Part 1: A Problem with Pain: Why I started studying the Alexander Technique

Jorja Fleezanis, from a photo by Greg Helgeson.

This is the first in a six-part series about my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time.

I had just graduated from Oberlin and pain was on my mind. I wasn’t injured, but I figured it was just a matter of time.

I’d watched many of my peers take time off from playing because of injury, usually tendonitis. One friend imploded in spectacular fashion. She was having hand problems, yet still practiced 7 to 9 hours a day. Her doctor father sent her prescription codeine so she could practice through the pain. The day came when she couldn’t play any more and she realized she would have to rehabilitate her hands. She did start to recover, but at a certain point she felt she’d lost too much time, and gave up her aspirations to perform.

I took it as a cautionary tale. If I felt a twinge in the practice room, I would go home for the day. I was supposed to be practicing 4 to 6 hours a day, but if I felt discomfort after 45 minutes, I would pack it in.

As a result, I was never injured, but discomfort was pretty constant—and often mysterious. Before my junior recital, I had some spasms in the muscles beneath my shoulder blades. What was that all about? One winter term I took a contact improv class (because: Oberlin) and at the start of class we would stretch for an hour. As I stretched, I would feel the tightness in my wrists slowly unfurl. After class I would go practice for a few hours and the next morning the tightness in my wrists would be back.

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

That fall I moved to Minneapolis to study with Jorja Fleezanis, then concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. A question dominated my mind: how can I practice enough to be a professional musician and not get injured?

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

The question became even more urgent when I started watching the Minnesota Orchestra play. Jorja was generous with tickets to see the orchestra. I had seen orchestras perform before, but I had never seen an orchestra perform every week. I was staggered by the amount of rep they tore through, not only a new program each week, but a new and challenging program every week. It was physically and mentally demanding beyond anything I had experienced as a student.

Jorja was always taking her students out for dinner after concerts. One night, I finally asked: how are you not in pain? How do you avoid injury? Do you stretch? Yoga? Massage? What?

She said that she had studied the Alexander Technique for six years and that she had learned to sit and to move in ways that didn’t wear on her body. I have a memory of her standing in the restaurant and putting her hands on her hips and talking about finding the connection from the back to the hips to the chair when she played.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of a trusted teacher. I’ve sometimes thought that if Jorja had said she avoided injury by bungee jumping I would have grabbed a cord and leapt off the nearest bridge. That winter, when I came back to Minneapolis after the holiday break, I decided to find a teacher. I was fortunate to find Carol McCullough. I remember our first conversation. “I’m a violist,” she told me. “There’s a lot I can show you.”

This isn’t the time to go into all the insights I gained from my first lessons with Carol. But I often reflect about my early beliefs on being a musician and the inevitability of injury. I think many musicians share the kind of pain problem I had as a conservatory student: they defer a true commitment to the work it takes to be a performer out of fear of injury. Through those first Alexander lessons, I was able to put that fear to rest. Carol showed me a way of working that both reduced the risk of injury and renewed my joy in playing. It’s a way of working that is available to anyone.

Next: Off the Map, in which I discover I have no idea where I am in a very fundamental way.