I would come out of lessons with such a heightened awareness of my body that I would rush to the practice room to work on my viola technique before it wore off. Everything seemed to get easier and sound better all at once. Along with this awareness of what was going on with my body while playing the viola, came an awareness of the aftermath. For the first time in ten years of viola playing I was in pain after only a few hours of playing per day. In fact, if I had an orchestra rehearsal I would not be able to practice more than one hour that day or the next day would have to be a day off.
The Alexander Technique and the String Pedagogy of Paul Rolland
The discomfort was far worse than anything I had ever experienced resulting from playing. My only tool at the time to relieve the pain was to lie on the floor with a few books under my head. I went on for years taking Alexander lessons to improve my viola technique and I spent a long time practicing inhibition in various ways. Taking long periods off the viola helped. I had the great fortune of being able to stop playing for a couple of months which let me forget some of my muscle memory. Relearning to play from a somewhat blank slate was very useful.
It was this last venture and accumulation of a number of AT lessons that lead me to a great discovery. Figuring out how to balance the viola without gripping it constantly is a real parlor trick. My old method of doing this was to adapt the viola to me somehow. I realized that if I was to be able to balance the viola without gripping or filling in the empty space with gear I had to relearn how to use my arms, shoulders, and torso to balance the viola. We are moving around the viola, supporting it, and manipulating it.
The viola can only respond to what we do. I realized that by narrowly focusing on my fingers and arms I drew myself closer to the viola seemingly in an attempt to bring my self brain, spine, heart, consciousness closer to the activity. What was so wonderful about the AT in relation to viola playing for me was that it gave me such a strong distinction of what was me, where I was in space, and what was the viola and where it was in relation to me. Before, I was unconsciously melting into the viola and trying to move around the viola in unnatural ways because I was unaware of how my body worked from a muscular and skeletal level.
Interestingly, this new distinction also had a side effect of helping me separate myself from the identity of being a violist. Suddenly I was me and the viola was the viola instead of some unnatural hybrid. Looking back I had probably heard a teacher say that the viola is an extension of you or something along those lines which I obviously took to an extreme. I then decided to put my primary focus on letting my consciousness live inside my body rather than superimposing it onto the viola.
When the primary control of the body is functioning properly the use of the limbs becomes near effortless in experience. The ribs become free to ride the breath, and movements are initiated from a lengthening of the whole body, from the spine right out to the fingertips and toes. Contrast that idea to what most musicians think they need to do to play: Intimately tied to the new efficient and easeful way of playing was my mental attitude.
My Introduction to the Alexander Technique
Rolland understood the principles of leverage involved in using the head weight to support the violin or viola. Citing the cantilever principle, Rolland maintains that:.
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Beginners must be taught to use the weight of the head to provide better leverage on the chinrest. The farther back the chin contact, the better is the leverage. The upward support is furnished by the collarbone. The instrument rests on the collarbone; the upward support is provided by the entire body of the player. This is another area where Rolland's pedagogical principles of movement in string playing are so relevant.
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Walter Carrington, one of the few remaining living Alexander Technique teachers who trained with F. Alexander, explains primary control in this way:. The primary control is a psycho-physical process. It's a process that manifests itself in physical change—muscular activity, relationships and all the rest of it—but it's controlled by thought processes of wish or intention.
A very big element of primary control involves automatic, mechanical and involuntary aspects, but to have it work satisfactorily the voluntary component is indispensable Carrington and Carey A constant to which one responds habitually to is the force of gravity. Walter Carrington writes of gravity:.
Now, the thing that all living things have to cope with, as I've said so often in another connection, is the force of gravity. The force of gravity is the constant in our environment. It is the one unvarying thing, because air and food and everything else varies, every other darn thing varies, but gravity doesn't vary. Now if this constant is out there, living things can only live if they come to terms with it.
The first requirement of living things is to come to terms with this constant in their lives As we all know, there are considerable degrees of gradation in how well or how badly we adapt to it Carrington , Frank Pierce Jones believes that a skilled Alexander teacher activates a mechanism that is already present within the human organism:. My strongest impression when A. Alexander first demonstrated the technique to me was that of a mechanism working against gravity In relation with human beings, gravity has generally had a bad name.
It is commonly thought of as a hostile force which has to be fought against and overcome. Part of the fascination of the space program lies in the opportunity it offers to television viewers of vicariously escaping from the pull of gravity Now I had a striking demonstration that the picture was wrong. I had not been oppressed by gravity but my ignorance of the role it played in posture and movement.
If it were an indomitable force Obviously a mechanism to neutralize the effects of gravity must always have existed as long as there was life on earth Jones , The anti-gravity response of the human structure is the upward thrust from the ground through using the extensor muscles. When the anti-gravity response is fully functioning, there is no sense of effort needed to achieve the full length of the back. Hence, if a string player's back is fully functioning, there will not be a sense of effort required to support the instrument.
According to Snende and Nemessuri , the range of pressure applied to the bow by the player is anywhere from zero for mezzo forte at the frog, the weight of the bow is sufficient to grams for forte playing. Rolland writes that the self weight of the bow is about two ounces at the frog and dwindles to an ounce at the tip. The player must apply about two pounds of pressure at the tip to make up for the loss of an ounce of bow weight Rolland , But bow weight and pressure are only part of the considerations of sound production.
What of the surface that is being bowed against? A firm, stable bowing surface is an essential ingredient for producing large, full sound. In the process of creating a co-ordination, one psycho-physical factor provides a position of rigidity by means of which the moving parts are held to the mode in which their function is carried on. This psycho-physical factor also constitutes a steady and firm condition which enables the Directive Agent of the sphere of consciousness to discriminate the action of the kinesthetic and motion agents which it must maintain without any interference or discontinuity.
This is not to infer that the instrument is held rigidly, but rather that the support system upon which the instrument rests the player himself provides a subtle upward thrust, thus creating the antagonistic action between the string and the downward pull of gravity on the bow. The thrust comes from the ground up and occurs when the legs are connected to the back and neck in a way that, taken as a whole, the components are functioning as a united column of support. After locating the fulcra and power of the most important levers in the arm, it becomes obvious that the whole limb is fundamentally governed by the body.
Another system of levers supports the body, i. All string players are taught to increase the amount of weight going into the string through the bow to make a larger sound. However, there must be a corresponding increase in the resistance of the violin to the increase of weight or pressure. If there is not sufficient support of the instrument, as is the case with many players, the increase of weigh through the bow will actually force the violin downward. Many players may instinctively increase the support of the instrument as they increase the weight through the bow.
This is often accomplished by clamping down on the chinrest with the head, causing over-tensing of the neck muscles; drawing up of the left shoulder, requiring relatively vast amounts of energy; or using the left arm as a rigid support beam, thereby impeding the left arm movements necessary to playing the violin or viola. A given player may exhibit a combination of any or all of these tendencies.
A lucky few will accomplish the necessary increase of instrument support in response to increase of bow resistance through the use of the leverage in the largest muscle groups of their body, those of the back. Here is where being able to direct a lengthening of the back and torso can be of great assistance. As the body lengthens and widens, the upward thrust of the hold of the violin increases the antagonistic of the bow to the string.
The player must make the necessary adjustments as the bow reacts to the increase in antagonistic action. He is not only trying to increase the amount of weight on the string with bow, however, he is also increasing the resistance of the string to the bow. Instead of trying to accomplish a larger sound through the increase of weight on the string which chokes the upper partials , the increase in sound is achieved through resistance between the bow and string.
In his study, Motion and Bowing , Percival Hodgson states:. The volume of the sound is decided by the amplitude, or width, of the vibrations. An increase in power is therefore achieved by adding to the pull or push exerted sideways on the strings. Downward pressure in itself tends to prevent free vibration, and thus strangles the tone.
It is only used comparatively slightly in order to pull the string, and will obviously need to be proportionate to the sideways force employed at the time Hodgson , Thus the action of producing a large sound is accomplished with the largest muscle groups of the body possible, those of the back, as well as with the least amount of perceived effort.
Correspondingly, less sound can be achieved by lessening of the upward thrust of the player's body. This upward thrust, combined with the downward pull of gravity on the bow, is the vertical form of the bi-lateral motion advocated by Paul Rolland. Rolland believed that bilateral movement in which the bow is moving in the opposite direction of the body is an essential element of string playing.
The spiraling mechanism of the human structure, explored in the next section, facilitates bi-lateral movement movement in opposite directions in both the vertical and horizontal planes. String players traditionally speak of left hand and right hand technique as if they were entirely separate entitities.
When an understanding is gained of the spiral arrangement of the musculature, such terms should become only a means of designating the specifics of the tasks each hand performs. The hands themselves are the ends of a unified process that involves the brain and entire human structure of the player. Raymond Dart identified and drew attention to the double spiral arrangement of the human musculature Carrington and Carey , Dart, Australian by birth, emigrated to London after graduating from medical school in He was appointed Professor of Anatomy in Johannesburg in , retaining the post until his retirement in For many years, Dart was dean of the medical school at University of Witwatersrand.
Dart enjoyed a varied career, becoming famous for anthropological investigations, as well as for his work in anatomy. Dart and his family had Alexander Technique lessons with Alexander's assistant, Irene Tasker, in Dart had a single lesson with Alexander in , but maintained that Alexander influenced him for the rest of his life Dart , The spirals of the human musculature are mirror images of each other.
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The diagonal pull of these spirals of muscle accounts for the flexibility and upright capabilities of the human structure. These diagonal pulls may be likened to pulling on the bias diagonal of a piece of cloth. There is much greater flexibility in the cloth when pulled on the bias than when stretched on the cross grains vertical and horizontal grains. The effect of an individual lengthening and widening his back is to activate the anti-gravity muscles extensors by causing a greater stretch on them.
The pelvis and the head are connected not only by the bony, vertical structure of the spinal column, but also by the winding diagonal ribbons of muscles that make up the voluntary musculature of the torso. It is because this musculature is under voluntary control by the human nervous system that difficulties arise in an individual's use, and consequently, potential exists for improvements in an individual's use. Voluntary control should not be confused with conscious control. It is the unconscious control of voluntary musculature that gets one in trouble. By definition, voluntary muscles have the potential for being under the control of the individual.
For an individual to have voluntary control of his voluntary musculature, he must be conscious of how he is using it.
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The essence of the Alexander Technique is learning to exercise conscious control of the voluntary musculature. Anatomists have traditionally divided musculature into various muscle groups. This is useful for identification purposes but not useful for understanding the working whole of human movement. The act of turning the head and placing it on the violin affects the musculature in the lower back, conversely, the muscular condition of the lower back affects the act of placing the head on the violin.
Support of the violin with the head involves both sets of spirals and the support of the whole back. Percival Hodgson, in his study Motion Study and Violin Bowing, made the discovery that bowing motions themselves describe arcs and spirals.
The Illusion of Viola Technique
I recalled an elderly otologist named Miller, 30 years ago in New York City, demonstrating by means of examples ranging from the spiral nebulae to the human cochlea, and from the propagation of sound to the propulsion of solid bodies, that all things move spirally and that all growth is helical Dart , Richard Norris, an M.
Over months and years, such asymmetrical posture can result in muscle imbalance, with the muscles on the left side becoming shorter and stronger than those on the right. Muscle imbalance can lead to joint dysfunction and so on Norris , This is a scenario that describes many violinists and violists after years of playing.