This was my daughter’s answer to my question,
“Why don’t you take your boyfriend to my performances? He would enjoy it.”
She explained that my face during the
performances was too ugly to show him, adding, “Mom, your face during your
performances looks like the face of Squidward Tentacles.” Squidward Tentacles
is a character in Sponge Bob Square Pants:
an octopus who plays his clarinet badly with deep wrinkles on his forehead.
I am a bagpipe player of 8 years’ experience.
I enjoy playing the bagpipe, both solo and as a part of a local bagpipe band. Deeply
shocked by her words, I checked videos and photos of my performances to confirm
her testimony. Yes, she was right. In every video and photo, I could find
myself playing with knitted brows.
I tried to make excuses for my ugly face. “The
bagpipe is one of the most difficult musical instruments to play. It is big and
heavy. Pipers must keep standing while playing. They need to blow enough air to
sound all four reeds at the same time. I am 5’4” and 110 lb. I am short and
skinny. I have never been athletic. I have neither strong muscle nor big lungs.
Blah blah blah…….”
However, another me said “STOP” to myself. I
kind of knew that playing bagpipe is not so hard. My short and skinny body is
not a critical disadvantage for a bagpiper. I know many kids much smaller than
I can play the bagpipes with calm faces. I asked myself. “Naoko, is it really so
hard to play the bagpipe?” I realized the truth: “No”. After eight years of
experience, I no longer feel it is so hard to play. Many Alexander Technique
teachers have worked with me on my bagpipe playing and helped me a lot. Now I
can play it much easier than before. How come I frown?
I realized the frowning was a habit that I had
fallen into. Years of playing with difficulty had created my facial expression
habit. I was happy to notice one of my habits which interfered with my playing.
For my next step, I decided to work on removing
the habit. I gave directions to my face at my practice. My neck is free. My
face is soft and free. All parts on the face don’t gather to the center of my
face. My skin of face spreads out. Then I can see my calm face in the mirror in
front of me. My posture also changed a lot. My head came
up instead of pulling down. My throat became free from tension. My shoulders
recovered their original width. My eyesight got wider. Then more air and more
mobility gave me ease to play. What an amazing change.
I asked myself to frown again. I noticed
tension on the back of my head and neck and shoulders. Facial muscle tension seemed
to cause more tension in my body. It also interrupts my breathing.
My face without frowning brought me not only
ease of playing but also a calm mind. The American philosopher William James
said, “We don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh”. In
my case, I don’t frown because I am in pain, I am in pain because I frown. There
is a study which shows that our facial expression influences our mind.(1)
Another study shows that the way we walk influences our emotion.(2)
My frowning made it hard for me to play,
physically and mentally. Body and mind are not separate. When I started my
playing with frowning, I had no choice but to play with tense body and painful
mind. Then my fake frowning turned into REAL frowning. My harmful habits of body
and mind affected each other and I got into a downward spiral.
This summer I competed at some games. I smiled at the beginning and the climax of the tunes. I can listen to my music. I can feel wind. I can see blue sky. There was no fear. There was no Squidward Tentacles in front of the judge. There was a Sponge Bob playing the bagpipe with a soft and wide face.
Blog by Naoko Yoda, 3rd year trainee at Alexander Technique Denver
(2) “How We Walk Affects What We Remember: Gait Modifications through Biofeedback Change Negative Affective Memory Bias.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Pergamon, 28 Sept. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005791614000809.
My first Alexander experience was in January, 2016, at the Alexander Technique Denver training course. I had no idea what to expect. I was really confused when I was holding my violin ready to play and the teacher told me not play, but to think about my feet resting on the floor. What? Think about me? It never occurred to me that how I used myself while playing the violin was the key to undoing built up tension in my body. I felt so empowered to realize that I was the one in control of my habits and tension. My experience was so significant that when I walked out the door thirty minutes later I knew I wanted to train to become an Alexander Technique teacher.
Fast forward to my second year as a trainee in the Alexander Technique, I got an audition for the Evergreen Chamber Orchestra. I needed to play three excerpts and a solo piece and with four weeks to prepare, I took my time applying my Alexander skills while learning the excerpts and polishing my solo piece. I made myself the center of my practicing, observing my use before and during my playing. Some harmful habits I noticed in reaction to the violin included tightness in my ribcage, locked knees, tense hands and fingers, a shortening in my neck, locked jaw, and a stern fixed expression. Using this knowledge to my advantage, I simply started to change my thinking. I asked my body to do less in the places I felt tension while continuing with a total awareness of myself. Sending direction from my brain to my body such as: “Allow my neck to be free. Allow my ribs to be easy. Allow my legs to be easy and free.” I also brought my violin into Alexander class and teachers and fellow trainees helped me with my use as I played.
The day of my audition I began my practice with an Alexander procedure, active rest. Lying down on my back, I went through some directions, taking time to allow for ease and freedom in my body before playing through my music. Before practicing each piece, I stopped. I said no to my familiar patterns of tension. I worked on standing and holding the violin while allowing freedom of my neck, ribs, and noticing the contact my feet were making with the ground. I did this before, and, as much as I could, while playing each piece of music. As I drove to the audition, I continued to work with the freedom of my neck. As I walked into the building, I continued to think about the contact my feet were making with the ground. As I got out my violin, I continued to notice the movement of my ribs on my inhales and exhales. When it was time for my audition, I walked into the room with complete control over my body. I wasn’t nervous. I was fully present in the moment, able to make pleasant small talk with the conductor and concertmaster who were listening to me. As I prepared to play, I took a moment to notice my neck, arms, hands, ribs, legs, and feet. I played my solo piece with control over my fingers and my bow. I made a couple mistake as I played, but I successfully let go of my reaction of disappointment in myself, and I was able to continue asking for freedom in my body. As I finished each piece of music, the conductor and concertmaster asked me to play a line again suggesting to try it louder or with more bow, taking note of how I responded to direction. Without my Alexander skills, I would have been completely paralyzed in reaction to the fear of thinking I had done something so terribly wrong that they had to ask me to play it in a different way. But that is not how I reacted. Instead, I continued to be aware of any tension in my body and continued to ask for freedom in my neck, breath, etc. and did what they asked. As I left the room I didn’t worry if I got the part because my preparation and experience was so different than any other performance situation I had ever experienced that I was already celebrating the amazing changes I made in mind and body, and my response to fear. Though, I was able to continue with my celebration as they accepted me as a member of the orchestra.
Blog by Anna Sobotka, 3rd year trainee at Alexander Technique Denver, an AmSAT approved training course