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No such thing as stillness - student perspectives on learning Alexander Technique in Lockdown

When we went into lockdown in March 2020, my teaching practice, like everyone else’s, drastically changed. The body awareness course that I was set to teach at the Australian Institute of Music turned into an online course. On top of this, the enrolments suddenly doubled as the Melbourne and Sydney campuses combined online to make use of specialist teachers, and tools for wellness became something of a high priority. Along with co-teacher David Mcleod (vocal teacher, performance coach, butekyo breathing), we set off with a fortnight’s notice to embark on a 12-week body awareness course for AIM students on Zoom. This blog will outline some learning and teaching perspectives from the 12-week online course, of which 8 classes focussed on integrative Alexander Technique for musicians and artists.

One thing that stood out from teaching this course was the difference in mental health across Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne students, being in lockdown for a much longer time, were increasingly challenged, and helping them coordinate in front of a screen, with screen-fatigue on the rise, becoming particularly important. This made me realise how significant it was that we could have a virtual space in which we could talk about our whole-self wellbeing and prioritise this, over anything else happening in their ‘immediate surroundings’. If you are in lockdown at this moment in time, I hope you are finding creative ways in your practice to move forward towards your goals, within the ongoing restrictions! Though hands-on work is usually a hallmark feature of an Alexander Technique class, the online environment meant I did not put a finger on the students! Therefore, I can give the students full credit for applying the information I gave them in class and experimenting on their own; perhaps this was an unexpected advantage of teaching online.


I have now concluded that using the A.T, a methodology that helps performers decrease unnecessary tension and increase consciously coordinated movements, can help me to play just as well in heels as in flats. Just a quick added note on decreasing unnecessary tension; I ran a few experiments as requested during the course, too many to mention here, but I did notice that using the A.T assisted me to more smoothly play trills. Amazing!"

- JC (week 6 reflection)

It took time to realise the many things unfolding for each person behind the 28 different screens – and many of the issues I discussed in the previous article with younger students came up but in more complex forms with the adult students:

- physical injuries - RSI, sprains, more severe injuries that were in various stages of healing

- trauma-related history, PTSD

- performance anxiety

- neck/back pain exacerbated by computer work/instrumental playing.


Because of everyone working independently in the online medium of Zoom, I was only able to receive limited feedback on how each student was doing with their experiments using AT at home. This consisted of 1-on-1 time with the students who came onscreen and wanted to share what they were working on and wanted help with whilst others watched the turn. Along with their own individual research, which complemented them gathering more information in their specific areas of interest, I was surprised to find out the extent of creative experiments going on, reminding me of how one persons’ discovery in class can be a learning moment for many others simultaneously. An added benefit of being on Zoom is that everyone could be practising and putting an idea into motion in the zoom classroom at the same time, and instead of hearing a cacophony of sounds I got to see a moving collage of different practising musicians, all experimenting on themselves and being able to work in their 'actual' space - most of the time in AT lessons we have to replicate their practice space as best possible but in this case, they were already there! “During the Alexander Technique classes I explored applying the technique to sitting at a desk. After class engagement I realised that I had quite a rigid way of sitting and holding my back, shoulders and neck. I wasn’t giving myself permission to move much and often holding my body in a way that was putting unnecessary pressure on my muscles.

Feedback and engaging in the group exercises helped me realise that I naturally wanted to move around a bit more, change some of my perceptions about good posture and not put pressure on myself to sit in a particular way.”

AB

"...I also discovered I was choking my throat, particularly when playing the third register. Having used AT successfully to be able to play in high heels, I used the same technique but this time with added thoughts from lectures in week 7 and 9. More specifically, to notice the desire to DO something, (as opposed to NOT do something or to focus on what I don’t want), to recognize a clear goal (e.g. to un-scrunch my neck, ask my head to move so that my spine can follow and to play with a clear tone), to gather information (where to loosen the tightness), to make an action plan (to co-ordinate my body so that I can play easily) and then to experiment, (by trying that out, one at a time, not all at once) thereby renewing freedom of choice as Cathy Madden says in her 2013 book “Onstage Synergy: Integrative Alexander Technique Practice for Performing Artists.”


"I am quite amazed at how much of musicianship is related to one’s thoughts and what one may ask of one’s self. I will continue to be mindful of things I never thought of before because I can see the value in doing so. I now have personal evidence of how well it works when you apply it."


JC (Week 12 reflection)




Having language to discuss the process of learning was useful to students who were dealing with multiple teachers who contradicted each other in instructions; they wanted to find ways to achieve the end result in a way that suited their personal design. For some, AT provided a versatile tool to discover multiple pathways towards the desired goal, a translation tool to triangulate bits of 'advice' from various sources and make sure that it was a cohesive instruction that suited the students' design. For some, they simply gathered more information about excess tension in their mental/physical state which they hadn't noticed, or given much attention or priority to, earlier. As a musician myself, it was wonderful to hear and read these perspectives which reminded me that we need to keep having these conversations and that 'suffering in silence' should not be a norm. I remember the plateau I felt that I was stuck in before I started AT, believing that it was 'my fault' that I couldn't do what my teachers were telling me, because my body was physically incapable. In fact, finding out that the stiffness was sending me a perfect message that I needed to find new ways to move - ways that suited my body, and helped me to find independence and trust in the process of learning, and all the sideways paths it may lead to before the goal simply happens along the way.



"Luckily Alexander Technique can be applied in the comfort of one’s home or environment they find suitable… For example, using my own application as a piano player. I approached this by sitting down at my instrument and playing a piece the way I normally would without overthinking my behaviour. Once this step was completed, I began to write down how I felt emotionally as well as physically whilst performing. I also wrote down physical movements I noticed, such as rocking forwards and backwards. Some of the common errors by piano players are either hyper extending the back when sitting down, particularly if they are classically trained, this can place a lot of tension on the lower part of the spine, tailbone as well as their back discs. They may notice that this causes them to feel extremely tense when playing and the focus on their back being extremely straight ends up restricting their performance. Other factors a piano player or any musician may notice are racing thoughts whilst looking at sheet music and therefore losing focus and sight of what comes next. This can be due to performance anxiety. If this is the case an individual would benefit from thinking deeply of where the anxiousness is rooted from. Is it fear in what others may think or is it fear in not living up to their own expectation of themselves? What is the first memory related to this emotion? Is it an imitation of someone else? Alexander Technique allows us to ask ourselves questions and take time out for ourselves. The goal is for this to become subconscious and for us to feel “allowed” to always acknowledge how we are feeling and to recognise that our wellbeing rises above our ‘expectations’ and ‘role’ at times. "


DA (Week 12 reflection)

Illustrations by Liz Cheung. Thanks to AIM body awareness students 2020 for granting me permission to share their writing and experiences. 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.

 

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which I work, play and create. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.