Tower of Power: Alexander, The Teaching of Action in String Playing, and the Limits of Good Advice

Carol McCullough, my first Alexander Technique teacher, was also a violist. She wrote her DMA thesis on connections between Paul Rolland’s The Teaching of Action in String Playing and the Alexander Technique. It’s a great resource for musicians interested in how the Alexander Technique can be applied to instrumental technique. You can read excerpts from her thesis on Marion Goldberg’s website, The Alexander Technique: The Insider’s Guide.

I wrote recently about a significant moment in my lessons with Carol, when she showed me how the organization of my back was a crucial factor in producing a large sound on the violin. My habits at the violin involved pushing my hips and lower back forward, which took away support from the violin. I describe it as slipping on a banana peel in slow motion. Carol helped me bring my hips underneath me and my “back back,” creating a line of support up from the ground to the instrument. With that support, I discovered that I could produce a fuller sound with less effort.

For those interested in the nitty gritty, here’s the excerpt from Carol’s thesis where she explains the relationship between the support of the back and a large sound.

All string players are taught to increase the amount of weight going into the string through the bow to make a larger sound. However, there must be a corresponding increase in the resistance of the violin to the increase in weight or pressure. If there is not sufficient support of the instrument, as in the case with many players, the increase of weight through the bow will actually force the violin downward. The violin is then moving in the same direction as the bow, thereby eliminating any possibility of resistance… This is analogous to trying to saw a piece of wood while the wood itself is moving in the same direction as the saw, rather than being firmly supported and stationary.

Many players may instinctively increase the support of the instrument as they increase the weight through the bow. This is often accomplished by clamping down on the chin rest with the head, causing over-tensing of the neck muscles; drawing up of the left shoulder, requiring relatively vast amounts of energy; or using the left arm as a rigid support beam, thereby impeding the left arm movements necessary to playing the violin or viola. A given player may exhibit a combination of any or all of these tendencies. A lucky few will accomplish the necessary increase of instrument support in response to increase of bow resistance through the use of leverage in the largest muscles of their body, those of the back.

Here is where being able to direct a lengthening of the back and torso can be of great assistance. As the body lengthens and widens, the upward thrust of the hold of the violin increases the antagonistic action of the bow to the string. The player must make the necessary adjustments as the bow reacts to the increase in antagonistic action. He is not only trying to increase the amount of weight on the string with the bow, however, he is also increasing the resistance of the string to the bow. Instead of trying to accomplish a larger sound through the increase of weight on the string (which chokes the upper partials), the increase in sound is achieved through resistance between the bow and string… Thus the action of producing a large sound is accomplished with the largest muscle groups of the body possible, those of the back, as well as with the least amount of perceived effort. Correspondingly, less sound can be achieved by lessening of the upward thrust of the player’s body.

This upward thrust, combined with the downward pull of gravity on the bow, is the vertical form of the bi-lateral motion advocated by Paul Rolland. Rolland believed that bilateral movement (in which the bow is moving in the opposite direction of the body) is an essential element of string playing. Perhaps the upward thrust of the player combined with the downward pull of gravity with the bow could be termed “bi-vertical.” In essence however, this phenomenon of movements in opposite directions is a three-dimensional entity. The spiraling mechanism of the human structure, explored in the next section, facilitates bi-lateral movement (movement in opposite directions) in both the vertical and horizontal planes.

The next passage discusses how Rolland’s “bi-lateral movement” can be enriched by understanding the “double-spiral arrangement of the human muscular system.” You can continue reading here.

Carol’s thesis gives us one example of how string technique can be put in a whole body context. Alexander teachers often tell musicians that they need to expand their understanding of technique—say right and left hand technique in violin playing—to include the whole body. Yet most of the musicians I’ve worked with know that their instrumental technique involves the whole body. For example, the first teacher to tell me that the power for my sound comes from my back was my violin professor at Oberlin, Greg Fulkerson. And yet it took Alexander lessons with Carol to make this concept a reality. Why didn’t Fulkerson’s advice help me when I was at Oberlin (with the caveat that I was a squirrelly, easily-distracted undergrad)? I think there are at least two reasons.

The first, I think, is that the advice—”your power comes from your back”—wasn’t proceduralized. For example, the main way I learned to produce a big sound when I was studying with Fulkerson was a straight bow (for a consistent sounding point), bow speed, and arm weight. Fulkerson had a bow arm class for his new students which met every day for the first week we were in his studio. We practiced the “reverse crescent” approach to pulling a straight bow at various speeds. And we practiced arm weight. First: arm weight at the frog, at the middle, and at the tip. Then: arm weight through the length of detaché whole bows. The class culminated in a “bow arm exam” in front of the whole studio in which we demonstrated these fundamental techniques. My description probably makes this sound like torture, but I loved it. I thought: Now I’m cooking with gas!

Alexander teachers often tell musicians that they need to expand their understanding of technique to include the whole body. Yet most of the musicians I’ve worked with know that their instrumental technique involves the whole body. For example, the first teacher to tell me that the power for my sound comes from my back was my violin professor at Oberlin. And yet it took Alexander lessons to make this concept a reality. Why?

In contrast, when Fulkerson told me that my power came from my back, it was in passing. If I remember correctly, we were talking after a lesson about insights into my coordination that I’d learned in my contact improv class (because: Oberlin) and he was telling me what he had learned from studying a martial art (Tae kwon do? Aikido? I don’t remember). His insight was not followed by a course of study.

When I brought my violin to my Alexander Technique lessons with Carol, we spent a great deal of time clarifying what was meant by “your power comes from your back.” As I described earlier, this sometimes meant she adjusted my stance as I was playing. But she also used classic Alexander procedures—”hands-on-back-of chair” was particularly important—to show me how to find the most advantageous relationship between my back and my arms. And just as learning a straight bow and arm weight took time, I learned to find the power in my back over the course of several months. This coordination didn’t replace what I had learned at Oberlin—sounding point, bow speed and bow pressure continue to be the most direct ways of affecting my tone—it supplemented and enriched my understanding of how to get a big sound.

The second reason Fulkerson’s advice didn’t help me was that it was generic, not specific to me and my habits. My habit at the violin was to push my head forward, round my shoulders, push my upper back back and hips forward. Many violinists and violists share elements of this pattern with me, but just as many don’t. Imagine a violinist who studied ballet for six years as as child. She habitually stands with a lifted chest and a hyper-extended back. Her path to finding the power in her back is going to be quite different from my path to finding the power in my back.

All of which is to say that finding the whole body context for the teaching and learning of instrumental technique is more of a practical problem than a conceptual one. A great deal of modern string teaching is wonderfully effective and creative. My bow arm class with Fulkerson at Oberlin was an example of instrumental technique teaching at its best. But when it comes to including the whole body, I’ve heard plenty of advice from musicians and teachers that is generic—like “be your tallest self,” “breath into your belly,” “bend your knees”—and doesn’t take into account the students’ existing habits and the process needed for changing them.

I was fortunate to find an Alexander teacher who had a deep knowledge of string playing. How to integrate this kind of knowledge in the teaching of musicians is an important question, probably with multiple possible answers. I think it’s worth tackling, since the benefits to musicians (and their teachers) are manifold, both in reducing the risk of injury, increasing technical ease, and perhaps most importantly, letting music teachers and students get down to the business of making music.