This is a personal story by one of my CCM students, an oboist named Jacob Martin. Jacob had one semester of Alexander Technique lessons with me while doing his Masters in music this year.
I’m not a gullible person. So when I asked “what does the Alexander Technique help with?” and my friends told me “It helps with everything!” I was immediately skeptical. What could be so broad in its application that it can benefit not only every aspect of music-making, but every aspect of living a life?
It sounded to me like the most dubious of all religious claims. Can anything really help with everything? Sitting, standing, breathing, the finer motor movements required of playing an instrument….how could AT help with every one of these things?
I went into my first lesson skeptical, but knowing if I was open-minded, I might at least gain a different perspective on things. It was a comfort knowing that if I found any or all of it to be absurd, I was free to reject it, a perspective I was not expecting my instructor to share (which she did)!
No one was forcing me to believe anything. This wasn’t a system of proselytization; no one was demanding that I believe certain things, or think a certain way. This I learned immediately but I was still unsure about what AT really was.
Over the semester, Jennifer helped me to understand. Gradually I came to appreciate everything the Alexander Technique truly is, the extent of its possible application, and its extreme value to everyone, but especially to musicians. I finally grasped how and why the Alexander Technique was able to “help with everything.”
Here’s what happened…
With the final semester of my Master’s degree drawing to a close, I was assigned an important musical part from my teacher, the first oboe d’amore part to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the CCM Philharmonia.
This part was my “big moment,” my parting gift from my teacher, my biggest opportunity. It was important enough to me that I decided to bring it to Jennifer, as I was being asked to do some rather challenging things….
I’m not a pianist or a vocalist: I don’t memorize music! I was so afraid that in the moment all my preparation would disappear and I would have a slip. I talked to Jennifer and played it memorized for her, and finally felt ready for the performance.
The day of the performance came. Before our big duet, I paid attention to everything Jennifer had taught me, noticing places of ease in my body, and taking care to check in with my neck and my breathing, in order to keep relaxed in the high-stress situation of performing.
Finally the time came for me and my colleague to stand up and walk to the front of the orchestra. We began playing and everything felt very good. The recitative before the aria went perfectly, and I went into the aria relaxed and confident.
My neck felt at ease, my breathing felt natural. But more than anything else, I was cued in to my surroundings, noticing what felt like everything: the conductor, the soprano, the other d’amore player, the continuo group. I felt connected to the outside world and comfortable with myself.
The aria began well, but I soon found that I was not prepared for every possible contingency!
In a brief moment, where just the second d’amore was playing, and I was to enter after him, in imitation of his line, he slipped up. Not coming in a beat late or a beat early, or missing it altogether, but quite suddenly he played almost ametrically. It felt like an aleatoric moment, and was so jarring for someone like me who was to imitate him. I was prepared for everything, but not this!
I had intended to acknowledge his line when responding with my own, employing my best chamber music instincts, but when his line disrupted everything else, I felt so lost!
I “ghosted” the rest of the section, knowing that I was wrong, but trying to keep it together. Eventually came the reprise of the aria’s beginning, and my second player and I were able to get back on track. The rest of the aria went fine, but I still felt as if I had spoiled everything, completely blew the “big moment” of my whole master’s degree, and prevented the audience from appreciating one of the work’s best arias.
I sought in vain for a lesson to glean from this, but wasn’t able to find one. I was so prepared for the performance; I had watched the tension in my neck; I knew the aria backwards and forwards; I was cued in to my surroundings; noticing everything within my body and everything outside of it. But still my playing wasn’t perfect! It drove me crazy.
So finally I brought it to Jennifer…
I explained the performance to her and found her comforting and supportive. After asking her what I could have done better, and how I could cope with my current frustration with myself, she told me that this was not something I could have reasonably expected, and that the best thing me would be to forgive myself.
Like anyone upset, I countered by saying that I understood that, but I still felt as if I had prevented the audience from enjoying the music, something that I could not forgive myself for, as I felt I had done them a disservice.
I’ll never forget what she said next. She told me, “When people attend a concert they don’t want to see something perfect, they want to see something human, something authentic and genuine, even if that means something imperfect.”
I was immediately reminded of what Stravinsky said about the purpose of art being communion, and was able to view the whole situation with greater perspective.
Here was the lesson; here was something Alexander Technique could help me with, that other aspects of musical training could not.
Another music teacher might have sought out or invented more complex problems that the experience had unearthed, but here I was able to look at my “technically imperfect” performance, understand that I had delivered something authentic, and be happy with the experience.
I truly and finally was able to understand how the Alexander Technique could “help with everything,” helping with the preparation of music, helping with the mental aspects of performing, helping oneself understand and forgive when things don’t go as planned.
~ Jacob Martin, Oboe
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