Have you ever wondered if you are an alien bug? You’ll discover the answer when you take advantage of the Alexander technique workshops offered in the conservatory throughout the year. Not only is it cool thinking of yourself as an alien bug, but it’s also ergonomically more accurate then the Barbie and Ken models many of us have in our heads.
Let’s face it, most of us musicians (or non-musicians) have some type of pain somewhere. It might be lower back pain, shoulder pain, arm pain, foot pain, headaches, etc. Our bodies are complicated, even more so because our brains are in charge of our movement. This means we move according to the anatomical image we have in our heads. That last explanation is an incorporation from my body mapping class, because body mapping and Alexander technique have strong links. Body mapping traces its foundations to Alexander technique, and most of the basic understanding I have of what Alexander technique did for me, and why, was clarified in body mapping.
Alexander technique begins by introducing a more accurate image of our bodies. Then, it provides a hands on approach to finding balanced alignment. Two of the most prominent areas of misalignment include the pelvis and head. Most other postural issues can be traced from those two areas. Have you ever noticed yourself locking your knees, or wondering why sitting up straight is so tiring? I lock my knees frequently, and now I know that’s a sign my pelvis is out of alignment.
So why should you care what your pelvic alignment is like? If your pelvis is aligned, it means the top half of your body is balanced over the bottom half of your body. This means your muscles are carrying the weight of your body in the way they are designed. If you tend to be out of alignment, some muscles are working harder than others, sometimes in ways they're not meant to be functioning — the result is pain.
Robyn Avalon is one of the instructors in the program titled “Contemporary Alexander Technique.” Her co-instructor Wendy Waggener is the other half of their fantastic team. They visit Oberlin periodically throughout the year. For pelvic alignment they talk about a “dinosaur tail.” This is based on the fact that we have a very real tailbone, and the image of that tail extension can help us find balance. Some people are tuckers, and tuck their tail into a dog-tail position, and others have a ducktail, sticking their tails out as a movement pattern. I’m a tucker, which also results in knee locking. Through this I realized that our tails are sensitive, and that the Barbie doll image tells us we don’t have perfectly proportioned backsides because, well, we’re not Barbie and we’re not Ken (thank goodness). Those perceptions can also play a powerful role in how we use our pelvic alignment. When I first began thinking about this I would check my alignment in the mirror and feel like I was doing a gross ducktail, when really I was just nicely aligned.
Heads are also a big topic in Alexander technique. I have a very long neck, and a little tall-person syndrome (fyi this is not an official disease), which means sometimes I try to make myself smaller so I don’t stick out like a giraffe. That means I might hunch my head forward, or tilt it sideways. Also I text on my phone. Everyone texts on their phone, and that results in a chronic text neck position. This stretches the muscles that attach to your neck, causing shoulder and upper back pain. In Alexander technique, they talk about finding your ponytail head, that is based around the true ergonomic shape of your skull and is balanced well over your shoulders.
Alexander technique can also help finding a mind and body connection. For example, during a workshop on performance anxiety Robyn said to imagine the room as a big golden spider web. With every sound, imagine creating a strand, webbing the room into your art. This might sound abstract, but it is actually quite useful in a practical sense too. By imagining the web the performer is forced to acknowledge the room in its entirety, waking up spacial awareness. It also encourages taking ownership of the space, making it your web which you are happily sharing. It takes the stage a step away from being this scary alien place where you feel the need to protect yourself from the intruding spectators.
Both Robyn and Wendy are also incredibly diverse. I’ve seen them work with pianists, singers, string players of all kinds, as well as an acrobat friend of mine who said it changed his life. Conceptually there is something to learn from all these areas. I’m a violinist, but one of the most memorable sessions for me was when Robyn told a pianist to play to the back strings of the piano, past the hammers. I swear his sound got 20 percent bigger.
One of the most profound concepts I learned was about space. Finding space in your body, and taking up the space your body naturally commands. When you allow your ball joint to relax, and let the space in your arms happen, your arm has the ability to suddenly get an inch longer. The same principle works for height. Whenever I find the full dimensions of the space that’s in my body, that I tend to compress during the day, I suddenly grow what feels like two inches. I remember one of the Alexander teachers at the Meadowmount School of Music, where they also have a residency, telling me to embrace my height and look towards the horizon, because that’s where the world is happening.