As musicians we tend to segregate our practice time. We reserve time specifically for scales, run-throughs, and “technique,” among other things. The aspect of technique was always my primary interest. I would easily bore of concertos and sonatas, often before getting them up to a performance level, but I could practice the same passage focusing on improving my technique endlessly without boredom if it offered the kinds of challenges I needed to grow. I found that improvements that came from this type of practice had an overall improvement on my playing no matter if I was sight-reading or playing the passage I had been practicing.
Fast forward some years to when I discovered the Alexander Technique. I would come out of lessons with such a heightened awareness of my body that I would rush to the practice room to work on my viola technique before it wore off. I’d lift and drop my fingers with less and less effort. I’d hold the bow with just the friction of the skin against the wood. I’d stop and inhibit my shoulders raising here and there. Everything seemed to get easier and sound better all at once.
Along with this awareness of what was going on with my body while playing the viola, came an awareness of the aftermath. For the first time in ten years of viola playing I was in pain after only a few hours of playing per day. In fact, if I had an orchestra rehearsal I would not be able to practice more than one hour that day or the next day would have to be a day off. The discomfort was far worse than anything I had ever experienced resulting from playing. I had had acute pain during music festivals where I’d play 6-10 hours in a day for weeks, but not from only a few hours a day.
My only tool at the time to relieve the pain was to lie on the floor with a few books under my head. The discomfort was such a strong stimulus that if it was possible, I’d lie down every 30-45 minutes to undo what I was doing to myself while playing. I was somewhat aware of it, but my skill of inhibition was not refined enough to help much while playing which was even more habitual than sitting and standing. At the time there was no way I could avoid the hours of playing/practicing without failing my courses so I figured that I’d just have to build in lots of breaks and stop when I just couldn’t take it anymore in rehearsals.
I went on for years taking Alexander lessons to improve my viola technique and I spent a long time practicing inhibition in various ways. I’d practice on the floor. I’d tease myself with the viola, holding it in my right hand and bring it to my neck trying to notice if I was actually bringing my neck forward to the viola. Taking long periods off the viola helped. I had the great fortune of being able to stop playing for a couple of months which let me forget some of my muscle memory. Relearning to play from a somewhat blank slate was very useful. I even taught myself to play without the shoulder rest because I had never played without one and like learning a fresh piece of music, it wasn’t habitual. It was this last venture (and accumulation of a number of AT lessons) that lead me to a great discovery.
Figuring out how to balance the viola without gripping it constantly is a real parlor trick. My old method of doing this was to adapt the viola to me somehow. I realized that if I was to be able to balance the viola without gripping or filling in the empty space with gear I had to relearn how to use my arms, shoulders, and torso to balance the viola. I will get into the specifics of how to balance the viola without the shoulder rest and the dangers of the shoulder rest in my next post, but for now I’d like to focus on the significance of the discovery that viola technique can’t be separated from the use of the self.
The viola is an inanimate object after all, so what we call viola technique can’t be separated realistically from the technique of movement while balancing in gravity. We are moving around the viola, supporting it, and manipulating it. The viola can only respond to what we do. Suddenly my experience of the AT applied to the viola got vastly clearer and I realized what an idiot I had been for separating the two skills in my mind. I realized that by narrowly focusing on my fingers and arms I drew myself closer to the viola seemingly in an attempt to bring my self (brain, spine, heart, consciousness) closer to the activity.
What was so wonderful about the AT in relation to viola playing for me was that it gave me such a strong distinction of what was me, where I was in space, and what was the viola and where it was in relation to me. Before, I was unconsciously melting into the viola and trying to move around the viola in unnatural ways because I was unaware of how my body worked from a muscular and skeletal level. I knew where I had to get to on the viola and would will my way there, often without reasoning out how I was to get there realistically. Interestingly, this new distinction also had a side effect of helping me separate myself from the identity of being a violist. Suddenly I was me and the viola was the viola instead of some unnatural hybrid. Looking back I had probably heard a teacher say that the viola is an extension of you or something along those lines which I obviously took to an extreme.
I then decided to put my primary focus on letting my consciousness live inside my body rather than superimposing it onto the viola. That’s not to say that the viola, my fingers, etc., weren’t in my awareness, but they were no longer my primary focus. I shifted my attention to what Alexander called, “The Primary Control.” This stated as simply as possible: a certain relationship of the skull, spine, and limbs; where the head and limbs are supported by the central axis of the body that is lengthening naturally in response to gravity, and in turn the head and limbs are not being pulled into the torso.
When the primary control of the body is functioning properly the use of the limbs becomes near effortless in experience. The ribs become free to ride the breath, and movements are initiated from a lengthening of the whole body, from the spine right out to the fingertips and toes. Contrast that idea to what most musicians think they need to do to play: grip the bow, press the fingers into the string, hold the viola, etc.
Intimately tied to the new efficient and easeful way of playing was my mental attitude. I found I could do a new fingering on the fly without missing a beat and play at tempos I wouldn’t be able to dream of if I was consciously micromanaging my fingers in the way I use to. By being mentally present and aware of my primary control with a curious attitude toward the process of playing I could consciously put myself “in the zone.” Thinking of the sounds I wanted to produce in my mind while leaving myself alone (not trying to do the sounds) and letting my body do what it already knew how to do, produced the best results. I’d often be surprised that a bowing or fingering I’d never done before came out, but somehow it was exactly what I had conceptualized sound wise.
If I was determined to get it right the corresponding muscular response was a tightening and pulling in, partly because I was afraid of getting it wrong which invokes the startle pattern (head and limbs pulled into the torso). Even if the result was relatively pleasant sounding, I could feel that I was doing more than I needed or wanted to muscularly to achieve my musical goal and too much playing in this mental state would lead to physical pain.
There is a certain amount of skill one can attain in the realm of control. I’m amazed by what others can do in this realm. I hit the plateau relatively early which I suppose was a blessing in disguise. There was a phase where I got worse before I got better in learning how to give up control of the small things in order to gain more overall control. This was one of the more depressing times in my playing career. I felt like I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and there I was having spent ten years practicing something I hadn’t a clue about.
The truth was that I actually did know a lot about playing the viola, but I was too busy getting in my own way to let my voice come through. Ironically I had to forget about the viola to get better at playing it. I would no longer take my viola to Alexander lessons, and while on the training course I didn’t have the time or energy to practice more than an hour here and there, often going a week or two without practicing (I don’t count playing as practicing). However, working on my use kept me feeling warmed up. I never once felt rusty when I’d get my viola out and play.
Now, I’m not saying that I can go and perfectly sight-read a new concerto now. You still have to learn your notes. What I am saying is that there might not be a need to spend so many hours honing the technique of using your hands and body by focusing on them while playing. The best way to improve that aspect of your viola technique may well be without the viola in the picture. Your mind-body are your instrument, the viola technique may just be an illusion.