A nineteen year old aspiring to become a professional pianist, got to the stage where he’d be writhing on the floor from back pain after playing for fifteen minutes. Three Alexander Technique lessons gave sufficient perspective to manage the crippling back pain. This is the story of how I came to Alexander Technique and the fundamental learning of my first three lessons.
A ‘bad back’, made worse by playing
I had a bad back. It had given me problems since becoming teenaged, and practicing the piano for long hours was making it worse. I had concluded there was something wrong with my back. Conventional medical consultations confirmed I had a ‘bad back’. Some treatments eased the pain, but only until I got back to the piano, at which point my back would get painful again. In the last of these consultations, I didn’t make it out of the clinic’s car park before pain had returned.
My music teachers told me pain was something many musicians just had to live with. Fortunately for me, on recommendation from a colleague, I sought out Alexander Technique. This was in the 90’s ... I don’t recall exact details of my first lessons, but there were two pivotal realisations which has stayed with me ever since.
"The way I was using myself when I played was causing the pain.
I could change the way I used myself when I played."
Learning from pain
These two realisations redefined my relationship to pain, to myself and to the piano. Something I was doing was responsible and I could learn to stop doing it. I didn’t have a ‘bad back’, I was misusing my back. It was an empowering discovery. I had believed that my back pain was not something I could influence.
The practitioners I’d consulted had reinforced this by saying I needed their treatment to manage my condition. I’d tried some different ergonomic approaches, but never until my first encounter with Alexander Technique, actually changed my attitude to sitting, or considered the quality of my coordination.
The pain was not a dysfunctional syndrome, it was a effective feedback system telling me that something was wrong. Ease was possible. I had been doing something which was preventing it.
Alexander Technique was training me to become attuned to the effects of mis-coordination. It demonstrated I could independently act to improve on conditions and address the pain. It asked of me to expand my concept of playing to include my whole self. In this way, I could see my potential for positive coordination while I played.
Change in Perspective
The change in perspective has become a fundamental principle for my life. Rather than hoping someone else can intervene to correct any issue, I look at what I may be doing to create or confound the issue, and what I can initiate myself toward resolution.
Instead of being at the whim of the universe, I have become confident in finding some action which points me in a positive direction. Still challenges persist, but I don’t feel victimised or helpless like I was back then - at the piano and in so many other ways.
More than just pain management
The way of playing piano which caused back pain was entrenched, and it did take some time to fully resolve. But by the time it did, I had embraced Alexander Technique as a process worthy of investing in. It’s rewards were so much more than just dealing with back pain at the piano. My entire piano technique changed and I could access more speed, tone and expression.
I saw Alexander Technique as so invaluable to my progress as a performer, that I undertook teacher training as post graduate study, in place of a Masters in Music. I haven’t yet found a more effective method of working towards mastery of the piano. Alexander Technique’s attention to the use of the whole is quite fundamental to any specific piano technique.
I have since made it somewhat of a mission to help other musicians take responsibility for their physical, mental and musical health. I want all musicians to recognise that the way one uses oneself is a critical factor in finding comfort and musically fulfilling performance. I want all musicians to know that this is something they can change themselves. Alexander Technique remains the most powerful method I’ve come across as a vehicle for this revolution.
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