How the Alexander Technique helped my hand/arm/wrist problems. Part 2: The solution.
If you read my previous blog post you will know that I have suffered a lot of hand, arm and wrist pain over the years and that eventually it seemed apparent that the root cause of it is a slight scoliosis in my upper back with a corresponding 'correction' in my neck.
So how has the Alexander Technique helped?
The practice of Alexander Technique is intensely physical, with the teacher putting 'hands on' while the pupil lies in a semi-supine position or performs day to day activities such as standing, sitting, walking. It is also absolutely a mental discipline that acknowledges that every single action our bodies perform is affected by our thoughts, feelings and attitudes. So in my training, as I was learning about the mechanical aspects of my body movement I was also learning how to be fully conscious of how my thinking was affecting my movement and how in the moment I could prevent or, to use the Alexander term, inhibit, my habitual reaction to any given stimulus.
How does this help my hand problems?
The relationship described above between thoughts/feelings and movement is abundantly clear when I sit down to play the piano. I love to play and am a very enthusiastic student, however my enthusiasm outstrips my natural ability and consequently I play many wrong notes. So the minute I sit down to play I have the strong desire not to make mistakes and to play beautifully to impress my real or imaginary audience. In Alexander parlance this is termed 'end-gaining' i.e. being more interested in the result than the process. On top of this I am quite short-sighted and quite often find it difficult to make out the notes in the music I'm playing. My ability to see also seems to be influenced by my general condition on any given day. If I'm tired or under the weather the notes just jumble and blur.
Every mistake, even the anticipation of a mistake, causes tightening in the shoulders, neck, lower back, fingers. I'm sure all musicians will recognise that during practice we tend to speed up rather than slow down, to repeat passages unthinkingly in the hope that they will miraculously sort themselves out and generally get ourselves into a frustrated mess. This frustration then leads to more tightening, of the jaw and mouth as we pull 'concentration' faces, of the stomach and legs as we castigate ourselves for once again becoming the servant of impulse rather than the master.
This battleground becomes the perfect place to practise Alexander's principles of inhibition and direction. Sat at the piano I continually learn to let go of the end result to focus on the process. That is the inhibition part of the equation. Then as I play, mainly during pauses in the piece and at breaks in my practice I notice where and how I have tightened up. With experience I have become more adept at letting go of tensions in order to let my head sit freely at the top of my spine, to let my body weight drop through my sitting bones into the stool and to extend my legs away from my torso to the floor, or pedals. From here I can use the sensation of my fingertips on the keys to extend my arms up and into my back, feeling the support of the strong torso muscles that give my arms such flexibility and my hands such complexity of movement.
I still can't play for long periods without becoming aware of warning signs in my wrists. However I've learned to welcome those signs as an indication that I should take a break for a few minutes. They no longer indicate two weeks of pain that I can't alleviate.
I'm still not a brilliant player, but I'm definitely moving in the right direction.