Alexander Technique – My Progress So Far

Alexander technique
Semi-supine position in Alexander technique (Photo credit: alanpfitch)

At the start of last month you’ll remember that I blogged about my first experience with Alexander Technique – a technique that teaches you to be more aware of tensions in the body and to release those tensions to allow the body to move and work more freely, easily and with greater efficiency. Check out that post here: https://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2012/12/05/alexander-technique-my-first-lesson/

Following my first week or two taking Alexander Technique (AT) lessons and practicing the semi-supine position on a daily basis, I began to become lot more aware of where I was holding tension in my body. I noticed I was holding tension in my jaw – and what a lot of tension there was there! After realising I was holding this tension, learning to notice it more (both in semi-supine position and in normal everyday situations) the feeling of release in the jaw and lower head was a revelation!! I likened it to that post-workout or post-run kind of feeling – like you’ve been working hard, putting your muscles through stress and strain and now you’ve stopped……Ahhhh!

I also noticed a similar tension through my shoulders, and noticed that they have a tendency to creep up around my ears when I’m in an uncomfortable or challenging situation (mentally rather than physically that is), or when I get excited, nervous or agitated. And knowing where this tension exists and when it may occur, or what may make it occur can help then to begin the process of reducing it. The act itself of noticing it begins to change  the habit.

So why is releasing tension in the body important for a guitarist?

Well, if your hand, arm, neck, shoulder or back muscles (even other muscles in other parts of the body, but these in particular) are unnecessarily tense and tight it’s:

  1. taking energy away from the actions you do want to make and the activity muscles you do want working for you
  2. puts pressure on various parts of the body, including the joints and spine which may lead to longer term issues
  3. does not allow you to give you your full self to playing the music as you are literally holding yourself back.

In terms of my playing, I’m noticing some really positive benefits of the AT. First up, I’ll lie in the semi-supine position before settling into some serious practice as it tunes me into my body, where tensions may lie, and relaxes me ready for practice. Then during practice I’m feeling a lot more relaxed through the head, neck, shoulders and arm, which makes practicing and playing much more enjoyable and means I can practice for longer periods of time. When I’m done practicing I also get down into the semi-supine position to help release any tensions that might have crept in and give the spine a rest from the pulling, pushing, tensions and pressures put on it through the rigours of practice.

I’ve done a couple of performances too since starting with AT and I’ve noticed it’s helped significantly with relaxation prior to and during the performance, which makes things a heck of a lot easier!

I have some more AT sessions coming up in January and I’ll keep you posted on my journey into relaxation!

 

Posture for playing classical guitar

Getting your seated posture sorted for playing is pivotal to physically enjoying your playing, reducing the chance of overuse or incorrect use injuries and ensuring the longevity of your playing. You really don’t want to end up 10 or 20 years down the line being forced to play only in small goes or being forced to stop playing at all. It’s worth taking the time just to slow down or stop and assess your posture.

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentw...
Sit up properly! Photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection

Big to small

When looking at posture I always work from the biggest structures first (i.e. the larger body parts or muscles) before then moving thought to successively smaller elements. Getting your overall seated position needs sorting out before moving on to the movement on the hands and fingers. Your seated position and posture is the framework, the basis from which you’re building your playing and your finer movements.

Building a good solid base for yourself, a bit like practicing your daily scales, is key to much faster, or rather much easier progress, down the line.

Pointers on posture

When seated make sure your legs are bent at roughly 90 degrees, with both feet flat on the ground. Then holding the guitar (using either your preference of foot stool or rest), make sure that your back is straight, using your stomach muscles to help keep that nice straight form. Sit towards the front of your seat; don’t sit too far back on the chair or lean on the back of the chair.

Think about tucking your tail bone under your bum. Lengthen your spine by imagining you’re a puppet with a string attached to the crown of your head keeping you upright.

Legs

Whatever your choice of foot stool versus guitar rest (and I recommend rest as I believe it reduces adverse impacts to the hips and lower back) ensure that your left foot, knee and shoulder are all aligned – no knee or foot sticking out to the side. This neutral position is the most natural and ultimately comfortable position to play in. With the right leg, bending this in at a similar angle, or even slightly closer to the chair acts as a stabiliser rooting you to the ground and creating a solid playing position.

One key tip, passed on to me by the great Phillip Houghton that I in turn pass on to my students, is a non-slip mat on my right leg where the body of the guitar contacts with my leg (of course, swap that to left leg if you’re a left-handed player). This helps to stabilise the guitar, make it feel really solid and in control, particularly if your guitar is heavy (as some of the newer style lattice braced guitars are) or you’re wearing potentially slippery clothing. The grip of the mat takes a bit of the tension away from your right arm in pinning the guitar back or limiting the guitar’s movements.

Arms

Your right arm should be soft and heavy, positioned over the bell of the body, with just the minimal amount of tension through it to hold that relaxed form. The feel is almost as if you’re embracing the guitar. Just be careful though not to drop and round the shoulder; hold your form through the shoulder joint too.

With the left arm, also be careful not to drop the shoulder and ensure your wrist is nice and straight, and in line with the hand and arm most of the time. Movement to reach the strings should primarily come from the shoulder in a vertical pivot like movement – make use of this big muscle group, rather than putting undue stress and strain on the smaller muscles of the wrist and lower arm.

Similarly when moving up and down and around the fretboard, use you shoulder as a horizontal pivot. Use the bigger muscles to do the majority of the work. This is what the shoulder is designed for and you’re really going to protect yourself from carpal tunnel syndrome type symptoms this way. I should know – I learnt the hard way on this and went through a long journey of correcting my previously poor technique.

So the key, “take home” message today is to make use of the body’s natural movements. Use leverage by using the biggest muscle groups to carry out the bulk of the work – that’s your back muscles, shoulder and arms – before moving on to think about smaller movements from the hands, fingers and thumbs. Movements are not massive either, probably much less than you’d think.

And relax!

Here’s a great You Tube clip I found on setting up your posture that may also help….