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Integrated practice: coordination, rhythm & sound
by Pedro de Alcantara. Oxford University Press, cop. 2011
Two reviews: Peter Buckoke and Judy Vigurs

Peter Buckoke
(First published in STATNews, January 2012)

This book is a magnificent piece of work. Pedro de Alcantara has followed his widely read and appreciated book ‘Indirect Procedure’ with another for aspiring musicians. He writes more ‘as a musician’ in this latest book and widens the parameters by encouraging us to integrate rhythm and sound quality in our everyday awareness.

Pedro is an extraordinary polymath. He refers to various sciences, arts and sports. He writes with clarity and total conviction of his authority in all fields. We are very lucky to have him in the Alexander world.

The book has 290 pages and there are a great many musical examples printed as music manuscript embedded in the text. The book is attractive in design and feels substantial in every way. It has three sections, ‘Rhythm’, ‘Coordination’ and ‘Sound’. Throughout the book Pedro refers to musicians in varied fields that have worked through specific issues with him. He works with elementary and advanced students.

Pedro is a master of analysis. The writing is full of integrity and there is often a sense of humour in the writing, e.g. the chapter title, ‘The Quadrupedal Prosodist: A Piano Lesson’. The book is full of practical exercises, described in great detail, laid out as a pathway to improved musicianship. Pedro has created dozens of video and audio clips on the companion website, (www.oup.com/us/integratedpractice). He uses a matter of fact style avoiding overt theatricality or obvious emotional engagement. There is a brief written summary of each exercise in an appendix.

The first section makes the undeniable connection between poetic rhythm, meter and structure with the matching elements in music. Pedro gives us dozens of activities with clear instructions how to practise them. We have the option of seeing him put many of them into action on the website. There are very few ‘Alexander’ connections made for us in this 136 page section. The reader is encouraged to take the rhythmic work into everyday life, e.g. walking with trochaic, iambic, dactylic, amphibrachic and anapaestic emphasis, taking it into the psychophysical self. He encourages us to become extremely interested and personally invested in prosody. There are some ideas with clearer Alexander resonance that I enjoyed very much , such as the biological connection, through the breath, with the sung four bar phrase and being a bridge player, I loved the statement referring to end-gaining, ‘the desire to do’ trumps the decision ‘to pay attention’.

The 50 page middle section of the book, ‘Coordination’, is the most engaging and immediately satisfying for me. It reads like a supplement to ‘Indirect Procedures’. Pedro has a good look at why musicians make unnecessary movements and how to work on the issue. He addresses the musician’s powerful emotional response to their instrument and the importance of the connection between the back and the hands for all musicians. There are two brilliant exercises; ‘the Mobius strip’, that addresses spirals, internal/external awareness and singing to a balloon in the hands to develop a total body experience of musical vibration. He revisits a favourite from ‘Indirect Procedures’, when he looks at bilateral and quadrilateral transfer.

The third section, ‘Sound’ is like the first, not so obviously connected to the technique. He looks at the ‘harmonic series’ and the ‘messa di voce’. Pedro explains the harmonic series and gives us exercises to develop more awareness of the partials or overtones in all sound. The messa di voce is usually used on a note, often a final note or a chord, and requires the performers to grow in volume to a point, usually in the middle of the duration of the note, and then fade to the end of the note; the character of the sound should otherwise remain constant.   Pedro made clearer for me the comprehensive technical/psychophysical challenge that is involved in the ‘perfect messa di voce’ and I have found practising it throws light in very interesting directions.

Pedro states that many classically trained musicians shy away from improvisation but I cannot say that is such a prevalent tendency in my experience. It is a core subject that is embraced wholeheartedly by the students at the music colleges in London. It is certainly an activity that helps to free the psychophysical self for musicians and warrants his attention in this context.

Again, in this section, there are some brilliant Alexander moments. I loved the description of a way to approach playing ‘in tune’ as "Employing both conscious choice and acquired intuitive reflex." The best connection of all for me is the comparison of creative poetry moving against the grid, expressive music moving against the pulse and well coordinated gestures of the body moving against the core stability that comes from appropriate antagonistic core tensions.

This book (with its companion website) is a great achievement. I found reading it challenging and often felt annoyed at the prescriptive nature of the writing. I acknowledge that being a musician and Alexander teacher I bring many deep seated opinions and probably prejudices to the subject. I am very happy to say that I also found a good deal of valuable inspiration that made the reading of the book more than worthwhile.

The book is written for aspiring musicians and would suit someone with a keen intelligence and interest in developing as a musician with Pedro’s intense guidance, to a certain extent as a substitute for a real life music teacher. I can imagine someone falling under the spell of Pedro’s totally confident writing and being happy to throw themselves into the exercises, in which case the results might well be exceptional.

© Peter Buckoke 2012
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Judy Vigurs
(First published in STATNews, January 2012)

When I first looked through this book, I saw the musical quotations and thought "Oh. It’s a book for musicians." Then when I started reading I felt inspired by its approach to fluency and musicality through exploring rhythm, flow and sound and wanted to try out the exercises and procedures myself. In the end, though, I came back to my first point of view: this is a book principally for musicians -at all levels -and also those who work with them, like me.

In this follow-up to Indirect Procedures, Pedro de Alcantara focuses on subtle elements of the study, practice and performance of music. The book is designed to give musicians tools to help them get to the heart of music in their playing and practice. The author makes this a whole-body and whole-person experience. He starts with rhythm, for instance, by getting the reader to focus on the rhythms of walking and speech, and moves from that into poetic rhythms -prosody. These rhythms he then applies to reading, hearing, interpreting and playing music. I did wonder how many musicians would be willing to devote time to the study of poetic prosody and learn about trochees, anapaests and dactyls, but as rhythmic combinations that can be found in all speech their relevance to music seems obvious.

The following section of the book, on flow, introduces the idea of what the author calls "the grid", a form of structural patterning that he sees as an organising principle not just in music but in all aspects of our lives. He uses examples such as the squares in hopscotch, the lines on a map and the National Grid to illustrate this organising principle and its functions.

In music, both composer and performer have to acknowledge, even internalise, the mathematical structure created by time signatures, note values and phrases. At the same time, they create a flow of sound that seems to resist the metric grid, with all kinds of variations. Working with various kinds of grid and allowing the music to flow through and around them is a major theme in this part of the book.

A book about music runs the risk of falling short on one level. Music needs sound. To illustrate the procedures, this book has a companion website on which they can be watched and listened to. Many of these excerpts are little master classes in performing a particular short piece. Others show the author demonstrating a point on the cello or putting hands on another musician. These hands-on procedures, such as the series on sitting and rocking I found particularly interesting as illustrations of working with musicians. The explanations are clear and concise. There are short videos on the lunge and what the author calls the plunge, putting hands on the wall. There’s a lightness and humour in the videos too, for instance when the author is walking rhythms or working with a broom.

The book has a short, clearly written introduction to the Alexander technique. This starts with end-gaining, because it is, as the author says, present in every aspect of music-making. A number of the video clips show the Alexander technique in practice.

The strength of this very detailed book lies in the simplicity and originality of the procedures and the way the author talks about them. He connects the finer points of the practice of music directly to the most ordinary everyday activities. The book is an invaluable handbook for musicians, a workbook to return to again and again. And as an Alexander teacher who works with musicians I look forward to using it in my teaching.

© Judy Vigurs 2012

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