Attached to the feeling

"Like other musicians, an oboist is often very attached to the feeling of her mannerisms and her habitual tension. She equates the feeling of tension with expressiveness and feels that a loss of this tension would eliminate her individuality and ability to communicate the music."

"This is clearly not true; she is expressing the music despite the tension she is feeling, not because of it. If she rids herself of habitual misuse and the associated excessive and unbalanced tension, she will become freer to choose how she uses herself and therefore freer to express her individuality through the oboe and the music she is playing."


Physical genius

"The Physical Genius" is an article from the New Yorker magazine dated August 2, 1999

Click this to read the entire article online or download the pdf.

The article explores the role of imagination in physical skill, using a few famous examples from sports, music and medicine.

Professional ballet dancers are all operating in the domain of physical genius.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

"What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a brain surgeon named Charlie Wilson have in common?"

"This kind of obsessive preparation does two things. It creates consistency. Practice is what enables Greg Rusedski to hit a serve at a hundred and twenty-five miles per hour again and again. It's what enables a pianist to play Chopin's double-thirds √Čtude at full speed, striking every key with precisely calibrated force. More important, practice changes the way a task is perceived."

"When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imaginations in a very particular and sophisticated way."

"Stephen Kosslyn has shown that this power to visualize consists of at least four separate abilities, working in combination:

  1. The first is the ability to generate an image - to take something out of long-term memory and reconstruct it on demand.
  2. The second is what he calls "image inspection", which is the ability to take that mental picture and draw inferences from it.
  3. The third is "image maintenance", the ability to hold that picture steady.
  4. And the fourth is "image transformation", which is the ability to take that image and manipulate it."

"If you think of physical genius as a pyramid, with, at the bottom, the raw components of coordination, and, above that, the practice that perfects those particular movements, then this faculty of imagination is the top layer. This is what separates the physical genius from those who are merely very good."

"Here is the source of the physical genius's motivation. After all, what is this sensation - this feeling of having what you do fit perfectly into the dimensions of your imagination--but the purest form of pleasure?"

The Pianist's Talent

"The Pianist's Talent" by Harold Taylor helped crystallise for me decades of thinking about how to improve musical performance. I still refer to this book almost daily during my guitar practice sessions.

Harold Taylor describes the teachings of Raymond Thiberge on the piano. Thiberge was a successful piano teacher, who also happened to be blind.

After many years he came to the conclusion that his methods of teaching had very little outcome on the results his students were getting. His search for the deeper principles which foster good playing led to very similar conclusions to Alexander technique: a broadening and lengthening posture.

Taylor gives the best explanation I've yet seen on how these principles are applied to musical performance and training.

Read more: The Pianist's Talent

What is Alexander Technique?

Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in Tasmania (a state of Australia) late in the 19th century. He was a professional orator who after losing the use of his voice, and thefore his livelihood, spent several years in intense self-examination until he made a revolutionary discovery.

F.M Alexander with John Dewey - Image used courtesy of Robert Rickover's site -
F.M Alexander with John Dewey - Image used courtesy of Robert Rickover's site -

His discovery was that proper functioning of the human organism depends on certain key conditions being present in the head and neck relationship. (In evolutionary terms this makes sense becuse vertebrate animals rely on a mobile head to move their main sense organs.)

With those conditions present, good co-ordination ensues, without them, the body and mind are restricted in their capabilities.

This issue is obviously critical to the development of a musician, who relies on reliable and highly developed physical technique and clear mental processes as the basis of his/her art. This section of the book is intended to stimulate an interest in pursuing subject further with a qualified teacher.

While it is possible to apply the technique to oneself, the presence of a trained teacher is essential for most people until the new ways of using the body are thoroughly ingrained. Alexander Teachers are trained in the ways of inculcating positive experiences in the student, and identifying each students' particular requirements.

Another aspect of Alexander's discoveries was the indivisible nature of the mind and the body. That is to say, every moment you alter the state of mind the balances of physical energy in the body alter. Likewise if you change your the use of your body then your mental states are affected.

The implications of this for 'concentration' are enormous and this explains the enthusiasm of educators such as John Dewey for the technique.

Implications for musicians

This also has profound implications for musicians, as the interplay between awareness and action is the bread and butter of their craft. In this book we will try and show how you can apply some of these insights to the performance of music on the guitar.

Look at children under the age of 3 to see good "use" of the body. Look at children under the age of 3 to see good 'use' of the body in the Alexander Technique sense of the word. Their heads are balanced and alert, jaws are relaxed, hands pliant and sensitive.

Their heads are balanced and alert, Jaws are relaxed, Hands pliant and sensitive.

With patience, you should garner some positive playing experiences by working through the material, and as the doors of experience open you will hopefully obtain further guidance from a trained teacher. There is plenty of Alexander related reading material on the internet.