Sometimes Not Breathing Is Believing

Technically, this pigeon is playing the English horn. [Artist unknown]

Technically, this pigeon is playing the English horn. [Artist unknown]

When I was training as an Alexander Technique teacher, Vivien Mackie—the well-known Alexander teacher and cellist—came to Urbana to visit the Murray’s training course. While in town, she gave a master class to undergraduate musicians at one of the local universities. I had never seen an Alexander teacher teach a master class, so I decided to sit in and watch.

One of the students was an oboist. The oboe can be richly beautiful. But this young man would puff himself up like a pouter pigeon before he began playing, and the sound that emerged from his instrument was harsh and laser-like—I imagined it peeling the varnish off the floor of the stage.

Vivien Mackie let him play for a bit and then had him stop. “I want you to try something, just as an experiment,” she said. (I’m paraphrasing.) “Just try once to begin playing without taking a breath.”

He looked a little confused, but nodded congenially. He turned back to his instrument, puffed himself up with a big breath once again, and resumed sandblasting the stage to a smooth sheen.

Vivien stopped him again. “Just try once playing without taking a big breath.”

He nodded, turned again to his instrument, puffed himself up with a big breath, and started power-washing the grooves in the floor with his sound.

Vivien interrupted him again. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said. “But just once, for me, try playing without taking a big breath.”

He nodded, and this time, he finally took no noticeable breath before beginning to play. The most beautiful sound poured from his instrument. I don’t know who was more astonished: him or me.

Many years later I had a similar experience with a professional flutist. She had taken a series of Alexander lessons with me before and was back for a refresher. This time she was in the midst of preparing for an orchestra audition.

She had to prepare a long list of orchestral excerpts—20 second to 1 minute long selections of some of the most difficult music written for her instrument. Each lesson would begin with some classic Alexander—reminders to find her length and freedom of movement in relatively simple activities. And then she would take out her piccolo and we would look to find the same freedom of movement when she was playing through each excerpt.

I remember one lesson in particular. She decided to play through a piccolo excerpt from the Lieutenant Kije Suite by the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev. It’s a jaunty little melody that begins in a reasonable register and then suddenly leaps up an octave and is very, very high.

When she reached the octave leap, several things happened at once: she pushed her chin forward towards the piccolo, tensed her neck, and blew about twice as much air through her instrument as she had before.

The first half of the melody sounded great. After the octave leap, it wasn’t as good. The notes either sounded shrill or didn’t really speak. She told me that the piece had never been a problem for her when she was playing with full orchestra in concert. But as an audition excerpt, it had become her bete noire.

The first thing I asked her to do was pay attention to her head balance when she played through the excerpt. It is often the case that releasing tension at the head and neck will make a difficult moment much easier. She was surprised to discover that she had been pushing her chin forward and tensing her neck at the moment the music leapt an octave. But the awareness didn’t help her much. Even with some practice, she couldn’t really do anything about it. The Prokofiev was already giving her plenty to think about it—adding the thought of a free neck was one thought too many.

A lot of musicians assume that learning the Alexander Technique means playing their instrument with perfect posture. And if you want to police these musicians’ posture, you could have faulted the oboist for puffing up his chest, or the flutist for tensing her neck. But these actions were really symptoms of their beliefs about what was necessary to play their instrument in that moment.

While we had been working on her head balance, I noticed that she was still pushing a ton of air through the instrument when she got to the octave leap. Now this is a tricky moment in teaching. I don’t know how to play the piccolo. And I don’t know if you need a lot more air to leap an octave on the piccolo. But I figured it was worth exploring.

So I said, “Just as an experiment: this time, when you play through Mr Prokofiev here, don’t change anything when you get to the octave leap. Just use the same amount of air.”

And she did. And when she got to the moment, the music leapt out of her instrument: the higher octave was just as clear and just as musically jaunty as the lower octave. And without the drive to push so much air through the instrument, she didn’t push her chin forward or tense her neck.

A lot of musicians assume that learning the Alexander Technique means playing their instrument with perfect posture. And if you want to police these musicians’ posture, you could have faulted the oboist for puffing up his chest, or the flutist for tensing her neck. But these actions were really symptoms of their beliefs about what was necessary to play their instrument in that moment.

The oboist was young and relatively inexperienced. He believed that he needed a ton of air to play the oboe. With Vivien Mackie’s help, he was surprised to discover that he not only didn’t need to take a big breath to play, but that his sound quality improved enormously when he took no noticeable breath at all.

My flutist student was a much more experienced player. She knew how much air was required to play the Prokofiev and could play it without much concern in a full orchestra. The tension in that moment came from the pressure of preparing for an audition—the need to nail the part, get it right the first time.

Both of these experiences are satisfying as a teacher. Look, the experiment worked! And it's tempting to say that such magic moments are enough. Now and forever more, these musicians will play with their new found ease! What complicates (and also enriches) the process, is that it's not just a matter of changing a movement pattern, but of changing a belief about what is possible. It's one thing to experience that you can get more from doing less. It's another thing to believe it.