There’s an ideological culture in the Alexander Technique, that I subscribe to, that we’re not trying to fix, cure, or treat people, only change the way they use themselves. We diagnose “use”, not pathologies. We also tend to take each lesson as if it were the first lesson, a somewhat Zen approach. For this reason it’s uncommon to take extensive notes, although some of my colleagues do. This all makes a formal case study hard to do, but in lieu of that I’ve included two interviews with guitarists who’ve had lessons with me. One from four years ago that I’ve transcribed from my YouTube channel, and another with a current student who kindly agreed to be interviewed.
Hi Bradley, describe your background and what brought you to the Alexander
so basically, I'm a guitarist, a session musician and a composer. I basically became injured, I wasn't entirely sure how it happened, but ultimately it probably came down to way too much playing, and bad posture. So that injury, unfortunately, knocked me out for at least six months, and I had no idea what to do about it. I went to the doctors and they said you might need some kind of steroid injection in your hand, it could be carpal tunnel syndrome it could be a number of things, you might need actual surgery, physical surgery. So that was quite worrying to me. But a friend of mine told me to get in touch with the charity Help Musicians, and they were happy to pay £800 to my treatment, the Alexander Technique.
That's fantastically generous of them!
Yeah, it's absolutely incredible, so a huge thank you to them, and then I started my treatment as a result. And it's been incredible, that's made a huge difference to my life.
What were the main benefits for you?
The main benefit was probably, ... the problem was my hand ... the main issue was it kind of crunched up like a claw and I had a shooting pain, and I was unable to sleep for two months. I had to wear some kind of splint, or brace, and doing the Alexander Technique Technique pretty much got rid of all of those kinds of pains. I came to lessons with pretty severe discomfort, and going through 14 weeks worth of Alexander treatment I've got pretty much got none whatsoever, so it's amazing.
That's fantastic! So were there any unexpected benefits?
The most unexpected benefit was psychologically, it made a huge difference to my mental health and well-being. The biggest difference that I noticed was coming to lessons and feeling maybe a little bit grumpy, and like I wasn't too keen on the world. I wasn't I wasn't in a particular good mood, I come in lie down, have an Alexander lesson come out of it and just have completely different outlook to life. And the biggest lesson I think I've learned is the how our body effects the way we think, completely. You would have thought it was the other way around, and how our brain sends signals, but it's very much interlinked.
It's a two-way street, sure. So, has it influenced your approach to your instrument and to music?
Yes, in a huge way. Alexander teaches efficiency of movement, and what I've noticed in my playing is, starting off, I had a pretty hard grip and a very heavy hand. I play guitar, so it's a very physical instrument, you're directly attached to the string. I realized you don't need to press down that hard on the guitar, you don't need to hit that hard, and it's made a huge difference to the way I approach the instrument. I think I've become a better
musician as a result of doing it.
Would you recommend the Alexander Technique to others in your situation?
Absolutely! Non-musicians as well. It makes a huge difference to the way that you approach life, and the way that you approach your awareness, your physical awareness, and your day-to-day life. So yeah, absolutely.
Hi Maitreya, tell us about yourself and what brought you to the Alexander Technique?
Well, I'd known about the Alexander Technique for a long time. I was aware of it through my music course at university. I work as a visiting music teacher in a school, I also play electric, acoustic and bass guitar in bands, and I am a media composer. I was aware of friends at college who were having lessons for medical reasons, and one person who was using it for their music, but I really didn't understand it properly beyond standing up straight and paying attention. I thought, well, that would be a lovely thing to try. Just to be able to stand up straight, yeah, I really didn't have an idea of what it was [laughs].
So, when I came to you, it was really for different reasons. I had just injured my back from poor sitting technique on a chair during lockdown. And I preferred the idea of Alexander Technique rather than physiotherapy, or seeing a chiropractor, because I instinctively felt that my injury happened because of poor technique rather than from physical trauma. So it seemed that training would be the key rather than treatment. And that's where we started.
You didn't come specifically for a playing related injury as such, but were your back issues affecting sitting playing, performing, composing with a DAW etc?
Well, I couldn’t do anything for a month after the injury but it took a long time for me to see any previous issues affecting my work. It was not initially obvious but I found that once I had enough experiences of grounding Alexander principles from our exercises and thought experiments, I became more aware of my own habits and was able to make different choices. The results have shown increased stamina, regulated focus and energy and increased sense of playfulness and curiosity in my work.
And then when I came to you, it took a about a month to significantly reduce my back pain. I would say that I was unaware of any issues affecting my sitting, playing, performing, composing. I didn't sense anything at all. It was absolutely fine but I was also unaware.
As lessons progressed, more of our time was spent on playing. In your own mind, how did that progression come about?
I can't remember how long it was, I think it may have been a good few months of standing, sitting, squatting and semi supine before we even really started talking about the guitar at all. I am really glad that we took time with the general exercises, where we explored the fundamental concepts and terminology - interference, end-gaining, inhibition, the means-whereby etc. before exploring these concepts within my musical endeavors. I am also pleased that I remained open minded and was not looking for a particular result within a time frame, but instinctively stayed because I knew that all areas of my life would benefit from this study. So I just followed that and was happy to just let it take its course at its own pace. Had I been looking for a particular result within a fixed time-frame or had not been patient, I could have justified canceling lessons before the real benefits arose because I was already happy with what we’d achieved so far.
Working on guitar related issues was just a natural progression. I had the intention while looking for a teacher online during the 2020 lockdown. It seemed obvious to look for Alexander Teachers with a guitar specialism even though I didn’t feel specific need to explore this at the time. I didn't know whether I was going to have lessons for a few weeks to learn any exercises to ensure that I was doing the right things to maintain my back health. Beyond this, as silly as this might sound, I didn't really know what my intention was. And so when we moved into the guitar stuff, there were lots of new insights and pleasant surprises as there were insights particular to my experience of playing the electric, acoustic, classical or bass guitar, performing, practicing and composing. I have been fortunate that my students have been willing to entertain the same experiments, allowing us all further exploration of the usefulness of these principles.
It’s funny that I became as fascinated with finding freedom of movement in standing up and sitting, and just as well, as it's all connected. And as you've said, it's all contrivances, the sitting, standing, playing guitar and it's all secondary to this idea of the primary Self, the body/mind.
So the lessons really were a natural progression from necessity through fundamentals to applying to activities I am already invested in. I also think that it was going to happen. A) because I was not looking for it look for it and B) most of the insights were gained by allowing experiences to arise, ignoring any expectations an cultivating a mode of non judgemental observations.
What were the main insights and benefits of the Alexander Technique to your practicing and performance?
It was huge! It was almost instant because we were in a very practical process, and it was a step by step process with lots of comparison work. Do it like this then do it like that and compare. Finding some internal quiet, and then all kinds of exercises where I could see a lot of difference in results, which started really resonating with the fundamentals of AT. I really think that by cultivating this mode of observation, one can really move further into one’s potential. And so, I think, just by living, I could become a better guitar player!
Oh, now there's a quote!
Yes! You know, just by being in everyday life. And since understanding that and integrating it, It is easier to find flow in many of my habitual experiences. It seems as if progress comes easier from momentum rather than from facing resistance alone. By this, I mean that one gains progress in any endeavor more so through building natural momentum through consistent engagement rather than through time racked. This sounds obvious in theory but often gets forgotten in practice. pushing through resistance, I mean that's an important factor as well, but there has to be a basis of natural grown momentum, where i start with what can I do when I'm totally relaxed, and then I build that up so that becomes stronger and reliable at that relaxed level. And then when the desire arises, then I find myself flowing into and through resistance, because it feels natural.
That's an interesting idea, of flowing into resistance.
Yeah, that's what it feels like, that's my experience.
You've taken inhibition into a higher stimulus, but I like your way of saying it. My way is a professional jargon, yours is a very nice way of framing it and I think it's important to find jargon free ways of describing these experiences, because it's the experience that matters.
As a musician who plays guitar, plays bass, plays classical guitar, plays acoustic guitar, plays acoustic guitar and sings, these are all different applications with their own nuances and details, different challenges, sizes of guitars, but finding that something underlying that unites them all ...
Warming up now feels like a process of a shift in thinking which is at odds with my previous belief that fingers always need to be warmed up. To some extent they do, but much more of this has been achieved in a recent shifts in thinking.
When practising I already had a system of drilling things, breaking pieces down in to small and simple exercises for about five to six years, and that work I did on my own was just ground work and it made me ready for what you were able to show me. And that is that the drill is not the work, it's just the environment. The experience is the content, the internal experiences, the quality of thinking. So in terms of drills, in terms of practice, the result has been a significant acceleration of muscle memory acquisition. It is quicker. I mean, you can do drills, but if you're not relaxed you're just teaching yourself to get in your own way.
But that's not the main point for me, the main point is illustrated by Victor Wooten’s example of always practicing with a groove. The idea that practice does not need to be monotonous, having that perspective, not thinking of practice as monotonous. I might want to pick my guitar up, but don't if I think of practice or work and this doesn’t change until I can see, oh, this is going to be a little dance, you know? So, it brings the play back into practice, which is what encourages the curiosity to see new details, and extra insights and even better when I start making new connections. It really makes it clear that repetition is an illusion as far as experience is concerned. And this is the important thing that when I start with this work, being aware of what my primary self is doing, and what my back is doing, what my legs doing, it’s all deeply connected to what my fingers are doing. Particularly my shoulders with the string tracking and things like that. I never would have thought about that before. It just never would have occurred to me, but yet it's so obvious, the fingers are very much attached to the shoulders and spine so it all matters. You are giving me an experiential framework in which I can explore this, and in a way where it makes sense, without lots of anatomical detail which would probably turn me off.
How's about from a performance perspective, when you're not directly trying to think about these things?
Okay, big sweeping statement, this work is what connects practice to performance, because this helps you to find performance within your practice. I wouldn't say the same thing the other way around, but it allows you to bring your daily practice, your insights, into performance.
I observe myself in a practice situation, and observe my internal stimulus, because when I am practicing, i am most likely to be in a room on my own, so if I experience any stimulus, but it's just generated by me in my activity, all in me. By learning to observe the stimulus in a calm solo scenario, that really lays the groundwork for being able to see and tell the difference between internal and external stimulus, like the audience. Yeah, like people in the audience who are really enjoying it, by looking at you like this [pulls a bored looking face], but not letting that affect me and integrating into my experience. And they might actually be loving it in reality. Those things used to worry me so much, but I don to pay so much attention to these things anymore.
The result is that these lessons provide a level of practice that really can deliver more naturally engaging performances, where technical passages can be performed without loss of the thread of expression.
What about actually being in performance? I love what you're saying that practice essentially becomes performance, but what about when you're literally on stage.
Okay, the best example that I can think of comes from my experience performing as a singer songwriter. I find that Evaluating my performance as an instrumental performer is usually easier but more generalised and subjective. By singing words I have created on some level reflect events in my life or my way of being, I am more critical about my ability to convey the emotions around certain lyrics. By working on the silent, whispered and vocalised vowels exercises, I was surprised to hear a voice that I recognised as mine. I just know without any effort, it was expressing who I have always been. This is not to say that singing has been consistently blissful since that experience but it motivates me to work to get out of my own way vocally. I can’t explain it any better than that.
This really illustrates one of your mantras - the observation is the win. Because when I am practicing, I am being aware of my observations and generating fresh ones. And that is a "muscle" that's being strengthened, so as I have been doing this in my own practice, it has started to naturally appear in moments while performing. Whereas without this work that observation doesn't happen.
I like to "dance" to the beat, you know, keep moving freely, and I was doing that recently at a gig. I was nervous because I was playing a resonator guitar that I'm not used to because the action is a bit too high for the way I like to play it. I wanted to do a lot of practice but didn't have time, and we have hardly gigged since the first lockdown. So I thought okay, I'm just going to do this, this is now an Alexander experiment to see how far can I go. I was just thinking, I'm in the sun, I'm playing with my friends, this is great. And it was just constantly feeding in that kind of information.
It's like, just shake yourself, breathe, where there's tension to let go, I just relinquish. This space is generated where I can relinquish habitual impulses, which in this case was the need to play fast solos out of nervousness but now I remind myself to Just play a half decent tune, take the melody and expand it without trying to play all my scales, and improvise a tune and see what happens. And there'll be certain bits of stimulus that would come from making a mistake, so by generating observations as a practice, that sensor was just happily working away in the gig and I was present through it. And it wouldn't have happened without all of the work that we've done. And I was just able to relax through it, you know, it's just like, who cares?
We've not really discussed stage fright in our lessons together, but obviously every musician experiences it to a degree, it's more whether it's debilitating or not. Have you ever experienced of this?
Oh completely, yeah, three weeks ago. The reason why I don't really experience that with the electric guitar is because the only time I'm performing it is with friends playing songs that I've played for the last 10 years. So, it's like, it can only go so wrong, because I know the material well. So that's just a no brainer in that sense.
However, in school there was a music assembly I was involved in a brief potted history of music in 20 minutes in the school assembly. I was asked to play ensemble pieces on the electric and bass guitar which was no problem but I was also asked to play a lute piece from the renaissance period. I kind of suggested the lute piece myself, thinking, yeah I’m sure I'll be fine [looks sheepishly into the camera].
I did a little bit of homework, and this I did practice for, because I don't have that kind of backup, that experience. My experience as a performing classical guitarist does not compare with the hours of performance time logged with the electric guitar. So, I said to myself there's enough stimulus there already, but because I've been through it a few times, and because of our work, I thought right, I've got to take this seriously and I'm going to "Alexander" my way right the way through this. And that means on the day, I'm gonna have to be really cool, or cool as a cucumber as you like to say. I'm just gonna have to really embody this stuff, because otherwise, I'm going to really mess this up.
There's a piece by Dowland, Flow My Tears it's called, it's beautiful, It's really lovely piece, and so I found the transcription, and then I put it in a notation program and just took out all the difficult notes [laughs]. Just anything that I thought I might not get down that well in time, but there was still lots of tricky places. Even if I had three months to practice it I knew there will be a point beyond which it would never improve. And that's what playing Classical guitar was like for me before our work, because I just thought, when will I be able to just play, rather than practise, you know? You watch other players and they play things, and they're just spotless, or there's a spirit through it that is really consistent in a way, a kind of flow through it, you know? The first thing is do the work, do the homework, you've got to gain the muscle memory. You have to do that work, but with this perspective, it can be fun, and it has to be fun. The playfulness helps you engage with it even further, you know, as you get little bits of muscle memory, that isn't just in your fingers, it could be a shoulder movement or something, that makes it easier.
So, I did all that work, I did play a good number of times, but had loads of other things going on. I was probably able to practice for about two hours over a week, so I was ready but there was no guarantee that I wouldn't fluff the whole thing. And that's what I thought. Right, okay, when I go on stage I've got to relinquish all of my perspective on my own abilities, I have to let go of all of that. And if I literally screw the whole thing up, I have to be okay with that. How do I do that I thought? Okay, well, the first thing you do is you do this! [mimes doing a "dance" playing with his Fly-By-Wire system]
As the kids were coming into assembly I made a point of smiling and looking at them to help me engage with that stimulus more positively. I looked for the support of the floor, I really was embodying that, that movement [the "dance"] was helping me to do that, as well as dispersing nervous energy instead of tightening, finding some fluidity in movement. If I was just "this is going to be all right. It's going to be all right", that would have done nothing. Then when we played, I took a good out breath, and had this sensation that I've got so much space around me, and I'm just going to play to that. I'm just going to enjoy this and I'm going to emote this music through my facial expressions as well. I'm just going to enjoy it. It was a constant calming down of the nervous system. I'd done the practice, I've had many experiences where my playing has improved by doing the things that we've talked about. Then when I started playing, just finding the dance within the music, and yes I did that. I really did move with it, I mean not dramatically, it's quite a mournful piece, just a lot of gentle movement, I guess playing with my fly-by-wire system and going with the music. There were a couple of squeaks, but I got all the right notes, the right rhythms. It all sounded quite nice, just those squeaks once or twice, you know it's a tiny, tiny thing, but I smiled through it. It helped me with my confidence, having a more comfortable experience.
We've also worked on your singing a little, what did, what did you take from that?
As I mentioned, The whispered and vocalised 'Ah's, was a real surprise. I still don't understand it but it does do something really quite remarkable. It connected me to my voice, it connected my voice to my intended expression. Because you're finding where the boundary is between no sound and sound, the boundary between air and sound. It allows you to relax your voice, get rid of expectation, or any kind of psychological imposition. That just melts away. I don't understand how it works, but that was really, really good.
What would you say is the common thread that runs through all these different areas of back pain, sitting and standing, voice work, or playing guitar?
Two things, I'm becoming more acutely aware of the extent to which, and the different ways, in which I get in my own way. Then the joy of removing these obstacles just by observing them, just by creating a space where they can be observed. Then there's a new choice. It can become the easiest thing and it turns that phrase "no pain, no gain" into such a fallacy. That makes no sense. The opposite is true actually, no pain equals gain.
You started with online lessons because of lock down, but you've since had in-person lessons. What did you gain from each?
The way that we did it was a massive benefit for me because the online lessons gave a grounding, and were very much rooted in lessons because we weren't in the same room, so it didn't resemble any kind of "treatment", It was lessons, I learned how to do this, 123, simple as that. Then when we did meet for the first time, it was like a quantum leap. Because all this work had been done, the effect was instant, and I really enjoyed it.
That session when I came to you for the first time, the idea that you're not treating me, this is not a massage or anything like that, despite what it might look like, you're just giving me a lot of different stimuli, and I knew what to do with that. I was able to go into that zone where I had to allow, my only job was to allow. If I had come to you straight away, I think there would have been a part of me thinking, that's a nice massage [laughs], which this is not what all this training is for. It was like a massive turbo boost. To be honest, for a while I thought, right, no more online lessons, but I can now see the folly in that as well. I think it's good to do both.
What would you say to someone thinking of getting into the Alexander Technique?
I would say, do it. Trust the process, don't end-gain it [laughs]. Allow time for your own self observations to arise, and you'll be surprised at how easy is to create new choices.