I look around at my fellow musicians in the orchestra during a break in rehearsal. A cellist, slouched low in her chair, looking bored and uncomfortable. An oboist, also slumped I wonder how he has any room to breathe at all. A violinist, jaw tightly clamped on the instrument, gaze fixed on the difficult passage of music he is practising, hardly taking a breath. I wonder, is this what music is about? As I stand there, I realise that not long ago I was in the same situation myself, and feel a certain sense of relief, almost smugness, that I have found a way out of the pain I thought I had to accept as part of being a musician, not to mention a double bass player, and not a tall one at that.
I started piano lessons at the age of twelve, followed by double bass at the age of fifteen. I was an eager learner, and joined my first orchestra after three months of bass lessons. It didn’t take long for me to feel discomfort while playing, but I thought that that was something I had to put up with, not being tall (I’m five foot five inches). A double bass is taller than I am, with strings that are much thicker than guitar strings, that take a lot more finger Strength to push down. I loved the bass from the start, so I decided to put up with it and keep playing anyway.
When I began playing in orchestras regularly, I would often do residential courses which involved playing up to nine hours a day. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to feel the effects. For three years I had almost constant pins and needles across my left shoulder and back, as well as extreme tension in my hands and arms. Sometimes I would start to play and have to stop after five minutes because I would have so much pain in my arms, it felt like they were seizing up. To make a loud sound on the bass, for example, I thought that I had to really grip the bow and lean into the string. I had great difficulty in balancing the bass, not only when standing, but also while sitting, so the effort of stopping the instrument from falling, let alone playing, exacerbated that tension.
I had no patience for working at a piece for hours; instead I would attempt to play it up to speed straight away, not thinking about what the music was about but just reading the notes off the page. I wanted results straight away -I had no awareness of what I was doing with my body at the time, only of the black dots on the page in front of me. At the end of concerts, I would often be exhausted and hardly able to move my shoulders, and even sleep didn’t help the discomfort go away; sometimes sleep made it worse. I never really told anyone about it, because I felt that people would just think I was making a fuss, or ‘being a diva’. Being a female bass player, I felt like I had to prove myself, to show that I could do it too, that I was strong enough to stand up to the competition, that I wasn’t ‘just a girl’. As a result, I really pushed myself to try harder all the time to play better, and didn’t give any thought to the effect it was having on my body.
When I finished school, I went on to do a four-year degree in music, with piano as my principal study. Practice rooms were hard to come by, so often I would wait until the evening and then play for up to two hours without a break. By the end of the practice session, I would be stiff and sore, especially in my shoulders and back. I very rarely warmed up before playing, not knowing then how important it was. Sometimes I would have so much pain in my hands and wrists I would tell my teacher, who recommended that I go for physiotherapy. I didn’t like that idea, so I just ignored it and hoped the pain would go away by itself. Even though I knew that there were others like me who also suffered pain from overdoing it, I was still shy to mention it. I always felt that I had to put myself under pressure to improve my playing all the time, and found it extremely difficult not to compare myself to other people, considering that the piano is such a commonly played instrument and that there are so many brilliant players around. I had the belief that I had to ‘do’ something to make the music happen. 'Play musically!’ and ‘Relax your arms!’ were instructions which I interpreted as ‘Try harder!’ and ‘Make more effort!’
Finally, when I was nineteen, I was playing with an orchestra that had invited a teacher of the Alexander Technique to visit and teach us how to become more aware of ourselves when playing, how to use less effort and to relieve tension in performance. In my first meeting with her, she told me, ‘I can see you’ve forgotten where your hip joints are!’ My immediate reaction was to feel insulted of course I knew where they were, it’s my body! I quickly came to realise that, actually, I knew very little about how my body worked, apart from that I wasn’t comfortable in it.
After that initial introduction, I started getting regular lessons with a teacher close to where I was studying and got such relief from it that I continued sessions on and off for about four years. I know that, especially early on in my experience of lessons, it was the physical release of tension, that ‘relaxation’, that made a significant impression on me. That release that I felt during hands-on work felt like such a relief that one-to-one contact, so gentle and reassuring, giving me an opportunity to have time for myself. I felt lost if I didn’t have that habitual tension to work with, almost as if there was no need for the lessons if it wasn’t there. The more I learned however, the more I wanted to be able to share with others. It made so much sense, and brought together everything that I was interested in how the body works, how people think, and how the two relate to each other. As a result, I made the decision to train to become an Alexander teacher myself, and am now in my final year.
I can safely say that without the Technique, I don’t think I would still be playing today. As it is now, I have changed enormously in the last couple of years I can now play the bass standing up, something I found impossible before due to my difficulty with balance (I always had to play while sitting on a high stool), and not only that but I can Stay standing for an entire two-hour concert, no problem, with no pain. Instead of pushing into the string to make a big sound, I just allow the weight of my arm to draw the sound out. When I play piano, I find it so much easier now to learn new music. I find that I can be aware now if I do start to tense up at all and can stop before there is any pain. I am so much more in touch with what I am doing with my body while I play, instead of just focusing on the notes and in turn, everything I play becomes more effortless, as if the music ‘plays itself ’.
My confidence in my ability as a musician has improved enormously. I find that the less I do, the easier everything has become. If I do feel discomfort or pain, I no longer put up with it: I question why it’s happening and change whatever it is that’s causing it. Above all, l’m a much happier person, which in turn has made my music-making so much more rewarding and enjoyable. I have found the experience of learning the Alexander Technique to be hugely empowering - I’ve learned that I’m the one in charge of my own body, not the other way round!