Alexander Technique Can Save Musical Lives

by Lorin Chisholm

Lorin ChisholmI play viola, conduct, and have studied the Alexander Technique privately for almost fourteen years. People often ask me how learning the Alexander Technique has changed my life and my musical career. My answer is that it has changed me emotionally, musically, and spiritually.

I came to the Alexander Technique because I was in excruciating pain when I played my instrument. My shoulders had severe knots and my body was stiff. Endurance was difficult during long rehearsals and practice sessions were becoming unbearable.

I was not playing music in a way that brought me happiness or success, and I was seriously considering leaving the profession. Around the same time, my mother was the piano accompanist during a summer Alexander Technique work-shop for musicians taught by Phyllis Richmond. She suggested that I try this workshop to see if it would give me some relief from my constant pain. Desperate, I agreed.

I expected a magic cure––that a few days would free me from the devastating pain forever. Ms. Richmond soon shattered that dream when she told me that this was no quick fix, but rather that it was the beginning of a long process towards having more choices in how to use my body more efficiently. At first I was very disappointed since getting to the Promised Land was going to take longer than I anticipated. But since I wanted to play and enjoy music again, I felt I had to make the commitment.

It is not easy for musicians to alter their playing. In fact, it can be very traumatic because playing is so personal. Musicians invest most of their lives in their instrument, whether it is the human voice, flute, piano, violin, or conducting. Many would rather live with the pain than experience the unknown and let go of old habits. Many try alternatives like painkillers or perhaps deep massages. But they usually avoid the fundamental issue: all the years they have been playing music, they may have been abusing both their own bodies and also their health in completely unnecessary ways. Since I wanted a long-term solution to rid myself of pain, I chose to take a leap of faith and begin the long, slow process of learning how to change my habits.

After some years, I came to the realization that I could not just turn the Alexander Technique on and off like a light bulb. I could not think about the Technique during a rehearsal and then go back to my old habits for the rest of my daily activities. I had to make it a part of my life all the time. And this is the most difficult aspect of learning Alexander Technique for any musician: choosing to make a full lifestyle change. That means thinking about it during many activities, most of which can be basic and mundane, every day and sometimes every moment. But this has helped my viola playing in many positive ways. When I began applying the Alexander Technique during daily life, I no longer had to concentrate so much on it during rehearsals and practice sessions, because the changes I was making seemed more natural due to the hours I had already worked on them.

Probably my biggest challenge was relearning my entire repertoire with more efficient body use. This meant going back to the very beginning of playing a piece of music, sometimes going measure by measure, checking to see what was occurring, and making the adjustment to release tension. It was a slow process, but after a while it became easier and much more efficient not only during personal practice sessions, but also during rehearsals and concerts when the pressure was more intense. I found ways to release tension during rests in the music, between movements, when the conductor would stop the orchestra to make corrections, and in chosen passages such as sustained notes. My playing improved, my sound became more open and expressive, and there was far less pain or no pain at all. This improvement also transferred to my conducting. And most importantly, I enjoyed the music-making world again.

Musicians often worry about how much endurance their bodies have for practice, rehearsal, and performance. The temptation to practice long sessions is great because of the pressure to achieve the high skill level (perfection) that teachers and audiences demand. I found that concentrated practicing of a work for shorter periods followed by short breaks is a more efficient use of time and learning, rather than playing for five hours straight with no break. For example, I learned to practice a Mozart symphony by targeting those passages that gave me difficulties, working intensely for thirty minutes, resting for five minutes, then moving on to another work and repeating this process.

Obviously, this spreads out learning a composition over a longer period. Sometimes I do not have that luxury and so must make some common sense adjustments, but the process of half-hour sessions followed by short breaks helps me to release tension and become more efficient in my playing. I find that I can easily practice for four hours a day and accomplish my goals without pain. The ability to release harmful tension that I developed by working this way transferred naturally to rehearsing and performing because I had already practiced it for so many hours.

Learning the Alexander Technique has not just been about learning how to use my body more efficiently. An unexpected effect of the Technique has been a positive change of attitude, a renewal of spirit, and an opening up of my personality. Since my natural predilection is to be a bit on the shy side, it helped me open up more and master my social fears to further my personal and career goals. It helped my musical ideas, sound, and technique to become more outer-directed, which in turn had a positive effect on the audience. It helped me look deeper into the transcendent meaning of music and to bring that out during my playing and conducting. It helped calm my nervousness before performances, which any musician will tell you can become paralyzing. I became comfortable by concentrating on myself and what I was doing, rather than worrying that the audience was judging my musical and playing skills. These positive effects brought peace of mind: I now have more choices in life instead of being a slave to one way of thinking and living.

As demands on musicians increase, health becomes a more and more serious issue. Musicians, like athletes, need to address these health issues or they will continue to endure unnecessary pain. The reports of musicians (whether superstars or unknowns) playing with constant pain are growing. And these musicians either continue to play with pain or have to leave the profession due to tendonitis or other injury. I have seen many musicians start Alexander Technique lessons only to walk away in frustration because of the long-term commitment required or because they were unwilling to make necessary changes in their playing and lifestyle. Such change requires patience and persistence. Yet the alternative is pain while making music, which can be demoralizing to a musician wishing to reach personal and professional goals and be rewarded for years of hard work. It can be difficult and overwhelming to live with this situation.

For me, the answer to the pain riddle was learning the Alexander Technique. It opened new and lasting doorways to a world rich with choices and personal accomplishments that I would not otherwise have attained. There were difficult and sometimes scary lessons, but ultimately they were worthwhile because I can now analyze my own health problems and create new choices to alter harmful habits. As a musician, there is nothing more liberating than being able to identify your own ingrained habits, many of which can be subconscious, and then to be able to choose not to do something that can bring you devastating pain. The Alexander Technique can save musical lives. It certainly saved mine.

Lorin Chisholm is a professional conductor and viola player in the Philadelphia area who has studied the Alexander Technique since 1998.

© 2013 Lorin Chisholm. All rights reserved.

Photograph by Phyllis G. Richmond.

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