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At this point I think it's important for me to be honest about my previous experience with Alexander Technique. When I was a student at Eastman there was a period of time when the school brought in teachers to work with groups of students. At that time Alexander Technique was completely new to me – I had never even heard of it before. To try and keep this post short, let's just say that my exploration of it didn't last long. I was young, I thought I was invincible, and quite frankly I felt silly and uncomfortable doing what I was being asked to do, especially in front of my peers, so I stopped going. Fast forward many years – my husband, a singer, signed up to take lessons from an Alexander Technique teacher while we were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He thrived on everything he learned and being the conscientious person he is, he incorporated it into his life beautifully. Unfortunately I had yet to let go of the vain side of myself so I continued to pooh-pooh it until (I hate to admit this) last week. It is amazing to me how powerful being brought to one's knees can be.
With all this said, I went into my week long session with desperation, a bit of doubt and apprehension, but also with a bit of hope and curiosity. I also went into it knowing full well that it was time for me to grow up and to not care how I looked in front of another human being.
As the title of this blog post suggests, the week was amazing and surprised me in so many ways. I think it was a combination of me being ready to receive what I needed to hear and experience, and working with an inspiring, patient teacher who seems to enjoy thinking and asking difficult questions as much as I do that helped contribute to the success of these intensive sessions. It would be hard to describe everything that transpired but I'd like to share here some of the biggest revelations that truly did blow my mind and that are now transforming the way I use my body and my mind.
- Having played piano for over 35 years, having my hands rest in a pronated, perhaps even an over-pronated position as if they were on a keyboard, feels more natural to me than anything else. In fact, that is typically how you'll find my hands when they are resting, whether or not I'm at a piano. Up until now, when my hands were engaged in a"more natural position," it caused quite a bit of discomfort. Realizing that really blew me away. I started understanding that my default resting position has the two bones in my forearm constantly crossing one another. That doesn't seem very restful to me now that I know that. A parallel situation that helped me to internalize the ramifications of my default way of resting my hands was when Dr. Bedford told me about a ballerina that he has worked with. When lying on her back, with her knees bent and upright, she had pain when he brought her knees together – a position that takes no effort and has no painful side effects for most of us. Letting her legs open and fall in opposite directions, however, was her norm. For both her and me, we have unknowingly asked our bodies to accept a position of rest that is not anatomically the best for us and might be the cause of some of our discomfort. With that in mind, I am now being more conscious of releasing my hands from an over-pronated position and having that be my new norm.
- Through the years I have completely lost touch with my ankles, thighs, hips, collarbone, and elbows, just to name a few body parts. I seem to have relied exclusively on my forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers. I have asked the smaller muscles to do everything I need to do whether it's at or away from the piano rather than using the larger muscles to support and lead the smaller ones. When I was working with Dr. Bedford and he made me aware of these neglected pieces of the puzzle, I was speechless and I could feel the gears in my brain starting to turn as I realized how much I've been misusing by body and how unfair I've been to my arms and hands. It's no wonder my body is rebelling. One example of this issue in my piano playing is how I sit on the piano bench. Up until now I have gone for the "bird perched on the edge" approach, to use Dr. Bedford's words. My thighs have had very little, if any contact with the bench which meant that I wasn't using those muscles to help support and direct upward the top part of my body from the hips up and to help stay grounded through my feet. Not only did this mean I wasn't utilizing important muscles, it also meant that I was constantly using other smaller ones in order to maintain my balance. With this in mind, before I engage in any movement now, I take the time to figure out how I can involve those bigger muscles at all times and to purposefully check my awareness of them.
- Being a good sight-reader and a pianist for whom technique has come quite naturally is both a blessing and a curse. It has gotten me this far for this long without a lot of struggle. But a drawback is that I am not accustomed to thinking about how to physically translate what I see on the page into functional movement. My connection between eyes and hands are instantaneous and unfortunately without regard to what really is wise. This has been fine up until now but my body is telling me that something has to change. I'm going to have to start using my head. Fortunately I like thinking so although this will be an adjustment, I think I will get into it when I'm at the piano. As my Alexander Technique teacher has encouraged me to do I am starting to say "Stop!" when I would typically launch right into doing something. Especially when I'm at the piano, where ingrained habits meet my passion to communicate through music, this is going to be essential.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg really but it is a start. Since returning home I have been practicing and thinking about these new concepts and I'm enjoying noticing a difference in how I feel in whatever I'm doing. I am currently reading, Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique, by Michael J. Gelb and also a book that my teacher recommended to bring what I've been learning to the piano, The Pianist's Talent, by Harold Taylor. And even though it just about killed me emotionally to do this, I have found a replacement to play for me at a summer camp I work at so that I can spend the next month resting, assimilating Alexander Technique concepts, and rethinking my technique at the piano. In a month I will hopefully be traveling back up to Pennsylvania for another round of lessons because now that I've had both my mind and body blown, I am ready and eager for more!
Here's to a future of healthy playing. I'll keep posting about this journey in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!