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  • THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE by Alexander Murray & Marie Stroud
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    by Alexander Murray

    The Alexander Technique, an educational method focussing on the attainment of skill and poise, is widely used by performing artists. Like the study of music, the study of this technique as an ongoing process of growth and development, best taught with individual instruction. The following is excerpted by Alexander teacher Marie Stroud from several articles written by Alexander Murray.

    F. Matthias Alexander developed his technique as a result of a long period of experimentation in search of a cure for recurrent hoarseness which threatened to ruin his promising career as an actor-reciter in late 19th century Australia. He located his initial problem in the neck -in the larynx. His problem was not solved until he realized that the problem was contingent on his total pattern of behavior. Alexander found that his voice failure was due to his habits of speech. Whenever he responded to the stimulus to speak, he stiffened his neck, pulled his head back, depressed his larynx and sucked in breath. He subsequently observed that he also lifted his chest, shortened and narrowed his back and misused his legs and feet. In learning how to change his habitual response to using his voice he discovered not only the principles of stress-free vocalization, but fundamental principles underlying coordinated human activity. The details of his problem and its solution are told in his own words in The Use of the Self (London, Gollancz, 1985) In my opinion this is the most accessible of his books. His work and influence have been simply presented in Body Learning by Michael Gelb (New York, Henry Holt and Co., 1995) which I recommend to those interested.

    The experience of coordinating activity is given directly in Alexander lessons. Moving with a natural response to gravity is facilitated as the teacher guides the student. An effect of lightness is given in the performance of simple everyday movement -in, for example, moving from sitting to standing, walking, picking up a pen or a musical instrument. Patterns of interference with this quality of lightness are recognized by the teacher and student as such and ultimately can be eliminated from any activity, including skilled performance. When there is less interference (misdirected muscle tension), and therefore enhanced coordination, a flutist experiences increased ease in all aspects of playing including embouchure, articulation, breathing, fingering, standing, sitting and balancing the instrument.

    My earliest recollection of applying what I learned from the Alexander Technique to playing was (and continues to be) to rid the mind of "taking a breath" to play. This is an important aspect of all my practicing. If I wish to play a long phrase, I first exhale, then allow the breath to return (through the nostrils, silently) and then play when the breath is ready to move out. When playing continuously, I always take time to breathe, even if it means stopping the flow of music. Naturally, this is applied to practice. When performing, one does what the music requires with whatever means one has at the time.

    The first reward from practicing in this way came to me during a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony in my third year as principal flute with the London Symphony. I found that I was able to play a loud, continuous section of the first Allegro without being aware of "taking a breath". The breath was returning in brief intervals between the rhythmic figures. Some idea of what happens when you stop the interference can be experienced if you exhale quickly, blowing out the cheeks. Repeat this rhythmically several times and you will notice that the breath returns with a sort of "elastic recoil".

    I would like to close with a thought from the pen of Alan Watts: "Don't cling to your breath, you'll get purple in the face and suffocate. You have to let your breath out. That's the act of faith, to breathe out; and it will come back. The Buddhist word Nirvana actually means to breathe out: letting go is the fundamental attitude of faith." ~

    For further information about the Alexander Technique and a list of teachers nationwide, contact the North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique(NASTAT): P.O. Box 517, Urbana Illinois 61801 U.S.A.; or call 800/473-0620 or 217/367-6956. The two books mentioned in this article are available from NASTAT.
    Alexander Murray is Professor of Flute, Department of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Director of the Urbana Center for the Alexander Technique; Former Professor of Flute, Royal Dutch Conservatory; Former Principal Flute, London Symphony Orchestra; and Winner of First prize, Paris Conservatoire.

    If you are considering taking medication for any reason whatsoever, research the side effects and any significant repercussions that they may produce on your ability to play the flute. Shakes, dizziness, loss of coordination, drowsiness, etc. whether long term or short can have an effect on your ability as a performer. It may seem obvious in many instances, such as taking prescriptions that may cause drowsiness before a concert, but the line becomes less clear when drugs are prescribed for a medical illness, surgical operation or in conjunction with other prescription drugs.

    Of course, all drugs have side effects, however rare, to some people and there are so many medications and the side effects so varied depending on the circumstances, physical makeup and conditions, that there is no standard guideline. However, you should carefully research what the side effects are, either alone or in combination with any other medication, until you are satisfied.

    The best place to start is with the prescribing physician. Explain your situation and profession and don't allow your questions to be shrugged off or placated. Then consult your pharmacist. If the situation warrants it, consult another physician. There are also many other sources to get information starting with the NFA Performance Health Care Committee right down to your public library.
    The only thing you shouldn't do is leave it up to chance. ~

    by John Lunn, flutemaker

    Flutists and teachers may disagree on many issues but there is one thing that is a universally accepted fact: the flute is an awkward and uncomfortable instrument to hold. So why don't most flutemakers make a more comfortable flute? As I see it, there are 2 major stumbling blocks. The first is getting the flute community (players and makers alike) to accept the seriousness of the issue. The second is overcoming a reluctance to change the traditional way we view the flute.

    Since hand problems don't develop overnight, most people don't experience any pain or discomfort early on in their career. To them the possibility of developing tendinitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome seems remote. Nonetheless, judging by the growing rate of reported hand problems, the potential for disaster is strong.

    In the past several years there have been many brilliant innovations to improve the tuning, efficiency and sound quality but very little has been done to rearrange the keyboard to minimalize hand strain. The most popular model is still the inline, open hole which contributes to the majority of problems. The fundamental problems of reducing the wrist angulation, making the Gs keys and footjoint easier to reach and reducing strain from weight and position have yet to be seriously addressed by the majority of manufacturers. Unfortunately, changing tradition is next to impossible. Flutist's are wary of change to the traditional flute design so that most innovations in the past 20 years have been well integrated or hidden from view. However, change is essential if any headway is to be made in reducing hand injuries.

    When choosing a flute players often let fashion and popularity rule over common sense. Students feel that graduating to an inline, open hole model is a rite of passage. So the long term consequences on the hands are ignored. Many players don't even realize it is an issue.Often, a customized or modified flute is considered inferior which implies a weakness in the flutist as well.

    Of course, this is not true. But the collective result is that most flute companies won't take chances on a product line that isn't already accepted by the majority of players. Ultimately, the flute community must change their attitude towards health concerns. If buyers take their long term health needs into consideration when looking for a flute by choosing an instrument that accommodates their physical needs, more flutemakers would be offering products that fit their hands. ~

    "Have you seen Jeanne Baxtresser's flute?"

    Modifying the left hand keys can solve many problems. The most famous example of this, next to Moyse's, is the flute owned by Jeanne Baxtresser, Principal Flute of the New York Philharmonic. Whenever I describe left hand modifications the first question asked is "Have you seen Jeanne Baxtresser's flute?" She has half cups soldered to the outside edges of her G and A keys and the G# lever has been brought around far enough to be level with the A cup. It started as an experiment that she and her husband, David, designed over 6 years ago after finding alto and bass flutes to be more comfortable for her hands. First, they plugged the left hand open holes and glued wood shims to the edges of the A and G keys. They also raised the C# button so that the index finger didn't need to curl. This had immediate positive results. Her hand felt less cramped and over time she was able to significantly improve her technical facility. It was then refined in silver in subsequent years by 3 different instrument specialists into a working model.

    This is a great example of making the flute work for you instead of the other way around. A lot of left hand stress is caused by sharp wrist angulation from reaching the G keys and cramping the index finger. Since the flute is one of the few instruments that can be adapted to fit the player's hands, take advantage of it. An OFFSET G is an improvement over an INLINE. Even the original Boehm flute was offset. If you play an inline, finger buttons can be soldered to the edge of the G and A cups to help improve the hand position. This can also improve an offset even more. Raising the C# button or repositioning it over the Bb key can ease a cramped index finger. And acoustically there is no difference between inline and offset. The air column has no preference for what side of the tube it comes out of. If that were an issue, everyone would play open G# flutes.

    It's common knowledge that the computer keyboard can cause hand trouble after hours of use and benefits from "ergonomic designing". So give the flute a break! If it plays well, feels comfortable and keeps you healthy, it shouldn't matter what custom dictates. ~

    HANDS ON! is a public service provided by John Lunn Flutes
    The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the editors.
    If you have questions, comments, articles, ideas or letters to the editor, we'd love to hear them.
    If you are in pain or experiencing phyical difficulties while playing, contact your healthcare provider.