In the moment of performance
Transcription of an address by Jeremy Woolhouse 11th October 2006
In 2006 the Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique invited Jeremy Woolhouse to address a function celebrating International Alexander Technique Awareness Week. The address transcribed here preceded a solo piano performance, and was one of several presentations given that evening by prominent members of the Alexander Technique community.
“I’d thought I’d share with you a couple of ways that what, and how, I am about to play at the piano is informed by my experience of Alexander Technique.
I have an instrument designed to reflect the most subtle changes in the way I interact with it. Through the strike of the key, it responds to the various ways my hand moves. The quality of my hand’s movement is determined by the quality of my central co-ordination. So I choose to think about my central co-ordination (or more precisely, how not to interfere with my central co-ordination) so that the peripheral co-ordination is free to do what it needs to do to communicate the musical choices I am making. (The musical choices are things like tone, phrasing, dynamic and articulation – as well as what note to play and when.)
I choose to think of my legs and torso to help me connect hands to what supports them. If I forget where the support is, and think of myself from chest up, my arms tend to attempt to support themselves and the excess tension this attracts affects my playing. This is particularly pertinent for me as I have had a significant spinal injury which has increased the potential for pain if I am disconnected from my support.
I choose also to include my audience in my thoughts. Like many of my colleagues, however much I want to communicate with the audience, when I get on stage, I often want to pretend the audience isn’t really there. I try to block them out. The desire for the audience not to be there, or the desire for them not to hear me in case I’m substandard, sets up an internal conflict with my desire to communicate with the audience and the reality that the audience is there, will here me and, in fact, want to hear me! These kind of internal conflicts manifest themselves in tensions which over time may potentially become the cause of RSI, such as I have experience in both shoulders and both wrists.
My music is largely improvised; therefore there are musical situations that present me with choice. I might respond to the situation by choosing something I know sounded good at home – something I’ve practiced or played before. However the piano here is different to mine at home (by a good 8 feet or so!), the acoustic of the room is different, there is more audience than is usually present when I practice in my studio, and most importantly I am in a different state now to what I was when I practiced. My pulse is faster, my palms a little sweaty and my leg doesn’t usually shake, unless I’m in front of a lot of people. So my practiced and familiar responses to the music may not be appropriate.
What might work better is a new response (a set of notes, interpretation, rhythm etc) which I’ve not played before. This will bring with it a new sensory experience which I’d like to be open to – by giving myself the permission to allow something unfamiliar to happen. This is somewhat threatening, but incredibly exciting – this is “the zone”, where anything could happen! The Alexander Technique is really good at getting you there.
So the music in this way will change the way I am using myself and the way I’m using myself will change the music. These two elements of performance, “Use” and “Music” entwine like two dancers where neither partner is leading. You may see and hear the conversation “Use” and” Music” have as I play now my improvisation and composition entitled “Mandala”. Or I may be spontaneous and exhibit nothing of what I’ve just talked about! Thank you.”