It would come as no surprise to teachers of The Alexander Technique, a method of adjusting body postures to relieve damaging stresses, to hear that my neck is plagued by perpetual tension, occasional pain and even crippling spasms. There is hardly a moment that I don’t unconsciously tense the muscles between my head and upper back: when I read, write, drive, work at a computer, cook, sew, garden, play tennis, swim, cycle, dance, sit, stand, walk, talk on the phone, carry my groceries and even sleep.
Lessons in the Alexander Technique offer an individualized approach designed to develop lifelong skills for self care that help people recognize, understand, and avoid poor habits affecting postural tone and neuromuscular coordination. Lessons involve continuous personalized assessment of the individual patterns of habitual musculoskeletal use when stationary and in movement; paying particular attention to release of unwanted head, neck, and spinal muscle tension, guided by verbal instruction and hand contact, allowing decompression of the spine; help and feedback from hand contact and verbal instruction to improve musculoskeletal use when stationary and in movement; and spending time between lessons practicing and applying the technique (also see appendix on bmj.com).
Alexander teachers say the demands of modern life have fostered a virtual epidemic of neck, back, and other problems related to misaligned posture and improperly tensed muscles. Their technique is finding an ever-widening role among people with chronic pain and tension. Basically, it helps people shed long-established habits and relearn how to use their bodies with greater ease and grace, as they once did in childhood.
Joe Rodriguez has been a working trumpet player for four decades, and all that back-arching and shoulder-pinching has left him with chronic pain in his lower back. Research suggests an alternative therapy called the Alexander Technique may be an effective way to treat back pain. Rodriguez first tried massage, chiropractic, and powerful pain killers. But finding a remedy for back pain can be a lot like a guessing game. He says it was only through the Alexander Technique lessons that he trained his body to move in a way that eased his aching back.
Now it looks as though a therapy popular with actors and musicians might help patients with back problems. The Alexander Technique was originally developed in the late 1800s by actor Frederick M. Alexander as a cure for pain and hoarseness. The technique involves learning to sit, stand, and move more efficiently; certified instructors still teach the therapy today, through hands-on coaching and subtle exercises.
The respiratory and nervous systems are intimately connected. I think the diaphragm is the main muscle of emotion. It gets a good workout when we laugh or cry and it clenches when we get a knot in our stomach. Fear always evokes the startle reflex and a response in the diaphragm. As we communicate and express our feelings, our diaphragm is set in motion. Access to our inner life, what is happening in the landscape under our skin, encourages us to make choices about how to use and how to think about the breath. We have only to look at what happens to our bodies when we hold our breath and, conversely, what happens when the breath is fluid. The breath responds organically to the person’s needs and at the same time, the body shapes itself around the breathing mechanism. Shape changes are affected by the psychological problems of anxiety and depression which also have a profound impact on the respiratory system. Holding the breath-a common
Since the work was developed over 100 years ago, musicians have been enjoying the benefits of practicing the Alexander Technique as well as their music. The benefits include rehabilitation from and prevention of neck and back pain, tendinitis, joint problems, fatigue and repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). Other advantages include increased mental clarity and greater physical enjoyment while playing.
The relationship between a classical singer and his or her body is defined by and dependent upon delicate subtleties, both environmental and cognitive, which most instrumentalists, composers, and conductors — let alone relatives, friends, and lay people — are unable to appreciate or accommodate. Yet the demands on a singer extend beyond the stage. Our bodies are our instruments and everything we expose ourselves to in our personal lives directly affects the quality (and therefore quantity) of our performance and our presence.