I have been considering the topic “sounding point” (contact point, in German) for a long time now. Where bow hair and string meet is where everything we have to offer—regarding material, technique, power and ease—is channeled. This is the origin of the sound! This is where the action is!
Isn’t the sounding point therefore the most erogenous region of the cello?
But at first a little anecdote:
After the Christmas mass the priest stood at the exit, shaking the hands of the parishioners and wishing them a Merry Christmas. What a nice gesture! So I took his hand in return. But it felt like a rubber glove filled with jelly. By intuition I tried to get a grip. (“There must be bones somewhere in this hand…”)
This is how our little encounter turned into an embarrassing moment.
Contact needs resistance.
Resistance is the force an object puts up against the attempt to be set into motion. We need this counterforce to get into contact. Although the hand of the Monsignore approached me, it didn’t put up any resistance against mine. My hand therefore missed its mark.
No contact without resistance. No sound without contact. What a pity.
This is why we use rosin—instead of oil—as a “friction agent.” We need the resistance, the substance. We need something that answers “No” before it consents to getting into friction and vibration. In Tango the dance becomes exciting when the Follower reacts with a minimum of delay. If this positive ductile elasticity succeeds it can become a “high voltage dance.”
Resistance does not equal conflict or fight.
It is just a force opposing mine and giving me resonance to my actions. Isn’t a successful handshake in which two persons meet a terrific thing? When two people truly meet each other—not flinching—not squeezing? Amazing intimacy and closeness is possible in these moments. What if we would appreciate resistance and friction, possibly asking for them instead of judging them as negative?
Anyway: friction at the right spot is a blissful thing, isn’t it?
What does this have to do with sound production?
Well—casually said: You’re “pleasing yourself” when you play the cello. You are responsible for both sides of the contact point.
You are responsible for both sides of the sounding point.
We are bothering about our bow technique in great detail—but how about the opposite side? Your bowing skills can unfold their true magic only if the strings offer a decent counter-contact. And this counter-contact is created by your whole body (especially legs and torso). This part is equally important and should be considered with the same accuracy and attention as the bowing technique.
Why? More than 80% of the cellists I have worked with (more than 300 by now) are flinching their cello away from the bow in the critical moment. Why? Because the combination of a backwards dropping pelvis with an extended bow arm preparing for the great attack leads to a slumping of the ribcage area. Unfortunately that’s where the cello is supported. And similar to what I did when I wanted to shake the hand of the Monsignore, the bow arm grips tighter in order to achieve the contact.
The consequences: A tired bow arm (searching for contact but missing the mark) and back pain (because intuitively we try to regain the stability).
Vice versa the majority of these cellists created a better, juicier, more controlled sound after achieving more stability from the perspective of the strings.
You want a sound that is red hot, exciting and interesting? Take care of the other side!
1. Observe! Video yourself as you practice from a side perspective and observe the movement of your body with the cello. Especially when you play high notes or want to achieve a huge sound. Celebrate everything that you notice.
2. Explore! Play some long notes on open strings. As you do this let your pelvis slowly rock backwards and forwards WITHOUT adjusting the bow. What happens to the sound? If you don’t notice a change, make a video.
ATTENTION: This is not a license to do weird things with your pelvis! It is an exercise to increase your awareness of how you can influence the quality of the sounding point through body movement.
3. Focus on “counter-contact”! Put your hands on yourself! e.g. put your hand on your leg and sense the leg with your hand. Now change the perspective and sense the hand with your leg. Which one is easier? What happens if you intend to sense both sides equally at the same time?
Find infinite opportunities to play with this principle.
4. Change your perspective!
Notice how your cello contacts the bow, as if the cello were playing the bow—not vice versa. What is your intention for this “love affair”? Do you want a nice handshake, a gentle teasing or hot sex? Remember: “It takes two to tango.”
Whatever you’re aiming for, as with a successful handshake suddenly an intense intimacy can occur when two partners really surrender to their touch.
We often wish for contact but if it’s there we flinch. Renewing contact ever again and staying with it sometimes needs more courage than we think. That is my experience. And what is yours?
I too am looking forward to resonance—e.g. by receiving your comment, a share or a newsletter sign-up! In return you’ll receive even more tips and ideas on how to achieve more sound with less tension. Friction and resistance is also welcome – but not obligatory!
The German performance coach and Alexander Technique teacher Stefanie Buller fell in love with the cello at age five when she heard “The Swan” for the first time. She had to become 37 to eventually take up the cello herself in 2013 and started to learn to play it. At this time she had already finished her 4-year Alexander Technique Training and specialized in working with cellists, such as members of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.
The center of her work is that the human being is a magnificently integrated overall system in which all aspects such as body, emotions, thoughts and environment constantly interact. To distinguish what we can train and control and what we should instead hand over to our inert self-organizing potential is key for efficiency and high-level performing. Trusting in the power of ease and the intelligence of our nervous system is a process. Stefanie understands how to set an empowering environment in which this trust can grow.
The main ingredients of Stefanie´s coaching/teaching are the discoveries of F.M. Alexander and how we approach our goals as human beings, a great knowledge of functional anatomy, and her versatile experiences in music and dance, injury and recovery, success and failure. Having been a high achiever herself as a Key Account Manager in Plant Engineering, she had to experience the painful consequences of a constant aim for perfection, extreme willpower, the neglect of self-care, ignoring all signs of exhaustion, and the necessity to ask for support.
The art and music teaching she had been exposed to in her childhood turned out to be her strongest and most resilient resource for recovering. Musicians and music teachers can have a huge impact to the life of people. So supporting them in finding their own individual voice and strategies to take care for themselves is more than “just another job” – sometimes it seems like a tiny contribution to world peace.
For five years now she has been co-teaching a master course with Stephan Schrader, cellist of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. She offers group classes, individual lessons and online consultations. Her own workshop format CelloBliss for adult amateurs opens a non-judgemental space to experience the physical pleasures of cello playing as well as learning to practice in a joyful and stress-free way.
Her passion for supporting high-quality performers also led to her working with the Swiss Olympic rowing team (men’s quadruple sculls) and other high-potentials athletes in German rowing.
I only learned about the importance of the spinal column to cello playing as I was introduced more deeply into the Alexander Technique. Of course I knew the superficial facts about the spine and especially how vital it is to the health of the nervous system. But its particular relevance to cellists was not brought home until I began training in the work of teaching the Technique.
Here are a few interesting facts about the spine to start off 1:
The spinal cord is surrounded by rings of bone called vertebrae.
Both are covered by a protective membrane.
Together, the vertebrae and the membrane make up the spinal column, or backbone.
The backbone, which protects the spinal cord, starts at the base of the skull and ends just above the hips.
The spinal cord is about 18 inches long. It extends from the base of the brain, down the middle of the back, to just below the last rib in the waist area.
The main job of the spinal cord is to be the communication system between the brain and the body by carrying messages that allow people to move and feel sensation.
Spinal nerve cells, called neurons, carry messages to and from the spinal cord, via spinal nerves.
Messages carried by the spinal nerves leave the spinal cord through openings in the vertebrae.
Spinal nerve roots branch off the spinal cord in pairs, one going to each side of the body.
Every nerve has a special job for movement and feeling. They tell the muscles in the arms, hands, fingers, legs, toes, chest and other parts of the body how and when to move. They also carry messages back to the brain about sensations, such as pain, temperature and touch.
What the above facts do not tell us is what happens in day-to- day life to us as cellists when, unknowingly, we compress our spine in practicing and playing our instrument. How and why does this happen?
The S-curves of the spine (there are four, some say five if you count the coccyx), as well as its discs, are springy, to allow us to absorb the force of gravity as we move about in space, and they also function as shock absorbers as we walk along the ground. But this spring in the spine only occurs if the weight of the head is balancing properly on top of the spine, which allows a natural lengthening of the spine to occur. The head and neck are key to this process, and yet this head to spine relationship is so rarely noticed, let alone taught, in the cello studio.
Sadly, cellists tend to either pull the head forward and down, or back and down, onto the spine, restricting the vital impulses of the spine and cutting the energy flow to the arms and fingers. This pulling out of balance of the head is accompanied by a collapse of the spine; the entire body loses its tuning, its axis, its means of functioning.
On another level the fine energies of the spine are life-giving. They are what enable the rhythmic vitality, the tonal resonance, the vital communicative power of the player, the flow of musical expression. If all the gestures a cellist makes—right and left hand—arise from a lengthening spine, they awaken a different sound at the instrument, a deeper, authentic power. This has been my experience of the Alexander Technique, as I watch my students transform and blossom into fluent and expressive players. Those who ‘have a back and a spine’; can be distinguished from those who don’t. And it’s not what you get in a gym. It is a result of very fine, subtle work in undoing those habits of compression and tightening which may have been acquired unknowingly, sometimes many years ago.
When my students, well into the Alexander work, ask me why such important information is not better known and not widely taught, I don’t know what to say. Perhaps we are just beginning to recognize something that we are losing in the new world of the 21st century.
“We are learning to do consciously what Nature intended.”
Spending a week remembering Bernard Greenhouse on CelloBello brought back memories of many hours of lively conversations and shared experiences. Bernie had naturally what we call ‘a back’ in the Alexander Technique, and there is no faking or pretending to have a back…you either do or you don’t, and the evidence of it is felt in the power of presence. The back mediates all our responses—a strong and expansive back gives one the ability to speak and act from a place of natural authority. Bernie’s quiet but strong presence when playing, teaching or just conversing emanated from that central core that Casals spoke about, and which no doubt magnetized Bernie from far away and moved him across an ocean in search of the master. Like recognized like.
One day I said to Bernie, ” You know, you have naturally what we all work to develop in our practice of the Alexander Technique—over many years of study.” He asked me for a lesson, and I obliged. I started off by giving him what we call a ‘table turn,’ after lunch. Having had a substantial meal, he soon was asleep on his back, but later said that he recognised the benefit of it. I am not so sure…I think he was being kind! But he did show me his way of using his back at the cello, with the swing of the bow arm in opposition to the back, exactly what I teach in my Alexander lessons. I break it down into smaller steps so that students can acquire it eventually as a natural part of their technique.
Being ‘in the back’ as we say, not pushing forward or collapsing, but allowing the back to expand and lengthen, means as well that our perception of time falls into place. We are neither pushing or rushing time nor dragging, because the back maintains a firmness which is effortless and produces a sense of ease, allowing for expression which is unhurried.
The Chinese have a wonderful saying: tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are. Bernie was just who he was, and perhaps that’s why we all felt happy around him. Finding your back and living ‘in your back’ is being who you are.
“Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.”
“You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.”
Summers take musicians to new places where teachers and students meet for the first and sometimes the only time, and within this one or perhaps two or three encounters, Chance and Fate can open unexpected doors. Being out of our familiar circumstances and roles and away from the people we see every week in the same place—and for the same reason—provide just the right marinating sauce for Serendipity.
It was during a summer festival in Belgium that I met two Alexander teachers and had my first lesson. I wasn’t aware of the effect of that lesson at the time but four years later I was deep in the books and looking for a teacher. Six years later I was in a teacher training course in London. It all began in the dark; gradually as the journey winds its way forward, I can look back and understand the logic of the change. The heart knows the necessity but the head wants to know the reasons.
So back to the point of this piece. Change always visits from the Unknown, we cannot control it, we cannot predict it and we certainly cannot welcome it without some discomfort. What’s unfamiliar always feels wrong and sometimes frightening. That’s one of the tenets of the Alexander Technique. You cannot change and yet remain the same.
This summer I worked with a cellist who clutched her instrument, tucking it in so close that her breathing was affected. I used the analogy of ballroom dancing—First Principle: don’t hang onto your partner, otherwise you cannot move around the dance floor. And move we must with our cellos, but for someone who has learned to keep the cello close in, letting go of it and letting oneself be free at the same time felt so awkward and uncomfortable that it was hard for her to contemplate playing. I helped her to have the experience; whether she wants to go in that direction of more freedom depends upon her tolerance of the discomfort that such change inevitably brings.
Of course, the acceptance of change has to happen in small increments, gradually. That’s Nature’s way for living things, unless it’s destruction we are after. Change is disorienting, but how else can the New make itself known?
As musicians, our bodies are changing and ageing continuously, which means we have to find a way to go up against the force of gravity bearing down on us. I recently watched a film of Pierre Fournier playing Bach—already a man of a certain age, he nevertheless is beautifully lengthened upwards as his arms and fingers move towards and away from his back. It’s a sight one rarely sees on the concert platform today, but it was normal for cellists of that period, who had grown up in the pre-automotive and pre-digital age. Today we have to take lessons to recover what was once normal and natural. My teachers refer to this as degeneration, not regeneration—a loss of the life force.
I treasure the Alexander Technique because it provides a principle, a point of reference by which we can keep our own instrument, the Self, in good working order. And it is a constant principle, allowing us to accommodate ever-changing life without losing our upward orientation and therefore our way forward.
Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
“In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.”
Here is a question for you…what is the foundation of good balanced movement at the cello? There are many answers and many ways of defining balance and coordinated movement. The CelloBello website offers some great advice here.
In this short blog, I propose to turn the question on its head, as we do in our work as Alexander Technique teachers.
“How can we prevent interference with our balance?” And by defining what gets in the way of balancing ourselves with the cello, we can discover what to let go.
Years ago, in my student days, I gradually made the discovery that something in my bow arm wasn’t working. For years I tried to correct the problem directly and became obsessed with the arm, wrist, hand and fingers when all along the answer lay outside this circumscribed territory. It’s like the Sufi story of the Mullah looking for the key by the lamppost because that’s where the light is.
The complications of my bow arm lay elsewhere; as one of my first Alexander teachers said to me: “Tension occurs in patterns, not places.” Alexander found his vocal troubles originated in the way he pulled his head back and down, pushing his back forward when he wanted to recite. This pattern manifested in the whole body—right down to his feet pulling up from the floor from the strain of exerting so much effort.
When I began my Alexander training, I found (and still find!) patterns of tension which originate in the pulling forward and down of my head and which immediately cause a tightening in the bow arm. It’s a very old pattern which often returns when I am revising pieces learned many years ago. But as I watch other cellists, I see that it is not an uncommon problem. Balancing the weight of the head (4.5 kg/10-11 lb) on top of the spine requires that we not interfere with the larger relationship of the head to the body. The head has to balance upward of the spine, not pulled down into the spine and shortening the back of the neck. Next time you are in the supermarket, pick up a 5 lb-bag of potatoes—and then another in the same hand—and you will feel the amount of weight you are carrying upstairs. Almost unbelievable!
When you shift into the higher positions on the cello, playing right on top of the bridge, have a look in the mirror…where did your head go just then? And when you play a chord fortissimo? And when…and when… and when? The interference can occur anywhere, at any time. It’s an ongoing challenge not to get in the way of ourselves. But paying attention to it, we can gradually stop the interference. It just takes time and the willingness to look.
The Alexander Technique has its own process of training to become a teacher of the work. Much like cellists, we take lessons from established teachers, we attend school daily and we begin from the beginning, with lots of preconceptions which are called habits. Our teachers constantly bring our attention to them, rebalancing and releasing negative patterns of use, mostly through their hands, sometimes through words, and often both.
As the inner fog lifts and our sensory awareness improves, we begin to be able to “put hands on” others and transmit what we have received. It’s so tenuous at the start and requires years of experience to be able to distinguish fine differences in the flow of energy up and down the spine, the various tension patterns and of course, the hardest—hidden patterns of thought. We even learn to detect the sparks of intention which can create too much tension in the body…that first thought of lifting the bow, making a shift, that moment of preparation. We are told it takes a lifetime of “working on ourselves” to earn the hands which can express the silence within movement. The best teachers, much like the best musicians, never stop learning.
Patrick Macdonald—whom I dubbed the Heifetz of the Alexander Technique—said to my young teacher shortly before he passed away, “It’s time for you to go away and make the work your own.” I have never forgotten what a world those words opened for me.
Once we are trained, we make and remake many of those discoveries that our teachers tried to show us, but now without an intermediary. We have to struggle to understand the daily work in front of us directly through our own partial understanding and weaknesses, without relying on frequent support. Our failures become our teachers. And through that struggle we deepen our skills in a manner unique to those experiments in learning. No one else has those experiences. They shape our teaching and fashion our souls.
In essence Mr. Macdonald was saying: “Go away, cook your own stew, don’t eat mine.” It takes courage, it takes a sense of adventure, and most of all it makes the work interesting. Why repeat only what you learned in the past when by taking a chance you might see a new way forward?
“The world is a ladder, which some go up and some go down.”
‘Think up along the spine’: five of the most important words in the Alexander Technique. It takes as much hard work, patience and humility to understand and live these words as it does to interpret great works of music, perhaps more, because thinking up along the spine means that every waking moment we can be conscious of ourselves, not only when we are making music.
For cellists, thinking up along the spine is going for the gold. So given its importance to us as players, what does this phrase tell us? Working backwards from the last word to the first, let’s see where it takes us.
The spine is composed of 24 articulating vertebrae with discs in between which provide a cushion between the discs and lend a springy quality to the spine, so that it is able to absorb impact. The spine can be compressed (discs squeezed and hence vertebrae brought closer together) or it can be allowed to regain its original length with the release of compression. The main function of the vertebrae is to protect the spinal cord, that vital pathway of nerve transmission between the brain and the rest of the body. There are spinal nerves that issue forth along spinal column from top to bottom and the health of those nerves must be protected for our wellbeing.
The word ‘up’ is so simple to say and nearly impossible to translate into action in the early stages of working with the Alexander Technique. I remember my first lessons as an entirely humbling experience. As smart as I thought I was, I could not distinguish up from down. I could point up and point down of course! But when it came to movement, I could not distinguish when my spine was compressing to move (pulling down) and when it wasn’t. Occasionally I would have an experience of the spine lengthening in movement and the sensation was heavenly, free and light and easy, as if working without any effort from me. But much as I wished to repeat the experience, I had a hard time preventing the shortening. So Up remained only an intellectual concept for a very long time. My sensory awareness was too crude and blunt, my thinking power too undeveloped to make much headway on my own. It was the beginning of the proverbial long descent into the ‘darkness of unknowing’ that every real journey requires, a clearing out of the old to make way for the real knowledge and wisdom worth having. Up along the spine is where the ease and freedom lies for the cellist’s arms and fingers—co-ordinated movement powered from the centre to the periphery is our birthright.
Which brings us to the mother lode—the word that unleashes the power of the phrase. Think. What is thinking in terms of the Alexander Technique? This word ignites more controversy in the profession and it is far easier to say what it is not than what it is. Patrick Macdonald, one of the finest teachers of our work, used to say: in the beginning one must learn to think but not to do. Later one learns to let the doing come out of the thinking. The thinking is a mental process which is honed (much as one would sharpen a knife) through the repeated sending of messages from a deep quiet. There is an energy awakened in the spine—the spine lengthens and moves us properly, with the right amount of tension and no more.
A thought properly directed up along the spine is more powerful than we can imagine. It harnesses energy which is not of our own making but which passes through us and into the world around us. That same energy gives us the ability to communicate the essence of a great piece of music, to be present in teaching and learning, and to be ourselves pure and simple.
“The words of truth are always paradoxical.” —Lao Tzu
Paul Katz was here recently in London giving a workshop on the bow to the members of the London Cello Society and raised an interesting point about strength. His Tai Ch’i teacher once said to him, “Hardness is Weakness, Softness is Strength: Hardness is Death, Softness is Life.” This remarkable saying inspires this article.
As cellists we need to be able to call upon reserves of power to play our big repertoire, to perform long concerts and tours. No way are we not interested in knowing about power and strength, but as soon as we raise the question of where it comes from, then hundreds of viewpoints can be found. Weight training, strength training, aerobic conditioning, and the list goes on.
We in the Alexander Technique look at the issue from the opposite side. What are we doing to block the energy of our organism? Power is energy properly received and directed, but what happens when, instead of the energy flowing along the spine and into the limbs—outward from the centre—it gets trapped in the wrong muscular contractions at the centre. The energy should well up and stream out of us as it does in healthy young children. Watching a child running gives us that sense of freedom and flow—the child is moving as if from a current of electricity and all the movements are coordinated from within and leading into the periphery.
The kind of power we want is not created by muscular over-exertion, it is released through a balance of forces where the spine/back is the central axis and the limbs are, like the wheel, moving in relation to that strong and stable axis. Power is energy, properly directed. If the spine and back collapse or stiffen, then our true power is lost. We then begin to contract the wrong muscles and we lose that ease that comes from a lengthening spine and widening back. How many cellists raise their shoulders or pull down on their shoulders or tighten their arms in the vain hope of generating more power? Pushing and forcing is a far cry from free-flowing energy.
The Technique provides a framework to train the mind to know the back and spine, to know where one is in relation to the world and to others at all times. And of course as a cellist I experience this knowledge moment to moment while playing. I am sure it sounds strange to those without any such direct experience; indeed it may mean nothing at all. But I can say that my new students make the same discovery: most, if not all, of our attention is constantly drawn forward and down into the world in front of us and there is next to none left for ourselves. We have never been made aware of our backs in either our musical or school education. And by aware I mean keenly sensitive to when the back is collapsing, pushing forward under stress or just not staying back where it is meant to be in relation to the rest of our self. There is a reason it is called a back!
My teacher often used to say: “Put your mind in your back,” or “Harmonise the mind with the back.” There is a quality of attention that arises in us when the mind and back are harmonised. The energy flows, we become quiet and can focus; power can be called upon as needed. The principle of moving in opposition to a stable back goes back thousands of years. Alexander rediscovered it for the 20th century man and woman, and put it into a practical discipline that anyone can learn.
“Under the ordinary teaching methods, the pupil gets nineteen wrong to one right experience. It ought to be the other way round.”
A young instrumentalist aiming for a professional life onstage puts in a staggering number of practice hours during their formative years. I heard the director of our Conservatoire recently state the figure of 8 to 10 hours a day for the 18-24 year olds at undergraduate and graduate levels. Does he think that’s what’s happening in the practice room or wish that it were so?
Either way, it’s alarming to think that so much time is spent sitting and using the fine muscles of the fingers in relentless repetitive motions. Were we, are we designed for this kind of activity? Maybe the better question to ask is: is it necessary?
F.M. Alexander discovered that most repetition is a complete waste of time (and harmful besides) unless it is founded upon what he called “the means-whereby.” Repetition is usually geared to obtaining an end result and that’s where so often the “hit or miss” approach comes in. We go after what we want without a full understanding of the necessary means to achieve it; we work parts without a grasp of the whole of ourselves in movement.
The “means-whereby”—the relationship of the head, neck, back, pelvis and feet, also referred to by Alexander as the Primary Control, affects the use of the arms, hands and fingers. By paying attention to the “means-whereby” we can be taken reliably to the end result on the printed page. True control is a result of another level and quality of thinking in activity, as he called it.
Missing or muffing a passage in performance that one has practised over and over again…it happens to most of us, but in his long and in-depth discussions about the “means-whereby,” which can be found in his marvellous book, “The Use of the Self,” F.M. is saying something revolutionary about learning. He is asking us to look at how we learn, at the very learning process itself. If we spend 10,000 hours practising our instrument, shouldn’t our delivery be reliable? 10 times out of 10?
My experience in the Alexander Technique has revealed that once the coordination is working properly, the fingers can deliver accuracy. It’s not a battle, it’s a conditioning of sorts, learning to place our attention differently. The means determine the ends, and the main difficulty, as Alexander used to say, is in the breaking of the habit of going for what we want directly. In the practice room we can continue marching to Rome according to a destination map to Berlin, or we can stop and ask: which way are we really headed?
The shift that never quite worked can be accurate time and again if the neck remains free and the spine lengthens instead of contracts as we initiate the movement. It is simple, and it works. But easy? Revolutions are not for the faint-hearted!
“I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet (1903)
Einstein began his career working on his theory of relativity and then embarked upon a thirty-year voyage in search of the so-called “unified field theory,” also referred to as the Theory of Everything (ToE). He was ultimately unsuccessful and died leaving this grand question open to succeeding generations of physicists to explore.
We practitioners of the Alexander Technique face our own unanswerable questions. We search for a deeper understanding, we practise the work daily to refine our skills, but I know from my own experience that I make many assumptions about the Technique that have no scientific rationale as of yet. It doesn’t stop me from refining my skills, as the practical benefits are overwhelmingly obvious. But how the Alexander Technique works exactly I don’t know, we don’t know. I continue to explore this important question, as do many of my colleagues.
Living in question is the most creative and stimulating state of being. Doors are always opening in the mind, one is motivated to explore, to observe and to take note. Patrick Macdonald, one of the first generation teachers of the Alexander Technique whom I most admire (and is, sadly, no longer alive) used to say: “The Alexander Technique is, in one word, about attention.” So what is attention, where does it emanate from, is it a function of the mind alone or of the body too? Is it a manifestation of the senses? Is there such a thing as full attention, partial attention, strong, weak attention? Is it within us, beyond us but passing through us?
I am a novice in this field, just beginning to explore what it might mean to pay attention. Thanks to my developing work in the Technique, I had the extraordinary experience of coming into a completely different field of attention as I released layers of unnecessary tension. My attention expanded to include my surroundings even as I focused on playing the cello. It used to be that either I could concentrate on one or the other, not both. I am beginning to understand that too much tension interferes with the attention. Excessive tension makes it impossible to maintain a flexible and free state of alertness; it diminishes the quality of impressions, sensations and most of all, our ability to listen intently to what is around us. Maybe it is a question of available energy. Too much effort wastes energy. Attention is a manifestation of the energy passing through the body, therefore unnecessary effort interferes with and dissipates attention.
Bringing this question of attention to music, what could be more important to a musician than the ability to listen sensitively and accurately? It’s the basis of all music-making, and there the Alexander Technique can make an important contribution to awakening us to our surroundings, by releasing excessive tension and at the same time freeing our attention.