Thomas Buckner, a 63-year-old vocalist and producer of contemporary music, has been a long-time student of the Technique. When he first studied it in the 60s, he was thwarted by overall tension. “My physical uptightness came from my upbringing,” he says. He absorbed the parental rebukes I often hear from students: Sit up straight. Pull your shoulders back. Don’t talk back
. “Restriction became a real obstacle for me,” he says, “and the Alexander Technique was a way to deal with it.”
Buckner has a challenging schedule of international touring, producing new music concerts, administering his own recording label and continuing his vocal study. He has found that the Technique helps him to implement his teacher’s instructions. “Learning to inhibit, release the neck and let my head go forward and up enabled me to do what my voice teacher taught me,” he says. “Say you tend to tighten your throat. People can talk to you about changing that till they’re blue in the face, but you keep doing it. The idea of inhibition – undoing rather than doing, then starting over with the new direction – is so concrete.”
When I first met Buckner six years ago, he was taking frequent voice lessons but had not taken Alexander lessons for some years. He recalls that, in his voice lessons at that time, “we were making progress, but it was extremely slow.” His voice teacher noticed that resuming his Alexander work “increased the speed with which I was able to apply what I was learning. He noticed my rate of improvement go way up.”
When prospective students inquire about Alexander lessons, they often ask, “How long does it take?” The short answer is that 12 lessons will give you some basic skills in understanding the Technique and how it can help you. The longer answer is that your course of study depends on the nature of your problem. Iversen got pain relief in six lessons. Buckner has studied on and off for forty years. Kevin Dorn, a 26-year-old drummer jazz drummer, has been working with me for four years.
Dorn was annoyed at how early in his career he was plagued by pains that migrated around his back as well as tendinitis in his wrists and right ankle. “At first, I figured it was an occupational hazard – that if you sit for that long doing repetitive motion, you’d get pain no matter what,” he says. “A normal gig is four hours. It’s a long time to sit there and move your limbs.” He iced his aching joints and did some stretches offered by a physical therapist. When pain became the ultimate distraction, he says, “I knew there was something missing, but I wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t until I started the Alexander Technique that I realized that it’s not just doing these things. It’s the way you do it.”
Now Dorn plays four hour gigs with no pain. He has toured and appeared at jazz festivals and plays four to five nights a week in New York. As he continues to work on his tension patterns and his playing, his discoveries echo the experience of many performers who work with this method.
“Before I started the Alexander Technique,” says Dorn, “I would have moments without tension that felt good, but it was mysterious. I never knew what I could do to get it back. I practiced blindly, thinking if I just kept practicing, I’d get there. But if you practice with tension, it leads to more tension. This technique gave me a way to control that. Rather than have it be an accident, I could actually work on getting into that state.”
Releasing tension can seem risky. Trying on new ways of moving, says Dorn, can “feel awkward at first – sitting or walking correctly for the first time. If you’re used to having this tension, you depend on it.” Dorn sometimes practices in front of a mirror to catch and correct imbalances. He watches for “anything that looks unnatural, that doesn’t look relaxed. My big realization was that you can play with a lot less effort than I thought.”
The unraveling of constricting movement habits invites the release of fully focused musical expression. When encumbrances are shed, music and musician can freely soar.
Joan Arnold has been a certified Alexander Technique teacher for 16 years and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York. In her 25-year movement career, she has been a dancer and dance teacher as well as personal trainer and exercise teacher. Currently, she is a certified yoga instructor teaching regular classes on Union Square. Also a freelance writer, her features have appeared in national magazines. Her articles on the application of Alexander Technique to a range of conditions can be found at www.alexandertech.net