An Introduction to the Alexander Technique for the Contemporary Electric Guitarist.

As a guitar player (and occasional bassist) myself I particularly enjoy helping other players and fully understand the problems that you face. Whether it's overcoming injury, wanting to improve your performance or overcoming stage fright, the Alexander Technique is there to help you.


The Alexander Technique has been well established and taught in music schools around the world such as Trinity College[1] (London), the Royal Academy of Music[2] (London) and Julliard[3] (New York), for a number of decades. You may also be aware that all these colleges cater for the classical musician rather than the contemporary musician i.e. rock, pop, jazz and blues. Although the classical guitarist will therefore be more likely to have had exposure to the technique, the contemporary electric guitarist, so far, has been left largely unaware of its benefits, which include improved coordination and performance, reduction in pain and discomfort and reduced stage fright. The one exception to this is electric guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, amongst others) who incorporated the technique into his Guitar Craft schools. His rather esoteric teachings, avant–garde playing style and unusual choice of guitar tuning, which he insisted on his pupils using (C, G, D, A , E, G low to high), meant that the Alexander Technique failed to gain the attention it richly deserves in the wider electric guitar community.

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the technique you’d be forgiven at this point in thinking that it relates directly to musical performance, its application is, in fact, much broader as it applies to all areas of human activity. The guitar pedagogue Jamie Andreas once wrote that "what you are as a person is what you will be as a guitar player”, and this is why the Alexander Technique is so important to musicians as a whole. At the core of the technique lies the idea that when we go about our daily activities we are ‘in use’, and that we can ‘use’ ourselves for better or for worse. It also raises the interesting notion that we, as both the controller and the controlled, are indivisible, doing away with the duality of body and mind, and considering total psycho-physical unity. Put simply, the Alexander Technique could be said to be a way of learning to move mindfully whilst reducing our general level of reactivity to stimuli. It teaches the use of the appropriate amount of effort for a particular activity and uncovers inefficient habits of movement and patterns of accumulated tension which interfere with our innate ability to move easily. It’s not simply a series of passive treatments but an active exploration that changes the way we think and respond in activity. The most effective method of learning the technique is through individual lessons with a certified teacher, lessons consisting of verbal and hands on guidance through movement, it is beyond the scope of this introduction to explain how one can learn the technique on one’s own.

Alexander Technique and guitar
My Fender Telecaster `52 Reissue

F.M. Alexander

 

More a set of principles than a technique, its evolution came from a simple question and years of dedicated observation. F.M. Alexander was an office clerk for a tin mining company in Tasmania at the tail end of the 19th century and quite a singular man. His main passion in life was the dramatic arts and he had hoped to pursue a full time career as an actor or orator had it not been for the fact that he kept losing his voice during recitals. After following his doctor’s advice to simply rest his voice on numerous occasions, only to have the problem reoccur, he came to the conclusion that the problem must be due to something he was doing to himself, a question, as to what, his doctor could not answer.  This should resonate for the many musicians who are in pain related to the hours of practice and playing that they put in, especially if you consider that the guitar is an inanimate object, it is incapable, by definition, of doing anything to you. As such, we should consider ourselves to be the instrument that we wish to learn, an instrument that we apply to the manipulation of the guitar. It’s the most critical element that is left out of most teaching methods which teach from the logic of the guitar’s structure and fret board geometry, rather than the logic of how we interface with it.

 

The question of what it is we are doing to ourselves also speaks to the musician who is struggling to improve and watches with envy a performer who makes it look so easy. It's important to realize that when you see a good player do something you can't, it's not because they have talent and you don't. It is because they are doing it differently. You may lose control at a certain speed, and not know it's because there is tension elsewhere which makes it impossible to have full control of your fingers. The performer you are watching play well is very comfortable, their awareness of themselves as a whole is greater. Their inner experience is totally different to that of the struggling player. The virtuoso would not be able to play the way they do if their inner experience was the same as that as someone who finds playing a challenge. Having said that, there are many good players that play well (at least in terms of musical output) despite the lack of ease they bring to it, although it would be expected that they probably suffer the usual aches and pains that many musicians report.

 

So with this simple question, what am I doing to myself, Alexander spent many years observing himself in a set of mirrors as he recited, and what he discovered is that we all bring a degree of unconscious habitual reaction and tension to everything we do and that the primary patterns of reaction are the same for all of us. Specifically, he noticed that there’s an important relationship between the head, neck and back which is a useful barometer of how we use ourselves generally. To see an exaggerated version of what Alexander noticed we tend do when we’re not working optimally you only have to look at someone sat in front of computer, the head is generally pulled back and down as the person cranes their head forward to look at the computer screen. This reaction to pull the head back and down can be present to some degree in all activities where awareness of one’s self has been lost, it is part of the startle reflex and given the level of stress that is associated with modern living it’s hardly surprising that it is so common. I’m sure you would agree that those with good posture, or poise, make activities look easier and I’m sure you’ve heard that good posture should be considered when practising (and in all our day to day activities). The Alexander Technique has almost become synonymous with good posture, but it’s a common misunderstanding to think that a good posture leads to good ‘use’, that is putting the cart before the horse, good ‘use’, in fact, leads to an improved posture. So what would we consider to be good ‘use’? For all intents and purposes, to not cause any undue interference to the psycho-physical human organism. I used the word ‘poise’ in addition to ‘posture’ as the latter frequently has connotations of something somewhat fixed and rigid, which is really not what we are after. Poise is a quality, posture is a shape. Posture should be a precursor to movement and the two should seamlessly blend from one to another. Good posture is the by-product of a kinaesthetic awareness that tells us when we’re putting ourselves into a state of dis-ease that allows us to return to greater ease.  It’s also inherent within all of us, congenital issues aside, it needs only to be released from the years of accumulated tension and misdirection (more on this later) that takes us away from it.

Alexander Technique and learning guitar
Late 80's Fender Stratocaster Deluxe. Lace Sensors replaced with Texas Special pickups

Faulty Sensory Appreciation

So why can’t we simply just stop this pattern of reaction? The problem is that of habituation, after holding a pattern of tension for a period of time this normalises for us and we no longer perceive it, it’s what Alexander called faulty sensory appreciation. It’s why the power of habit is so hard to change; you can’t change what you are not aware of, “you can't know a thing by an instrument that is wrong[4]. One of the main aims of the Alexander Technique is to return our sensory register to a more optimal state.

 

This becomes an essential consideration when it comes to learning, and the continuing practice of, the guitar. Kinaesthetic memory allows us to recall every movement we make. We all use this ability in different ways in various things we do in life. You’ll hopefully be familiar with how a carpenter will take a few practice swings with a hammer before striking a nail. He will slowly bring the hammer to the nail head, guiding his arm and the hammer along the path he wants them to take when he swings fast and with force. Then, after a few practice swings, he’ll let it fly. The muscles [5] "remember" the path they took at the slow speed, and have no trouble repeating the exact movements necessary to take that path again, and hit the nail accurately.

 

The same process occurs in practising the guitar. The person practising performs various movements with the fingers, directed to a certain result. If the movements were done slowly and accurately, with no extra tension in the muscles involved, the fingers would have no trouble reproducing them at a faster speed. Why slowly? Because that is the only way to maintain full awareness of the fingers, and the rest of the body, to make them do what is desired, and keep extra tension to a minimum, or eliminated entirely. Also, how slowly?  Few players ever play slow enough to be able to be fully aware of the entire process of learning something new (and that’s assuming one even knows what the process is!).  It may be necessary to play one note or chord every 5 seconds, or slower!  It’s vitally important to realise that the fingers are at the end of a chain of communication[6] that travels through the neck, torso and arms, so if any part of this chain is compromised with a lack of awareness and undue tension then it’s guaranteed that the fingers will not be able to perform optimally. This is why the act of practising the guitar would be considered a secondary activity in the Technique, the primary activity being to look after yourself as a whole.  In playing and performance, however, all the preparation we have made in practising will, in an ideal situation, allow us to lose ourselves in the musical moment. So that's why the carpenter does his practice swings slowly, so that he can control the path of the hammer. What he's doing is allowing his muscles to experience the exact movements and adjustments that are necessary to hit the nail accurately.  Whatever you experience doing slowly, in a state of total awareness and ease, you will be able to do quickly, provided you experience enough absolutely correct repetitions of that action.  The mind-set here is very important as a highly reactive mind will lead to reactive movements over which we have limited control.

 

Kinaesthetic memory is obviously essential, but it can work for you or against you, because if you do the right thing once, then the wrong thing, and then various combinations of right and wrong, you end up with some pretty confused fingers. This is what many players do when they practice, and why they experience inconsistent results and a lot of frustration. When they practice, they do not make the fingers do the right thing [7]. They are allowing the fingers to make haphazard and inaccurate movements. In ten repetitions of a passage, the fingers may actually do it ten different ways (resulting in various mistakes). Usually, the person practising is not aware of the fact that he was doing it ten different ways. When the player then tries to play that passage for someone, how will they ever know which of those ten ways the fingers might decide to do it?

How the Alexander Technique can be applied to guitar playing
Fender Classic Player Stratocaster

End-Gaining and the Means-Whereby

You may think that you have conscious control of your actions but most of our actions are learned responses. This is obviously true of playing an instrument but can be demonstrated with simple actions such as hearing the phone and getting up to answer it. You may have felt that you chose to get up, but in fact it was likely to be a response to wanting to answer the phone, an intermediary stage that you probably gave no thought to. The problem with tension is that it will trigger actions against your desire simply by association. If you were particularly stressed and tense when the phone rang you may have leapt out of your chair before you had remembered that you'd already decided that you weren't going to take any calls! The movement of your body required to play an instrument (particularly your fingers) is complex, can you imagine how much the automatically triggered movements by tension can negatively affect your playing. To reiterate an earlier point, mental tension leads to muscular tension, so our solution is far more mental in concept than physical.

 

This situation, of not being aware of the intermediary stages of an action, was termed end-gaining by Alexander, and relies on subconscious guidance and control. Also, being subconscious, the activity will inevitably feel ‘right’ to the performer of the activity regardless of whether or not it achieves the desired outcome. You’ll see this when a player makes a mistake and will look surprised. This makes it very difficult to convince someone to perform an activity in a new way as it will undoubtedly feel ‘wrong’ to them, but ironically, feeling wrong (in the early instances) will be the only solution to any given playing problem.  This is why it’s important not to use your feelings as a basis for learning to play the guitar; they provide unsatisfactory feedback and guidance. The desire to play guitar is often very strong in those of us that take up the instrument, strong enough that the guitar becomes the focus, losing sight of ourselves in the process. Here Alexander subscribes to a means-whereby[8] method, such that the end result is considered to be of no consequence, if absolute attention is paid to the intermediary processes the desired end result will logically follow. It’s extremely difficult to not fall into the end-gaining trap and requires dedicated practice.  It also means you need to choose your guitar teacher very carefully, they must be aware of exactly how they perform the actions they do on the guitar themselves, and not simply focus on telling you on which frets to press down on, this is classic end-gaining! In the case of the person sat at a computer that was mentioned previously, it’s the focus on the screen and the keyboard that essentially pulls them out of alignment i.e. they are end-gaining. The same thing usually happens when we play the guitar, we are drawn to our fingers and the fretboard, or even to the next note to be played causing it to be played before its due time, which is why it’s so common for beginning players to speed up and lose the tempo. This end-gaining tendency to be drawn into a narrow focus of attention is culturally embedded as a positive trait, we are all taught to concentrate at school from an early age, but concentration comes with a price, it necessitates the exclusion of a lot of information from our senses.  What we require is a wider focus that allows us to take in not only the notes we are playing, but how we are playing them with our whole being.

The Alexander Technique and electric guitar
Custom built replica of Brian May's Red Special

Inhibition

We can consider ourselves to be a stimulus and response system, and it’s important to realise that we can be a stimulus to ourselves simply by what we think and the automatic, habitual, associations we have with that thought. Whether it‘s the stimulus to play our instrument, or even the stimulus of just having the idea to play, a whole train of associations that we have built up via our practice will be triggered.  It’s not uncommon for unnecessary tension to start to build before the instrument has even been picked up so strong are these associations.

 

The tool for dealing with this within the Alexander Technique is known as inhibition, not to be confused with the Freudian use of the word, and means simply to stop and genuinely consider the choice to either not continue, decide on an alternative activity, or continue with your original decision. If you habitually tense your shoulders when you play, you interrupt this mental reaction to playing (which is what causes the physical tensing of the shoulders) before you start the act of playing. If the stimulus is too strong, that the reaction is triggered despite best efforts, the level of stimulus should be reduced, for example, by only bringing your hand to the fretboard, without any intention to play a note, or to not lift the arm up at all.  It should be noted that all specific or local tensions are part of a wider pattern that will also be evident in the relationship of the head, neck and back, and that an Alexander Teacher would address the whole pattern, and not just the local issue.  Having inhibited the immediate reaction to play (which may have been most noticeable in the tensing or lifting of the shoulders) it’s necessary to continue to inhibit as you go on to perform the action of playing in a new coordinated manner that will initially feel unfamiliar, the desire to return to the familiar being strong.  This may seem a little obvious, and logical, but it can be surprisingly difficult to actually do, especially considering faulty sensory appreciation and the patience required.  The guidance of an Alexander teachers hands makes the process much easier.

 

There are a number of ways that the stimulus of playing in general can be reduced, i.e. made easier.  The most obvious would be to use a lighter gauge string, detune the strings down a semi-tone or a whole tone, reduce the playing action (i.e. have the strings closer to the fretboard) or play a shorter scale length guitar and significantly slow down during practice, maybe to the point that you rest in position with one note or chord for a while.  These need only be temporary measures whilst you learn to get unnecessary reactions and tension under control.  Light string gauges have a slight stigma attached to them in the guitar community, in part due to machismo (a good cause of tension in the first place!), but also the erroneous belief that tone is overly compromised [9]. String action, or height, plays a more significant role in tone production than the size of the string, especially with regards to overdriven or distorted tones.  Consider this list of guitarists who have all used light 8’ gauge strings during their career: Brian May, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Yngwie Malmsteen, all known for having great tone.

Alexander Technique and guitar
Gretsch G6120 Brian Setzer model. Dice control knobs replaced with standard knobs.

Positions of Mechanical Advantage

Ironically, one of the biggest causes of learnt tension is created at the moment a beginning player learns their first ‘simple’ chords.  Almost every guitarists first chords are those in the open position, but seeing as these chords require the arm to be held out to the side to reach them, an arm position we are unfamiliar with in everyday life, tension in the shoulders arises quickly. On top of this the new player then has to attempt new fine motor control of their fingers, which due to the lack of muscle tone, at this point, creates further tension in the effort to play. The mistake we make is that we assume the tension is inevitable, and never realize we can get to a point where we can get the result we want without straining. More stretch or muscle development is required, which will come with a correct approach. As we continue to try this new skill, and assume the strain and effort we feel is essential in order to do what we are trying to do, that effort becomes ingrained into our approach, and creates even more tension.  A simple solution would be to use a capo[10] just behind wherever your hand naturally falls on the fretboard when you bend your forearm from the elbow whilst the upper arm remains relaxed by your side. This way the fingers can be trained without the extra burden of having to lift the entire arm. Conversely, when learning to play open chords without the aid of a capo, one should simply get used to holding the arm out in position without attempting to play at all, and resolve to release any undue tension that arises. 

 

Another way of reducing the stimulus is to use what Alexander called positions of mechanical advantage. As the name suggests there are many positions, not one idealised one, and that it is no guarantee, just an advantage.  In layman’s terms this would include the areas of ergonomics and posture, but both are only of interest when they are in the service of what we may call good use, and in themselves have no intrinsic value.  That’s why they are considered to be only an advantage; it’s possible to habitually distort yourself in the best designed chair.  A typical example in an Alexander lesson would be practised by helping the pupil to lower themselves in space by bending the ankle, knee and hip joints whilst leaving the entire spine unaffected.  This alone is surprisingly hard to do for the majority of people, it should be possible to lower yourself until you coincidently reach the level of a chair, but take the opportunity to watch most people sit down and it’s rare to see that the person doesn't compromise the relationship between their head, neck and torso in some way, typically by pulling their head back and down. Once the chair is reached in this collapsed state it’s no wonder the person continues to sit in this way.  The guitarist interfaces with their instrument in two main ways, either sitting or standing.  The classical guitarist typically sits with the guitar supported on a raised left leg, whilst the contemporary guitarist takes what is considered to be the more casual approach of having the guitar rest on the right leg. It’s much easier to maintain the integrity of the entire spine and the head, neck, torso relationship with the ‘classical’ seated position. The relative location of the guitar to the player can also be much closer to that when played standing, compared to the casual style, which maintains a consistency between the two. For this to be the case the guitar needs not be strung too low on the strap when standing which may go against some cultural views on the ‘fashion’ of wearing a guitar. If the music you are playing is reasonably simple it’s possible to get by being handicapped in this way.  There are also a number of proficient players who get around the problem by resting the guitar on their left leg, which they have raised by putting their foot on the monitors at the front of a professional stage set-up, during difficult passages (e.g. Slash and Zakk Wylde). The fashion for having the guitar hang low is mostly within rock and punk music, here’s a short list of players who make life easier for themselves and don’t feel like their street credibility has been compromised, it may be useful if you can identify with one or more of them: Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Marr, Jeff Beck, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Brian May, Pete Townsend, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Graham Coxon, Angus Young, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Alex Lifeson, Joe Walsh, Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony Iommi, Allan Holdsworth, Noel Gallagher, Caleb Followill, Joe Bonamassa.

Alexander Technique and bass guitar.
Squier 70's Vintage Modified Jazz Bass

Directing

One aspect of the Alexander Technique that can be hard to explain is that of directing, it’s something that is better understood through experience gained with the guidance of an Alexander teacher. It’s a term that necessitates metaphorical language, it’s akin to marshalling ones kinaesthetic energies in the direction that we wish our bodies to follow, a mental activity or experience.  I mention it here with reference to mechanical advantage as these two when combined could be considered to give rise to good use.  I should also mention that it’s possible to misdirect oneself, which would be quite natural when our mood or emotions are low[11], but when habituated can lead to poor posture.  To confuse matters it’s also possible to be directed if all patterns of misuse are repressed and the quality of our mental state is optimal. In layman’s terms this is an experience that is known to athletes and performers as being “in the zone”.

 

Despite earlier caution about being unduly drawn to your fingers with your whole being such that your poise is disturbed, it is essential that you do watch your fingers as you learn new movements.  Respect for faulty sensory appreciation would make this self-evident. It’s not uncommon for players to think that watching your fingers whilst learning (or unlearning if you’re wanting to discard old bad habits!) will make you dependant on having to watch them when you play.  The mistake here is in not understanding the nature of kinaesthetic memory which can operate independently of your visual recall, but without watching what you are doing you have no guarantee that you are doing what you think you are. The solution is to use a mirror, it’s common for one to be used in an Alexander lesson, not just for the benefit of the pupil, but teachers also find benefit in the feedback it gives of them.  A full length mirror would be ideal as it’s not just the fingers we want to watch but the whole postural mechanism, great for keeping an eye out on errant shoulders that want rise up to your ears!

 

It may seem that there’s a lot to remember to get right, but the irony is that in the Technique the only consideration is that we don’t want to go wrong, we let the ‘right’ take care of itself. "To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world" [12], as Alexander put it. There’s a concept in Zen teaching called ‘beginners mind’, it is the principle that what we do or experience once, we tend to not be fully present with our attention the second time. The second time we tend to experience not the thing itself in its entirety, but our memory of it.  Then with each repetition we become more insensitive to the actual action or experience.  In an Alexander lesson this principle is always adhered to such that we take where the pupil is in that moment, and work with that, regardless of what has taken place in previous lessons. This is a healthy attitude to bring to our guitar practice too. In order to practice effectively it is useful change our idea of what the word ‘mistake’ means. When a mistake happens there is usually an immediate emotional reaction, some frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and probably the feeling that it shouldn't have happened, or maybe that it won’t next time. As hard as it may be to accept, we deserve every mistake we make.  In fact, we have created and guaranteed them by the way we practice. They are simply the result of our practice, our practice is the cause! This is good news because if we change the cause, we will get a different or result, that is, we adhere to the means-whereby principal mentioned previously. Replacing the word ‘mistake’ with a much more accurate and useful phrase may help to reduce the emotional response associated with it.  A ‘mistake’ is just an unwanted result, the key is to know what the processes are that lead to the desired outcome and leave it at that.

 

"A mistake made more than twice is a decision"

 

To summarize, the key aspects of the Alexander Technique include recognition of the force of habit, inhibition and non-doing, recognition of faulty sensory awareness, the means-whereby process and the sending of directions. The wonderful thing about the technique is that it can be applied to all areas of our lives, and even if our main interest for its application is in playing the guitar it means that we can hold our guitar up to ourselves as a mirror of how we are in life.

 

Everyone is always teaching one what to do, leaving us still doing the things we shouldn’t do.[13]

 

 



[1] Since 1992.

[2] Since 1984.

[3] Since 1984 in the School of Music, and 1968 in the Drama Division.

[4] "Teaching Aphorisms" in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London)

[5] Obviously muscles don’t remember as such, the kinaesthetic memory of muscle movement occurs within the brain, I use the phrase colloquially here.

[6] You may find it helpful to consider that we move through our body, rather than with our body.

[7] I recommend Jamie Andreas’s book “The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar” at www.guitarprinciples.com to discover exactly how the fingers should be trained in playing the guitar.

[8] Alexander was writing in Edwardian times, but the terms still hold sufficient meaning not to get hung up on them.

[9] This is only in consideration of solid bodied electric guitars.

[10] A capo (short for capotasto, Italian for "head of fretboard")  is a device that that clamps onto the fretboard to shorten the playable length of the strings.

[11] Body language related to emotions is an excellent example of psycho-physical unity.

[12]  Aphorisms by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London)

[13] Aphorisms by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London)