Up to 85% of string players have suffered from pain when playing. This post is to help you to avoid these problems and change habits that may be contributing factors. The Alexander Technique advice given works best if you have had 1 to 1 Alexander Technique lessons, (or at least had some group sessions). It can still be useful to follow the principles below without having had lessons but do seek out an Alexander Technique teacher if you are inspired to change your habits of mind and body after reading this.
“The body map is one’s self-representation in one’s own brain. If the body map is accurate, movement is good. If the body map is inaccurate or inadequate, movement is inefficient and injury producing.” Barbara Conable:’ What every musician needs to know about the body’
Where does the head join to the neck?
Find out where the atlanto-occipital joint is. Faulty body map images of the head joined at other places to the neck contributes to more stiffness and pain; not just in the neck but the whole of the back and the limbs. Alexander Technique teaches you to undo tension habits that are stopping free balance and co-ordination between the head, neck and back (HNB). The HNB work together as a whole to integrate and co-ordinate the way your whole body moves.
Please note: it is advisable to seek out the help from an Alexander Technique teacher to learn how to undo these tension habits and enable natural poise and balance as the temptation is to put the head into the ‘correct’ position instead of undoing the layers of habit that stop the head and neck being freely poised.
What are the joints that enable my arm to move freely?
String players often start their body map of the arm at the shoulder joint (and have a faulty sense of where that is as well.) The only place the arm joins onto the torso is at the sterno-clavicular joint (where the collar bone meets the breast bone). Knowing that this joint needs to move freely (as well as the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints) adds enormously to freer use of the arms.
Where are the sitting bones?
String players often sit for long periods of time and need to both know where their sitting bones are and how to allow them to conduct weight through the skeleton into the chair. When sitting in a balanced way on your sitting bones, the deep postural muscles in the back are activated and you can sit more effortlessly with less strain and tension.
Where does the weight transfer from my feet into the ground?
It is important that the feet get support from the ground (both in standing and sitting). We are often one sided. Just being aware of both heels and balls of big toe and little toe can help the weight to naturally distribute and allow vital information to travel upwards along the spine. At the very least be aware of your feet being supported by the ground (in standing and sitting).
Practise can become unconscious and habitual. Good mind/body awareness is necessary to avoid automatic inefficient practise. Check whether any of these apply to you:
Do you practise on automatic pilot repeating passages without having a goal in mind? Before starting a practice, make a mental note of which passages you want to improve and decide the methods you are going to use. If something is not working, don’t repeat it endlessly. Take a step back and formulate a new plan. Let part of your plan include building in awareness of how you are using your body. For example:
Are your feet evenly supported by the ground?
Are you aware of your sitting bones being evenly supported by the chair?
Are you over concentrating?
What is happening with your eyes? If they are fixed on one area of the music or the room, you can be sure other areas of your body are also not free. Soften the eyes, look around and see if that improves your playing. Experiment with softening any areas that feel tight and fixed.
What are your thoughts while playing: (Do you have a constant mental chatter or negative self-talk?) Sometimes it is hard to stop it in which case take a one or two minute pause, walk away and then try again. If it is still there, have a lie down in semi-supine. Sometimes it helps to write down what is bothering you and then you can let it go. Accept where you are and keep bringing your focus back to the music and your intention for this practise.
Try making a list of your goals of the day for your practise:
As well as your passages from your pieces you want to practise and improve, include in your list/timetable spaces to stop and take a break. Include your semi supine, water breaks, stretches, meditation, whispered Ahs (see below for more about them) mindful sitting or anything else that brings you back to your whole self. Make what you do in the breaks as important as the practice. Make time for practice away from your instrument. This can be done in semi-supine or mindfully at your desk/table. Keep an awareness of your body while thinking through a piece and imagine how you want it to not only sound but to feel.
Add awareness while unpacking your instrument to your daily routine:
Often our body-use habits have begun before we have even entered the practise room. Take a pause, connect with your body and move and unpack just as you would like to play: Calmly, freely and with awareness.
If you know how to do the Alexander Technique ‘whispered ah’ procedure, make it part of your daily routine. It could be done before you start a practice to get your Alexander Technique awareness going. Or in the middle of a practise as a micro break to stop it becoming automatic.
Make a decision not to ignore pains. Body aches and pains mean that somewhere you are not playing freely. It could be a fault in technique, in which case ask your teacher, or a body-use habit that still needs thought and attention. We are not supposed to have aches and pains when playing. Use the aches and pains as a prompt to guide you towards freer, better playing and technique.
If it is difficult, don’t try harder:
If a passage is difficult, it is very common to try harder and that can also involve more muscular effort and tension. Don’t play faster than you can do without tensing up. It doesn’t always mean playing slower. It might mean simplifying the passage and gradually adding more of the notes. Or playing one bar at a time and joining them together. Be imaginative and find ways to build up the passages organically and freely. Decide how long you want to practise a passage for and then walk away. Evaluate, ask yourself what has improved, what still needs work. It doesn’t all have to be done in one practice.
Enjoy the process, forget the result:
We can get so goal bound (‘end-gaining’ in Alexander Technique language) that we forget how to enjoy the process of learning. Keep reminding yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect, perfection very rarely if ever exists, and stop putting yourself under pressure to get it right. The process of practising involves stopping and figuring out how to apply your Alexander Technique (or other mind-body skills) to your playing. Keep it very simple. Stop before your sit down, think your Alexander Technique directions and then stop again and think before you play. Start off with trying to apply your Alexander Technique to open strings, enjoy the sensations, vibrations and awareness. Then apply it to a scale and gradually build up your awareness. The key is to keep at it. Imagine it as small drops that eventually will fill a bucket.
Semi supine (Alexander Technique constructive resting position)
Make this an essential part of your day. Even five minutes at the start and end of the day will give rest and recuperation to your spine. And every time you stop, you are giving yourself permission to rest and slow down. Use it as a constructive resting position while doing mental practise, thinking through your piece, passage or visualising how you want to play your instrument.
Semi supine is effective both before, during and after practice. It can be used as prevention of strain and over-use or for recovery if feeling achy and over strained.
This is a useful Alexander Technique breathing exercise that helps you to stay balanced and free not just in your breathing but whole body. It is great to do as a micro break between practices, in rehearsals and especially before performances to stay calm and composed.
Become aware of your startle pattern fight/flight response where you go into a classic fear response of the neck tensing and the head pulling back and compressing the neck. Becoming aware of it is the first step to preventing it happening and/or releasing out of it. This needs to be practised ahead of the performance. We usually have the same tension patterns in every-day life, they are just more exaggerated during performances. Staying present, not denying feelings of fear and anxiety, during a performance helps enable you to still play and express yourself despite the added stress. Once again, awareness of mind and body that is practised away from the performance is more likely to continue during the performance.
The Alexander Technique for Musicians by Judith Kleinman and Peter Buckoke
Indirect Procedures A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara
What every musician needs to know about the body by Barbara Conable
How to Learn the Alexander Technique: A Manual for Students by Barbara and William Conable