Written by Helen Aun.
With a determined look in her eyes a small girl tries to get through a difficult passage in the new piano piece she has learned. She knows she should not fail. Failure is not acceptable. She tries as hard as she can, jaw clenched, shoulders raised, hardly breathing. Why do the fingers feel so sticky and tense? Why are they not doing what she wants them to do? What will the teacher think if she doesn’t get it right this time? What will mum and dad think? Failure is not acceptable. So she tries harder, with the whole body tensing up. It is a war. Usually the piano wins.
She used to love music, it used to live in her, make her jump with joy. Then the lessons started. Suddenly there are so many things that can go wrong. Wrong notes. Wrong rhythm. The fun is gone, replaced with discipline and sitting still even though she is dying to move, to be active and alive. Concentrate! Keep your back straight and concentrate! She hears it every week and slowly the creativity is starting to die. Getting things right and pleasing the teacher and the parents become more important than the music itself. By the time the girl becomes a teenager she doesn’t want to play anymore and after some time gives up the lessons with a scar in her heart.
This is one of the worst case scenarios. As a piano teacher I see these things happening too often. The problem is mainly in the education which has become all about avoiding mistakes, about being perfect. There is a lot of pressure and need to be better and better. From a very early age children start to understand that they are not accepted as they are. They need to practice more. Do more. Succeed more. Nothing seems to be enough.
I went through the worst case scenario. Pushy teachers, pressure from parents, constant exams and criticism from people who meant well but caused damage. After years of playing with discomfort I ended up in physical pain that forced me to rethink everything I had been taught. In a way I am lucky because it made me eventually ask questions about what kind of a pianist I want to be and how I want to teach my pupils. This brought me to the Alexander technique and after I started training as an Alexander teacher my piano teaching style and things I am able to perceive in my pupils have changed dramatically.
All the concepts of the Alexander technique are very much present in learning to play an instrument. What happens in the mind will somehow affect the body and vice versa. There is nothing purely physical or purely mental in putting the hands on the keyboard and starting to play. F. M. Alexander believed that every single thought has a response in the muscular system. The tension in the muscles either increases or decreases according to brain activity. The more stressed and in a rush we are, the more we react to the stimuli. He also believed that we slowly build up habits of thought and movement that become so much part of us that we are not able to notice them anymore. After a while overreacting and being tense start to feel right to us.
Alexander discovered that changing one bit in a human will affect the functioning of the rest. This indicates that trying to break the habits that are harmful is not possible if we concentrate just on fixing a part of ourselves and forget that a human being is a psychophysical unity (FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, 1946). Everything we do will involve the whole person, physical, mental and emotional. Unfortunately many piano teachers fail to see the connection between the mind and the body and thus try to solve most issues as purely physical.
I spent years asking my pupils to relax when I noticed tension or to sit up straight when they slumped. I tried every possible trick to make their fingers more flexible, their shoulders less raised. When they couldn’t achieve what was being told I pushed them to try harder. I rushed them to learn faster, to keep up with the pace set by the authorities. Exams, concerts, no time for fun. This is what majority of teachers would do even at the university level. It is what they had been taught so it seems like the only way. I always wondered why a normal, happy, lively child becomes rigid and stiff when sitting on the piano stool. It just didn’t make sense. Now it is slowly starting to.
From the first lesson on children are asked to do. The requests come as an endless stream. Keep your fingers curved! Don’t hunch your back! Keep your wrists up, shoulders down, stop fidgeting with your legs and feet. At the same time listen to the sound and count the rhythm. No, not like this! Like that! The little pianist becomes detached from how the piano feels and sounds like and what the character of the piece is. Instead she becomes worried about everything that can go wrong. The vitality is lost. The sad thing about all this is that nearly every child has a natural pull towards music and their small hands are ready to play. If one would take a little look at how beautifully the fingers curve when in a resting position they would see that all one needs to play is already there. Nothing has to be added, some things are just waiting to be refined. The music is ready to flow, the fun is ready to begin. A teacher should actually do as little as possible to stop that natural way of approaching the music and the instrument.
With the help of my Alexander training I have started to realise that tension, especially in the neck and shoulder area is closely connected with feelings of fear and anxiety. (Dr. Wilfred Barlow,The Alexander Principle, 1973). People have a tendency to contract and tighten in threatening situations. Being contracted and “smaller” is a safer place to face to world. It is also good to notice that often tension doesn’t only involve the upper body but is actually everywhere, including the legs.
The same applies to the opposite behaviour – slumping, collapsing and having not enough tone in the muscles to produce a rich sound and vibrant performance. These are actually the two sides of the same coin. From an Alexander teacher point of view they are both reactions to a stimulus. If the shoulders are raised, it doesn’t help if we order a child to keep it down. It only brings on more tension. The cause is not the shoulder and that’s why the cure isn’t the shoulder either. What helps is making the situation as little lesson-like as possible and keeping the atmosphere playful. How the teacher is reacting has a huge role in how comfortable and safe the pupil feels. If making mistakes is accepted and even welcomed, if learning can happen at its own pace and if the pupil is allowed to be creative and initiative, a healthier way of making music has already begun. Mistakes give valuable information about what hasn’t been fully learned yet and they should be treated with curiosity and loving attention.
Trying too hard and rushing are also causes for too much tension (FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, 1923). When something goes wrong we try to get it right as quickly as possible by trying harder and harder. In the process we tend to tense. We get anxious and don’t give things enough time. In playing an instrument trying too hard usually speeds up the tempo which makes the task even more difficult. The fingers become less responsive to what the mind is trying to tell them. Alexander talks a lot about letting things happen rather than forcing. If something doesn’t work, there is no point in trying to do it again in the same way. It is better to stop, think over and start again with a different, calmer mindset. Some children find it very hard to play in a slow tempo and keep their mind with what they are doing. Alexander technique has helped me a lot to keep a cool head in these situations and eventually my own calm attitude transmits to the pupil.
Alexander points out the problem with words. When we hear the words we automatically understand them in our own ways, not necessarily as they were meant. That is why giving verbal instructions can easily create wrong associations and cause a lot of problems that are hard to fix afterwards (FM Alexander, The Use of The Self, 1946) . I find that the results are usually more accurate if children are allowed to learn by copying, watching and listening. It is better to use as little words as possible and let the intuition lead the learning process.
There are many things that could be done differently in teaching music. Many things could make the journey so much more pleasant for the young player. I am still struggling to find the right balance between letting the pupils develop in their own way and at the same time meeting the requirements the society puts on them. I feel that that with the help of the Alexander technique I am on a more solid ground, although there is still a long way to go. Luckily there are many who do get through their music education with joy and who build a good relationship with their instrument. For these people music is what it is supposed to be – a way to express themselves.
FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, 1923
FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, 1946
Dr. Wilfred Barlow, The Alexander Principle, 1973