By Joe Armstrong
Boston, 2001



Vivien Mackie in Conversation with Joe Armstrong

An account of her cello study with Pablo Casals in the 1950's
and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching
and the principles of the Alexander Technique

In 1970, toward the end of my first year of training to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, 1  I heard that Vivien Mackie, a professional cellist who had studied extensively with Pablo Casals, was going to join the class too. Since I had come to revere and respect Casals as the greatest musician of our time, the prospect of getting to know and maybe even work closely with someone who possessed something of his understanding and approach to music was beyond anything I could have hoped for at that stage of my musical career.

Before enrolling in the three-year Alexander teacher's course given in London by Walter Carrington, his wife Dilys, and Peggy Williams, I'd already earned a bachelor's degree in music, played flute for three years in an American military concert band, and had seen from several years of lessons in the Alexander Technique how essential it would be for me as a performer to achieve the fully integrated 'use of my self' that is the Technique's goal. I was also convinced that being able to impart the experience of that integration to others would be invaluable to whatever teaching I might do as a professional musician. By the time Vivien started the course I had also met a number of excellent professional musicians who'd been drawn to the Alexander teacher training for the same reasons I had, and I was very impressed by their accomplishment and brilliance. Yet I felt that establishing a connection with her could lead into a deeper realm of experience and knowledge that I was still thirsting and searching for but whose contents I had only vaguely guessed at.

Up to then I had also spent a lot of time listening to many recordings of Casals playing, conducting, and teaching, as well as reading as much as I could about his ideas on music and life in various books like Conversations with Casals and Joys and Sorrows. And just before going to England I'd even had the chance to see him in person at one of the famous master classes he taught at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, which certainly confirmed my conviction about his greatness. The young professional cellist who performed for him in the class that day was obviously transformed completely by it, and it seemed like the same 'magical' thing had happened to her that I had experienced in lessons with my first teacher, the remarkable flutist Carl Petkoff; but she was clearly as mystified as I was about how it came about. My study with my flute teacher had been unexpectedly cut short, so I hadn't had the chance to find out if I could learn how to produce the magic consistently on my own; however, witnessing the transformation happen to this cellist right in Casals' presence made it seem even more tangible, simple, and pure - whatever 'it' was. I thought it must have had something to do with understanding the essential elements of 'musicality' and knew I wouldn't be content until I explored every avenue I could to find out what the 'secret' was and how it worked - if that was actually possible.

'Musicality' (as distinct from 'musicianship') was believed by most musicians I knew to be - like 'talent' - something innate. You supposedly either had it, or you didn't. Some felt it came in gradations, and I often heard colleagues and teachers saying, 'Oh, she's so musical!' Or . . . 'very musical!' Or . . . 'not a very musical player.' Others seemed to believe it could be brought out or developed as well as severely hampered - for instance, by nervousness and stage fright - or even lost or destroyed. But no-one I knew could explain what musicality actually was or show what components, if any, made it up. In a way, it was almost taboo even to think of examining it in depth. (I still find this to be very much the case, some thirty years later, among the many professional musicians I work with.)

Teachers and conductors I'd had who seemed to take players away from musicality did it mainly, I thought, by the way they focused on technique and detail. One college flute teacher I had actually made me feel I'd lost my musicality completely for a while until Alexander lessons rescued me from his divided approach. And since I'd seen from those experiences how malleable it could be, by the time I joined the Alexander teachers' course I'd already begun to wonder if musicality was something that could be better understood and maybe even taught - particularly with the aid of the Alexander Technique. Obviously, Casals was able to foster it superbly in his teaching and conducting - even when he was focusing on the simplest detail - maybe even especially then. But I doubted that I would ever have the chance to work with him directly to find out more about how he did it since he was already well into his nineties by this time.

So before I even met Vivien, I knew I would try to question her as much as I could on every facet of her experience with Casals. As luck would have it, we seemed to be on the same wave-length right from our first meeting; and what's more, she actually seemed to be grateful - even somewhat relieved - to have the chance to talk about her work with Casals, because, to my surprise, I seemed the first person she knew who was really interested in hearing about every detail of it.

Also lucky for me, Vivien turned out to be a natural raconteur, and I began taking advantage of that by roping her into many long conversations - at lunchtime in the garden at the Alexander school, on walks to and from our class through Kensington Gardens and Holland Park, and at her house over dinner with her delightful sons, James and Andrew. I was struck right off by her telling me how she too had lost touch with something precious in her playing by the time she'd left music school, and it had taken her intensive study with Casals to bring it back. It was soon clear that her experience with him was unique not only because of that, but also because she had worked with him longer than almost anyone else; so I felt even more that my questioning would begin to lead to the heart of what musicality was.

One evening after dinner I finally persuaded Vivien to play something for me, and everything that I might have expected to be present in her playing as a result of studying so extensively and comprehensively with Casals was there - and more. She played an 'Allemande' from one of the Bach unaccompanied cello Suites, and I was overwhelmed by the power of life in it. All I could think to say was, 'Gosh! I didn't know a woman could play like that!' But then I quickly amended myself and said, 'I mean . . . I didn't know anybody could play like that!'

I realized then that however illuminating our talks might be, they were probably only scratching the surface of what she had actually learned from her three whole years with Casals; so I decided to ask her if she would consider teaching me how to play the cello - thinking that it could be the most direct way of experiencing and understanding, at least 'second-hand,' the elements of how Casals had taught her that not only brought back what she had lost but also took her to the highest professional level. I also thought that it could be interesting for her, as a kind of experiment, to teach me, because my Alexander background coupled with my advanced musical experience might have something extra to offer her in what she was hoping to add to her cello teaching from the Alexander teacher training. She liked the idea very much, and, after we found a cello that I could keep at the school for my practicing and our lessons, we began 'doing cello' there together several times a week during our lunch breaks over the next year and a half or so.

I was amazed at what transpired in the lessons - especially compared to some instruction I'd had in a year of string class in music school. (I was actually supposed to be qualified to teach beginning strings merely by taking that course!) I'd hoped that because of this earlier experience I might be a little more receptive as a student, but I soon saw that none of that was even relevant to the way Vivien was teaching me. It was totally different from - even opposite to - what I thought most other string teachers were probably doing in their teaching, because she was getting me to experience a far broader range of expressive and kinaesthetic possibilities all over the instrument right from the start by completely bypassing the conventional dwelling for a long time on the progression of distinctly confined left-hand positions. In a few months I was able to begin learning pieces I could never have conceived of playing at the end of my string course. And this difference in Vivien's approach only seems to me more pronounced today, after having had the chance both to work extensively with a large number of fine string players and teachers in my many years of Alexander teaching in Boston and to watch Vivien bring these revelations to most of them in Alexander string courses we've given here together.

During our Alexander training in England, Vivien and I also laid the groundwork for what would ultimately extend beyond our exchange in my cello lessons into both a long-range teaching and performing collaboration and a close friendship. To be able to play chamber music with her, give Alexander music courses together, travel, and talk endlessly on so many aspects of music, Alexander teaching, and life in general is the greatest privilege.

As our collaboration developed and we probed further and further into the elements of musical expression, I could see that it would be very valuable to others if we could create some record of Vivien's experience with Casals and show how the elements of his great legacy can be understood and passed on - especially with the aid of the Alexander Technique, since the process of learning and teaching it involves so many of the same understandings applied to life in general that Casals brought to cello teaching and all his music making. So in 1984 I suggested we start recording some of our conversations by harking back to Vivien's initial study with him, continuing from there through her experience with the Alexander Technique, and then going on to her amalgamation of the two into her own unique way of teaching - not just cellists, but musicians of every kind - all around the world. She agreed, and this book is what came out of the project.

1.  The Alexander Technique is a method for transmitting through a teacher's hands the experience of an integrated working of a person's postural mechanisms in relation to gravity. It also involves learning how to maintain this integration in every aspect of living. The technique was developed over a hundred years ago by F. Matthias Alexander and is now taught world wide. Alexander wrote four books on his work, Man's Supreme Inheritance, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, The Use of the Self, and The Universal Constant in Living. For a detailed description of the use of the technique by musicians, see the Appendix article by Vivien Mackie, 'The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician.'