Yesterday I went to a school concert where children aged 7-11 were playing in an orchestra, singing in the choir and playing in groups with other instrumentalists.
I was delighted to watch them enjoying themselves, getting up there on stage, performing, taking part, showing off their skills, and having a go.
Personally I was delighted to witness these beautiful shining souls sharing of themselves, showing us what they’ve learned and what they can do. Some really expressed themselves musically. I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye for much of the 2 hours.
Professionally I can’t help noticing the variety of ways everyone stands, holds their instruments and move themselves whilst they play and sing. Some kids are delightfully at ease in themselves, fluid, rhythmic and natural. I so enjoy watching them.
Others seem awkward in their own skin, they contort their body in order to accommodate the instrument, they scrunch and compress themselves in order to strain a note out. This is where technique will help them. Not just technique in how to play their chosen instrument. I’d love to show them the technique of how to play their first instrument first – themselves.
Unless we learn how to stand, sit, hold an instrument and do so efficiently, my worry is that we’ll have another generation of people who think its normal to learn something new with so much added stress and tension.
Back in the 70s I was one of these children. I learned the piano when I was about 8, and cornet from 12. I used to struggle and strain to get any notes out of my cornet. I used to huff and puff and squeeze the instrument onto my mouth, leaving a red ring around my lips from pressing so hard to try and get the higher notes. I didn’t realise that this straining was for a very short-term gain. Yes I could squeak out a note, but at what cost?
I added temporary tension to try and achieve those high notes. Yes they did cost. Later when I was at music college, I got the bill I’d been storing up. I suffered terrible stage fright. I was gripped by irrational stress and anxiety. My breathing would become shallow and tight, my lips were sore from pushing the instrument onto my face, my shoulders were rounded and tight, I wound my neck in like a turtle. My fingers and hands squeeze the values and buttons, using tension where a light touch was all that was needed. My coordination went to pot – lips moving one way, breath doing something else, teeth and tongue a third and fourth. None of it was coordinated. I felt embarrassed as if I was suffocating, so much anxiety and so little enjoyment.
Fortunately for me, I discovered the Alexander Technique and some third year teacher trainees who needed people to work with. They taught me how to fine-tune myself. They taught me ways of thinking and moving which returned me to the natural way I had originally had, and away from the path of ‘normal’ where tension was the norm. They taught me to notice how I moved and where/when I added tension in many activities in my daily life, and how this tension easily transferred to my playing.
They encouraged me follow a more natural relationship within me, between my mind, body, emotional and spirit – all together, one after another. They did this with very few words, gentle hands and open hearts.
All together the Alexander Technique transformed me and my life. I went from a scared student to a person who could stand more comfortably in my own skin. I enjoyed my final recital at college so much. I learned how to operate myself with so much less tension and strain. I am easier and happier in my own skin again.
When we notice how we do what we do, we can begin to master ourselves.
I’m thinking how best I can volunteering my AT skills to all those kids? I so want them to carry on enjoying learning, playing and performing. I long for them to do so without incurring tension and injury. I long for them to do so with ease, harmony, efficiency and stamina in their whole being, for each and every note.
Lucy Ascham is relearning to play the violin after a gap of about 40 years. Just for fun. There is so much lesson tension as I learn now. I’m able to attend to me first, how I stand, how I breathe, how I hold the violin and bow. Then I’m ready to learn the fingering and the notes and the music.