Embodied Training for Instrumental Technique
Instrumental technique may be considered as the interface between concept and sound. Our technical prowess determines how effectively our ideas flow from imagination, through the instrument, to the listener. The definitions we create of technique, guide our practice and teaching. They may be a liberating or limiting factor. We inevitably acquire a set of judgements around what is appropriate technique, and what is not.
What is technique?
It is common to consider technique as being about the way hands move on the instrument. For wind players, hands and embouchure are the usual topics of technical instruction. Our perspective on technique frames whole paradigms of training methods for controlling the instrument.
To limit a technical education to the places where we have physical contact with the instrument is problematic. That interface is highly critical, and well worthy of deep study. Because of the highly specific demands we make, we need the whole body and mindset to be a positively supportive framework. If this is lacking, we become like a poorly performing orchestra undermining a soloist’s potential brilliance.
The interface between performer and instrument is perhaps analogical to the tip of a mechanical pencil. At the point the tip touches the paper, we have the line being drawn - the apparent source of an artistic creation. But to draw using only the lead is impossible. One needs the housing of the lead in order for the tool to function.
From general co-ordination to specific technique
One of the core principles of Alexander Technique proposes a hierarchy: work from general, to specific. We need the body of the pencil so we can manipulate the tip in order to draw. Similarly, if we stimulate a positive general poise of the performer, we optimise the conditions for the specifics of interface with the instrument.
Our intent to play music is the stimulus for our action, but we have greatest scope for eloquent performance when we include our whole selves in the response to this stimulus - not just the fingers or embouchure.
From central organisation to peripheral
A parallel principle which Alexander Technique trains, is to attend to the coordination of the peripheral movements secondary to that of the central structure. A feature of all vertebrates’ animation is that the head’s relationship with the torso is fundamental to the activity of the limbs.
Musicians who use Alexander Technique come to appreciate how a small change in the head and torso relationship enhances one’s general poise, which in turn affects the muscular balance in the limbs. Musical instruments are designed to respond to precisely this kind of change in muscle tone.
The Oxford Dictionary defines technique as “a way of carrying out a particular task”. When we train technique, weather intentional or not, we are training a way of using our whole selves in performance. Technical exercises are conventionally given tempos, fingering and phrasing requirements, but are lacking in a framework for creating a healthy embodied performance attitude.
Ease is part of good technique
If we acknowledge general ease as part of our ideal of instrumental technique, there would be no scope for training any technique at the cost of general health. We would be obliged to desist with practice which compromises comfort or musicality.
Let’s expand the concept of technique to include the way in which we use our whole selves - the poise and quality of movement of the whole body, and the constructive use of thinking. This in no way compromises the effective pedagogies that exist around instrumental technique. Quite the contrary. A skill in coordinating the whole self makes accessible the prowess graceful performers exhibit. If the coordination of the body is left to chance, it is at the whim of accumulated habits of posture and movement.
A holistic attitude to technique can effectively execute the aesthetic intention of the artist. It can orchestrate the intention for poise - head to toe - in concert with the specific actions the instrument requires. Technique is not something to embody, it is itself, embodiment of musical conception.
How to practice embodied instrumental technique
When training or teaching one can expand a concept of technique to:
- include an intention for coordination of the whole self,
- ask for coordination of the head, spine and torso primarily, and the arms, hands, legs and feet secondary,
- invite an available or expansive quality (rather than trying to impose or hold a position or posture),
- allow the whole self to be recruited to meet the demands of the instrument,
- listen to the effect of these inclusions on the quality of music produced, and the ease throughout the whole,
- use this feedback to further experiment, refine or expand practice.
About the author
Jeremy Woolhouse is a VCA music graduate and qualified Alexander Technique teacher practicing in Glen Iris. His Alexander Technique instruction is oriented towards giving students an independent ability to manage performance related pain, RSI or anxiety and to sustainably optimise performance. Jeremy publishes monthly articles on Alexander Technique and music at www.poisealexandertechnique.com.au.