• Shraddha Patnala

The Alexander what now!?

Updated: Apr 7

If you resonated with our previous post, ‘No Pain, No Gain: debunking the myth’, this might interest you. This time we dive into a niche method of pain management: the Alexander Technique.

If you haven’t heard of it before, that’s because it is often overlooked as a complementary or alternative therapy for pain. But it presents itself as an incredible tool to build better posture and movement habits to not only lengthen the time you can play without pain but also improve how you play!

What is the Alexander Technique?

This technique was developed and pioneered by an Australian Shakespearian actor, F.M Alexander, who figured out what his doctors couldn’t. Plagued by chronic laryngitis, Alexander looked to medical professionals to help him fix his voice loss. But the doctors were stumped - there was nothing overtly wrong with Alexander’s body. Without any medical recourse, he started looking inward at what other factors might be at play and soon found that there was an unnoticed tension in his neck. When he actively noticed this tension and released it by slowly rebuilding his posture and physical habits, he didn’t experience the pain and mental exhaustion of chronic laryngitis.

Over time, his technique improved and spread to other areas of chronic pain in the body. But when you first hear about the Alexander Technique’s (AT) almost miracle cures for a bad back, a cricked neck, or a more serious ailment from one’s posture, it feels a little silly and easy to ignore. But don’t dismiss it just yet. Musicians from celebrated conservatories around the world rely on this Technique on the clear basis that it works.

What do experts say about AT?

In the UK, considered a non-invasive Complementary and Alternative Medicine, AT has offered people a way to manage their pain through gradual, tailored, and instructed habit changes. Flautists who, like violinists, play with an asymmetrical balance, often hold themselves with tension. The focus is on the music rather than the physicality of the playing. Now, we know you need to apply what you learn in class to your practice sessions, but the physical aspects need as much - if not more - practice as well.

Priscilla Hunt, a firm believer in AT, shared her insights at a lecture on Flute Performance in 2007:

After all, you are challenged to hold an instrument upright in virtually a horizontal position with your face turned to the left, potentially for long periods at a time, and all this without over-tightening the upper body, arms, shoulders, neck the face of the jaw, without tensing up the legs and feet, and without constricting the breathing mechanism—diaphragm and ribs. How many of you have experienced localized muscular fatigue, pain, “play through pain,” have pain after a certain length of practice, have pain that lasts beyond playing the instrument, feel that a normal workload is challenging? What do you do for fatigue or pain? Physical therapists admit that rest alone won’t solve these problems, and that posture is key.

(read the entire lecture here)

How is it relevant for musicians?

The trick for any AT student, musician or otherwise, is to not try too hard. There’s no standard way to sit or stand or hold something, because - and here comes the cliche - we are each physically unique. And so are our lifestyles and hobbies. However, in the interest of our understanding and appreciation for this technique, it is generally accepted that everyone carries stress in similar areas. These include the neck, back, shoulders, pelvis, feet, and all our joints. For the musicians, there is an extra strain and potential repetitive injury on fingers from bad hand position or playing technique. AT targets these areas in a holistic way.

What does an AT session look like?

If you attended an AT session it will last between 45-60 mins with the teacher giving you what they call a “turn”. The whole exercise emphasises gentleness and lets the teacher guide your movements. These movements include but are not limited to sitting, eating, holding a flute, laying down and even walking! By the end of each session, the goal is for you to have a better awareness of your unique maladaptive habits, like slouching, unbalanced sitting, carrying heavy things incorrectly, or holding the flute awkwardly or with a lot of tension.

The recommended number is 20 sessions (one session a week, leaving time to practice - much like music lessons!) for you to build this awareness and release tension gently. Over time, you will begin to see a marked difference in how much less pain you carry in your neck, shoulders, arms, and back. And, more importantly, you will begin to appreciate all the ways your body has coped with the existing pain, for which you can now deliver relief in a sustainable way.

Ultimately, it depends on you

The Alexander Technique might be a new concept for some of us when it comes to pain relief. As a non-medical or alternative treatment for back, shoulder, and neck pain, it’s obviously difficult to convince yourself this method actually works. But it’s worth beginning the journey away from a painful practice session so you too can play with the knowledge that you’re more open, solid, and produce a better sound because of it.

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