Embracing Imperfection: Learning Standard Repertoire through the Alexander Technique by Francesca Leo
An average estimation of the time it takes to master your craft is 10,000 hours. This time can be measured through individual practice, spending time in rehearsals and private lessons, and performing. An important part of your journey in mastering your instrument is devoting time to figuring out what a healthy learning process means to you. Over the past few years, I’ve spent much of my time trying to manage feelings of hyper-criticism and self-doubt. I used to enter each practice session with the intention of working as hard as physically possible, taking no breaks until I heard a noticeable improvement in my playing. I never thought that I was good enough, and this negativity consumed me. I constantly compared my playing to others and punished myself for not being at the same level. During this time, I was also experiencing severe tendinitis in my left forearm and shoulder, a performance-related injury I have struggled with for years. In the practice room, I used to run through difficult sections repeatedly without stopping to fix mistakes, convincing myself that I should be able to play the passage correctly and punishing myself for not being able to. I also frequently encountered my “inner critic” voice. This voice can be useful in analyzing problems and finding solutions in the practice room but can also rear its ugly head on days you feel insecure and out of control.
After a long process of analyzing my tendencies and keeping records in a practice journal, I discovered an increase in forearm, hand and shoulder pain on days I was being hyper-critical and discouraging to myself in the practice room. Alternatively, on days I was practicing positively and efficiently, I would experience little to no pain. The results of a study I conducted in 2017 within the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University demonstrated that 73% of students experienced performance-related pain at its worst the week leading up to a major performance, competition or audition when stress levels are heightened, indicating a direct correlation between emotional and physical stress.
I discovered the Alexander Technique during my undergraduate degree, and it has since changed my entire approach to playing the flute. The Alexander Technique is a method that works to change habits in our everyday activities. It is a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support and coordination. It is taught through gentle, hands-on guidance as well as verbal commands. The healing process from a performance-related injury is a complex journey, especially if you are unable to take time off from playing while in school or performing professionally. The Alexander Technique can help you learn how to get rid of harmful tension in your body while maintaining a similar playing schedule. It has allowed me to heal from my performance-related injury by learning how to play my flute with a greater sense of ease. Since my body had responded so positively to Alexander Technique in the past, I was curious to see if it could also help me learn to practice more positively and get rid of the “inner critic” voice that I battled daily.
I began an independent study experiment with Professor Barbara McCrane, Faculty of Alexander Technique at the Manhattan School of Music in the fall of 2019. I wanted to pinpoint the exact moments I felt out of control and hyper-critical in the practice room, and these moments frequently occurred while I was learning standard flute repertoire. Learning and performing standard repertoire is a difficult task, because we imagine that audience members have a pre-conceived notion of how that particular piece should be played. Even though this may not be the case, we tend to internalize every criticism we receive, leading to an increase in tension and anxiety in our practice sessions. Through this experiment, I learned Fantasie for Flute and Piano by Georges Hue through a series of five private Alexander Technique lessons, using only my prior knowledge of the repertoire learning process and the Alexander Technique to learn the piece. The goal of this experiment was not to learn this piece perfectly, but to take a step back and examine how my individual approach to learning repertoire causes me to punish myself and become my own worst critic. I was determined to find out when and why I began to doubt myself, and how these judgements had the tendency to snowball into self-hatred and negativity.
In our first lesson, we worked on the first page of the Hue Fantasie. We began with 15 minutes of table work and 25 minutes of guided hands-on practice time with Professor McCrane. In Alexander Technique, table work involves the student lying horizontally on a table with their feet planted on the ground and a thin book underneath their head. During this time, the teacher may speak verbal commands such as “your neck is free” or “your back is lengthening and widening” and also may engage in gentle hands-on guidance of your limbs, head and neck. I began this session being very judgmental towards myself regarding any initial technical mistakes, poor tone quality or rhythmic mistakes I made, even though this was my first time looking at the music. During this session, I responded positively to Professor McCrane saying the phrases “let it go”, “mistakes don’t matter”, and “you are tall and powerful”. When I began to get into my own head, we took a step back and worked on the difficult technical passages by repeating them slowly after re-centering. The act of re-centering in this lesson included physically putting down my flute and walking away, coming back to hands-on work with Professor McCrane and focusing on my neck being free, my head reaching forward and up, and my back lengthening and widening as I breathed deeply. In this particular lesson, the hands-on work away from my flute was done sitting down in a chair, also referred to as “active sitting”. When this same work is done in a standing position, it is referred to as “active standing”. I felt a greater sense of ease and much more relaxed when I returned to my flute. I marked the spots I was having difficulty with and planned to continue moving forward by focusing on the phrases I responded positively to at the beginning of the lesson. I began to learn how to come out of negative spirals while practicing by walking away productively.
In our second lesson, we began by discussing how we can use the act of being busy and “busy energy” to our advantage. This week I was engaged in daily intensive rehearsals for an upcoming orchestra performance of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, my amount of course work was increasing, and I was two weeks away from a major concerto performance of Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears Concerto with the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Sinfonia. I was feeling generally nervous and stressed out. Professor McCrane reminded me that we have the ability to use the full space around us, especially the space around our shoulders. I felt significantly taller and felt blood flow returning to my arms after we did table work. We also discussed how our lower back can support us more in general, and how a solution to solving body tension can be to allow yourself to occupy more space within the room.
I played a full run-through of the first page of the Hue Fantasie. This run through felt great; I experienced no tension or pain and any mistakes I made I was able to “throw away” and keep going. The Alexander Technique reminders that I wrote on music during this session were very helpful, specifically “let it go” and “throw it away”, so I committed to writing these types of phrases on all of my music in the future. In the past, when I would get frustrated with myself for not being able to play a specific passage correctly, I would write negative phrases such as “this needs much more work”, “don’t rush!” or “not even!” After I wrote phrases such as “let it go” or “throw it away” on my music, I realized that I was able to practice these passages more positively.
When I began to play through the second page, I first scanned it to look for difficult passages. This was not the best approach, because it allowed me to revert back to self-criticism mode as soon as I was not able to play a run evenly or played a wrong note. I came across a roadblock where I was growing increasingly frustrated by this one passage that I could not play. When this mental blockage happened, I felt my neck tense up even though Professor McCrane was working with me hands-on. At this point we stopped, talked about what I was feeling, and analyzed how I was projecting my current insecurities on the music. This moment revealed that I may be constantly fixated on what others think as I play which can lead to an increase in physical tension and mistakes. After this discussion, I decided to run-through the entire page again. Before starting, I reminded myself that I did not have to begin right away. I could take as much time as I needed to get into a more positive and confident headspace. I also focused on moving side-to-side and back-and-forth, physical movement that engaged larger muscle groups to relieve some tension I was experiencing in my hands and forearms. The run-through was very successful, and I did not stumble on the difficult passages. I felt very open and resonant throughout my body and I was in a very positive and present headspace. This session continued to prove that walking away and letting go during challenging moments is helpful and productive.
I did not experience any form of negative spiral during our third session together, and I was able to maintain a sense of ease throughout the entire lesson. This demonstrated a positive milestone in the experiment. We worked on the third page of the Hue Fantasie and reviewed the first and second pages, which were improving in terms of technical and rhythmic accuracy, phrasing and ease. I noticed that I had to adjust the alignment of my headjoint during this session. As I was playing with hands-on help from Professor McCrane and focusing on lengthening my head and neck, my headjoint became rolled out and my sound became airy. I realized that I had been compressing my posture, hunching over and physically rolling my entire flute in. In order to prioritize the lengthening of my head and neck, I physically rolled in my headjoint slightly to maintain a comfortable embouchure while my flute remained rolled out in this new posture. We also discussed how to enact character changes while maintaining Alexander Technique at the forefront. Instead of physically pushing to achieve a dramatic and forte sound, allow room for expansion. When speeding up the tempo of certain passages, first walk away from the music and re-center through active standing, allowing your neck to be free and your head to reach forward and up while your shoulders enjoy room to expand. Begin to walk forward, slowly quickening the pace while letting go and remaining at ease. Then, pick up the flute and focus on maintaining the same sense of ease. In Alexander Technique, when you notice a problem, go back and try it again but in a different way.
During the fourth lesson, I was three days away from my concerto performance and my nerves were starting to kick in. It was difficult for me to concentrate during our table work, and difficult to relax mentally and physically. We discussed my upcoming performance and how the nerves were resonating with me. These nerves resembled a constant mental buzz, physical tension in my shoulders and forearms, and a general lack of focus. Even after the table work, I still felt a bit tense and in a general haze. We talked about how this is what I was working with today and how every day is different. I decided to take this opportunity to learn how to work through difficult days when I fall into this sort of negative and anxious headspace. When I reached difficult passages in the final page of the Hue Fantasie, I observed the difference between perception versus reality during my practice sessions. I initially perceived the ending of this page to be the most difficult, when in reality it was easier than I expected it to be. Alternatively, I found that passages I anticipated being easier actually ended up being more difficult. These observations taught me not to be intimidated by difficult-looking repertoire and to treat each passage as equally important. Adding physical movement to break pattern was beneficial for some passages, but I was having trouble staying grounded overall. Stepping away from my flute frequently during this session helped a lot. When I came back to my flute, I was able to see things more clearly and create a more productive plan of action to acknowledge and fic the mistakes I was making. This session ended up being extremely productive and allowed me to navigate feelings of performance anxiety and prioritize self-care.
During my final lesson, I was feeling very stressed and exhausted. The tablework was extremely helpful during this session and I felt very relaxed, calm and tired afterwards. Our original plan was to do a full run-through of the Hue Fantasie, but we instead decided it was best to stop playing each time I felt like I was reverting back to my bad habits.
Alexander Technique has taught me to walk away while experiencing moments of self-criticism and focus on active sitting or standing, repeating positive phrases such as “I am tall and powerful” or “I will allow myself to let this go”. Physically putting down the flute and choosing to focus on mind-body ease can help to curb negative thoughts and criticisms. With the Alexander Technique, we make mind-body coordination a pre-requisite for activity. You must care about yourself enough to stop practicing when you find yourself in a negative headspace. Writing positive affirmations on your music, specifically above difficult or stressful passages, will help to foster a positive and productive space in your practice room. Always try to form criticisms of yourself in a positive manner to build confidence. This experiment has allowed me to pinpoint the exact moments I felt out of control or felt badly about my playing, and these discoveries will allow me to continue pursuing a happy and productive career in music.
Francesca Leo is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Classical Flute Performance at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Ms. Linda Chesis. She is the founder of www.playingwithoutpain.com