Does it hurt to make music? There are plenty of health and maintenance modalities that can help, including the Alexander Technique, which strives to rid your body of tension.
In an ideal world, playing music would never cause tightness, pain, or discomfort — but for many musicians, regardless of instrument or genre, that isn’t the case. If your feet ache after a heavy session on the drums, your throat burns after singing your show-stopping finale, or your fingers cramp up during the second hour on the guitar or keys, then you’re probably looking for answers — and solutions.
This is where the Alexander Technique can come in. Developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s, the Alexander Technique seeks to realign posture, increase bodily awareness, and minimize muscle tension, reducing pain and discomfort in the process. Many musicians make use of the Alexander Technique to keep their playing loose and their bodies healthy; it’s taught at the Juilliard School of Music and other conservatories, in fact. Maybe you can benefit from it, too.
One important note: This article is not intended as medical advice. Though these ideas can be helpful to a wide variety of musicians, they are not a substitute for consultation with a trained healthcare provider, so if you’re experiencing pain, be sure to touch base with your doctor before giving any exercise a try.
The body as an ecosystem
Alexander Technique practitioners see the body as an interconnected entity, where even something related to your toes can affect the health of your vocal cords. In fact it was a revelation concerning Alexander’s own toes, and voice, that helped inspire the creation of the technique in the first place.
“Alexander was an actor who recited Shakespearean monologues and kept losing his voice, over and over again,” says New York City-based Alexander Technique instructor Dana Calvey. “The normal advice of ‘rest your voice’ wasn’t helping him, so he started looking at what he was doing with his entire body, what habits he had developed that might be hurting his vocal performance, and how those habits were getting him into vocal trouble, again and again.”
Studying himself in the mirror while reciting, Alexander noticed that one of his regular habits was grabbing the floor with his toes. “When he stopped doing that, it had a positive effect on what was happening to his voice and his overall coordination,” she says.
The lesson? Pay attention to your whole body, not just the area that seems to be giving you problems. You never know when adjusting the way you treat your lower back, for example, can help alleviate the tightness that’s been plaguing your fingers or vocal cords.
Cultivate awareness, not just strength
As Alexander discovered a higher level of awareness of the entire body, the better able he was to cultivate habits that helped his voice and reduce habits that hurt it. So, while doing hours of scales a day can help you develop the power and precision you need to be an amazing player, it’s only one part of the journey towards becoming a top-notch, and sustainably healthy, musician.
“It’s not just about the exercise itself when you’re practicing,” says Calvey. “It’s about how you’re doing it. While exercises to build strength in the fingers are useful, it’s important to make sure you’re not doing them with too much effort or tension.”
In other words, don’t force anything, especially if it starts to hurt. Calvey herself recalls how, as a rising young singer and dancer, she encountered problems similar to those that Alexander faced. “The harder I tried to fix the problems with my voice that I was running into, the worse I got,” she continues. “It was only after I started really looking at my body and voice, and trying to understand what was getting in my way, that I started to improve.”
Start with the head and neck
“The head and neck relationship is particularly important to performing naturally and without pain,” says Calvey. The reason? Every human being’s built-in fight-or-flight response.
“The spine ends in our skull, right behind the soft palate, in between our ears,” Calvey says, “so when you go into that adrenaline-filled fight-or-flight response, when you get really scared or nervous, you compress your head and neck area. Your skull presses down and your nervous system starts initiating lots of hormonal action oriented towards that stress response, which can lead you to tense up in ways that are not helpful for playing and performing.”
To counter this, first pay attention to your head and neck when you start to feel nervous or tense and note how your head starts to press down and forward, even if only slightly. “When you feel it start to tighten, focus on delicately letting your head come up off your spine, so you have a little more freedom up there,” Calvey says. “Your whole body will get more space and room to coordinate itself.”
“When I clamp my head down and press on my neck, I feel it all the way down to my feet,” she continues. “But if you let your head delicately lead the away from your spine, your whole body follows in that direction. Then you can have your full power to work with.”
Practice awareness every day
The goal of the Alexander Technique is to help you become aware of your subtle bodily habits, on a minute-to-minute basis, habits that you might otherwise ignore. The Technique also seeks to help you learn to adjust those habits, as needed, to help you feel strong, healthy, and in control. To get there, doing little things every day helps.
“Whether you’re cutting up vegetables or opening the door, tying your shoes or brushing your teeth, try to focus on the activity and be mindful of what your arms and back are doing while you’re engaged in it, what you’re tensing and what feels relaxed,” advises Calvey. “If you’re sitting in a chair, pay attention to how the seat of the chair is supporting your pelvis and how your feet are supported by the floor. Ask yourself, ‘I wonder what would happen if I did this with a little more ease, if I just released my lower back a little while I was sitting.’ Even spending a minute or two each day becoming more aware of how you move and perform daily activities helps a great deal.”
One specific exercise Calvey recommends involves placing a couple of books underneath your head and laying down on a hard surface, with your hands on your stomach and your legs bent. “Lying in this position helps alleviate the downward pressure and tension that you accumulate throughout the day,” she says. “Do this for two minutes before going to sleep. Most people have tension in their hips, so to alleviate this, you can put your legs up on a chair so your calves are parallel to the floor, with your lower legs resting on the seat of the chair.”
“The idea is not to go through your grocery list in your head, but to really observe the sensory experience of sitting in that position, to notice movement, tension, and breathing in yourself,” she says. “One reason we get tension in the first place is that we cut off awareness of our senses, so anything you can do to increase that awareness can help you lessen the tension that gets in the way of you playing your best.”
Make your breaths silent
The concept is simple, but the positive effects can be far-reaching — when you breathe in, do so without making any noise.
“Inaudible breathing helps your breathing mechanism work reflexively, rather than imposing tension or overdoing anything,” says Calvey. “Breathing in and making noise can also have the added negative effect of drying out the vocal cords.”
Singers and non-singers alike can benefit from putting this principle into practice. “Inaudible breathing can help a wide variety of instrumentalists because, when they breathe more reflexively, it reduces the tension in their shoulders, for example,” she says. “I’ve also seen it affect how instrumentalists use their hands, helping them play with less tension.”
Allow time for the process of self-discovery
While you may see immediate benefits from the aforementioned tips and ideas, it could just as easily take days or weeks for positive results to emerge. Don’t give up, advises Calvey, and keep practicing.
“Habits are built up over a lifetime and becoming an expert in discerning what’s going on with your body doesn’t happen overnight,” says Calvey. “The goal is to continually heighten your awareness, not to get to perfection, because there is no such thing. Try to stay curious, as a non-judgmental observer, about what’s going on with your neck, your back, and so on. That continued practice is what’s going to give you the biggest improvements as a musician.”
When it comes to learning about the Alexander Technique for musicians, this article is just the beginning. If the above tips resonate with you and you want to find out more — and/or begin working with a trained Alexander Technique instructor — check out www.alexandertechnique.com for more resources. For more on Dana Calvey and her work, visit www.danacalvey.com.