail, what it looked like in the mirror, what it felt like inside.’

‘I soon realised I was using far too much effort. My body was straining with tension’, he says. ‘But once I was actually aware of this, it was quite easy to find new ways to move’. As he developed this new coordination of his body, his back pain completely disappeared, but there were also other unexpected benefits. ‘Playing the piano become so much easier, more fluid, more joyful. There was a resonance in my tone I hadn’t experienced before’, he says. ‘My playing’s really opened up to a new level’.

 

How it works

When Jamie started taking lessons in the Alexander Technique, the first thing he learnt was that it was an educational process, rather than a relaxation technique. He was learning to be mindful of the way he moved, thought, and played the piano.

He discovered that even sitting down at the piano without playing was enough to cause a tightening in his body. It was just the thought, the anticipation of playing, which caused an initial anxiety, accompanied by a shallowness in his breathing.

‘It didn’t happen when I sat down for dinner. It didn’t happen when I sat in from of the TV. So why was it happening at the piano?’ He experimented with sitting at the piano with no intention of playing. ‘I’d say to myself, I’m not going to play the piano, and then I didn’t get anxious or tight’.

He discovered that he’d been meeting the stimulus of playing the piano, with a habitual response of tightening the body. Once recognised, he could choose to not respond in his habitual manner. He could then allow his body to remain free and relaxed, which resulted in better sound quality and technical ability.

Through time he developed a strong internal awareness, which allowed him to recognise wherever he was responding to events in an habitual and possibly harmful way.

 

Benefits to musicians

The Alexander Technique is taught at many of the music colleges and conservatoires throughout the world, including the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

It is effective for:

  • Keyboard instruments: piano, organ, harpsichord, synthesiser, celesta
  • Plucked string instruments: guitar, electric bass, harp, sitar, banjo, mandoline, ukelele, bouzouki
  • Bowed string instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass
  • Wind instruments: flute, saxophone, clarinet, oboe, cor anglais, recorder, bassoon
  • Brass instruments: trumpet, trombone, french horn, euphonium, tuba
  • Percussion instruments, including xylophone, vibraphone, hand drums and drum kit

 

As well as helping to establish a relaxed, effortless playing technique, the Alexander Technique has multiple benefits for musicians. Once the body is operating with minimum tension, the player’s sound automatically develops a resonant, open quality, which carries well in a concert hall minimum effort.

Performance nerves become easier to control as the musician learns to focus their attention on the body in the present moment. And back pain, as well as other injuries (such as carpel tunnel syndrome) caused by poor technique or excess tension, often disappear completely after a series of lessons.

 

Any questions?  Ask in the Alexander Technique forum

 

Why is it called the Alexander Technique?

It’s named after its founder, Frederich Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). Alexander was a performer, who began loosing his voice when reciting on stage. Doctors suggested he rest his voice, which was effective, but the problem always returned once he began performing again.

After some contemplation he realised it must be something he was doing to himself which was causing the problem. He was determined to get to the root of it, and began observing himself in front of multiple mirrors. To his surprise, he discovered that he was tightening his whole body, pulling the head back every time he spoke. After a long period of experimentation, he found effective ways of stopping this habitual contraction. His voice came back for good, and any hoarseness completely disappeared.

He recognised that as well as helping actors and musicians, his method had the potential to improve the health and well being of many. He began teaching his findings to others, and soon started training teachers so they could also teach the technique.

 

What happens in a lesson?

Musicians come to the Alexander Technique for many reasons, including pain in the body, performance anxiety and a desire to develop their playing technique. Whatever the reason, the teacher’s objective is to guide the pupil into a deeper awareness of how they’re using their bodies. They’ll go through simple movements to demonstrate how thoughts, habits and reactions shape the quality and outcome of everything they do.

The teacher might ask their pupil to bring in their instrument, so they can observe and analyse what’s happening as they play. Feedback won’t necessarily be given at this stage. The teacher may prefer to concentrate on simpler activities first, like walking or lunging, giving the pupil a general sense of how they’re using their bodies. Once they’ve developed a high degree of awareness and sensitivity, they bring this insight to playing their instrument.

Part of the lesson involves the pupil lying on their back on a table, as the teacher applies subtle manipulation whilst using language to guide their thoughts. They’re encouraged to relax and release any excess subconscious tension.

Often, by the end of the lesson, a pupil will experience a pleasurable feeling of lightness and freedom, and may appear visibly taller. They’re warned against trying to hold on to this feeling, as this would result in a doing, which would be contrary to the non-doing process of the Alexander Technique.

 

How long does it take to work?

Learning the Alexander Technique is similar to learning a new musical instrument. To get a good understanding and experience of it takes approximately 30 lessons, though some advanced pupils continue lessons for a year or more. This involves a financial commitment, and should be considered a longterm investment in career, education, and overall well being.

 


What do you think? Are you interested in the Alexander Technique, or maybe you’ve already had lessons? We want to hear from you! Post your thoughts in the Alexander Technique forum

 

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