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Mind and Muscle and Music:

A companion to Mind and Muscle: an owner’s handbook

Elizabeth Langford, Publ. Alexandertechniek Centrum vzw, Leuven, 2008, pbk, 227pp, ISBN 978 90 808491 3 6, €25. http://www.alexandertechniekcentrum.be. Tel/fax +32 (0)16 25 12 89.

Review by Elisabeth Waterhouse (First published in StatNews, January 2009)

 

This remarkable book documents and illuminates the lifetime’s experience of a musician who found her way to understanding aspects of her playing through the Alexander Technique. The influence of three great teachers to whom she owes so much -Walter Carrington, Peggy Williams and Max Rostal -gave her inspiration to "commit to paper" her own experiences and thoughts and to offer practical advice to all types of musicians. This is a book written by a musician for musicians.

At the very beginning she writes: "This book is intended to be read in combination with Mind and Muscle." The type is a comfortable size and although the titles are self-explanatory, there are no diagrams or pictures -these are all in the first book. It is very readable from the musician’s point of view. 

In her introduction, the author writes:

"Musicians, knowing that their work demands a high standard of neuromuscular co-ordination, are well aware that mind and spirit can only express themselves by means of bodily movements … too many musicians still suppose that all that is needed to maintain good co-ordination throughout a demanding career is plenty of practice at their instrument. This unfortunate misunderstanding leads, too often, to artistic frustration and to ill-health."

Elizabeth describes her own gradual realisation that her difficulties and pain were caused by what she was ‘doing’ and that she eventually found help from an Alexander teacher. She cites Alexander’s own problem-solving in the light of the relevance this has to all who practise the art of ‘performance’. It is a universal fact that we can think and act at the same time but that most of the time we act without thinking, which may lead to many problems in activities such as sport or being a musician, so why not learn how to know what we are doing while we do it?

There follows a section with advice for each instrument, in which the main postural or physical problems are discussed individually. The author is herself a violinist, and the section on the violin is more detailed than those of the other instruments. Elizabeth is cautious with her comments on instruments she doesn’t play and gives credit to teachers of those instruments for their advice and research as well as adding her own thoughts. The list of instruments includes all the common orchestral instruments (except the viola -presumably being considered a large-sized violin!) -Violin, Cello, Double-Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon. Brass instruments are grouped under one heading. Percussion, Voice, Piano, Chairs (we all use them!) and Conducting conclude this section of the book.

In the section Performance Anxiety, aspects of nervousness are touched upon from many angles. It closes with a letter Elizabeth wrote to a pianist discussing kinaesthetic memory, directions, new habits and the chance to experiment.

In Support and Balance the main text is written on the right-hand page with relevant comments on the left page. There are many titles -e.g. Head and hands, Some worries and objections, Preventive orders in sequence. Much that is of fundamental importance to a player is discussed again in detail with references to Mind and Muscle and explanations on the left-hand page. This chapter includes many personal experiences with special mention of use of arms and hands away from the body.

The short essay entitled Intermezzo acts as a preface to some accounts, in chronological order, of Elizabeth’s experiences introducing the Technique into the education of musicians. The first letter she wrote about the importance of the Technique appeared in Medical World in 1966. Since then she has had influence on the Musicians’ Union, many music colleges, particularly the RCM and GSMD, and led countless courses for various educational associations. She cites many case histories drawn from her own experience with these events, which make fascinating and instructive reading for musicians.

In 40 years of teaching, Elizabeth has seen many institutions offering courses. Some have frankly not done enough and she writes: "of course the very existence of the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust ... bears witness to the fact that we haven’t made nearly enough progress in convincing the world that ‘use affects functioning’."

However, there are now many musicians who have also trained as Alexander teachers. The RCM offers Alexander Technique as part of its degree course, and the Manchester Alexander Technique Training School has close links with the Royal Northern College of Music and, as the author quotes from the MATTS prospectus, "aims to make a contribution towards the distinct placing for the Alexander Technique in the wider field of personal health and performance studies."

In the last section, Finale, the emphasis is on the importance of the role of the music teacher who "is in a privileged and highly responsible position of having a one-to-one relationship with the pupil. ... Essentially the pupil is learning to learn, which is a skill for the whole of life." There is a compelling story of a boy who learnt the violin as a child and became a lawyer when grown-up. He claimed that it was learning the violin that taught him to ‘concentrate’.

Elizabeth’s two penetrating and deeply personal books are inseparable. Mind, Muscle and Music follows on seamlessly from the previous book. It was the author’s intention to write for musicians in an easily understood style, and this has been achieved. There are certain repetitions, but in the field of the Alexander Technique one cannot rely on an understanding of the issues the first time! There is practical advice for all instrumentalists, historical material, and a wealth of stories to illustrate many circumstances, many drawn from autobiographical sources. The ultimate message is one of optimism and of hope for the future!

 

© Elisabeth Waterhouse 2009

 

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