Musicians and Their Practice: How Alexander Technique Improves an Old Strategy
Slow practice is something most musicians are familiar with. Many swear by it; some swear at it; some dismiss it. As a professional pianist and Alexander Technique teacher, I can’t speak highly enough of slow practice.
Why go slow?
“The point of slow practice is not just to slow things down in order to play it perfectly. It’s about fine-tuning the execution, and looking for additional ways to play it even better while we are playing slowly enough to monitor and think about the little details. Are you cultivating the right habits, so that when the tempo increases, you are still playing it the right way? Or are there lots of inefficiencies, or bad habits that will lead to breakdowns when you increase the tempo?” (Taken from Noa Kageyama’s wonderful piece on slow practice)
How does Alexander Technique add to slow practice?
When I play, it’s not just my fingers and arms that are involved, it’s my entire self - my mind and whole body. So when I play “slowly enough to monitor and think about the little details”, the little details I have in mind are throughout my entire body, and my thoughts. Yes, I am very aware of my fingers on the piano keys. I’m also aware of my neck, arms, feet, legs, eyes, and thoughts. It needs to be so, because when we tense, it is our whole self that tenses, not simply our fingers or arms in isolation.
I’m not psychic, though I sense you already know that.
Most musicians I have worked with will tense slightly when a tricky passage is coming up. It’s an unconscious reaction to the belief that something difficult is coming and effort is needed to succeed at it. They almost certainly won’t know they’re doing it, it will be a well-established habit by the time I see them.
When working with musicians, I can usually tell when the ‘tricky bit’ is coming up, and point this out to them before it’s happened.
It’s not just the fingers or hands that we need to be aware of. I will notice the neck stiffen slightly, the torso stiffen and shorten, the shoulders lift slightly, the arms tighten, the legs pull in, the head may go forward, the jaw grip – it’s a whole body pattern that kicks in, in response to the thought that something difficult is in the next bar. And it is this whole body pattern that I work on when practising slowly, whether on myself or with my Alexander students. So when the tricky bit looms, you want to give yourself the best chance to use your instrumental technique at its fullest, rather than comprising it.
You may say you do this already. I’d say you probably don’t.
You won’t notice this tension kicking in if you’ve been playing for a while, as you will now be used to the feeling of it. I’ve written about this before (). Over time, our usual postures come to feel normal. If you stop and reflect, you may notice you’re slumping at the moment, but if slumping has become your habit, it will feel normal and won’t register as anything different, or odd. The same goes if you habitually tense your arm, or neck, or whole self, when playing your instrument.
The same is true for your reactions - if you habitually tighten before a difficult passage, this reaction will come to register as ‘normal, usual functioning’, nothing your conscious self need be concerned about. So the change will go unnoticed too. This is the main problem I work with.
Practise slowly to change your whole self.
So I highly value, even treasure, slow practice. It’s a way to meaningfully, deeply, work on my technique, and my postures, and my reactions - to be as free as I can in myself and so have the best chance to play well. Why spend all those hours practising your instrumental technique if you undermine that with your personal technique, through your postures and reactions.
I’m not as slow as Rachmaninov.
“Rachmaninov was a dedicated and driven perfectionist. He worked incessantly, with infinite patience. Once I had an appointment to spend an afternoon with him in Hollywood. Arriving at the designated hour of twelve, I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached the cottage. I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising Chopin’s etude in thirds, but at such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise it because so much time elapsed between one finger stroke and the next. Fascinated, I clocked this remarkable exhibition: twenty seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour while I waited riveted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell. Perhaps this way of developing and maintaining an unerring mechanism accounted for his bitter sarcasm toward colleagues who practised their programmes ‘once over lightly’ between concerts.” (Abram Chasins, taken from his book "Speaking of Pianists".)
Bradley Newman teaches the Alexander Technique in Sydney. For more information see firstname.lastname@example.org .or email Bradley on