Eliminating Pain with the Alexander Technique, with Wendy Waggener

October 21, 2015, 11:47 AM · We humans have a lot of misconceptions about how our bodies operate, and that's one reason why we tend work ourselves into a state of pain when playing the violin or doing other physical tasks.

"When our beliefs and our design don't match up, that is when we start to hurt," said violinist Wendy Waggener, whose class I attended Sunday: "Body Tuneup - An Alexander Technique Workshop for Musicians." With more than 20 years experience teaching violin and seven years teaching Alexander technique, Wendy has the uncanny ability to sense, just from looking at you or maybe holding your wrist, that something she said just triggered a muscle in your neck, or that you're holding tension in your upper arm, clenching a back muscle, etc.

Wendy Waggener
Wendy Waggener.

The Alexander Technique aims to help people form better habits when it comes to body movement. "You can't change something you don't notice," Wendy said. Once you notice it, you have to practice the new way of moving. "Practice is habit-forming, so you want to practice the habit you want to form."

In some ways, it seems like the lessons of Alexander could be boiled down to: stand straight, sit straight. But that begs the question: "What does it mean to stand straight? There's not a single thing that's straight in your body!" Wendy said.

tailsInstead, one has to think about the mechanics of the body: what makes it function smoothly, and what gets in the way? To get us started, Wendy described three different ways of holding one's self while walking. She had us imagine having not just a tailbone, but having an actual tail. We tried walking around the room, positioning our lower backs with three different "tails":

Standing correctly requires only seven percent of your muscles, she said. (Standing incorrectly requires more!)

One can think about these positions also while sitting -- and it's actually not that hard to think about it when sitting in the orchestra. When you sit on a chair, you are sitting atop two bones called the "sitz" bones. Roll backwards on those sitz bones, and you are doing the "dog tail." In this rather slumpy position, it's nearly impossible to raise your scroll. (If you are seeing a lot of droopy scrolls in, say, the school orchestra, this kind of fundamental sitting position may be to blame!) Roll far forward on the sitz bones, and you'll get the "duck tail," which is also not a comfortable playing position -- it may occur in people who are trying a little too hard to "sit straight." Then find the neutral position in between, where your spine stacks comfortably on top of those sitz bones and you don't have to work so hard -- that position goes along with the "dinosaur tail." This position allows for the best movement in your body and also the least risk of injury.

latissimusWhy is all this business about our "tails" and our tailbones so important to violinists and violists? Because your tailbone is directly attached to your arm bones through a muscle called the "latissimus." "It's on your back," Wendy said, "but it's an arm muscle. This is why, when you do something with your 'tail,' it affects your arm." About two-thirds of your arm support is actually in your back, stretching all the way down to the tailbone.

This must explain why playing the fiddle seems to give me chronic back-muscle pain!

collar boneSpeaking of the arms, we know that our arms end at our hands. But where, Wendy asked us, do the arms end on the other side? The answer was quite shocking: they do not end at the shoulders -- they end at the collar bone!

"Your clavicle is an arm bone," Wendy explained. Furthermore, the shoulder blades are not actually connected to your "back," but they are connected to the shoulder joint. When you raise your arm over your head, the "shoulder blades" move completely to the side of the body.

Why is this important? Because in many people's minds, the arm begins at the shoulder -- we are put together like a Barbie doll, with the arms stuck into the torso. Reality is completely different, and knowing the difference can greatly help us to move with greater ease. "The mirror lies to us -- there are good reasons why we have these misconceptions," Wendy said.

skeletonHere is the reality: The arms -- that whole apparatus that stretches from hands to collarbone -- sit on top of the ribs. "Right under your collarbone (which, remember, is an arm bone) is your first rib," Wendy said. "Your arms are much wider than your ribs." Everything outside your ribs is "arm."

If you can actually feel this detachment of arms from ribs, it can be very freeing. "When you think you have a 'sleeve arm,' you use your arm differently," she said. With a "sleeve arm," the shoulder is perceived as immobile, the spine is some kind of unrelated unit with the torso. If one can think of open space in the shoulder -- where there is indeed open space -- one can allow the whole body to move with more freedom.

"The more ways you can figure out to let go, the better you'll feel and the better you'll sound," Wendy said.

Wendy went around the room and helped people feel where their collarbone is, remembering that this is part of the arms, then where the ribs start, that this is separate. For many, this alone was an extraordinary revelation. Playing the violin, with this concept in mind, was immediately helpful in letting go of unnecessary muscle tension.

"This is the first time I've bowed without having pain in my wrist, in years," said one participant. That is because the arms tend to squeeze the ribs. If one can think of the arms as outside of and on top of the ribs, it changes the motion in the arms and also allows the ribs to do what they do -- stay open to help with breathing.

Here are some of the other body concepts Wendy explained: We know where the top of our head is, but where is the bottom? Hint: it's NOT your jaw. Your jaw is an appendage to your skull. The bottom of your head is actually the roof of your mouth! And if the tailbone is at one end of the spine, where is the other end? It's NOT at that bump at the back of your neck -- your spine actually ends behind your mouth. "If you were to open (the back of) your mouth, you'd be looking at your spine!" Wendy said. The head actually glides on top of the spine, and one can think about balancing the head on the spine.

After four hours of taking in these ideas about the body, I could tell that this was just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the Alexander Technique. It certainly seems like a useful and interesting discipline -- not to mention its potential to help the numerous instrumentalists who have chronic pain from playing. As Wendy said, "it doesn't have to be that way."

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October 22, 2015 at 08:41 AM · My violin teacher's teaching over the 7 years I was with her was underpinned by AT, very much to my lasting benefit.

October 22, 2015 at 11:20 AM · Where I live, I'm not aware that any type of instruction in Alexander Technique is available. I've done brief searches and found nothing. I'm not sure I could afford it anyway. I am fortunate that my violin teacher (who is also my daughter's teacher) is very concerned with mechanics, natural posture, balance, efficiency in movement, etc. Eventually what is going to happen is you'll be able to buy a close-fitting garment loaded up with sensors and you'll be able to get training in Alexander Technique by streaming your data to someone at a remote location. While they're at it they'll fix your golf swing.

October 22, 2015 at 07:08 PM · Or, you could try Alexander Technique Skype sessions: http://alexandertechnique.com/teacher/distancelearning/

October 23, 2015 at 10:00 PM · I have a pinched nerve....and have applied and try other cures. An mri is needed to find the exact point even for acupuncture. Has anyone encounter or been through this situation?

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