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Alexander Technique in the Music World

Peter Buckoke and Judith Kleinman: Friends Event on 3 March 2009:

 

By Julia Paprotna

 

Alexander Technique has been well-established in the music education system in the UK. Guest speakers Peter Buckoke and Judith Kleinman made it an interesting and informative event since both of them spoke from experience. Peter is a professor of Double Bass at RCM (the Royal College of Music) where he also teaches AT. Judith, also a double bass player, has been an AT teacher at both RCM and RAM (the Royal Academy of Music).

 

In their talks, Peter focuses on the historical background of AT at music colleges and the study curriculum, while Judith speaks about working with teenagers.

 

AT was introduced into RCM 55 years ago as a direct result of research concluding that ‘… this approach is the best for solving artists’ problems with communication and should form the basis of their training’.  However, the sequence of events leading to it was influenced by … a lucky coincidence. Dr Barlow is the main witness representing F.M. Alexander in the South African libel case and on returning to the UK his medical career turns out to be destroyed. As a result, the Dr and Mrs Barlow establish a new AT practice near RCM. Due to the office location the first music student -a singer -comes for lessons, his music professor appears and seeing that AT pupils are not misusing their bodies sends more students for lessons; then opera singers start appearing.  In the end, the above-mentioned research is carried out, listing the following benefits for students:

1. Physical improvement: vocal, postural, tension reduction, etc.

2. Students are easier to teach.

3. Better awareness of themselves resulting in better performance.

4. Development of voice and personality.

5. Plus … everyone -except one student-grows taller.

 

The acceptance of AT at the RCM changed from confidence of acceptance to a growing interest and recognition. Therefore music takes a special place in establishing AT as a recognised method.

 

AT at the RCM starts as an independent course of study with three teachers involved. The only teacher that stays, Adam Nott, is the one who invites Peter to teach as well, and Judith joins them later. Unfortunately, with time, continuing the work becomes possible on the condition that AT forms a part of a degree study due to limited funding. The idea of learning assessment as well as group teaching causes controversy, yet teachers take the challenge, formulate a study plan and provide scripts.

 

Peter proceeds with a detailed description of the AT curriculum. Basically, each of three levels consists of ten half-hour-a-week group sessions. However, almost all students on level 2 and 3 decide to take individual lessons, especially in the summertime.

 

At Level 1 Peter introduces basic concepts such as inhibition, habit, semi-supine position and use of hands/arms.  The question of assessment (a student is asked to write a two-week self-observation diary/ask a written question) brings a lot of interest from the audience (example of a question: spontaneity of performance vs. inhibition). Peter adds that marks can be moderated and reads a couple of diary excerpts. In general, students come up with very sophisticated connections showing interest in the quality of practice, the importance of awareness and lack of superficiality.

 

Peter describes several subjects included in Level 2 curriculum:

1.       Teacher-pupil relationship. Peter: ‘I’m saying I’m not better than my students, we’re equal. I’m special but they are special, too’.

2.       The art of seeing  (how the use of the eyes affects body). Example: the effect on performance when an artist is cutting off from the energising contact with the audience; panoramic vision helps here.

3.       Performance anxiety. It is a big issue since the difference between a student practising AT and without it is compared to 2-3 years of training. Involves practical observation in a group.

4.       Applying AT to playing an instrument. Peter explains that one pupil gives a short performance (at the event it is demonstrated by a cello student Harry), while the rest of a group watch someone play, look at the use and then give advice in order to identify mis-directions and help to develop strategies. This results in giving a different experience to a musician, to which he/she can refer later.

5.       Final assessment. It is an essay taking the form of a diary/introduction to AT/essay on a topic agreed with a teacher).

 

Level 3 study is focused on the subject of communication. Performances are recorded on DVD and discussed later, with a mock exam in the similar form. Level 3 ends with a research project/dissertation (popular subjects: ‘How to practise well’/‘Performance anxiety").

 

Afterwards Peter briefly discusses common misuse patterns among upper string players.

 

Judith talks about her experience of working with teenagers at the Royal Academy of Music, how rewarding it is and what challenges arise.

 

She explains that the main purpose of a teacher is to make teenagers acquainted with AT, to show such a method is available, to make it a place to come back to. It is virtually impossible to predict further interest, gift or involvement -it usually comes at a later stage in life.

 

Judith makes a point that teenagers are often perceived as ‘difficult’ individuals  -an opinion strongly supported by current media coverage.  However, outside the stereotypes they are usually very open and AT teachers have a lot to offer them, a real gift.  Another difficulty is touch as parents usually stop touching children aged 13+ and many teenagers are very ticklish.

 

Judith’s strategy of working with teenagers involves the following ‘rules’:

  1. Get them curious.
  2. Make connection between them and their emotional life.
  3. Embarrassment vs. deep acceptance of who you are:  ‘No one else is better at being you than yourself’.
  4. Curiosity and creativity:  these are the biggest magnet, showing how life can be rich.  Our (AT teachers’) curiosity, interests help us to connect with them.
  5. Encouragement:  ‘Don’t expect to be perfect, just have a lovely time’. That leads to confidence through better connection with the body.

 

She describes common misuse patterns among teenagers: stiff neck, gripping the floor with the feet, forced smile -lead to ‘fright’ neck.

 

Judith makes an experiment in twos, showing what a difference attitude can make: one person is to raise the arm of the other, the person whose arm is being moved agrees to it reluctantly/does not care/agrees to co-operate.

 

As the event approaches its end Judith remarks on AT being a lovely tool:  our Western martial arts.

 

 © Julia Paprotna 2009

 

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