As an undergraduate music student, I was immediately attracted by the constructive nature of Alexander Technique - it gave me a process to help me learn about myself in a way that was clear and practical, rather than the advice offered to me from chiropracters and physios to "play less" when I asked how to deal with a sore right shoulder. In my first lesson with Greg Holdaway, director of the Sydney Alexander Technique School, it was brought to my attention that I had inadvertently collected a hotpot of conflicting ideas about my body structure & how I perceived I should be playing. It immediately became clear to me that day that something I was doing while playing was leading to my pain, and indeed in a matter of weeks I had resolved the issue of the sore shoulder.
To receive an education in body structure, observation skills, and awareness-in-action is an invaluable gift that has profoundly affected my ability to play my instrument comfortably, enjoyably and freely - and I can thank Greg for starting me on my journey of learning Alexander technique, and now continuing learning to teach Alexander Technique as I have been part of the teacher training course since 2015.
In this interview, Greg shares some of what his work as an Alexander teacher involves and common areas of concern for musicians:
1. A few words describing your mood and where you are writing this now.
I am at my home office desk in the beautiful Blue Mountains, about 7:45am. I can hear the birds outside, see the sunshine and feel the slight chill from the open window. Feeling slightly elated, having just solved a long-standing software problem .
2. Describe your work.
I use my skills and knowledge to assist people to solve their challenges and difficulties, to improve their performance and reach their potential in anything that is important to them. This includes assisting people to return to good functioning and health in the face of long-standing challenges. The work can involve teaching face-to-face lessons, small group classes or larger workshops using a synergy of approaches. That means figuring out what the difficulty or need is and using coaching and hands-on methods to provide new experiences of what is possible. This includes the development of personal cues and self-direction for the person to use in their own practise. The formal ground of the work is Alexander’s first principle, the unity of human functioning, which can be seen and influenced in the relation of head, neck and back, or as we say it these days, “Head and whole body”. That is the reason for our business name: BodyMinded.
The work progresses in the context of having fun with flexibility and creativity.
3. What’s in a typical day?
That depends on the day. A travel to work day is up early, on the train to get to the city before classes start. Teaching can extend from 8am through to 8pm on some days. A non-travel teaching day is up not so early to warmup with a personal routine of awareness and movement practises. And an ‘office’ day starts with energy and engagement and gradually slows down with more breaks and less work, but can also extend to 6 or 7pm in front of the computer.
4. How did you come to discover this work, and how has it benefitted you personally?
I was a dancer with the TasDance in Tasmania. Several people suggested I would benefit from studying the Alexander technique. My sister rang me from Sydney one day and said “there is this elderly teacher coming to Sydney from America, teaching the Alexander Technique… I can’t go so I want you to go and tell me what it's like”. I was lucky in that the dance company gave me time off and paid my wage for the week I attended that first workshop. Marj Barstow was Alexander’s first graduate from his training school; she was, I think, 88 years old when I met her. The work with her and her teachers was personally transformative right from the start… within a few days of my first workshop I knew I wanted to do this. The benefits were not just in the specific relief and management of physical injuries from my years in the dance world, I felt a freedom, expansiveness and joy in living I had no idea was possible. There was substantial improvement in performance as a dancer from the start and the benefits of the work have deepened and progressed year after year ever since, I have been involved in the work for over 30 years now.
5. What would a lesson with you look like, or involve?
Individual lessons are 45 minutes to an hour long. The first part is simply getting connected or re-connected with the student, finding out what is in their thinking and emotional state and observing with care how that is reflected in the way they are coordinating. Lessons can progress in different paths depending on the current need, on the progression of the student from previous lessons or classes and on the requests made by the student. With an experienced student we often start with the question “What would you like to work on?”. With a new student I will introduce some of the basics of the process from the start with activities, movements or games that begin to open up self-observation, understanding of how to consciously engage with their body in activity and then self-direction for overall coordination and dynamic anti-gravity support (otherwise known as ‘posture’). The teaching usually involves using my hands to support and guide the learning process, I combine this teaching skill with demonstration, verbal instruction and feedback. Finally, depending on the needs of the student we may spend some time on mind-body conditioning processes including assisting the student to re-organise their sensations and coordination while sitting in a chair, walking or lying in a semi-supine position – on their back. Lessons conclude with a review of the experience, and suggestions for personal practise into the future.
6. What are some of your experiences working with musicians or other performing artists?
I have had many many experiences with performers, I began as a performer myself. I count myself as privileged to be able to work with so many creative people, and enjoy the snippets of performance I am privileged to witness as they work out their questions. For example, I worked with a pianist and singer for several years who discovered, to her astonishment, that when she moved her hands from one place to another on the keyboard they completely disappeared from consciousness… this is a classic example of what Alexander called “end-gaining’ where the mind jumps ahead to the desired end, and loses any sense of howthe action is being performed. The sense of control and enjoyment that comes from a re-awakening of consciousness in performance has to be experienced to be appreciated.
This same student was later taking up the Ukulele, and was struggling with the transitions. My observation of her general coordination was that she stiffened herself each time she moved her fingers to strum the strings. This, it seems, stemmed from the idea that the strumming was the leading edge of the action. When I suggested she think of her fingers on the neck of the instrument as the leading edge the struggle disappeared along with the stiffening and enjoyment and facility increased.
In another classic example, I met a man in a general class once who tilted his whole body sideways when he said ‘hello’ … this was kind of odd, and was repeated to the other side when I moved to another place in the room. I wasn’t until the next day when I saw what may have lain behind that pattern. He came to the musician’s class carrying a Tuba. As soon as he sat with the instrument you could see the need to bend sideways to make eye-contact when speaking to someone in front. I call this the case of the ‘virtual tuba’.
Experienced instrumentalists often carry unconscious coordination patterns like this, in another classic example a very experienced violinist was complaining of shoulder/neck discomfort. We observed when she was not holding the instrument she was still holding her neck and shoulder as if the instrument was there. The discomfort diminished whenever she put her ‘virtual violin’ down. What was interesting of course was how often she needed to remind herself of this, as the invisible instrument would ‘re-appear’ whenever her mind went elsewhere for a while.
Sometimes I have come across musicians and performers who have seriously harmed themselves in the pursuit of their musical or performance career. It can be very difficult to face the long-term consequences of unconscious patterns learnt early. Examples include the oboe player with serious heart and lung issues stemming from constant upper body pressure, an orchestral trumpeter with continuous dizziness and hearing loss, a tap dancer who had so damaged her feet it seemed unlikely she would be able to continue dancing, and many vocalists with vocal fold and respiratory difficulties associated with poorly coordinated use of the voice. The coordination patterns associated with these things can be alleviated to an extent, sometimes completely, if the person has the willingness to face the challenge as a pattern of coordination and do the work required to manage or change it. While improvement is usually possible, and sometimes surprisingly quick, the degree of reversal of psycho-physical difficulties and physical changes sustained over time cannot be predicted.
7. From your experience with teaching musicians, what are some common areas of concern that you get asked about?
Very often we are helping people with tension, stress and poor performance associated with performance nerves, discomfort stemming from either poor body and instrument support (heaviness and effort) and/or repetitive strain injuries. Each musician is unique, and their questions are answered with reliance on both the general principles of good coordination and the specific observations made of that individual as they engage with their activity. Neck and shoulder tension or discomfort are very common. Pain in all kinds of places, but often in the back, or stiff fingers. Difficulty standing supporting an instrument for any length of time, inability to reach certain notes or technical challenges such as speed and clarity of articulation. And of course, performance anxiety. Common areas of difficulty that can sometimes be addressed very quickly include inaccurate or inadequate conscious sense (proprioception) of body-parts, including joints and directions of movement; we refer to this work as ‘body-mapping’.
8. What motivates you to be in this line of work?
The enjoyment of seeing, hearing and feeling improvement occur, the relationships that develop with students, and the personal benefits I gain from constant re-engagement with my own practise. I have a fascination with ‘how things work’, so it is personally rewarding to be a professional problem solver.
9. What would be your top three pieces of advice for musicians, especially young musicians, in relation to creating sustainable music practice?
Get well educated about how the body moves so you can treat yourself well… it is your instrument!!! Learn to be consciously, relentlessly constructive in what you say to yourself about what you want with your music, it is amazing what a difference this makes. Develop a systematic overall warm-up routine that involves gentle range of movement for all of the moving parts of your body while ‘awakening’ your whole-body self-awareness, keep developing it and keep doing it!
10. Where can we find you and/or take a class?
I teach classes and lessons at BodyMinded: Sydney Alexander Technique in St Leonards, Sydney. Also in the Blue Mountains. I often travel to teach and can come and conduct regional and international workshops as well. My online teaching is increasing, though face-to-face is preferable if possible.
11. Are there any videos or resources you’d like to recommend?
Yes, our website alexandertechnique.com.au or bodyminded.com.au has information and resources. There are many videos on YouTube under Alexander technique, but always take care, there is a wide range of opinions and approaches out there. There is a very large resource of material, including many podcasts at alexandertechnique.com which is based in the U.S.