2010 ASMTA Conference – Alexander Technique – Pamela Blanc

Guest post by Jennifer Foxx

I was really excited for this class and its topic because I enjoy learning about new things that I’m not totally familiar with. I’m sure many of you have heard about the Alexander Technique but like me aren’t totally sure what it is. So hopefully my notes from the conference will enlighten you a little, but I have to say that to see it in action is a whole other thing. If you ever have a chance to go to an Alexander Technique presentation, and especially some master classes, don’t pass it up.

Pamela Blanc was our Alexander Technique presenter. Pamela is not a musician but works with many musicians in her California studio.

When we are in a seated position and we go to stand up, notice where you naturally tense up. Our neck has a tendency to tense in the process of standing and in the process of sitting and it doesn’t need to. How we use our spine influences how we use our limbs.

If we sit with a spine that is available for lengthening (keyword) while playing the piano we have a lot more longevity and ease of movement while playing.

It’s important to start with self-observation. We can’t change what we do not know.

Allow the right thing to do itself (instead of start doing what you don’t want). Yes, we want to discover what it is we are doing to interfere with our ease and coordination and we want to stop this interference so the right thing can do itself …balance can happen.

Try this: Make a fist, make a karate chop, make a fist, stop making a fist. This is a simple example of your brain sending messages to stop excitation. In neuroscience and in the Alexander Technique it is referred to as sending messages of inhibition (different than Freud’s definition of inhibition). How you use yourself affects how you function.

Some questions to ask yourself…is there something in my manner of use that affects my malfunction? This is a basic sequence of changing a habit. What am I aware of? What is interfering with what I want to have/be? What do I need to stop? How do I redirect my thinking/actions?

ALLOW the spine to release into length. This will happen if we stop the unnecessary contraction of the muscles of the torso which, when over contracted, can bring about a shortening of the torso & spine. It is Constructive Conscience Control of the individual. (This is Mr. Alexander’s language and the title of one of his four books.)

Tell your body not to stand up and stand up (this is allowing your body not to do extra work where it’s not needed). This is the process of giving yourself a stimulus i.e. “stand up” that you have a habitual response to i.e. “tightening your lower back” and telling yourself you are not going to stand up habitually, you are not going to tighten your lower back; you tell yourself you are going to prevent a shortening in your back and you are going to project/think of lengthening your back; Then you take it into the actual action of standing without the tightening and thus you are re-training/re-educating your habitual pattern of standing. When your brain learns that it can inhibit “physical” habits, it then begins to realize that it can inhibit “mental” habits and “emotional” habits. The act of inhibition is a brain activity and can be applied in all situations thus we have chosen in our response.

Allow your neck to be free of unnecessary tension so your spine releases into length.

“Tell lower back not to make a fist” (this is simply an analogy, see paragraph 5).

What are you doing in your daily life that you are responding with tension in your shoulder, neck, etc? (You are sending messages to your body.) This is part of the concept in the Alexander Technique that suggests IF we are “malfunctioning” there must be something in our manner of use to cause that malfunction.

Life is a process of responding to stimuli. What is dominating your thinking that is interfering with your best use? What we are thinking affects how we are using our bodies.

Now that you have a better understanding of what the Alexander Technique is, we were able to experience it in action in the Master classes. And I have to say, it was amazing!

The first student that Pamela worked with was a vocal student. First thing she looked for was tension, freedom at the top of the spine. Spine come up to nose level, throat is behind nose – top of breathing container. Pelvic floor is responding to the whole breathing container. Torso – cylinder to support breath.

After Pamela holds up (or lengthens) her spine, so to speak, the voice student felt she wasn’t working as hard because she had something other than her voice to concentrate on.

Pamela was helping her so her head wouldn’t get scrunched down, where she typically holds all that pressure from hitting the higher notes. The student said it helped her voice project higher/easier. The audience could hear a better tone quality.

The next student was a piano student. This student shared that she had tension in the shoulders typically when practicing. Pamela shares, when holding up spine, this is not about “holding up spine,” it is about allowing the spine to be at it’s easy extension which is something those smaller muscles we spoke of earlier take care of. Tone came out much better. Move from hip joints when he wants to as part of expression at the piano. Sit right on sitting bones.

If students tend to hold their breath when playing, it diminishes the oxygen that goes to their hands, fingers, etc.

A suggestion Pamela gave to the student to keep her connected with her whole body was to Exhale, Inhale, as blow out air, think of feet. Be sure to adjust bench and sit correctly (see above). It was amazing the difference the audience could hear in the quality of her performance after Pamela worked with her for just a short period of time.

This time an adult piano student performed a piece for us. She shared that she had tension in her upper arms. A couple things Pamela shared with her that would help release the tension was to inhibit going down, direct yourself up (do opposite of what your habit is), use the energy within our body to keep ourselves long and open. Energy is equal.

Watching the Alexander Technique in action was fascinating. I have found myself becoming more aware of the unnecessary tension I am carrying and to allow my spine to do what it was meant to do.

Recommended books: Indirect Procedures by Pedro De Alcantara (directed to musicians) and Body Learning by Michael Gelb (primer to Alexander Technique; not directed towards musicians).

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