What the Alexander Technique Has to Offer Organists
The Alexander Technique teacher approaches the playing of the organ from the perspective that the whole body plays the instrument. What the whole body does from the top of the head to the tip of the toes is critical to what comes out of the instrument. The general relationship of the whole body to the organ is one of compromise. In finding a posture that doesn’t sacrifice any part of your body or technique, you will discover there are very few ways you can sit at the organ that are truly posturally correct, comfortable, and allow easy access to the manuals and the pedals.
I want to talk about the torso in relationship to the bench and your legs and the organ, bringing in the principles of the Alexander Technique, so you will not end up with an immobilized body at the instrument. Sit on a bench that is the same height as your perfect bench height to play the organ, (but not at the organ). Sit fully upright on your sit bones, not arching your lower back, with a free neck and a lengthening spine, legs supported barely touching the floor, as if you are at the organ. I know there is a place for organists to rest their legs under the bench, but I’d like to write this essay as if this wasn’t so. What I’m asking you to do here, is to sit far enough back on the bench, so that you can sit fully upright and be able to move your legs, without feeling you’re going to fall off of the bench.
The Alexander Technique makes it possible for organists to perform without pain and wear and tear to their bodies. An Alexander Technique teacher shows the performer how to play his instrument with a sense of power, poise, and ease. What is it exactly that an Alexander Technique teacher does for the performing organist that makes it unique? We teach the performer to find the most body friendly way to play the organ. We teach the performer that his whole body plays the instrument. If the whole body is balanced, and the technique makes “personal sense”, the organist will play without sacrificing his body.
“Personal sense” means that you tailor the principles of the Alexander Technique to your unique body proportions at the organ, posturally and in terms of specific organ technique. In the Alexander Technique the performer’s well-being is paramount, and if he or she takes care of him or herself, the performer will create an extraordinary performance.
Alexander Technique teachers believe the means will take care of the ends. This means, that if the performer puts her awareness on her posture and technique and chooses to find the easiest way to play the organ with the least amount of work and with high energy, she will not wear her body out. She will not create compression in her joints trying to maintain poor posture and simultaneously use too much muscle to play the organ. The combination of using too much muscle to hold up a body off balance and using too much muscle to maintain the inefficient parts of her technique, make it nearly impossible to trust her body to give her what she wants from her instrument consistently. Muscling her body and the instrument will eventually cause her body to hurt and potentially end her career.
An organist needs a set of tools to be able to play without wear and tear every day. What are these tools? They are Conscious Control, Inhibition, Orders, Direction, Renewing the Thought, Opposition, Balance vs. Position, Grounding, and Troubleshooting.
Conscious Control is what F. M. Alexander called regaining control over the voluntary musculature of the body. If a client comes to me and says her neck and trapezius are hurting, and I tell her to just release these muscles, she’ll look at me like I’m crazy. The truth is she has lost conscious control over these muscles, and it seems to her there is no way to get them to release. It is this ability to tell your body what you want, so that the body responds, that F. M. Alexander helped his students find in everyday and specialized activities.
Alexander called these instructions to the body Orders. So, the student with the sore shoulder and neck says to himself, “My neck is free and my spine is lengthening, and my shoulders are widening, releasing, and floating on the ribcage”. This is an Order given to the shoulder girdle and neck that invites the spine to lengthen and decompress just before you play the organ. If you are patient and repeat these Orders, your body will respond at a deeper and deeper level to these repeated thoughts of release, and you will have Conscious Control over your shoulder and neck.
Repeating thoughts to release the neck and shoulder is called Renewing the Thought. When you Renew a Thought, you are repeating an Order to an area of the body asking for release and expansion. All repeated thoughts directed toward an area of the body have an effect, and the more you repeat the thought, the more profound the release. As the release begins to be experienced consciously, your faith in your control over your body grows, and your thoughts are felt as having direct powerful experienced effects on your body. This is Conscious Control.
Direction is the Alexander Technique principle that the head wants to lead the spine into lengthening in an activity, and your head leading the lengthening spine creates organized, elegant, graceful, and powerful organ playing. So, core to the Alexander Technique is when you play the organ, you do so with a released lengthening spine. This will organize and coordinate the whole body, so that you don’t damage the discs and joints and impair your nervous system.
Inhibition is the Alexander Technique tool that allows the organist to make changes to the way she plays her instrument, and not to replace one set of bad habits with another set of bad habits. Example: The moment an organist is about to play, she anticipates playing by locking her neck and then plays. This is her lifetime habit, so she has always locked her neck before she plays. If she inhibits this habit which has been compressing and damaging the discs in her spine, then right before she plays she has chosen to consciously unlock her neck and then play. To stop right before doing what you’ve always done, and choose to do something different is Inhibition. It is an incredible tool for letting go of what doesn’t work, when you play the organ. You get to choose to do something different, to simply stop doing what isn’t working, and play without pain.
Opposition is changing your body’s relationship to the organ, or changing the relationships between the parts of your body. If you allow yourself to be aware of the space between you and the organ, or allow yourself to be in contact with the instrument without pulling towards it or pulling it towards you, then you lower the tension level in the body. This means you flow upwards with a lengthening spine, and you’re not compressing downwards or arching your lower back or collapsing the upper torso and head forwards into the instrument.
Opposition between the parts of your body is allowing space between the joints. If we talk about the arms releasing out of the back, then we give the Order, “Allow the hands to release away from the spine as you play”. This is hands in Opposition to the spine, which allows you to have released arms as you play, and released/lengthening arms means you consciously create space in the wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints.
A basic principle of the Alexander Technique is to choose postural balance over attempting to “hold” good posture (Balance vs. Position). We recognize that the body is always in motion, and that when a performer tries to hold a position, whether posture or technique, she will cause pain and strain as she plays. Simply, you can’t hold a position as you play the organ, without using too much muscle. This means you are simultaneously in motion playing the organ and static/tense at the same time, and this creates compression in the joints, which causes wear and tear to the body.
I’ve talked about how the Alexander Technique wants you to have an upwards flow in your body, but since we also want there to be Opposition within the body, then there needs to be a downwards flow also. This downwards flow is Grounding. Allowing the head to be in Opposition to the sit bones of the organist, gives the torso, shoulders and arms the platform they need to be fully supported and balanced on the sit bones. Allow full support and balance on the sit bones with the leg musculature releasing downwards. As the organist’s legs are supported off of or just touching the pedals, without immobilizing the hips, knees, and ankles, this means that the torso follows the head and a lengthening spine up off of free hip joints, as the legs flow downwards. So, from the hip joints down there is Grounding, and from the hip joints up there is Directing or Up, as we say in the Alexander Technique.
Troubleshooting is one of my favorite things to do in this technique. If you can’t play a passage in a major piece of the literature for the organ, then you are doing something wrong.
Let’s assume you have the potential to play the great organ literature, but you can’t play all of the passages with ease in a piece. Stop playing and figure out what you are doing in your technique and posture that is compromising your playing. This is Troubleshooting. I love to do this with students. Every fine performer I have ever worked with who couldn’t play a particular passage and had the potential to do so, was operating from lies about his or her ability and/or had misconceptions about what was going on physically in the passage. Once we discovered the problem, then there was always a solution that worked, if the organist gave him or herself the gift of letting go of limiting misconceptions that compromised his or her posture and technique.
While a guitar student at the Royal College of Music in London (studying with John Williams and Carlos Bonell), he developed severe carpal tunnel syndrome and found an Alexander Technique teacher to alleviate the pain. He discovered very quickly he had been sacrificing his body striving for the perfect performance.
After receiving B.M. and M.M. degrees from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (studying guitar with Mario Abril), Ethan gave classical guitar concerts and taught the guitar.
Mr. Kind trained for three years at the American Center for the Alexander Technique (New York, NY), where he received Professional Certification credentials. Since that time he has taught the Alexander Technique as a private instructor, and classes for musicians and actors at Guilford College, the North Carolina School of the Arts, Salem College, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Wake Forest University. He has also given numerous Alexander Technique workshops.
Ethan has published articles in many journals, including Music Teacher, American Music Teacher, American String Teacher, New Mexico Light, Massage Therapy Journal, Massage and Bodywork, and Yoga and Life. He has been published in the U.S.A., Great Britain, and Australia.
If you are interested in complete, detailed, and practical applications of the Alexander Technique principles of good posture, then an ebook dedicated to activities from playing an instrument, to running, to yoga, to weightlifting etc. is published on his website in a PDF format at www.ethankind.com. His 67 ebooks are also published as Amazon Kindle ebooks.
In addition to being an Alexander Technique teacher, author, and a former concert guitarist, Ethan has been an athlete all of his life.