Using Alexander Technique looks and feels different for each different person, just as the journey of learning is different for each person, as I’ve shown in the past two blogs with contrasting experiences from children and adult learners. As another illustration of this, I’ve interviewed my duo partner, pianist and composer (and partner irl) Pavle Cajic to share how we use AT in our duo practice together as a tool for our own performances. Pavle was often part-time attending the Alexander Technique teacher training at the Sydney BodyMinded School during the same time as I did my teacher training from 2015-2018, so it became regular for us to have our duo rehearsals after class, and organically integrate what we were learning together to our duo practice.
In this conversation (which I recorded and transcribed), we talk about how we use Alexander Technique in our learning, processing, rehearsing and performance process and share elements of our warmup at the end, a process we have developed through our work with Seattle-based Alexander Technique teacher/director Cathy Madden over the past few years.
C: When I first started AT, I remember asking about how AT could help me communicate with you as a duo partner. I didn’t know how to clearly express my musical intentions – I knew we weren’t syncing up – I wasn’t physically embodying what I wanted, and I didn’t have language – verbal or physical – to tell you what I wanted for the music.
P: I think it’s also part of my personality that I would play things with a lot of my ideas, so if you didn’t specifically tell me what you wanted, I’d just play it my way...
So how did AT help you communicate then?
C: I think I learned how to ask for things and become more direct with opening up my communication, and at the same time coincidentally – I managed to persuade you to come to a class!
P: One thing that you do learn in AT is to give more precise instructions for what you want for yourself. By extension, you can apply the same skills as you invite other people to coordinate with you. That’s how it relates to duo playing.
C: Maybe because we didn’t have a model for that, we don’t often get to rehearse with another ‘student’ or musician, often we were accompanied by a staff member (so it feels harder to ask them to do something for you) – which is why it was so fun to be able to rehearse with a peer, and actually have that time to explore - and to create - a common musical goal…
P: We started off with a general AT perspective, which was interesting in itself - but it got really interesting when we learnt to expand our conception beyond our whole selves to use AT to include our whole audience and the environments around us... it’s a bit of an elusive thing, but doing that mentally, expanding the sense of self to include the other person, that really helped us to work together.
C: I didn’t really understand the tangible repercussions of that till we did our first performance together. Because we had expanded into a whole that was bigger the sum of our parts alone, I felt that we were really expanding to invite the audience to be with us and that was really powerful, and just helped me to experience and rediscover a joy in performing, which had sort of been dulled in more uni-exam-type performances, where I was so focused on getting everything right...
P: Yes. I most strongly remember the effects on my solo performances when I was able to use AT to some extent. From the performance-experience point of view, when I was able to coordinate and keep that thought going through the performance, then I found that I had a lot more control over what I was doing, and I was able to make many more decisions on the spot about how I wanted to play. Earlier I would’ve practised the piece a lot and had a certain way of playing, and in performance, I would be executing what I had practised, and stuck in that way of playing it, but when I was able to coordinate throughout the performance, I was able to make spontaneous decisions, and the performance felt more enjoyable.
C: Personally AT helped me realise how much pressure I had been putting on myself to play everything ‘perfectly’ and setting myself unrealistic goals, and sending myself into vicious cycles of feeling awful after performing. I was so inwardly focused that I could barely appreciate the audience being there, and I almost felt ashamed onstage and that would lead to more mistakes. After connecting with the holistic reasons of why I love music, I was able to synchronise both my love for moving towards a certain perfection in performance and bringing it alive in the moment for an audience... How would you say you use AT in your everyday life today, and how did you use it when you first found out about it?
P: I’ll start in the past here - I think I really started figuring out how to use AT not at the piano - that took a bit longer - but while standing or sitting. That’s the context in which I could first feel the effects of using AT. Not to say that it has to occur in this order - I think that was an artefact of the way I was taught. For example, I now teach all my piano students some basic AT and we immediately apply it to the piano.
A summary of what I think AT is in its most basic form; AT is a skill that allows you to improve the way your whole body is coordinating to do different actions, using simple cues and instructions that you can think about. That basic concept can be extended beyond basic actions to more complex things which include a psychic or emotional component as well, like music performance - but in its basic form - it’s about learning how you can ask your whole body to coordinate so you can do actions more efficiently.
The first thing Greg [our first AT teacher] would teach is locating your head in space - thinking proprioceptively - and I remember standing on the train station at St Leonards after one of the first classes and thinking about my head like this and noticing how there was some sensation there of my full height that I didn’t have before. And then another experience I remember is sitting on the bus once… I was just sitting on a seat, thinking about my head. I knew that I was sitting upright, not stiff, but upright, and it was without the muscular effort I usually might have. I knew I was thinking proprioceptively, but I didn’t feel like it was muscular tension. That was very impactful for me because we have a belief that good posture is something that is hard to maintain - and that dispelled that belief, showing that there was a simple way that you can coordinate better - without muscular effort. So that’s what impressed me first of all - before I even began to apply it to music.
In terms of applying it to music - one thing that really helped is that AT is something we use so that we can do something. Previously, my ‘so that’ would have been ‘so that I can not tense while playing’ which is a very coarse action plan, and also negatively framed *laughs* but when I could say ‘so that I use the music to take my audience on a journey’ then it really changed because the link was a lot more related with the end goal of the music, and that was a really big learning moment for me.
Coming into what Cathy [another AT teacher] taught us, she taught us to always include the audience - even in the practice room, as a future audience. The reason you’re playing the music is so you can do something for that audience. As she really emphasized the verb, active aspect - her philosophy is that you couldn’t aim directly for an emotion, you can’t just ‘be sad’ -
C: That’s right - the way she discusses the process of getting to the emotion has steps - like actors have a way in which they can recall different reasons why their character is crying - and then the conditions for crying just come and they tear up.
P: Yeah - so we can ask ourselves to do verbs. If the idea is sadness, then think about something you could do that results in sadness, eg. you could invite the audience to remember someone who’s passed away… When we started making up stories together, we had verb plans for the piece. Sometimes we would both know each other’s verb plan, sometimes not. Often, we had different verb plans but they were part of the same story -
C: I’ve found the ‘acting language vocabulary’ to be very enriching in helping us to marry imaginative realms with what we can do on our instruments and together...
P: Agreed. Continuing my answer to your previous question - using AT today - for me now, finding directions in music is easier and it's become almost second-nature to have an overall verb plan.
C: Mm yes - you might not have an english word for it [the verb plan] but you have the abstract essence - and you can use AT to bring that to life.
P: These days, AT’s a great tool that I know I have - and like with all tools - you can use it if and when you want to.
C: I know that I am using a lot of the tools that I learned in AT throughout the day, they’re all in my unconscious learning compass that helps me move towards my artist goals. When I’m playing though, I make a conscious decision to use it - especially from the moment I open my flute case because it’s something I care about (and want to prevent those past injuries from recurring). For me it is something that I do rely on quite a lot - and when I decide I don’t need to use it - it usually means I’m really tired and want to rest!
P: One of the things that happens after you do training is that it becomes a more normal part of your existence. If I go to lots of AT classes, my base awareness level becomes a lot higher than it was previously.
C: What sort of warmups, if any, are inspired by what you have learned in AT?
P: I very frequently use the 3 step warmup* Cathy introduced to us:
What do I feel?
What do I like?
We do this frequently, we do it before our rehearsals. When we don’t do it, we often get into arguments *laughs*. And we also play a ‘hello song’, where we improvise something together to warm up this inclusion of each other that we talked about earlier.
C: I found that if we don’t warm up I get really angry at you, and it feels like you’re not listening to me.
P: I use the 3-step warmup very often before I do something that I care about. When I’m switching tasks, or getting into the brain-state that I want - eg. If I'm going to start a composing session… it’s also really nice to finish the session like this as well. When I get to the end of a composition session, I sometimes have trouble exiting - then I do the warmup, and the 3 steps help me cool down. If we have an argument, I sometimes do the warmup too...
C: Yes, and i'm glad you do.. :-)
Elements of our Integrated Alexander Technique Warm-up Routine
*3 step warmup
This warm-up is done in a private space. Not the time for social non-performance-related chat.
What do I feel? - walking around the room, asking yourself this question on on a loop, and answering yourself each time. The feeling can be any word that comes to your mind - like excited, agitated, green, sunny, etc.
Sensory sweep - awakening your senses one by one and noticing the sensory world around you; eg. feeling various surfaces, paying attention to all the sounds around you, the sights around you, what you smell, taste, temperature, and so forth. This awakens the sensitivity of your awareness.
What do I like? - walking around the room, stretching as needed, asking yourself this question on a loop, and answering yourself. This helps to create a positive ramp-up to a performance state, and helps put you in a constructive mood. It is especially helpful if you are in a low-energy mood to begin with.
This is an improvised song that we use to start a rehearsal (instead of improvising, you may prefer to have a pre-existing piece that you use as your warm-up song). It helps remind us we are moving from ‘routine everyday life’ into a more sacred creative space, where we won’t ‘nag’ at each other and we will most definitely listen and work in partnership. It’s a good time to move, and leave anything that needs to be left behind outside of the rehearsal room, so you can begin the rehearsal with a clear slate. The song can be as silly, serious, short or long as you wish.instead of improvising, you may prefer to have a pre-existing piece that you use as your warm-up song.
Our warmup has been developed and grown over time in our duo work, especially after our time spent learning Alexander Technique with Cathy Madden in Sydney/Seattle. You can read more in "Onstage Synergy: Integrated AT practice for performing artists" by Cathy Madden - for more warmup and rehearsal plans integrating AT.
For more information on Alexander technique, I’m offering weekly classes from Jan 2021 (online and live). You can email me for any inquiries. This article was written with the support of the City of Sydney Cultural Resilience Grant – support for artist and arts workers 2020-2021.