PIANO PLAYING WITH REFERENCE TO THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
In search of clarity – a personal account.
This isn’t about me. It’s about how far one can travel given the right guide. But I have to tell you a little about my own piano playing to put my experience in context. I started learning the piano at 8 years old and loved it. I taught myself before being sent to a teacher and with his guidance quickly moved through the grades. But, and it’s a big but, there was a limit to his guidance and I later realised that there was much material I would never master. My technique was ok but limited, as was my approach to the text, and I resigned myself to continuing my playing around the same level. Even when I returned to the piano as an adult and had lessons with a long standing local teacher, I couldn’t see any way to advance my technique and she wasn’t providing me with any answers.
I achieved a degree in Performing Arts, with music and recital as my major, and later built up a large successful teaching practice, but still felt there were areas that needed attention. I attended courses to develop both my teaching skills and my own playing and it was with great interest that I came across a course that combined the piano with the principles of the Alexander Technique. I had already come across the Alexander Technique, and was interested in it, but had no idea how it related to the piano, so it was with great curiosity that I booked and I haven’t looked back since.
The course was run by Nelly Ben-Or and it was 20 years ago. Within moments I knew that she was something special and I could see that with her perspective a new world of possibilities at the piano opened up. I remember knowing with certainty that I’d found something that would change the way I approached my piano. But, and this was what was so exciting, it was all so obvious. And logical. Not weird or new age, just logical.
Nelly has been a concert pianist from the age of 13 and a teacher of the Alexander Technique for over 40 years. When she found the Technique she knew that it had something to offer far beyond the usual perception of ‘how to sit down', stand or have a 'correct' posture. After a few years of training to be an Alexander teacher she realised that she could start to use the principles of the Alexander Technique to help her assess her own preconceptions in piano playing.
The Alexander Technique goes way beyond our physical reactions, back to our deeply ingrained mental and physical responses, so it is to those that we need to look. Not in a soul searching and analytical way, but simply in a quiet and attentive way that most of us have gone beyond finding in our frantic day to day lives. Mostly we are too goal orientated, and don’t stay present in the process of reaching the goal. So, existing tensions and awkward habits prevent achieving that goal. Finding a physical, mental and emotional stillness and clarity engenders the circumstances that enable us to have a free tactile contact with the instrument for a directness and depth of musical expression.
With reference to the piano then, it is about developing a new understanding of ourselves and our approach to the music and the instrument. What is less simple is undoing and letting go of our preconceptions, both physical and mental, that we have ingrained in us and that we feel keep us ‘in control’.
Ah yes. Control. As in life, we think we have it when in fact we are at the mercy of all our automatic habits and reactions and the resulting tensions. To really learn the freedom that gives velocity and expression a voice at the piano we need to be a clear channel for our musical intention to become expressed in sound through an alert, free and sensitive contact with the keys. No complicated finger movement, arm weight, or some preconceived wrist action is necessary. But, and it is a big but, we have to be prepared to be constantly vigilant and interrogate our habits; to question, and then undo, the things that we have done without thinking for years. This needs a total attention to our ways of playing for it to happen, but if one is prepared to really engage with oneself and ones problems at the instrument, the answers come and the rewards are huge.
It took me years, and is and will continue to take many more, to let go of the tensions and physical and mental habits that I had acquired over the previous 20 or so years of piano playing. My automatic habitual ‘will’ still wants me to make short cuts, or tries to tell me that more is more, rather than to let go of being so busy and, literally go with the flow. (I don’t need to tell you that I find it as hard to do this in life!). But I’ve reaped the benefits. With a more sensitive and available touch I can mould the music as I wish, rather than as the limits of my muscle capacity would allow. I learn much music away from the piano, which means I have the text, literally, at my fingertips, and therefore avoid the artificial technical obstacles that arise from some old ways of mechanical practicing and mental vagueness. Technical issues become a series of mentally worked out and clear components - ‘beads’- that are strung together smoothly. Suddenly ‘effortless’ playing produces beautiful sounds, singing and flowing melodies, and fluid runs. The less I do, the more I can achieve.
Nelly has passed on her profound wisdom to the many pianists who have attended her courses over the years, and continues to do so. She receives grateful letters from professionals, students, teachers and gifted amateurs who have found this approach - based on her long experience in applying principles of the Alexander Technique to so many aspects of piano playing – opening up unexpected new horizons in their music making. I now too have the privilege of passing on to my own students what I have learnt. Usually what is in the way is only ourselves. Once we get out of the way, then there is only the music. Isn’t that what any musician wants?