by Bill Plake
I have been a professional musician (saxophonist, flutist, composer) for over thirty five years. I came to study the Alexander Technique because of some serious problems I was experiencing as a performer. In learning to help myself with this work, I’ve come to see a broader picture of what it means to learn and improve in an activity that demands a high level of refined motor skills (such as music). As I gain more experience teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, I’ve come to recognize my old habits and attitudes about learning in many of my musician students.
Generally speaking, professional musicians are highly disciplined, work very hard, take responsibility for their growth and are always motivated to improve. As good as that sounds, it can also lead to problems for some individuals: discipline can become unhealthy obsession, hard work can become self-harm, motivation to grow and improve can become a continual sense of dissatisfaction (or arrogance, in some cases). This is all conditioned by attitude and beliefs.
When it comes to their own improvement, musicians usually have very strong beliefs. Many have rituals of practice that they swear by, never wanting to drift too far from what experience (or at least so it seems) has shown them to work best. Because of this they limit their growth. Here are two of the most significant obstacles that often keep musicians from finding continuous improvement:
Successful results. If you have a rigid belief that you are working in the best way possible while you play music, it is difficult (if not impossible) to improve. The same can be said if you believe that all your excess tension and lack of balance has no bearing on the quality of your music.
Once when teaching musicians at California Institute of the Arts, a young music student exclaimed (after learning a little bit about excess muscular tension and its affect on making music), “What about Miles Davis? I see him pulling his head down his spine and thrusting his pelvis forward. And he plays great!” To which I answered: “Miles Davis played great despite what he was doing with himself, not because of what he was doing.” The important thing is to understand what it takes to make your sound, to make your music, and then ask yourself what you need to do (or not do!) with yourself to make that happen. This is a lifelong examination.
It’s easy to think you don’t need to change anything to improve. You just keep doing more of what you’ve been doing. (After all, you’re already probably playing quite well.) But as you look back and examine your history of musical practice, you’ll probably find that there are many things that you used to practice that are now obsolete. Things that you used to “swear” by that you now know (over time and through experience) didn’t really help at all. This never changes, no matter how long you play and study music.
Being unwilling to sound bad. The great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane once said: “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.” I won’t digress here by talking about what can be potentially unproductive by “trying hard”. Let’s just say that I think what Coltrane meant by this is that to grow as a musician, you have to risk sounding bad. You have to reach beyond what you know you can do to find something new. This means trying something a different way, fully accepting that it could be better or worse.
When I give a musician an Alexander lesson, one of the things I try to help with is getting my student to understand the difference between self-discernment and self-judgement. To discern is to objectively recognize what you’re doing with yourself to make music: Are you tightening your neck? Are you holding your breath? Are you bracing your knees? And so forth. There is no “good” or “bad” when you discern. It’s more “yes” or “no” (I’m doing or not doing).
Judgment, on the other hand, involves bringing qualitative thoughts into the mix. Many musicians start with judgement rather than discernment when they try something different. This usually leads to one question: “Am I sounding better or worse?” It’s because of this that many musicians have a challenge letting go of unnecessary muscular tension when they play. Rather than discerning what they are actually doing, they get overwhelmed by wondering how they sound. I know that sounding good is important (especially if you want to get called for gigs!), but getting stuck with only that in mind can limit possibility for growth.
This is where a shift in perspective needs to take place. You have to change the goal. I often find myself saying to my students, “You’re goal is to notice what you’re doing with yourself as you play. Not only should you allow yourself to make mistakes or sound bad as you do so, but you can be okay with it. It simply means that you’re doing something in a different way. And that means that you can change. Once I can get my student to discern (before he or she judges) I’ve helped them set the stage for real progress.
So when you’re practicing, see if you can change your perspective. Look at it as an experiment. Try something in a different way (less tension, less effort, less worry) and let yourself sound bad. (You might be surprised in doing so that you actually sound better!)
Bill Plake is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Los Angeles, California. He’s also a professional saxophonist, composer and author of several books on jazz pedagogy. Besides maintaining a busy private teaching practice, he is also on the faculty at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. Bill’s website: alexandertechniquefoothills.com
More information about the Alexander Technique:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique