Alexander Technique

Posted In: How To Play

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    Alyson Webber on #189546

    Hello, all.

    I have been playing for almost 3 years now. Coming from a horn background where I played by building tension in my torso, I have difficulty relaxing while playing the harp. Maybe I don’t even know how to play relaxed, despite my teachers efforts to explain it to me.

    The tension most prominent while trying to play fast adjacent strings up and down (16th notes in Canon in D) or quickly repeated chords (Salzedo Tango), as I think my fingers muscles fight between opening and closing in order to get placed in the right position (does that make sense? My “close” muscles fight to curb the enthusiasm of the “open” muscles in order for them to not get overzealous and hit neighboring strings). This battle results in tension all the way up to my shoulder.

    What I would like to know from all you kind folks is if Alexander Technique would help with this? I see people remark about AT and relaxation and that sounds promising. Also, the AT instructor in my city seems to specialize in vocals. Would he be able to help me at the harp?


    Gretchen Cover on #189548

    Alyson, being aware of your tension problem is a big step towards solving it. I cannot speak about the Alexander Technique, but I would like to suggest that you consider taking up yoga. The breathing, relaxing, developing flexibility, and becoming more aware of your body are what you learn practicing yoga. This will greatly benefit your harp playing and general well-being.

    Angela Biggs on #189575

    Hi Alyson,

    I only played French horn in high school, so I’m by no means a horn expert. However, I do have a little experience with it and am also a professional vocalist (i.e., professional breather). If horn playing was described to you as predicated upon “building up tension in your torso,” that choice of words is your first problem. I encourage my voice students to think of breathing with pressure adjustments as a matter of “flexible strength.” Yoga is very good for this, so I second Gretchen’s suggestion. Furthermore, I would suggest that your finger/arm tension is actually a breathing problem. If you improve your breathing, I bet you anything your harp playing will relax. This forum isn’t the place to go into detail on that; we’d have to talk.

    That said, I have found Alexander Technique very helpful with both my singing and harping. If the AT teacher in your area specializes in singing, he may be a voice teacher with some Alexander training. In that case, he might not be able to help appreciably with harp, but he could probably help with your breathing — which I’m almost certain will significantly help your problem. However, if he is a certified Alexander teacher who simply has a primary interest in singing, he should be able to help you. Alexander, while it can be tailored to address specific uses, is a whole-body technique.

    BUT, I’ve been doing AT for two years with a really good teacher (mostly small-group classes with one private lesson a month), and it is a long-term commitment. Please don’t expect to go in and just get “fixed,” as if you were going for a massage.

    Good luck!

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #189706

    I think you need to do a lot more exercises to build up your strength, coordination, facility, and relaxation. It is tempting to use tension to reassure you of what you are doing, but it is a bad habit. The repeated chords of the famous Tango are quite difficult to get, and require fast closing. You may be trying to go faster than what you can do. You cannot play any faster than you can relax after playing a note, that is a rule. So concentrate on playing that first chord and relaxing. Then you are free to re-open your fingers. People think it is a suitable piece for young players, but while it is possible, it is very hard, and doesn’t get easier for many years!

    Alyson Webber on #189759

    You all are absolutely right.

    I did go see the Alexander Technique teacher here in town, and while he had some exercises which made me aware of where in my body I hold tension and where I have difficulty releasing it, it will be quite a while before I learn enough about AT and he learns enough about harp to really address my issues before they become worse.

    Angela, I also noticed while playing an easy piece I know well and trying to remain relaxed that I was, indeed, holding my breath and didn’t even know it!

    Instead of AT, I am doing an intensive relaxation boot camp (sounds counter-intuitive) with my harp teacher. I am not going to play anything for at least two weeks that is not warm up exercises done at a speed where I can relax between and after every plucked string. It is definitely taking a lot of mental concentration to make sure I’m not zoning out and going back into old habits.

    Right now I am focusing on releasing my shoulders, and letting my forearms almost “hang” from my elbows (not physically, my forearms are parallel to the floor, but mentally). As I am being taught in the Salzedo style, it finally makes sense why my elbows are up, before I was almost holding my arms up by my grip on the strings (again, not really, but to some degree), and elbows up just seemed like a waste of effort. It is a very different feeling, and I know that my future playing ability and comfort is going to be very much related to how well I can make this transition intuitive.

    I would like to know how some of you folks “envision” relaxation. I have found that there are so many ways to do things and some ways “speak” to individuals better than others.

    Gretchen Cover on #189765


    When you think that you play something really well and feel a music high about it, you will have your own ah-ha moment of “envisioning relaxation.” You are definitely on the right track. Taking a step back to really learn the basics will serve you well. You may take baby steps but each one moves you forward. I recommend you go on youtube and check out some of the Jen Hilman yoga videos. I do the short shoulder/neck one after I practice. Stretching after you practice will help keep you limber. I would also suggest you and your instructor work on downward arpeggio exercises. That did wonders for my flexibility and ability to play faster, more evenly. Thanks for giving an update. And kudos to you for taking charge of this problem before it got out of hand (no pun intended).

    Alyson Webber on #189767

    Ha Ha, Gretchen! I enjoyed the pun, whether it was intended or not. 🙂 I will definitely be working on downward arpeggios and will look into those neck and shoulder stretches. Thanks!

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