Suggestions to Students
The Alexander Technique
Dealing with Stress and Enhancing Expressiveness
Musical Performance


Joe Armstrong
Boston, 2005




Thirty years ago, when I wrote my master's thesis[1] examining how the Alexander Technique can help musicians deal with stress in performing, I realized my research and writing on the subject couldn't be more than a sketch of the widespread problem and its solution from Alexander's psychophysical point of view, only examining the Technique as a very general resource and paving the way for doing more elaborate study and research in the future.  As expected, the experimental study of a college piano repertoire class supported the idea that you could use the Technique to stay more integrated and more in control when you perform, thereby giving yourself fullest access to whatever degree of musicianship and musicality you might possess--no small achievement to anyone who suffers from nervousness or stage fright.  So the window onto the inner life of musicians was opened a little more than it had been previously--but not much.

All my years since then of specializing in teaching the Alexander Technique to student and professional musicians have continued to confirm to me its value in dealing with "nerves" and in promoting superlative control.  But this teaching experience, along with my own evolving use of the Technique as a flutist to maintain a performing standard that's ever more whole, alive, and fully communicative, made me want to go on seeing if I could probe deeper into the barriers to fullest music making.  In my searching I've come up with some ideas and observations that I hope can be useful to those of you who are working at incorporating Alexander's discoveries into your playing, and I'd like to tell you about them here.  As I do this, I'll also include some writings and reflections on the subject that I've collected over the years, which I hope will enhance crucial points in the main text.  I've put an "N" in the main text to refer to these selections that are placed at the end of each section.  (The bracketed numbers are links to source notes listed at the very end of the article.)



Whenever the musicians I teach tell me about their experiences of performance anxiety, what they say usually reveals that they fall into a particular type of thinking around playing a concert that sets them up for being nervous.  This kind of thinking clearly distracts them from what I've come to believe needs to be a performer's most important focus in presenting a piece of music to its listeners--especially including the performer as one of its most important listeners.  I often get the strong impression that during these times of nervousness they are preoccupied with everything but what the piece they're playing might be conveying as a work of art.  Or, even if they do focus some on what the piece might be expressing, other inner reckonings crowd that focus so far into the background that it really doesn't have much chance to influence their actual playing from moment to moment in any very substantial way.  I suspect that they're dominated by these other subjects not just while they're practicing and performing a piece, but even when they're running through it in their imagination--a time that I think may be far more crucial than many performers realize.

What they seem to get distracted by the most is their concern with the technical side of executing the music, ranging anywhere from "just getting all the notes" and "making a good sound" all the way to "bringing off a passage brilliantly."  Then, from there, worrying about how they might be evaluated as players by their listeners--somewhere along a scale from "poor" to "genius"--seems to follow directly.  Sooner or later, all these issues usually get tangled up with the players' feelings about their worth as human beings and about how well they might be liked or admired for their performing ability by friends, family, colleagues, or the public in general. It's so easy then for many musicians to feel that any performance they give that's less than excellent technically also makes them something of a social failure. (N1)


N1. Recently, pianist Joyce Hatto expressed well the attitude I hope to foster here.  Due to a long battle with cancer, she hasn't performed in public for 25 years, but she has made many recordings through her husband, William Barrington-Coupe's recording company in Cambridge, England.  In a telephone interview by Boston Globe senior music critic, Richard Dyer, with Hatto and her husband, she said, "What it really takes to be a pianist is courage, character, and the capacity to work.  Shakespeare understood the entire human condition and so did the great composers.  As interpreters, we are not important; we are just vehicles.  When somebody says, 'What a marvelous piece,' that's the thing, the true compliment.  Our job is to communicate the spiritual content of life as it is presented in the music.  Nothing belongs to us; all you can do is pass it along.  That's the way it is."  After Hatto left the room, her husband said to Dyer, "She doesn't want to play in public because she never knows when the pain will start, or when it will stop, and she refuses to take drugs.  Nothing has stopped her, and I believe the illness has added a third dimension to her playing; she gets at what is inside the music, what lies behind it."  Boston Sunday Globe, "After recording 119 CDs, a hidden jewel comes to light."  August, 21, 2005.

[Note, 2009: After Joyce Hatto's death, her husband was exposed as having edited recordings of other famous players to be distributed under her name; however, I'm not sure that this necessarily invalidates what she says here in the interview. JA.]



Modern recording practices add to the problem by the kind of technically flawless rendition of a piece they can manufacture from the "best," or most exact segments, of as many repetitions of it as they wish.  More and more, the public at a concert expects to hear this superhuman kind of playing, which is virtually impossible to duplicate in a single, non-stop performance of a piece without compromising the freedom that needs to be at the heart of any fully spontaneous and expressive rendering. (N1)  Many music schools add to the pressure to achieve such an expressively disconnected ideal of technical "perfection" by gearing their training to meet this commercially engineered standard. (N2)

And then, performers can also be steered away from music's essential nature as an art form by the required study of theory, form, analysis, etc., if this academic work isn't kept in proper perspective.  Many people seem to forget that these subjects are only the equivalent for the composer of what the study of rhetoric is to the poet or novelist, or color theory to the painter.  It's important to remember that knowing the elements of the craft of composing or the details of a composer's life and times aren't really necessary for either performer or listener to immediately and successfully grasp the essence of a piece of music as a work of art. (I'll say more about this later.)  And finding out how to keep this academic knowledge at the service of the fullest expression of a piece often needs to become a much greater concern for performers and music educators than it is.  As far as I can tell, few music school curricula are set up to foster a conscious fusing of all the elements they teach with an understanding of the main function of music as an art form, and students are very lucky if they have private teachers, coaches, and conductors who can help them do this in actual performance.  Generally, the attitude of most music school faculties seems to be: you either have enough discipline and "talent" or "innate musicality" to balance out the effect of your theoretical studies on your performing, or you don't.  But I hope the day will come when the most valued course in conservatories will be on musicality itself--and on exploring and developing what musicality might mean in terms of the kind of psycho-physical freedom that allows us to experience pulse and melodic flow in a way that's linked with and directed by the fullest imaginative involvement.

Of course, the Alexander Technique can play a very valuable part in gaining this psycho-physical freedom, but Alexander teacher training, in general, has a long way to go before it fully prepares teachers to help connect students' understanding of their use of themselves as a whole to the basic elements of musicality--whatever they may be. (N3)


N1. Now that many older recordings of great live performances are being reissued, you don't have to look far to find examples of a life and vibrancy, albeit "imperfect,"that is rarely found in the more recent recordings of the same works.


N2. Jennifer Homans illustrates well the effects of a competitive, perfectionist attitude on dance in a recent review (The New Republic, Feb. 18, 2002).  "The ballet dancers of today are amazing.  They can turn, jump, and lift their legs higher, better, farther, faster . . . with dizzying displays of technical prowess.  [In the recent American Ballet Theatre season] the performers were energetic, technically impeccable, and eager to please.  The audience cheered them on and shouted bravos.  But all of this effort only made the truth more glaring: we were wowed, but rarely moved; impressed, but almost never inspired.  Where was the edge, the exhilaration, the sense of having been part of something larger than a masterful pirouette?  Has ballet been reduced to a series of athletic moves, a gymnastics of turns, jumps and splits—and are audiences content to be cheerleaders?  Are we so seduced by pyrotechnics that we have forgotten that ballet might also offer something more complex and daring? . . . In the course of the past twenty years, we have watched dancers retreat into tight technical perfection, petrified beauty, and contrived imitations of past glories.  We have seen a vibrant, complicated, and playful art form lose its inner life and settle into a glamorous complacency."  While Homans feels some of the newer male dancers hold promise, she mainly focuses on the plight of the women:  "Will there ever be great classical ballerinas again?  Perhaps not.  To become such a ballerina these days a woman would need more than mere talent: she would need the courage to throw the weight of her career against an entrenched cultural preference for slick perfection and packaging.  Given the number of flawlessly trained ballerinas in the pipeline, it is hard to imagine a dancer having such audacity.  Judging from the women rewarded by ABT's directors, there is little incentive to be different.  If a young dancer took a risk and failed, a more reliable substitute would always be waiting in the wings . . . .  If they stick to the barren path of perfection, classical ballet may perish.  But if they have the courage to establish a complex physical and theatrical agenda, great things may still await us."


N3. 'JUST PLAY NATURALLY' (Duende Editions, Boston, 2002), a book I co-wrote with my cellist/Alexander teacher colleague, Vivien Mackie, on her 3-year study with Pablo Casals and its resonance with her experience teaching the Alexander Technique to professional musicians goes a long way toward establishing guidelines for Alexander teachers and students alike in making this connection.





Audiences can also add to the degree of stress felt by performers because advertising and the media often cultivate a very misdirected attitude in them as listeners.  The strong emphasis of the "star system" on performers' virtuosity, their personalities, and their instruments easily seduces many listeners away from paying attention to the artistic essence of the pieces musicians play--particularly if the flashy elements of a piece are more entertaining than the essential life-experience embodied in it. (N1)

Corporate marketing--better known in this case as "the music business"--fosters the same kind of focus on famous classical musicans that's given to popular musicians, film, TV, and sports stars.  In fact, I often feel that the highly competitive attitude that's encouraged from a very early age by American sports influences our approach to the performing arts here in a very powerful (though largely subconscious) way, right from earliest music lessons on through to the highest professional levels.  Performing well is often more a matter of "winning" by playing perfectly or brilliantly than of being the successful messenger, the communicator, of each piece we play. (N2)  Then our traditional concert and recital formats also add to the public's focus on performers simply because most programs are usually made up of a number of different works, mainly for the sake of taking up enough time to make it worth the audience's effort to come. (N3)


N1. In December, 2001, PBS broadcast a program on famous violinists (December 2, 2001) that focused almost entirely on the abilities of the performers.  One of the most extreme examples came in some footage of Jascha Heifetz from the 1950s.  The segment opens showing Heifetz playing the Wieniawski polonaise in D in an auditorium on a college campus.  After a little while one of the students in the audience jumps up from his seat, runs outside, and shouts to classmates passing by, "Heifetz is giving a free concert!  Hey guys!  Heifetz is giving a free concert!"  The students rush into the auditorium, and then the camera shifts back to Heifetz playing--brilliantly and impeccably, of course.  Even astonishingly so.  Viewers could hardly help but focus much more on his virtuosity than on what the polonaise might have to offer as a work of art in and of itself.  It made me wish that the student—if the film had to show someone interrupting the performance of the piece at all—had at least called out, "Heifetz is playing the Wieniawski polonaise!" or, even better, "There's a free performance of the Wieniawski polonaise!"  Frank R. Wilson, in his book The Hand, suggests that this emphasis on the performer might have started with Franz Liszt, when he was said to have proclaimed, "Le Concert, c'est moi!"--"I am the concert!"&8212  (Pantheon Books, New York, 1998, p. 214.)


N2. Sometimes the greatest musical communicators, because they are often also very unassuming as people, go largely unrecognized by the general public and even by many professional musicians.  For example, about fifteen years ago the ninety-seven-year-old pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski gave a recital at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.  I knew of him chiefly from his wonderful recordings with Pablo Casals, but many of the professional musicians--even the pianists--around Boston had never heard of him since he hadn't concertized for many years.  However, the week before his concert there was an announcement in the newspaper that gave a glowing account of his early career, so practically every pianist in the area turned out to hear him.  But I'll never forget the astonishment I saw on many of their faces as I looked around the hall after the recital.  His playing was without a single excessive gesture or mannerism, and he let the music pass through him so completely that you were hardly aware of him as a person sitting there playing.  The next year, the last before he died, he was, of course, brought back with great fanfare to a larger hall that would accommodate the much bigger crowd who came to hear him.  There's obviously a hunger for this deeper and more total kind of music-making, but it's so rarely heard that whole generations can grow up never experiencing it.


N3. Why not give two performances of a great work on one program--say, in a Beethoven quartet series-instead of coupling it with other works of lesser or equal greatness?  I certainly would have no objection to hearing each quartet played twice in a row, and then carrying it home with me as my sole musical experience that day, rather than being overloaded with another great work that deserves its own special attention and reflection--especially if each performance has great freshness and depth.




Some performers can even get distracted by their preoccupation with their instrument's construction, history, and value, particularly if they're playing a very expensive one of exquisite design crafted by a famous maker.  Pablo Casals describes the problem well in Conversations with Casals [2] when J. Ma. Corredor asks him:

How is it that you never played on a Stradivarius?


Casals replies:

I have never been tempted by a Stradivarius.  These superb instruments have too much personality in my opinion; if I play on one, I cannot forget that I have a Stradivarius in my hands, and it disturbs me considerably.  I said to a friend one day, talking of these instruments, "Their Majesties mind very much how one plays on them!"

Of course, Alexander lessons often reveal that this "disturbance" takes the form of a subconscious fear of dropping or damaging such an expensive or irreplaceable instrument and evokes a protective "veneer" of tension in us that restrains us (especially in our arms and hands) from the fullest freedom that we need for expressive abandon.

All these elements then, especially when they combine with each other, can set us up big time for diverting ourselves from the focus that, I believe, should be the guiding force of every performance, and to which these other concerns need to be kept as secondary in importance if we want to stay in the best position to ward off nervousness and play with access to fullest musicality.

Thomas Moore captures the essence of the dilemma well:

Anxiety is nothing but fear inspired by an imagined future collapse. It is the failure of trust.[3]

Looking at Moore's statement from an Alexander point of view, I think that what promotes anxiety and distraction most when we perform is our failing to trust our ability to direct our integration of ourselves as a whole so that every cell of our being can be imbued with the life-experience embodied in each particular piece we play.  But as soon as we start worrying--"an imagined future collapse"--(end-gaining!), or as soon as we get too caught up in focusing on specifics at the expense of our overall integrating, we start to rob our musical vision of its power to illuminate our playing--usually by tightening or stiffening in some way so that the pathways from our imagination to our nerves and muscles are hampered or blocked. (N.1)


N1. Claudia Walker, an American flutist playing in the Orquestra Sinfonica de Galicia in Spain, contrasts American perfectionism with Spanish attitudes about performing: "My flute playing and approach to music have changed by working with Spanish musicians, who are very expressive and are more willing to take performance risks than most Americans.  Their focus is more soloistic, and they find Americans musically boring.  Spaniards enjoy themselves so much in a concert that they play with abandon, while I sometimes play carefully, petrified I will make a mistake.  A flute section colleague said, 'all you will communicate is fear with that attitude.'  I realize he is correct.  As Americans emphasize technical prowess and discipline they lose sight of the emotional aspects of music . . . .  A Spanish audition is the perfect moment to take musical risks.  I think of it as a performance, not an audition.  Unlike the States with large numbers of people in the first round, fewer people attend Spanish auditions and Spanish committees want to like you.  Freedom from the note-perfect performance requirement is a new and welcome experience."  (Flute Talk, pp. 27-28, November 2001, Vol. 21, No. 4.)




So, to build up our ability to keep all these secondary aspects in their proper place, I think it helps to look closely at what makes up this central organizing power that allows our listeners to enter a piece's own unique sphere of life-feeling most completely, as distinct from any other facet in the listener's life that might be happening at that particular moment.  I like to call it our vision of the kind of "time that's passing" in the music, and of the life-feeling that's happening within that time.  And I believe that focusing on this vision of the kind of time that's passing in the piece as each phrase goes by is what must dominate over any thoughts about self, instrument, listeners' opinions, or the theoretical aspects of the work that might threaten to come forward to rule our attention.   As performers, this also means that we almost need to set our personalities aside, to let them disappear as much as possible, so that a piece can be presented, experienced, contemplated, and understood most fully by its listeners—not only as they actually hear it played, but as they remember and reflect on it afterward.  And, as I implied before, if we aren't also among the work's most receptive and appreciative listeners, then we probably aren't giving its other audience members the best chance to find their own vision of the life-experience embodied in it.

To describe more fully what I mean by "our vision of the kind of time that's passing in the music," I'd like to turn to one of my main sources of thought about the nature and functioning of art in general.  It's Susanne Langer's great work on the philosophy of aesthetics, where she carefully identifies what she calls the "primary illusion" of each major mode of art (music, painting, sculpture, dance, drama, poetry, the novel, and film) in terms of the main kind of life-experience each one  resembles&8212time (music), space (painting and drawing), volume (sculpture), power over gravity (dance), comic and tragic rhythms (the novel and drama), memory of events (poetry), and dream (film).  From that very comprehensive vantage point, she goes on to show how works of art (both good and poor) can and do contribute (for better or worse) to the education of our emotions, whether or not we are aware of it happening.

She says:

We can use [the art forms] . . . to imagine feeling and understand its nature. Self-knowledge, insight into all phases of life and mind, springs from artistic imagination.  That is the cognitive value of the arts.

But their influence on human life goes deeper than the intellectual level. As language actually gives form to our sense-experience, grouping our impressions around those things which have names, and fitting sensations to the qualities that have adjectival names, and so on, the arts we live with—our picture books and stories and the music we hear—actually form our emotive experience. (N1)

A wide neglect of artistic education is a neglect in the education of feeling.  Most people are so imbued with the idea that feeling is a formless total organic excitement in human beings as in animals, that the idea of educating feeling, developing its scope and quality, seems odd to them, if not absurd.  It is really, I think, at the very heart of personal education.

One other function of the arts is the education of vision that we receive in seeing, hearing, reading works of art—the development of the artist's eye, that assimilates ordinary sights (or sounds, motions, or events) to inward vision, and lends expressiveness and emotional import to the world. Wherever art takes a motif from actuality—a flowering branch, a bit of landscape, a historic event or a personal memory, any model or theme from life—it transforms it into a piece of imagination, and imbues its image with artistic vitality.[4] (N2)


I realize that the phrase "philosophy of aesthetics" might have so much of an intellectual and academic ring for many of you that you could find it hard to imagine that the subject would have much to offer us as performers, but I think some of Langer's main ideas on the nature of art can be so valuable to our way of thinking about the pieces we play that I'd like to highlight them here briefly.  They're more accessible to us than other writings on aesthetics because she developed her insights by having many in-depth conversations with all kinds of artists about their own sense of what they do when they create a work; and then she linked up all this "studio talk" with her earlier study of the major philosophical understandings of our basic symbol-making and symbol-perceiving capacities, which appear mainly in the writings of her mentor, Ernst Cassirer.[5]  Langer’s first two books, Philosophy in a New Key (1942)[6] and Feeling and Form (1953),[7] as well as her collection of lectures in Problems of Art (1957),[8] set down her ideas about how each work of art is actually a single symbol that functions for us very differently from the way a sign or a symbolism does (such as language when we use it to construct propositions about facts, or mathematics when we construct formulas and equations). Many consider her to be one of America's most important philosophers. (N3)

As performers, taking a close and serious look at our own individual philosophy of art is something I believe we need to do if we really want to understand how the Alexander Technique can help us in reckoning fully enough with nerves and stage fright to give our listeners the best chance to experience the essence of whatever we play--no matter how virtuosic or frivolous the piece.  If we start with Langer's overview of the role of the arts in society, as well as her specific understandings of the main function of each art form--even if we don't agree with everything she says--I think it can be enormously valuable in aligning our priorities in performing with ever greater conviction and clarity.  Here's one of her most succinct statements about works of art:

The relevant facts are

(1) that a picture, a statue, a building, a poem or novel or play, or a musical composition, is a single symbol of complex vital and emotive import;

(2) that there are no conventional meaningful units which compose that symbol, and build up its import stepwise for the percipient;

(3) that artistic perception, therefore, always starts with an intuition of total import, and increases by contemplation as the expressive articulations of the form become apparent;

(4) that the import of an art symbol cannot be paraphrased in discourse.[9]


N1. The somewhat infamous Camille Paglia, in her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990), does a lot to amplify and extend Langer's conviction by writing so openly and vividly of her "visions" from encountering not only works of so-called "fine art" but also works from everyday, popular culture like television soap opera, pop and rock music, advertising, etc.

N2. This idea can also be extended into the possibility of one art form being inspired by motifs from another.  A wonderful example of this appears in Joan Acocella's New Yorker magazine article on the great dancer Suzanne Farrell ("A Ballerina's Second Act," January 6, 2003, pp. 50-51) which tells how she passes on to a young dancer, Susan Jaffe, how she learned from Balanchine.  "A constant theme of [Farrell's] teaching is symbol-making.  Susan Jaffe . . . told me about working with Farrell on the first section of the ballet "Mozartiana" when, as the curtain opens, the lead woman, dressed in black, comes forward in boureé--the sliding-on-point-step--meanwhile raising her arms very slowly.  In learning the ballet, Jaffe was having trouble with the arms, so Farrell . . . told her that Balanchine had taken these arms from a statue of the Virgin Mary in a church [in New York City] a few blocks from where he lived.  Jaffe, who also lived near there, knew the statue, which is actually a rather ordinary marble Madonna, but with lovely arms, which she holds out to us softly, as if she were giving us something nice.  Jaffe said to me later, 'In that arm movement you bring your fingers together, and then open your arms.  So this movement opens up into art and history--the neighborhood Balanchine lived in, and what he saw, and the history of the world.'  What Jaffe got from Farrell, it seems, was not so much a description as a suggestion, an idea: of something small, and one's own, opening out into something great, which then becomes one's own, too.  With Farrell, Jaffe says, you work 'from pictures in your mind, rather than "Is this a good fifth position?"'"

N3. Langer's Philosophy in a New Key has outsold all other titles at Harvard University Press, and her great, final work, the three-volume study, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1967-82), reveals how our symbol-making and symbol-perceiving capacities are what distinguish us most from all other species and can become a basis for reorienting psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the other sciences away from more mechanistic and animal-oriented models for understanding human behavior and feeling.                                                                                                                                                        



If we apply these general points about a work of art to our personal relationship to music, I think they can help us in being more openly receptive to the essence of each piece we perform than many of us usually are--not only when we're actually playing it, but also before we play and even when we're just listening to it.  By turning Langer's points into questions we can more actively awaken our receptivity to a work by merely asking ourselves: What life-feeling is the time that's passing in this piece about? (N1)  What life-feeling is the time that's passing in this movement or phrase about? (N2)  Is it an action with a climax as in a drama, or is it more of an extended, steady mood?  What's the setting?  What's going on in the setting?  What time of day is it?  Does it involve a landscape that we're viewing from a distance, or are we right in the midst of it?  Is only one person there, or many, or none?  If there are people there, what are they doing?  What are they feeling?  Are there only animals, birds, or other creatures there?  And even if no specific answers come to us right away (or ever, for that matter), staying available to their appearing at any moment in both playing and listening is still just as important. (N3)

Langer calls the expressive nature of a work its "vital import":

I call it "vital," because it is always some mode of feeling, emotion, consciousness, that is conveyed by a successful work of art; "import," because it is conveyed.  Vital import is the element of felt life objectified in the work, made amenable to our understanding.  In this way, and in no other essential way, a work of art is a symbol.

But vital import, or artistic expressiveness, cannot be pointed out, as the presence of this or that color contrast, balance of shapes, or thematic item may be pointed out by the discerning critic.  You apprehend expressiveness or you do not; it cannot be demonstrated.  One may demonstrate that such-and-such ingredients--chords, words, shapes, or what-not--have gone into the structure of the work; one may even point out pleasant or harsh sensory effects, and anybody may note them.  But no one can show, let alone prove to us, that a certain vision of human feeling (in the widest sense of the word "feeling") is embodied in the piece.  This sort of feeling, which is not represented, but composed and articulated by the entire apparition, the art symbol, is found there directly, or not at all. That finding of a vital import is what I mean by "artistic perception."  It is not the same thing as aesthetic sensibility; it is insight. (N4)


Unless they are very abstract or complex, most art forms—poetry, dance, the novel, painting, sculpture, film, and even song and opera--while they may also offer endless possibilities for revelation of experience and understanding--often provide us with fairly direct and immediate answers to the questions of their vital import.  But instrumental music usually requires us to search more actively for insight into the particular life-feeling of each work as we listen to or play it--even if the composer gives us a clue in its title: "Romance," "Burlesque,"  "Pastorale," "Allemande," "Les Adieux," "Pathétique," "New World," etc.  Of course, in the case of so-called "program music," a written scenario for a piece is already given for us to contemplate; but even then, I don't see that it should necessarily chain us to an exclusive way of envisioning what might be happening in it.  Why should it mean that we're experiencing the work less completely if we never read the scenario the composer claimed to use in creating the piece?

Langer uses the tricky word "intuition," to describe what lets us realize the import of a piece, but her definition steers clear of is signifying anything mystical or requiring "special powers" to make use of:

What I mean by intuition . . . comprises all acts of insight or recognition of formal properties, of relations, of significance, and of abstraction and exemplification.

The act of intuition whereby we recognize the idea of "felt life" embodied in a good work of art is the same sort of insight that makes language more than a stream of little squeaks or an arabesque of serried inkspots.[10]

When helping singers and instrumentalists apply the Alexander Technique to their performing, one of my favorite ways of prompting them to get more in touch with their intuition about a piece--their "musical vision--is to read them this quote from Coinversations with Casals.  Casals’ friend, Corredor, says:

There are some artists who only feel inspired by reading or performing a piece when, at a given time, they recollect a landscape, or remember reading something which has helped them to penetrate the musical sense of the work in question.

Casals answers:


That seems natural to me.  When my pupils play, I sometimes ask them: what do you feel, what do you see?  An artist has imagination and fantasy, and when he gives himself to the music ought to feel and see things, however vague and indefinite the vision.

Then Corredor also goes on to ask:


What about his preoccupation with technical difficulties?

And Casals says:


It all depends on his technical potentialities, and on the work he has done to overcome his difficulties.  In any case, preoccupation with the instrument ought not to interfere with the performance or be noticed by the listener.[11]


I think that Casals's words "however vague and indefinite the vision" are the most compelling ones here, especially because they leave open the possibility that you might never come to any specific vision about a particular piece.  Yet you can still be open to the overall expressive realm of life-experience involved in it; (N5) and that receptivity, in and of itself can keep you from getting pulled too far into any of the secondary concerns I mentioned earlier that can so easily divide you and provoke nervousness.   Also, Casals's asking "what do you feel?" clearly shows that "vision" doesn't necessarily have to mean "visualizing."  In fact, many people seem to be able to intuit the essence of a piece of music without any imaginary pictures at all. (N6)  Of course, if you do choose be open to "seeing or feeling things" in music, you should probably allow for the likelihood that any images or sensations that might come forth will be unique to you and not necessarily ones that can or should be shared with anyone else. (N7) I think it's also very important to remember that our individual vision of a piece can change, deepen, and grow from performance to performance (or from hearing to hearing) as all our other life-experience deepens and grows.  It seems obvious, too, that the greater the work, the greater its potential for infinite, life-revealing insight--even at the very moment of performing it.

This quote of Casals about "vision" also makes me think of a "60 Minutes" interview of the famous Broadway singer Barbara Cook by Mike Wallace.  It included a clip of her giving a master class for some acting students at Juilliard.  One young man in the clip, Daniel, seemed to be doing quite well as he began singing a song for the class; but Ms Cook soon stopped him and said, "OK. The message [that you're conveying to your imaginary partner] is more about, 'I can sing,' than about what you're trying to tell her."

The camera shifts back to the TV studio, and Ms Cook says to Mike Wallace, "Young people who are just starting off somehow need to let you know they know how to sing.  So the message becomes, 'Look, I can sing.'  And [then I want to say to them]--'Fine. OK. So you can sing.  What are you going to do with it?'"

Back in the class, Daniel begins the song again: "When you're in my arms and I feel you so close to me . . ."  Then Ms Cook says to him: "Can we stop, Daniel?  [She pauses.]  Do you know what this song is about?"


Daniel: "How--how [her] being close to me just puts this feeling inside me."

Ms Cook: "It's about sex, Daniel."

Ms Cook, back in the studio, to Mike Wallace: "I do that partially for shock value."

Daniel: "Whoo!"

Ms Cook: "Think of it, if you can get inside the power of a moment like that, and really be inside of the moment and not worry about what you're looking like and what you're sounding like . . . we’ll know something’s going on.  And it'll be authentic, it'll be real."


Daniel starts the song again, but she quickly stops him and says, "You know, I just don't believe it.  I just don't believe it.  You know, you--you really don't have--honest to God, you do not have the life experience to really, really sing this song.  But I think you have enough so that we can get past this singing thing a bit."  She goes on helping him, almost like a therapist, to reach the deep, genuine feelings behind the lyrics, talking about what the feelings in the song are, coaxing him into a posture that also reflects the life-situation of the song, etc.--all bringing him closer and closer to a vision of the import of the piece.  It's astounding what a difference all this makes in every aspect of how Daniel sings the rest of the song.  The interview ends with Ms Cook saying to Mike Wallace, "The very place where safety lies for us is the thing that seems most dangerous, and that [performing] is having the courage to let people really, really into what life has done to us."[12]


N1. Here's a passage from one of Langer's chapters on music in Feeling and Form that I've used as a basis for these questions: "All music creates an order of virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other&8212always and only for each other, for nothing else exists there.  Virtual time is as separate from the sequence of actual happenings as virtual space in visual art is separate from actual space.

   "Inward tensions and outward changes, heartbeats and clocks, daylight and routines and weariness furnish various incoherent temporal data, which we coordinate for practical purposes by letting the clock predominate.  But music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it--organize, fill, and shape it, all alone.  It creates an image of time measured by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself.  Music makes time audible, and its form and continuity sensible."  (Chapter 7, "The Image of Time," pp. 109-110.)


N2. For example, Carl Czerny said the Adagio of Beethoven's second Razoumovsky Quartet occurred to him "when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres."  (Frida Knight, Beethoven and the Age of Revolution, p. 67, International Publishers, New York, 1973.)


N3. "The vitality and energies of the imagination do not speak at will, they are fountains, not machinery." D.G. James, "Skepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination." London, Allen & Unwin, 1937.


N4. "Artistic Perception and Natural Light," pp. 59-60.  I think "aesthetic sensibility" is often mistaken for artistic perception.  Aesthetic sensibility can be nothing more than the thrill of hearing the sound of a symphony orchestra in a great hall (no matter what it might be playing), just walking into a museum and seeing many fine things (including the museum building itself), or being at a theater where great acting is happening even if it's only a mediocre play.  I remember a colleague telling me that her husband, who was a conductor, once said that he felt most people come to concerts just to bathe in sound, rather than to listen to the music for its vital import.  There's nothing wrong with this, of course; but it's too bad that we don't have more help in our education system with how we can listen more actively and imaginatively.


N5. One remarkable example of musical vision in relation to operatic music happens in a film of a concert performance by Maria Callas of arias from Carmen (Hamburg, 1956).  You see the essence of her vision operating not only in her actual singing, which of course is extraordinary, but also when she's merely standing and listening to the orchestra while it plays the long introduction made up of various themes from the opera.  Her face and eyes clearly show that she's envisioning the drama (or at least the setting) just as each theme unfolds.  (You find a stark contrast to this Callas concert in the televised performances of "The Three Tenors," especially when they appear side by side and take turns singing sections of the same aria.  When it's not their turn, they seem to become wholly self-preoccupied, rather than responding to their colleague's singing then.)


N6. I had a very powerful experience that illustrates the existence of musical vision independently from technical and other secondary concerns--even from the exact notes of a piece. When I was working on my master's degree at Tufts in the early 1970s,  I took some thought-provoking courses in a new approach to music education taught by two visiting professors from the Zurich Conservatory, Paul Knill and Mariagnese Cattaneo.  They began with getting us to learn to improvise by using anything in the classroom that we could make sound with, and then we gradually built up from there to more structured formats that could also include instruments, notation, etc.   But the highlight of my work with them came during an advanced class when Paul Knill wanted to illustrate how we could merge this approach with studying and playing composed, classical music.  He started by asking if there was anyone in the class who had studied piano fairly seriously.  All the students except me were early childhood education majors; however, one woman raised her hand and said that she had studied piano through high school but hadn't played much at all since she'd been in college.  Paul Knill asked her what music she had studied, and she said she had mostly worked on Mozart and Beethoven sonatas.

Then he asked her if there was a particular Beethoven sonata that she had especially liked to play; and when she said which one it was, he asked if she remembered it well enough to play some of it for the class.  She was sure that she didn't; and since no one had the music for it there, I assumed he'd just pass on to another idea.  But then he asked her, "Do you think you could come to the piano and just play us something of what this sonata is about?  We understand that you don't remember the exact notes and rhythms; so we'll completely understand if you make "mistakes."  It won't really matter to us if you do, because we just want to get an idea of what this sonata is like."  She seemed hesitant but agreed to try it anyway, and she began by playing just a few sustained chords, leaving plenty of time around each of them to bring in some strands of melody--obviously not the exact harmonies, notes, or rhythms in the printed score.  Nevertheless, it was still amazingly Beethoven.  You could see that she was letting her general "vision" of the sonata pervade everything she played; and I think that vision of it was there more powerfully in her playing those inexact fragments than it ever would have been if she'd been trying to play the piece accurately from the score.  The rest of the class was obviously very moved by what she'd done, but I was astonished by it--because it went against every ingrained belief I had held from my years of "serious" professional musical training.  The fact that someone could achieve such a full musical communication of a composed classical piece without even playing the "right notes" was a complete revelation, and it suddenly released me from a kind of straightjacket that my thinking and playing had been bound up in for many years, especially because of the ways some of my teachers had demanded that I work on technical accuracy separate from expressiveness and musical vision.  The experience also marked a big turning point in the way I worked on my own playing and also in the way I helped my musician Alexander students liberate themselves from the constraints of excessive technical discipline and the need to be "perfect" each time they play a phrase.


N7. This brings up a point that some psychologists have investigated about the differences between people’s mental modes for processing our experience.  One theory ("neuro-linguistic programming") believes there are three different modes: visual, verbal, and kinesthetic, and that the predominant mode varies from person to person, with profound effect on our ways of communicating with each other.  If this is true, it could explain a great deal about differences in experiencing and performing music.  For instance, to a visually or kinesthetically dominant person, theoretical knowledge (which is chiefly verbal) might be very disruptive to their flow of attention in listening or playing, while imagery might distract the verbally dominant players from the focus that helps them be most musical.



Worrisome thinking often lays the groundwork for nervousness way in advance of a performance, sometimes even as soon as you set the date of a concert--especially if you've chosen a program that will include pieces you know are difficult for you.  Making this very first scheduling decision can be the "critical moment" (to use Alexander's term for it) when you need to start seriously applying your skills of inhibiting, directing, and envisioning in relation to any given piece on a program, both in practicing and in thinking about playing it.  Of course, you need to extend these conscious, positive processes all the way up to walking out on stage and on through playing every phrase of a piece; but if you haven't established and maintained them well from that very earliest moment of committing to the performance date and choosing the program, you run more risk of reverting back to the subconscious habits of self-guidance and self-control that keep you from letting your musical vision reign over all you do on stage.

In fact, as you gain more experience with the Technique you'll find that your musical vision and your directing and ordering can reinforce each other more and more profoundly all along this route from practicing to full performance.  A logical way to work at it is to first make sure you are lengthening, widening, and "going up" as well as you know how to, and then using that expansive condition as your main pathway to opening yourself to the vital import of a piece. (N1)  I think you'll find, then, that the more you go up and lengthen and widen to open yourself to musical vision, the more you can fuse your imagination with your entire state of being so that it also helps you keep in their proper perspective all the secondary concerns and the worries that otherwise can divide you and foster nervousness and loss of control.  Also, when you're more fully going up, you can often be much more available to receiving intuitions and insights about a piece's vital import--even in the midst of an actual performance.  These "revelations" seem to come through much more readily, clearly, and profoundly than when you're "pulled down" or when you're more overtly trying to find them. (N2)  Helping us to be more fully available to intuition and insight is one of the greatest gifts the Alexander Technique has to offer us as performers and listeners, along with a continual deepening of our life-experience itself from moment to moment—continually enhancing the interplay between art and life, life and art. (N3)

Thomas Moore captures the essence of all this well:

The key to seeing the world's soul, and in the process wakening in one’s own, is to get over the confusion by which we think fact is real and imagination an illusion.  It is the other way around.  Fact is an illusion, because every fact is part of a story and is riddled with imagination.  Imagination is real because every perception of the world around us is absolutely colored by the narrative or image-filled lens through which we perceive.  We are all poets and artists as we live our daily lives, whether or not we recognize this role and whether or not we believe it.

We can be educated in imagination by the arts, and that is why the arts are primary in any soul-focused education.  In the arts we see the images, the stories and pieces of story that give meaning and value to the most ordinary details of a life.  A still life reveals the soul of a kitchen.  A landscape teaches us that nature has a personality.  A sonata recapitulates the rhythms and moving forms of experience . . . .  The writer sees a flash of sense in reality and with his art keeps that vision at hand . . . . We can always hear further reverberations of significance in everything that happens in all that is.  We can always sound that resonance in the way we shape our lives and do our work.

The pulse of life is as close as our own throbbing veins . . . .[13]


And, along these lines, Susanne Langer should have the last word:

Sign and symbol are knotted together in the production of those fixed realities that we call "facts". . . .  But between the facts run the threads of unrecorded reality, momentarily recognized, wherever they come to the surface, in our tacit adaptation to signs; and the bright, twisted threads of symbolic envisagement, imagination, thought—memory and reconstructed memory, belief beyond experience, dream, make-believe, hypothesis, philosophy—the whole creative process of ideation, metaphor, and abstraction that makes human life an adventure in understanding.[14]





N1. Only you can be the judge of how much time and what kind of surroundings you need for bringing your use of yourself to this maximum condition of going up; but leaving extra time before you play, just in case you need it, is always a good idea.  Sometimes it's more a matter of avoiding the activities, people, and ways of thinking that tend to distract you and pull you down.  Sometimes it's a matter of leaving just a few free minutes to reinforce your direction right before you have to play.  At other times you might need all day to work on yourself to be going up as fully as you can.  Some performers try to schedule an Alexander lesson as close to a performance as possible--even up to half an hour before.  And there are Alexander teachers who occasionally go to concert halls to give musicians Alexander work in the wings or green room just before they go on stage or during intermission.  It can be important to provide for all these alternatives just in case you need them; but I know that if I've prepared for a performance adequately, it's more important on the day of the concert to do everything I can to make sure I'm going up fully than it is to do any more practicing or even any playing through of the piece itself.  The quality of my going up governs the outcome at that point far more than anything else.


N2. In his approach to psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, developed a way of being deliberately open to the working of our internal imagery that he called "active imagination."  He contrasted this active imagination to our more ordinary day-dreaming and fantasizing, which often lack a sustained focus from moment to moment.  In active imagination you're encouraged to take a "theme"--say, an element from a powerful dream--and then try to stay with it in a receptive way for at least fifteen to twenty minutes to see what further images, thoughts, and feelings present themselves and develop in relation to it.


N3. J.W.N. Sullivan's 1927 book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Vintage Books Edition, Random House, New York, 1960) can be very helpful in putting us in touch with our musical vision.  You might not agree with all Sullivan says, or divines, about Beethoven's works, but he nevertheless challenges us to listen more fully for the deepest import of each piece.  The book seems to have become something of a classic, and a number of main bookstores continue to stock it.  Writer, critic, and editor Clifton Fadiman wrote of it: "It is the most interesting book on music that I have ever read, and it is not written for musical experts; rather for people like myself who like to listen to music but can boast no special knowledge of it.  It deals not only with music, on which I do not speak with authority, but with human life in general, about which you and I speak with authority every day of our lives."


[1] "Effects of the Alexander Principle in Dealing with Stress in Musical Performance," Tufts University, May, 1975, available in this website.

[2] Conversations with Casals, Dutton, New York, 1956, pp. 206-7.

[3] Original Self, p. 13, Harper Collins, New York, 2001.

[4] "Artistic Perception and ‘Natural Light," pp. 71-73, Problems of Art, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1957.

[5] Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 Vols., Bruno Cassirer, Berlin, 1923, 1924, 1929.

[6] Philosophy in a New Key, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1942.

[7] Feeling and Form, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1953.

[8] Problems of Art,Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1957.

[9] "Artistic Perception and Natural Light," p. 68.  (Emphasis mine, JA)

[10] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[11] Conversations with Casals, pp. 194-195.

[12] Interview of Barbara Cook by Mike Wallace, "60 Minutes," December 2, 2001.  (Vol.  XXXIV, No. 12, Burrelle's Transcripts, Livingston, NJ.)

[13] Original Self, pp. 100-101.

[14] Philosophy in a New Key, p. 281.