This is an adaptation of a transcript of a lesson I gave to a professional cellist in the early stage of her Alexander study when she was just beginning to learn to apply Alexander principles to her playing.  I thought that revising the transcript with other musicians in mind might add to their understanding of what the Alexander Technique has to offer them. [1] This particular session only deals with the elements of bowing, but the same basic approach, allowing for alterations to address the different actions required, can also be applied to the use of the left arm, hand, and fingers—and parallels can be made to the fundamental playing demands of many other instruments.  (JA, 2004)




Cellist: My cello teacher always said, “"Feel your musical impulses in your wrist."”  But it never ever made sense to me.  I’ll never forget it.  I’ve been doing the bowing more from here, just above my wrist, and it feels pretty much effortless to do that.  But maybe he really meant here, on the outside of my right forearm.  However, he always said “wrist.”


And he would also often say, “"Your wrist is too low."”  So another thing that seems to help is if I think of my forearm as always balanced and level with the floor.  Then it feels sort of like “the waiter with a towel over his arm.”  If that'’s intact—that keeping my forearm level with the floor—then my upper arm seems willing to be passive.  It just kind of dangles behind my forearm and wrist.


But the piece of information that I feel like I was always missing was: where the energy to move the bow is coming from.


Joe Armstrong: . . . what the main source of the energy should be?


C: Yes, especially when you have to make a very strong or forceful attack on a note.  I think it helps to think of it coming from here, on the outside of the right forearm—even though maybe it should come from over here [pointing to somewhere else on her arm].  But keeping my forearm level with the floor seems to give me the balance that makes me ready for the quickest impulse to move.  That’s what it feels like to me.


JA: Yes, but I think the thing that you probably need very much to consider is that the specific, local control can really be very much of an individual thing that’s different from person to person, and maybe even different within you at different times.  Because you probably have certain “built in” conditions of tightness that come from your years of using your hands and arms and your whole self, really, in playing a certain way, for instance, that might be very different from someone else’s built in tightnesses that they’ve cultivated with their particular way of using these parts and the whole of themselves in their own, unique way of playing.  But often we aren’'t even aware of these habits and the built up tightnesses that come with them until they’'re unmasked and unraveled after we have a lot of work from a skilled Alexander teacher’s hands in regular chair and table work, as well as from the teacher’s hands-on guidance in working with us at our instruments . . .


C: Yes.


JA: . . . so that merely thinking of the impulse to draw a bow coming from your wrist might not work best for you right now—or even at any other time either, for that matter.


C: It might work for somebody else.


JA: Yes.  It might work for somebody else—depending on their level of overall integration and how they interpret the words “feel your musical impulses in your wrist.”  And it might also be that thinking of it coming from that place on your forearm is where you feel it works best for you now.  But if your use of your shoulders changes, for instance, as it often does after having more Alexander lessons, and your shoulders become more open and widening along with all the rest of your back and torso—which usually allows your arms and hands to work in a much more integrated way with all the rest of you—then maybe the impulse to move the bow would need to originate from somewhere else more central.  I think it probably would—considering what we'’re looking for as the most ideal use of your self as a whole when everything in you is going up and lengthening and widening in relation to gravity'’s pull and when you’'re really using your neck-head-torso-limb relationship as your main source of power for everything you do.  When that’'s all working beautifully, then your arms and hands just become sort of “invisible.”


C: Right.  I’ve had the feeling in the past.


JA: As we try to look at playing any instrument from a Alexander point of view though, the main thing we say that you want is the maximum amount of freedom and flexibility in your joints—the joints of your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, as well as your hips, knees, ankles, the joint between your neck and head, and in all the other joints in your spine—so that those areas stay as open and available as possible for the messages to get through to your arms, hands, fingers, and thumbs from whatever sources in your imagination and expressive intention that create the fullest realization of the music.  And we find that you can’'t really have all those joints open and free unless you’re fully going up and lengthening and widening in the whole of you, especially as your forward and up head direction leads the lengthening and widening of your back and torso.


C: Yes.


JA: So it really behooves you to think of the main source of energy in playing as coming from somewhere that wouldn'’t tend to get you into any kind of fixing or locking in your joints.  But when you only think of the source of energy coming from your wrist or forearm, I think there’'s very much of a tendency with that idea to do something with the specific, local muscles in and around your wrist joint and to fix it in a certain way, to stiffen or hold it in a certain way or in a certain position.  Whereas your wrist, as a joint, needs utmost freedom and spaciousness in order for the messages from your imagination to get through to your hand, fingers, and thumb so that they can manage to do all the myriad subtleties in fully expressive playing.  And by freedom, we don'’t mean just a floppy looseness.  From the Alexander point of view, floppy looseness isn’t real freedom, although to most people it probably seems a lot more desirable than stiffness and tension.  But with floppy looseness going on in any one particular place, you usually have to be holding or tensing somewhere else to provide support for the looseness and the heaviness that result from it.


That’s why we don’'t use the words “"relax"” and "“relaxation"” in teaching the Alexander Technique.  Those words usually lead to what we call “"collapse" a heavy, dead state of muscle tonus.  What we really think works best for performing is an alive, lengthening, elastic tonus in the whole of you—sort of like a beautifully strung spider'’s web that'’s equally springy wherever you touch it.


I'’ve taught a number of experienced pianists with serious neck and shoulder problems, for instance, who’'ve studied some of the piano methods that involve the teacher lifting the student'’s arm and moving it all around or shaking it while the student is supposed to leave it “"relaxed"” enough that when the teacher finally drops the arm it just flops down to the student’'s side.  And when the student can allow the teacher to drop either arm at any moment like this, then it’s assumed that the student truly understands “"relaxation in the arms and hands”" and is ready to play in the most free and natural way.  But these pianist's who'’d diligently cultivated this approach unfortunately wound up with neck and shoulder troubles simply because they’'d been trying to let their arms hang like dead weights from their neck and torso as well as from the keyboard, and this hanging required them to make all kinds of extra, subconscious effort in their neck, shoulder, and torso areas in order to support all that collapsed, dead weight that came from their arms dragging downward.  It was also startling to me that it had never occurred to them before they came for Alexander lessons that this arm "“relaxation" idea” might have been the source of the neck and shoulder problems that they were hoping to resolve by taking lessons with me.  And they were just as startled to realize that the “relaxation” concept was the root of the problem when they began to experience a really integrated use of their neck, head, torso, and arms from having regular Alexander work.  They had no idea that their arms and hands had anything to do with their torso, neck and head!


So the general idea is that if you work from the very basic bowing [2] that we started to do in your last lesson when we brought the bow up and just “rested” it on the string from simply having it there in your hand while the back of your hand was resting on your lap . . . when you can do this successfully without extra local effort in your wrist and arm, then it’s as if everything in you—your wrist, your hand and fingers, your forearm, your upper arm, your shoulder, and all the rest of you—needs to go up, to come up off that place where you’re resting the bow hair on the string, just it’'s all already been going up from where the contact of the back of your hand with the bow in it was resting there on your leg. [3]


C: Yes.


JA: . . . and the more you can achieve that coming up in an equalized way in your whole arm and shoulder and back—particularly your whole arm, including your hand and fingers—then, maybe, on the basis of that whole equalized coming up you might try to let your impulse to move the bow come from whatever specific place you think you need it to come from at any given moment.  That would probably serve you best.  And remember: "“coming up"” doesn’t’ mean “"lifting.”"  Coming up happens mainly by leaving out any downward tendencies—any collapsings, pressings, tightenings, or holdings—and then just “wishing” every cell of you to be going up.


C: Yes, that makes perfect sense, because there have been a lot of times when I’ve felt like it was completely effortless to play, when my attention seemed like it was completely “above my body.”


JA: That sounds very much like what the experience of having your total anti-gravity response working well gives you, which is what comes as a result of employing Alexander’'s concept of directing and maintaining the integration of your neck-head-torso-limb relationship that he called our Primary Control [4]—“primary” in the sense that it needs to be considered and dealt with first, before you start to do whatever specific action you'’ve decided to do, whether it’s getting out of a chair or playing a phrase.


C: In those instances of complete effortlessness I wasn’t even thinking of my arms.  I didn’t even have to think of them.


JA: Yes!  And that’s also what happens when you get more and more of this integrated overall upness and expansiveness—the “going up and lengthening and widening”—that we’re looking for with the Alexander Technique.


But still, I think if you want to investigate and analyze the way you use the bow, you’'ve got to see that the power for the movement does come from some place. It’'s something you’'re doing with your hand on the bow.  It is your arm that you’'re moving, and your arm needs to be “directed” to move in the best, most appropriate way for the sound to happen just as the music needs it to.  So if you stay just as you are right now with the bow resting on the string and I come over to you and supply your arm with just enough energy to set your bow into motion across the string while you’ only concern yourself with just going on keeping the bow resting on the string, the logical place for me to move your arm from is here, on the outside of your right forearm for an upbow, and on the inside of your forearm for a downbow.


[JA demonstrates by moving C'’s arm, hand, and bow to produce a very slow downbow that eventually comes to a complete stop at the tip before he goes on to build up the opposite direction of energy to begin moving C'’s arm to produce a similarly slow upbow that eventually comes back to rest at the frog.]


So it seems to me that you’ve got two lines of approach to consider.  First of all, just from the few Alexander lessons you’'ve had so far, I think you’'d probably agree that getting this total going up —of your anti-gravity response —working as well as possible is a good general condition in and of itself for playing.  And this general condition is going to be of immense value, and maybe even the most valuable thing you can do for every aspect of your playing to be at its best at any given moment.


C: Yes.


JA: You'’ve seen how it’s important to have Alexander lessons to learn how to be going up to the best of your ability, and sometimes that might take quite a few lessons, considering the number of years you might have cultivated all sorts of habits of tensing and fixing, and considering the many tightnesses you might have accrued because of repeating those habitual patterns over and over in playing the cello for quite a few years.  Luckily, a skilled Alexander teacher can help you improve those elements much more quickly and reliably than you usually can by yourself, because if you try to change those patterns and conditions on your own you’re very like to do it on the basis of your old habits of tensing—without really realizing that that'’s what you’re doing.  So, first, there’'s this long-range possibility of improvement to consider and allow for that can bring with it all kinds of potential for change and growth over time.


C: Yes.


JA: But then you’'ve got the more immediate, short-term side of the situation to consider too when you have to admit to yourself, “O.K.  So I don'’t quite know yet how to get my total going up and lengthening and widening working on my own as well as I’d like in order for me to play at my best standard every time I practice or perform; so what’s the best way to manage myself when I have to play anyway —right now?  How can I approach the use of my arms and hands in the best way now . . . so that however I’'m using them will at least not detract from the whole going up process and maybe even contribute to going up more—contribute to helping free my shoulders and the rest of me even more as I go on playing?”  To do this —right now— you really need to pay attention to how the way you'’re using your arm might be affecting your whole neck-head-torso-limb distribution of energy, for better or worse, as the whole of you flows upward from the contacts of your sitting bones on the chair and from the contacts of your feet on the floor and from the contact of your fingers and thumb on the bow and from the contact of the bow on the strings.  And through your attention to all of that, you’re hoping to leave out any effort that isn’t absolutely necessary —remembering, of course, that this doesn'’t mean “stay relaxed.” It even allows for the fact that you ultimately might have to make quite a lot of effort for doing certain things.  Often you do, but that greater effort needs to come from the whole of you to be as balanced and equal as possible.


So the more you can think of going back to nothing, “zero effort,” as it were, and try to find your way to the instrument from just naively resting you hand, with the bow in it, on your leg— without any preconceived ideas of “impulses ”or anything else very specific needing to happen in your fingers, hand, wrist, or arm—and then go directly from resting it all on your leg to resting the bow hair on the string where it would need to be to begin a note . . . the more you can develop that naïve action first, then you can get your whole general use of yourself organized into “going up” from that “grounded” contact of the bow hair on the strings —because the strings also, literally, connect to the ground or floor through their attachments to the tailpiece, through the tail piece’s attachment to the bottom of the cello, and through the bottom of the cello'’s connection to the end pin which rests on the floor. [5] So from that grounded contact of the hair resting on the strings you have the best chance to proceed to uncover, or discover, what it means to draw the bow in the most balanced and least effortful way.  That’s why I like to call it “basic bowing” or “nothing bowing.”  And from this simple operation you can produce your most basic cello sound, which actually offers you a lot of scope for improving and refining before you actually go on to try any more complicated or demanding bowing.  So if you just take it one bow at a time, coming to rest on the string at the end of each bow, and then re-directing the whole of yourself again to go up and lengthen and widen from that new grounded contact at the tip before you begin to call up the energy you need from the whole of you to start back in the opposite direction toward the frog. [6]


C: Yes, doing that “nothing bowing” in the last lesson was very useful.


JA: So, what you’re essentially dealing with is this: you know the direction that the bow needs to move along the string in order to make the kind of sound you want—for whatever expressive quality the note or phrase demands.  You know that you need the bow to go somehow to the right across the strings, or somehow to the left, sometimes maybe slanted more towards you, and sometimes maybe slanted more away from you.  So these are your primary requirements, your primary directions that are guiding you in terms of managing the bow for musical reasons.  And if you know clearly enough which of these directions is needed, you should be able to manage to get the bow to begin to move into action from a purely intentional source, rather than getting all involved in trying to feel out or manipulate any specific, local muscular areas themselves.  Your intention alone can direct the bow, because you know so well that, for whatever sound it is you need to make, you’ve got to have the bow hairs moving along the string in a certain way.


C: I’'ve had that idea before, but I’ve never been able to maintain any “track” at all with the bow.  All I’ve been able to do is to think “straight bow, straight bow.”


JA: Well, suppose you don’t think “"straight bow, straight bow,"” but just look down and see where you are right now with the bow resting on the string there in front of you.  Don’t think about your arm or hand or fingers for the moment, but just leave your hand, forearm, and upper arm resting there with this still contact of the bow on the string.  Then just decide you’re only going to intend for the bow hairs to start to go slowly where they need to go to start to produce a tone; and, in order to do this, see if you can make a connection between the contact of the bow hair on the string and your back lengthening and widening and from all of you going up from the contact of your feet on the floor and your sitting bones on the chair.  Don’t be concerned about doing anything specific with you arm or wrist, hand, or fingers.  All you'’re going to do is, from your whole going up, get those bow hairs to go where they need to go to make the most basic sound.  That’s all you need.  You can completely forget about your fingers, thumb, wrist, forearm, elbow, and upper arm—except to be aware if you’re leaving them free and lengthening—and just get the bow hairs to go wherever they need to go.  You know where they need to go from all your years of experience playing and listening.  Your ears and your eyes can tell you whether or not they are going where they need to.


C: If I have an image of the bow being weightless, that seems to help.


J:  Yes, it probably would, but what we’re looking for here is a purely intentional activity that ultimately won’t need to rely on any particular imagery like that.  I think you need to save you image-making function for the kind of imagery the music itself evokes and not let it be engaged in specific “technical” elements.  So you’ve got certain “raw facts.”  You’ve got the hair on the string, and that’s what is making the sound.  That’'s what you'’ve got.  And the hair has to go in a certain way in a certain direction along the string in order to make the sound.


C: Yes.


JA:  O.K.  So, try to set aside everything else you’ve learned about how it should happen or what you think you should do “to bow”— with images, wrist theories, and all that kind of stuff, —and just be with that “raw fact” of what the hair on the string needs to do to produce the most basic sound.  But be aware of all the rest of your self enough to be sure you’re not getting focused on making any specific local efforts, and then just see if you can “will”——from your thinking, from your intending——the bow hair on the string to make the kind of sound you need to hear it make.


C: Should I try it?


JA: Yes, go ahead.  But remember to start out fairly slowly.  Only think of building up your overall energy gradually to make one, long, single journey from the frog to the tip—because if you jump right into action quickly, you'’ll probably just do it in your original, habitual way of "“correct, professional bowing.”"  In fact, if you even think of “drawing a bow” or of “playing a downbow” it could easily take you right back into your old habits of tightening and fixing in specific local muscles in your wrist, fingers, arm, and shoulder.  Maybe the whole journey will take quite a long time.


[C. sets the bow in motion on the string and goes from the frog to the tip.]


JA:  O.K.  That was fairly good, but I think I still see more extra, local muscular activity in your fingers, wrist, and arm than you really need for that simple journey.  It looked like your “professional bowing” habits were still kicking in a little.  So let’s see if you can let the energy to start the bow vibrating the string come even more from your thinking, from your intending alone.  Leave your arm out of it.  It only needs to be the most gradual possible setting of the bow in motion.


And even if, at the beginning, you get the most grating, awful sound that you’ve ever heard, remember that it actually might have the potential to materialize into a much fuller and richer tone than you might ever imagine making in one single bow with so little extra effort coming from your fingers, wrist, and arm.  But you’ve got to be willing to accept at first what you might usually consider a very ugly and totally unacceptable sound in order to arrive at something new and maybe even extraordinarily beautiful—especially if you'‘re truly interested in finding the greatest freedom and ease in producing it.


[JA demonstrates with his voice the kind of sound that C might get from the cello, starting out in a very guttural, raucous tone and gradually merging into a clear, steady note.]  “”


The key is going to be in how you start the bow in motion so that you’re only increasing the energy from the whole of you just enough to empower the bow stroke.  So the power isn'’t coming only from your arm—, though it includes your arm, of course.  Increasing the energy in an equalized way from you neck and head and back, and from everything in you going up in order to gradually, gradually, gradually set the string vibrating . . . finally.   But you probably won’'t find out what we’'re looking for if you try to start it quickly, suddenly.  Your old habits are bound to kick in.


[C. tries again.]


JA:  That looked and sounded even better to me, but I don’'t think you’re completely there yet.  So then ask yourself even more ardently, "“How much does it take from my going up and lengthening and widening, from my feet, my knees, my hips, my neck, my head, my back, my shoulders, and my elbows—all of them, concerted, together—to get the string starting to vibrate in the most simple way?”"  This is what you need to be asking yourself all the time.  You could also ask, “"What does the string itself require from the bow and from all of me, as one whole being, to vibrate?’"


[C. tries again.]


JA: Good!  I think that was it!  It looked like a completely equalized and integrated action.  Then, to go on and develop your sound from this as a basis, you might say, "“Well!  That still isn’t quite the sound I want.  I need the sound to be a certain special way.  The phrase of music that this note is a part of needs it to be a certain special way.  So, from and on this basis, what else do I need to add to this fundamental, balanced operation for getting that further refined quality of sound?  Maybe I do now need to think of my arm or wrist being motivated in a certain direction in a more specific way—but not at the exclusion of my equalized, total source of energy coming from the whole of myself that I’ve just got going in this basic bowing.”"


C: Yes.


JA: Of course, you might want to spend a lot more time first just getting used to this more naïve sound-making operation until it’s really fully in your system as part of your basis for playing so that you can go on and build on it effectively.  So you might need just to continue basking in these “non-endgaining” downbows and upbows separately from each other before you ever even think of doing a downbow and an upbow one right after the other.  Putting a downbow and an upbow together at this stage could still set off your old “professional bowing” habits, because they’'re so deeply ingrained and ready to step right back in at the slightest temptation.


C: Yes.


JA: But that’s basically the source of power that Alexander is looking for in —whatever force you need for doing something, whether it’s lifting a mountain or just lifting a feather.  Maybe you only use one finger to lift a feather, but you still want to think of lifting it from the whole of you.  Because, probably, if you don’t lift it from the whole of you, you’ll just be using your finger in an isolated way, and you'’ll very likely be doing some kind of holding somewhere else to accomplish that isolated finger action.  You can use all sorts of special tactics like thinking of playing from your back or from your feet; but I think you should only resort to them if they help you get everything working more and more from the whole of you . . . that's what you’re after.


C: But, even to lift my hand with the bow in it from resting on my leg to a playing position on the string . . . if I don’t lift my hand from my wrist, then it seems like I’m already wrong.  So is that O.K.—for me —to think of lifting from my wrist?  Although, I guess if I think of moving the bow to the string “as the crow flies” it won’t go wrong.


JA: Yes!  "“As the crow flies"” is a much better idea than thinking of lifting from some special place on your wrist or arm.  If you only think of taking the bow hairs to where you want them to be resting on the string, then your wrist and arm will go where they need to.  Your wrist and arm will follow your hand along from where it was resting on your leg as your hand and the bow go up to the string “as the crow flies,” provided you’'re truly leaving your wrist, elbow, and shoulder free so that they can follow along.  Your wrist, elbow and shoulder can’t follow your hand and the bow if they’re already involved in some special activity of their own!


C: It still feels like I have to tell my wrist something though, because it just doesn’t know what to do.


JA: Maybe that’s the best way for it to be!  Not knowing!  As Alexander teachers, we think that’'s what real freedom is all about: —“not knowing,” or not operating form some fixed, preconceived idea that never allows for any alternative possibilities because you have this attitude that there'’s only one right way that something can or should be done.

Let’s see what happens if you just leave your arm and your hand with the bow in it resting at your side, and let me gently bring them up for you and place the bow hair on the string.  Maybe I can give you something of the actual experience of "“as the crow flies"” and "“not knowing”" without your having to do any preconceiving or helping at all.


[JA places everything for C.”]


C: That still isn’t playing position; so, therefore . . .


JA: . . .therefore, ask yourself “What do I need to do to add to it?”


C: I think I need to “hang” my hand from the contact of the bow hair on the string.  Although, maybe I really don’t.  But it’'s just that I have this idea that I need to do something like that the moment I get to the string.


JA: Yes, I think many other players would think something like that too.  But first of all, the main thing is to get everything to that grounded, resting condition on the string in this totally left-alone way to the best of your ability.  And then, only proceed as gradually as you can to transform that grounded resting condition into whatever you think you need for playing.  Try to leave out the idea of getting straight into what you consider to be the best, or “correct,” playing position—especially when you’re merely on the way through space to the place where you'’ll be resting the bow on the string.  I can pretty much give you that “"not knowing"” feeling when I move your arm for you so that your arm and hand can stay “naïve” while getting there.  But can you get your arm and hand and bow up to the string by yourself in that naïve way?  That’s really the question.


C: Yes.


JA: The problem, you see, is that as soon as you immediately jump from resting on the string to “playing position”, then it’s so visibly obvious to me that there’s a certain, subtle fixing or holding that you do on the way there in your arm, shoulder, wrist, and fingers that, to a certain extent, blocks your overall freedom and your ability to draw on your whole self for your source of power and energy to play a phrase or even produce one full, rich sound . . . on a single bow.  And this extra fixing that you do on the "journey" comes in because you make the adjustments so soon and so suddenly.  Because of that speed of adjusting, there’s no chance to find your way to something new or different.


C: Yes.


JA: So although you'’ll be building it up more slowly and naively, you might still arrive at something that resembles “playing position.”  And you might even find that it produces the exact sound you want much better —because it doesn'’t have so many of your old, habitual tensions behind it, and because it'’s so much more connected to a basic freedom and going-up and lenghtening and widening energy in the whole of you.


C: . . .but, “get there,” first.


JA: Yes.  How to get freely from the bow resting on the string to being ready to begin moving the bow is the challenge.  From “zero” to whatever it is you need for full playing.  There’'s also tremendous expressive potential to be uncovered in this subtle range of activity too, because it opens up a greater flexibility and freedom that'’s often unavailable to a lot of players because there'’s so much blocking of it going on right in the act of getting the bow to the string and putting it into “playing position” even before they actually arrive there.  You see so much of this kind of preparatory “fixing” in so many other instrumentalists as part of their assuming the “"right playing position."”  But as soon as you have a concept of “"right position”" you’'re almost always bound to get into some kind of fixing or holding, no matter how much you believe in staying, or trying to stay, free.  Freedom and a balanced used of power should be your guiding motto——not “correct position”—for both of your hands and arms and for the whole of you. [7] Alexander wrote, “"A correct position or posture indicates a fixed position, and a person held to a fixed position cannot grow, as we understand growth.  The correct position today cannot be the correct position a week later for any person who is advancing in the work of re-education and co-ordination.”" [8]


C: So, without any thought at all, just go there.  Without any intention, except to get the hair on the string.  And then if it’'s not comfortable, just adjust . . .


JA: Yes.  Just do the minimum amount you need to do to adjust, even though it might not fit with your preconception of how much you thought you needed to do before you started.  That more gradual adjustment process should lead you to uncover the most natural way of being ready to start a note or phrasehowever soft or powerfulin —the way that’s most balanced within the whole of you.


C: Yes, that’s clear.  It seems like we’re really zeroing in on it.


JA: I do think that your intuition about the issue is right though—about the need to discover the best source of energy for playing.  But I don’t think the source is in the specific, in the wrist or arm.  I think it’s in the whole, in the general use of yourself as a whole, which most people still don'’t have an understanding of these days, no matter how expert they’ve become in their own specific field of accomplishment.  But gaining fuller access to that central source of expressive power is a big reason why Alexander lessons are so valuable for almost all musicians. [9]


C: Yes.


JA: Then, that “general,” that “whole of you,” is what you also go on to fill more and more with expressive intention or musical character.  If your whole is working in the best way, then the intention, the thought, is all you need to carry it out through the cello.  But it’s very scary for most people to entrust their playing to that intentional activity alone.  And it usually won'’t work when they try it because their whole is not working in well-integrated enough way to serve as a clear “channel” for the intention to be transmitted through them to the instrument, so they feel much more safe and secure by resorting to postures and positions and to manipulating specific local muscular areas.  Alexander often warned, "“Beware of specifics!”"  And specifics are what we'’ve been coaxing you away from today.


C: It’s just that there was always a confusion in my mind about it.


JA: Yes, it seems like we’'ve really cleared things up a lot.







There’s a good example of the pitfalls of working with specific positions in Otto Friedrich’s biography Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (Methuen, London, 1994, pp. 244-247).  Quite late in his career, just after a very trying emotional time in his personal life, Gould started to lose control in his playing.  So he decided to experiment to see if he could correct the problem by trying all kinds of different positionings of his head, shoulders, wrists, fingers, etc.  He kept a careful journal of the exact details of what he tried each day, and it’s so poignant to read that each time he’d feel he’d discovered the perfect solution he’d start having problems all over again in a day or two, compelling him to search for yet another “right” position: “Day before yesterday, I concentrated on wrist control . . . Wrist pain was largely alleviated . . . Nevertheless, it, too, appeared a one-day wonder . . . Nothing prevented the gradual (!) deterioration of image . . .”


He kept at this for quite some time, but eventually gave it up because the trouble went away by itself as he gained more distance from the emotional difficulties that foreshadowed it.  When you look at the photos of him playing at that age though, and even earlier, it’s easy to see that his overall use of himself was probably not working at its best anyway. You see him very scrunched down, with his shoulders nearly up to his ears, etc.  So it’s not at all surprising from the Alexander point of view that he would get into some kind of trouble as a result of the emotional stress and strain—which so often adds to the degree of overall crunch of our pulling ourselves down in a general, total way.  But the most interesting thing is that Gould said he felt these difficulties with control actually began when he started to lose touch with his “magical” ability to “see himself playing” any given passage in his visual imagination, which he had always depended on for playing well.  So the question for him should really have been: "“What is standing in the way of my visual imagination getting through to my arms, hands, and fingers?" ”—not: "“What is the best position?”"  And from the Alexander point of view, we would say that a more immediate solution could probably have been found by improving his use of himself as a whole (which, to some degree, is probably what happened subconsciously as he gained more distance from the trying emotional time) rather than from trying to meddle with various parts.


[1]We began this part of the lesson after we’d spent at least half an hour doing regular “chair work” and “table work” where the Alexander teacher works with the student verbally and manually to help bring about an experience and understanding of the psychophysical unity in movement and at rest that can be carried by the student into every moment of daily life.  This condition of psychophysical unity is based on achieving an integrated working of all our muscles as they support us against the constant pull of gravity.

[2] This “basic bowing” is something I’ve derived from having cello lessons with Vivien Mackie, who studied for three years with Pablo Casals in the early 1950s.  Since her study with Casals, Vivien has also become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and her fusion of the principles of Casals; teaching with the principles of the Alexander Technique is vividly described in the book we co-wrote entitled, ‘Just Play Naturally.’  (Duende Editions, Boston, 2002, reprinted 2006 by

[3] Vivien Mackie often uses a large cushion placed on the floor just off to the right of a cellist’s chair so the cellist can more fully open out the insides of the joints of the right arm at the wrist, elbow, and shoulder while resting the tip of the bow on the cushion.  This resting on the cushion also allows the cellist to  project a lengthening energy from the neck, head, and torso through the arm, hand and fingers right out to the tip of the bow because the contact of the very tip of the bow with the cushion gives a more definite feeling of the full length of  the bow than if you’re holding the bow in the air. (A similar bow tip resting arrangement can be set up for the rest of the string family too, and there’s a parallel to be found for other instrumentalists as well, where the player finds just the right height of solid surface on which to rest his/her instrument before bringing it up to play.)

[4] “Neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, and knees to go forward and away.”

[5] With upper sting players, the “groundedness” of the strings can be traced from the contact of the instrument (and shoulder rest, if you use one) on your shoulder and/or collar bone, and then on through your torso down to your sitting bones on your chair, or to your feet on the floor.

[6] Another valuable thing to add to this basic bowing work is something Vivien Mackie reported as one of the very few actual “exercises” that Casals gave her to work on.  It involves making many small crescendos and diminuendos within one single, fairly slow bow, since, as she says in ‘Just Play Naturally,’ “Casals was quick to say, quick to imply, there’s really no such thing in music as a long, plain note.  A note is always either going or coming; so there was no place for the long straight tone—and yet that’s what we’re traditionally encouraged to practice . . . the ear doesn’t cling to this uneventful plainness, so that in learning to do these multiple crescendos and diminuendos, you were learning to handle the bow in all the ways that you’re going to want to among the myriad nuances of real music so that the ear goes on being intrigued.  That’s a very ‘basic technique’ exercise that has a very broad coverage.”  (p. 25.)

[7] Vivien Mackie vividly illustrates Casals’ approach to abandoning the common assumption that “left hand position” needs to be a formation of hand and fingers that’s for the most part kept at a right angle to the strings in ‘Just Play Naturally,’ pp. 22-23.

[8] F. Matthias Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p. 100, Integral Press, Kent, 1920.

[9] Casals, according to Vivien Mackie, “was one of the rare people who retain beyond childhood a near-perfect ‘use of the self’,” and I think this is reflected in his saying, “"Only this impulse, coming from the centre of the body instead of each extremity, will group the different movements in a unified whole, producing better results and less fatigue.  This impulse, coming from what I call the centre of the body, is rather like an image of what I feel at the time, not an easy thing to identify or to name."”  Conversations With Casals, p. 200, Dutton, New York, 1956.