An Introduction to the Alexander Technique
presented to the Music Teachers Association, County Cork, Ireland,
For those of you who have heard something about the Alexander Technique, it will come as no surprise that I'm going to talk to you about posture, but without any of the well-intentioned nonsense we all heard growing up about how to "do" it: "Shoulders back! Tummy in!" and so on. Posture isn't some finishing school add-on we have to learn how to do; it's a consequence of our inherited design. What we need to learn is how to consciously prevent ourselves from interfering with that design.
Sometime in the future there may well be concerts given out in space, but for the present, whatever instrument your students choose, they'll be playing while balancing themselves within earth's gravity. This means that any movement they make on their instrument will require a compensatory adjustment in their postural set. Thus the efficiency of any voluntary muscle action is inescapably tied to the efficiency of that overall postural muscle action.
As distinct from the voluntary muscle actions which you teach, the postural set is largely reflex driven; it is inherited. Every time "A" happens, "B" will happen, without our intervention or assistance, as long as the neural connections remain intact within a healthy organism. One such inherited muscle action reflex is familiar to you all, in the little kick your physician gets from you with his hammer-tap at your knee. This "stretch reflex" is responsible for maintaining muscle tone, and, of course, is enormously important in how the postural set works. And that it does, indeed, work, is central to what I teach: Our inherited postural reflexes - if left alone - can efficiently and painlessly provide the balanced support necessary for the fine control of voluntary movement.
Every so often another "expert" is blaming our upright posture for back pain, as though we weren't really designed very well for going about on two legs, when most of our history as a species has been spent wandering about, up on our two legs, looking for dinner. Today, you need only look at any three-year-old, watch the effortless grace of movement, to realize what an amazingly succesful design we've inherited.
The problem's not with our vertical design, but that its control is left to instinct and unconscious habit. And that's no longer good enough; our environment has changed so from when our instincts developed. The simple choices of "eat or be eaten" are history, now, but instinctive, system-wide reactions are still part of our inheritance. Unless we consciously intervene, the stiffening "scrunch" of the startle pattern can get triggered over and over again, radically disrupting our psycho-physical balance.
Furthermore, it's hardly been a heartbeat in human history that some of us began to earn our dinners while sitting in a chair. And yet we expect our children to "sit up straight!" in their chairs, naturally, when sitting in a chair isn't natural at all! It's learned behavior, with the learning, lamentably, left largely to chance.
Finally, there's habit. As a consequence of the disruptions caused by stress, and by (too often, awful!) chairs, we all pick up unconscious postural habits. And, (maddengly!)these unconscious habits are fostered by our culture's archaic, simple-minded dualism, that "abstract Greek absurdity" dividing "mind" from "body" - but don't get me started!