I was eight years old, sitting in a large schoolroom (everything’s bigger in Texas) in Dallas in 1959. Mrs. Cook told us how to hold the bow and we looked at the four quarter- notes on the page, with a bowing on each note. She gave us about 30 seconds to soak that in, and with her southern-accented lilting voice saying “One, Two, Three, Four,” we moved our bows for the first time.
The next day was devoted to the left hand. We watched Mrs. Cook’s perfect violin hold, and we imitated. Within seconds, violin necks were squeezed, joints collapsed, and fingers were welded together.
We read music for the first time. Most of us would agree it’s a necessary ingredient of performing, but it sure uses a lot of brain cells that could be used for learning to hold the bow and the violin correctly. What limited intellect I had was divided and distracted. The math wasn’t in my favor. For every ten distortions my body was beginning to assume, one or two pure musical thoughts had found a berth. Some of us gave up with those odds. Others lurched forward, motivated by how good harmony made us feel, other intangible musical experiences, and a chance to play in the school concerts wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a continental tie. (Look it up on eBay. Could it have been invented for violinists?)
On that fateful week at my elementary school, the stage was set for a lifetime of music. Without knowing it, a big bang explosion of many bad habits and a few good ones was born. We inherit various degrees of muscle memory, and our experience with it leaves no doubt that it remembers everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Dante Would Have Loved Beginning Strings Class
The Alexander Technique was invented to deal with nature’s inevitabilities. When I held the bow for the first time, it was no surprise that certain fingers would squeeze against each other and the thumb would press upwards very hard and bend the wrong way. Mrs. Billie Cook did a great job of providing visual images, like holding the bow as if it were a dirty diaper, letting the bow dangle from the hand as if it were held from a clothespin, and pretending you had a very weak handshake. She was an excellent teacher, but she was no match for nature’s cruel trick of making my hand collapse into itself.
During that week in the Dallas classroom 58 years ago, everything bad that could happen did happen. A physical therapist might have staged an intervention if he had been there. But even in Dante’s Inferno, there is something beautiful and noble that stands in contrast to the pain. Mrs. Cook’s vibrato still rings in my ears. Playing quarters and eighth notes didn’t tie me into knots. There was a relationship between what I heard and how I blended in. My inner ear provided the pretty sound that was, in reality, a bunch of beginners scratching on their instruments. And even though an occasional bow would come close to piercing my temple, there was something comforting about being so close to each other while playing music.
The Opposite of Collapsing
The premise of Alexander Technique is that, by starting with a good relationship between the head, neck and torso, all other movements will have a good foundation on which to build. Just hearing my Alexander teacher, Pam Hartman of Sherman Oaks, California, talk about lengthening the spine and having my head and neck “float” without sinking, I began the process of connecting the dots to every movement I made with my left hand and bow arm. Each tense, truncated movement I had made millions of times for 30 years was now on notice. Suddenly in one afternoon, I heard a few words which changed my paradigm. “There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile.” A popular mantra of Alexandrians, it reminded me to pay attention to as many motions as I could, and to avoid constriction or collapse. Making the effort was all that was needed, not perfection.
Fortunately, Pam didn’t ask me to bring my violin to the next session. Not only is she not a violinist, but also she knows that the work of freeing up the body comes from sensing how the inside parts are being affected. The last thing I wanted was a new way of holding the bow. My challenge was to pay attention to what was inside.
By the time I had arrived for my first session, my shoulders, neck and lower back were tight and throbbing with pain. At the same time my left arm would suddenly surge with a numbing jolt of electricity coursing from shoulder to fingertip. (Remember Dante?) When Pam said that I hadn’t arrived a moment too soon, it was absolutely true. Hers was not a bloated ego that I had encountered with a physical therapist a year earlier. She was a skillful re-educator (the term Alexandrians prefer over teacher). I was happy to schedule another session (I had two that week).
Her words to me as I left her studio were to be sure and adjust my rear view mirror when I got in the car. “Lengthening”, the term used to describe a more healthy and aligned carriage and posture, had made me quite a bit taller. As I did what she told me, it drove home the logic of my new experience with Alexander. Though I didn’t know it, Pam’s words were communicating with not only my neck, but my fingertips and wrists, and even my bow distribution and vibrato.
Every movement will either elevate and energize everything around it, or collapse and weaken the surrounding structure.
The Essence of a Simple Motion
I had been no different than the usual 4th grader. Why do something correctly when a shortcut offered itself? When I changed bow direction, I did it too soon. When I pressed into the A string, I would press even harder into the D string. Alexander taught me to pay attention to the beginning of every motion, because that’s where the DNA of my technique lay. It was wrong to speed up when I changed strings, and wrong to start a string sound without engaging the pure vibration at the beginning of the stroke. My squeaky, whistling E string became a thing of the past.
Alexander taught me how to stand up. Pam didn’t teach vibrato, but she showed me how to avoid straining my neck muscles when I stood up. Whatever I had been doing wrong constitutes my “set.” When it came to violin playing, I had a set for every motion I made. There was no problem becoming aware of the long list of muscles I was overdoing and silly shortcuts that were not making my life any easier.
The hard part was working on every bad habit that nature had presented me that day in Dallas when I started the violin. However, I remembered that identifying the problem is 90% of the solution. I owe so much to Pam and the Alexander Technique for learning how to peal away the obstacles and remain true to myself.
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