The Alexander Technique Approach to Classical Guitar Techniqueby Ethan Kind
Between 1971 and 1974 I attended the Royal College of Music in London, whereI studied guitar with John Williams and Carlos Bonell. I also studied the AlexanderTechnique privately with Jean Gibson, who is well known for being Sally Swift’ steacher. Ms. Swift wrote Centered Riding, which is a beautiful book on AlexanderTechnique applied to dressage. In those three years I joined the technique of theseextraordinary players with Alexander Technique to heal carpal tunnel syndrome in myleft hand and have never had wrist problems since. In 1992 I became a certifiedAlexander Technique teacher. What I am presenting here is everything I learned fromthese wonderful guitarists and Alexander Technique, all defined by my three years oftraining to become an Alexander Technique teacher.
GOAL OF THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
The purpose of the Alexander Technique is to create freedom in movement byteaching newmovement patterns in the activities of everyday life and specializedactivities. Its objective for the performer is to produce physical responses that insure anappropriate distribution of neuromuscular tone throughout the body. This allows theplayer to be able to deal with the stress of a performance by creating physical lightnessand ease. The technique identifies and decreases neuromuscular tension that occurssubconsciously, and it creates postural good use through the intricate and delicateinterplay of muscle coordination and movement. When the technique has beensuccessfully applied, body areas are lightly and easily balanced in relation to each other,allowing increased flexibility and a sense of freedom for the performer. The goal of theAlexander Technique is to change destructive physical habits that limit freedom andmovement and that c reate pain through straining and tension and poor posture.
HISTORY OF THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
F. M. Matthias Alexander was born in Tasmania, Australia, in 1869 and died in1955. He was an orator who aspired to being a Shakespearean actor. During his career,he began losing his voice while performing. Although Alexander consulted withphysicians, they were unable to find anything wrong with him. Several physicianssuggested a minor operation on his throat, although they could not guarantee the successof the procedure. He eventually stopped seeking the help of physicians and decided toobserve himself reciting in a mirror. He saw that as he recited he threw his chin upward,constricting the muscles in the back of his neck, pulling his head backward and downcompressed into his spine, with his neck and jaw pushed forward. This stretched anddepressed his larynx. Alexander attempted to correct the error by holding his headdifferently. He extended his head upwards, but found that the correction was only oftemporary help, because he began to lose his voice again. After many attempts, herealized that he was positioning his head incorrectly and that he had no idea how his head
functioned in relationship to his neck. He then decided to inhibit only the manner inwhich he positioned his head. He focused his attention on how to not tighten his neckmuscles during a recitation and to allow his head to find its own sense of balance.Alexander expanded his observations to total body awareness and began to sharehis ideas with others. He formulated as his main principle that there is a relationshipbetween the head and the neck, and that if this relationship is freely maintained inmovement and at rest, there will be a beneficial effect on the functioning of the body as awhole: if the head leads a lengthening spine upwards, the body follows with elegantbeautiful movement. Alexander called this head-to-neck relationship “ Primary Control” .He defined good Primary Control as occurring when the head is balanced freely at theend of the spine, and the musculature is not interfered-with in its lengthening the spine tofully support the body in activity.
ORDERS AND INHIBITION IN THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
Using “ orders” (thoughts) to create good use is the technique that helps theperformer rediscover the natural balance of his body. There are three steps in changingbad habits. First, the performer must become aware of the habit. Second, the performer istaught to observe his habitual responses to particular stimuli. (An example of a poorhabitual response is the raising of the shoulders while playing the guitar. This habitcauses excessive tension in the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.) Third, the performer istaught to inhibit his initial habitual response and to allow the body to find a balancedposture, using orders of allowance. (For example, if you notice that you tighten you neckat the moment you begin to play, then stop playing, inhibit the destructive movement,and begin again.) An example of an order of allowance is: “ My neck is releasing and myspine is lengthening as my shoulders float on my ribcage.”Two conditions are necessary for orders of allowance to work. First, theperformer should order only movements that are not harmful and are physically possibleto accomplish. Second, the movements should be trusted to happen. If the performer doesnot interfere with the musculature consciously, the body knows the most efficient way toaccomplish a movement or posture. If the performer consciously attempts to ordermovement through contracting the muscles, the quality of movement will be reduced.Movement and posture require so many variables working together that any consciousattempt at ordering all of the musculature will block the ease of playing the guitar.A teacher of the Alexander Technique has knowledge in the following areas tohelp the performer make postural re-adjustments: a correct concept of skeletal alignmentbased on anatomy and body mechanics (which is flexible to allow for differences in bodybuild); knowledge of the typical faults in posture; ability to locate the key areas of poorrelationships between the body areas; knowledge of where and in what directionmovement is needed to align the skeleton and to bring about postural balance; and theability to see a restriction of range of motion in a performer. Finally, the teacherencourages self-examination by the performer regarding any false beliefs he may haveabout posture, movement, and technique, and then to let these go.The following principles are guidelines for good use in movement. The orderedmovement must be possible and should result in a postural or movement change thatbrings the body closer to its intrinsic sense of balance. The physical laws in an orderedmovement should be obeyed, which means to recognize that a force such as gravity ispart of movement and can either assist or hinder the coordinated action of muscles. The spine should only be ordered into lengthening upward or downward––not pushedforward––to create held “ good” posture. Use different orders of allowance, because thesame order may, over a period of time, lose its impact in bringing about the desiredmovement. Also, different orders may work better for different individuals, depending onwhether they are more artistic or mechanical in their approach to playing.
To “ direct” in the Alexander Technique is to give an order of allowance to thehead, neck, and spine to release and lengthen prior to movement. A traditionalAlexandrian order is, “ my neck is free, and my head is moving forward and upward,lengthening my spine” . The word “ forward” in this instance means that the head is tiltingto level on the spine so that the planes of the face are vertical, and the base of the neck,the occipital joint, is released. This does not mean, however, to push the headhorizontally forward of the torso.Alexander came to realize that the neck releasing and the spine lengtheningprecede all beautifully coordinated and effortless movement. The problem is that mostpeople do the opposite of this, especially in activities that are learned with an element offear, such as reading and writing, or learning a musical instrument. And he saw that ifpeople really wanted to do something extremely well, like playing the guitar, they usuallyhunkered down and locked the neck in an attempt to “ get it right” .Alexander began teaching his students to use the “ my neck is free” order in alltheir activities so that they wouldn’ t compress their spines prior to doing something.Therefore, the first movement before playing the guitar should be to release the neck,thus allowing the spine to lengthen. This sets the stage for consistent, elegant, andeffortless performing. To play with a lengthening spine means you play with the head,neck, and spine flowing upwards, which is a vector of up––a direction, not a heldposition.I have one final point to make on orders of allowance and directing: Once youhave used these tools to regain the beautiful body-use so many of you had as children,these new/old efficient habits and postures start to become second-nature again, and youdon’ t have to order yourselves around so much. (Not a bad joke, huh?)
GUITAR TECHNIQUE: RIGHT HAND
If the performer is incapable of producing volume without a harsh tone, thensomething is wrong with the right-hand technique. This usually happens because theperformer is hooking the strings with the middle joint of the fingers and, as more force isapplied, the strings slap against the fingerboard. The strings should be struck and nothooked. The finger moves through the string from the main knuckle of the right hand,aiming for the back of the palm instead of hooking the finger into itself. In this processthere is some curling in the middle joint, which helps move the finger into the palm at aneven reflexive rate. The movement needs to be executed at a naturally reflexive speed sothat excessive tension is not caused by trying to force the finger to go faster through thestring. You can only move as quickly as your reflexes allow, so you need to trust yourreflexes. Once the movement has been initiated and completed, allow a reflexive returnto its original position whether you do a free or a rest stroke. By returning the fingerinstantly, independent of what any other finger is doing, the finger is in position to play again. No matter the tempo, it returns before or during another finger’ s execution. Withthe execution and return of the stroke being reflexive, excessive tension is avoided athigh tempos and the quality of tone is clear, losing any hint of sounding labored.Imagine the hand as a door hinge. Place the arm on a table with the hand over theedge of the table, palm down. Let all of the fingers touch each other and be gentlycurved. Allow them all to twitch into the palm from the main knuckle. Do this with eachfinger imaged as an individual door hinge springing closed. Now get the guitar, and letthe fingers and thumb rest on the first four strings; thumb on the fourth, first finger on thethird, middle finger on the second, and ring finger on the first. Release each finger one ata time away from the string, only a quarter of an inch, and allow the finger to strikereflexively through the string like a door hinge springing effortlessly closed. Do thisrepeatedly with the same finger slowly (in terms of tempo), as the thumb and otherfingers rest on the other strings. Allow the finger to twitch back to its starting place, as ahinge returning to open via a spring.The action of the fingertip is very important to tone production. The fingertipneeds to give backwards. If not, the sound will be harsh. Find a position that allows thefinger the freedom to strike from the main knuckle and to give at the tip. Imagine thefingertip as a harpsichord quill. As the finger goes through the string like a door on ahinge, allow the fingertip to give backwards like the quill of a harpsichord. Giving at thefingertips is the mechanism behind volume control. No matter how softly the performerplays, the speed of attack should not lessen. If the attack slows down, then the tone losesits quality and becomes fuzzy or indistinct. Something is also lost rhythmically, because,if the attack is slowed, then the exact point when the string is released becomes indistinct.Since the speed of attack is not changed, then something else has to change to reducevolume, and this should be the fingertip. I think of the fingertips as guitar picks. When Iwant a louder sound, it is like using a stiffer pick, and for a softer sound, a more flexibleone. The fingertips are allowed more flexibility, backwards, as the performer producessofter and softer sounds. If the speed of attack is maintained at a reflexive rate, then therelease of the notes is precise. Because fingertips give only so far, their release at a highspeed maintains the integrity of the note.When using the thumb, allow it the freedom to break downward from the firstjoint, and do it as reflexively as the fingers. The sound produced by the thumb bending atthe tip is a more controlled sound and closer in quality to that produced by the fingers.Imagine the reverse of shooting marbles with the thumb. When shooting marbles, thethumb tip pops out of the index finger to shoot the marble. Let the thumb do the reverse.With the extra control afforded by the thumb tip, the performer can avoid the danger ofoverpowering treble production with the superior strength of the thumb. If a stronger,fuller sound is desired, then the thumb is used as a single unit whether playing free or reststroke.
The position of the right hand is one of compromise that needs to satisfy thefollowing rules:
• Find a position that does not cause strain on the fingers, thumb, or wrist.
• The wrist needs to be high enough so that the fingers and thumb have the freedomto curve through the strings and not hook them.
• It must also be a position where all three fingers and thumb can produce identicalhigh quality tones, without the hand position changing to accommodate aparticular finger or thumb.
• Do not torque or twist or push fingers sideways to create a desired quality ofsound. Let the fingers move only as released hinge joints.
• The positioning of the fingers needs to be direct enough into the strings so thatthe fingers can play on the metal bass strings with scratching sounds reduced toa minimum. This same position is used in the treble, so that the performer is notvarying the fingers to accommodate particular strings. For this to happen, thehand's relationship to the arm changes as you move up and down the strings.
• Positioning of hand and technique of attack must allow the performer to play at apeak volume and retain tone quality.
• The string is plucked at the same place (which may vary from finger to finger) onthe nail and flesh, so that consistent tone production is maintained.
• All movement of the hand and fingers is at a minimum, but not to the point ofconstricting movement.
• A string is usually not played from a resting position on the string (with theexception of performing successive staccato notes on the same string).
• Nails must be buffed on the edges to a glassy surface to reduce nail noise to aminimum.
• When changing from free stroke to rest stroke, the hand position changes (wristmoves closer to guitar). Like the free stroke position, the above ten rules stillapply to the rest stroke.
If these eleven points are satisfied, then the performer will find an elegant handplacement and technique with which facility and high tone quality can be sustained.
GUITAR TECHNIQUE: LEFT HAND
A major difficulty many guitarists have with the left hand is caused by the waythey perceive movement in position changes. When a shift occurs, it is not the hand orelbow that makes the change of position. It is the upper arm and shoulder that moves thehand and forearm. The more reflexive all finger and arm movements are in the left arm/hand/shoulder, the more connected the notes. Reflexive movements facilitate playinglegato no matter how slow the tempo.Trust the arm/hand/shoulder to get from point A to point B easily and accurately.Do not tell the arm/hand/shoulder how to shift. Trust the body to know how to shift, andbe clear where you are going. The less control over the details of muscular movement,the more accurate the shift will be. Effortless accuracy is a function of assumed successthrough absolute trust that the body knows the best way to get the job done. If you knowwhat the arm is doing mechanically and what notes you want to play, and you trust thearm to be extraordinarily accurate and guide it with orders of allowance, it will hit themark. Simply, in “ Alexander speak,” you let the hand lead the arm, but you KNOW theupper arm and shoulder is moving the hand.Another difficulty caused by not being conscious that the arm moves the hand, isthat the arm can become dead weight whenever it reaches a position. The moment thefingers press the strings, the arm may stop supporting the hand––pulling down on thefingers and guitar. When this occurs, shifts become difficult because the arm has tofunction with an extra action: the muscles of the arm have to be activated to support thehand to initiate a shift at the moment the strings are released; otherwise, the arm wouldsimply fall off the guitar. It also takes more strength to hold the fingers on the strings caused by an over-tensed hand and an under-toned arm. Another bad side effect of theleft arm being dead weight is the weight of the arm pulls the neck down and pushes upthe right arm and shoulder. When the right arm has to hold the instrument down, thetension that is caused will transfer into the right hand.When shifting, completely release the thumb on the back of the neck, but stillmaintain contact. The friction caused by the thumb pressing against the neck will cause aslowdown in shifts. When pressing down notes, think of the hand as an ultra-sensitivevice so that the thumb and finger(s) press with equal strength. This prevents pulling theguitar into your body and causing strain in the hands, arms, and shoulders.To avoid excessive tension in the left hand, do not press the string any harder thanneeded. This is only accomplished by adding pressure up to the point of a cleanlyproduced note. The performer will never know exactly how much pressure to release ifhe starts by squeezing too tightly. It is much easier to add pressure than to release it.Excessive tension in the hand transfers to the wrist, into the forearm, and all theway into the left shoulder, causing fatigue in a short period of time. A way to test tensionin the hand and arm is to make a bar, play, and then move the instrument back and forth.If the performer can maintain the bar with the notes continuing to sound cleanly while atthe same time allowing the wrist to release back and forth and the upper arm move at theshoulder, then he is not pressing too hard. Thus, tension is not transferred up the arm.Remember; never pull the guitar toward you! Allow the shoulder to be at ease as youcreate clean playing with the sensitive vice of the hand.Practice placing the fingers on the strings at the same place on each finger, exceptfor very awkward chords or playing in some positions past the twelfth fret. Search thearea of the fingertip (pressing the string down at different points), and discover the pointon each finger where there is a sense of maximum strength and security and balance.This is accomplished by playing very slowly for a while. Trust your fingers to comedown at the same place on their tips each time.The thumb generally opposes the fingers between the second and third fingers,except when making a bar, where it will usually oppose the first finger more. Experimentwith different multiple- and single-note placements to discover the greatest sense ofstrength and balance in the left hand by moving the thumb accordingly. The ideal is tohave the thumb in a place on the neck at every moment that creates control, balance,strength, and accuracy. This means that the performer must become consciously aware ofthe different patterns the hand sets up, and he must anticipate the position of greatestbalance and security between the fingers and thumb.
The fingers should have a natural curve and allowed be close to the fingerboard atall times so that they are not articulated in a haphazard way. Accuracy is a result of howwell the music is memorized, how balanced and released the performer is on the guitar,how well the performer lets go of self-doubt, and how close the fingers are to the strings.The fingers of both hands never need to be more than a quarter of an inch from thestrings when not being used. The exception is the follow-through of the right-handfingers when playing forte, but otherwise stay as close to the strings as possible.Gradually, through the inhibiting of old habits and the relearning process, the hands willdevelop a feeling of released, curved closeness to the strings, and speed and accuracywill improve enormously.The left hand sustains the note values on the instrument solely, since the righthand has no more contact with the string once it has been plucked. Therefore, to maintain clean playing and legato, the left-hand fingers need to be quick, smooth, and accurate, asif playing a slur. There needs to be a reflexive action of “ hammering” down on the string,followed by a reflexive release of the string.For descending slurs and trills, make sure that the finger being slurred or trilleddown to is stable and is not pulled down when the slur is executed. When slurring ortrilling, the finger that moves reflexively comes down off of the string stopping againstthe adjacent string and reflexively returns over the string previously played. To preventthe string that the finger stops against from being heard, allow the stable finger at timesto touch the string, especially in a trill. Imagine the trilling finger to be like a bull’ s hoofas the bull is preparing to charge. The bull hits his front hoof to the ground, draws italong the ground, arcs it back in front and repeats the same movement, describing a halfmoon.The muscles within the palm and back of the hand should not be rigid to conformto a position parallel to the underside of the neck. Generally, the hand is (or is almost)parallel to the neck, but, to avoid straining for some notes, the hand needs to be allowedto form a lateral curl across the back of the hand. This enables the little finger to reachthe desired position without forcing the hand and/or the arm into an awkward and tenseposition. Feel the back of the hand as being very soft, so that the little finger can reachany string with a released palm.One final point concerns the release of the bar. The bar requires more strengthand pressure on the strings than any other left-hand movement, and this raises the tensionlevel in the hand during its execution. At the bar’ s release, be sure to allow the hand toreturn to its former level of minimal dynamic strength needed to perform its othermovements.
Posture will determine how balanced, solid, and comfortable the performer feelswith the instrument while playing. If you feel off-balance while playing, then thistransfers into the hands, and your ability to play well becomes unpredictable. The bodyover-compensates to hold itself in the chair, and to maintain the guitar in position withthe hands on the instrument. The hands and arms lose their freedom of movement andthey become part of the over-compensated support the body requires when gravity ispulling at it unevenly. At this point, excessive tension is distributed throughout the wholebody and playing becomes an effort.
Allow yourself to be balanced upright with the upper body completed by thepelvis. In the Alexander Technique the torso includes the “ sit bones” as the bottom of theback. The spine is not held rigid, but it is allowed its natural S curves with a comfortablesense of tone throughout the upper body. Do not lean continuously to one side duringplaying. The exception to this rule is when playing above the twelfth position, where youmay have to lean over the instrument to reach the notes. Also, there is no problem inallowing yourself be fully upright with your upper body moving with a lengtheningspine. This is an expanded expressive version of the “ sitting dance,” a recognition that anupright body is always in movement and never immobile.The shoulders float on the ribcage, but are not held level. Do not depress theminto a level position or hold them up. Because the spine supports the upper body, then theonly weight the right arm places on the instrument is its own weight. The instrument is not used to hold the body up! If the right side of the body is allowed to become deadweight on the instrument, then tension is transferred down the arm to the hand, andplaying becomes strained.The shoulders should float/move on a constantly expanding and contractingribcage. If you never hold your breath, then the shoulder girdle is never immobilized,even during a difficult passage (which is where most performers hold their breath andhunker down). Does this detract from accuracy? No. Accuracy is a function of faith, andis never kindly attained from trying to minimize movement by being careful. Simply, aguitarist never needs to hold his breath.When changing the right-hand position for tone color, the arm moves horizontallyacross the instrument. A metallic sound is not accomplished by raising the shoulder tomove the hand. Also in conjunction with right- and left-hand position changes, never pullthe shoulder blades together to move. Allow the arms to move freely in the shouldersockets with the shoulder blades totally free following the arms’ lead in movement.Allow the head the freedom to tilt and pivot form the upper vertebrae, instead ofhunching over the instrument with the neck forward. The head, held forward or rigid,transfers tension very quickly into the shoulders and arms and into the hands. (This was amajor cause of my carpal tunnel problems.)The left hand and arm are extended to the neck of the guitar. When playing in thefirst position of the instrument, do not lean into the guitar. An arm lengthening awayfrom the body from a supported shoulder on an upright torso is much more powerful thanan arm the torso is collapsing towards. This forces the body out of balance, and makesshifting a major body movement instead of a released arm movement.Finger movement can be imagined/perceived as a lengthening or pushing ratherthan a pulling of the fingers through the string or into the string. If the performer thinksof the muscles on top of the fingers and upper forearm as lengthening to push the fingersthrough the strings or pressing the strings, then a much smoother motion occurs. Peopleare taught to think of movement as shortening one muscle group and allowing thelengthening opposing muscle group to passively give way. This belief causes thelengthening muscles to act as a drag on movement––which is especially harmful insomething as sophisticated as playing a musical instrument. Allow momentum to help.The performer should use no more muscular effort than is necessary. When a finger is inmotion or the left arm is shifting, allow momentum to assist in the movement. It shouldnot be made a muscle shortening/tightening process, in which the performer triesunnecessarily to muscularly control every second of motion.Feet are placed fully on the ground, whether a footstool is used or not.Experiment with the positioning of the feet and legs, because most positions of the feetcause a loss of balance in the entire body. There is no positioning of any section of thebody that does not have an effect on the overall structure. Do not think just of hands orarms. Playing the guitar is an awareness of the whole body’ s relationship to theinstrument and sound production. There must be an overall consciousness of how you areput together from head to toe if a sense of total coordination is to be found and allowed.For a guitarist, the most obvious motion is in the upper body. The lower body’ smusculature is allowed to flow and balance as the legs and sit bones contact the chair andfloor. This centered base allows the performer to feel and play with security.Lastly, watch for facial tension. This does not mean facial expressions that showemotion while performing, but rather the expressions created by straining to do your best.Alexander Technique teachers have a saying: “ Don't try, do.” When playing, allow the face to express the joy of performance in the total piece, not be the place where youdemonstrate your distrust of your technique or attack yourself for making a mistake. Thetotal relationship of the body to the instrument is a compromise situation in which theperformer satisfies the requirements of balance, shifting, comfort, strength, toneproduction, and dynamics.
Ethan Kind, formerly Charles Stein, trained as an Alexander Technique teacher atthe American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York and has been teachingsince 1992. He also has a M.M. degree in classical guitar and was a concert guitarist forten years. Mr. Kind’ s writing (as Charles Stein and Ethan Kind) has been published in theUnited States, Great Britain and Australia. He lives in Nashville, TN, where he has aprivate practice. He can be reached at 615-353-9915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.