Improving Piano Posture Using Alexander Technique

Improving Piano Posture Using Alexander TechniqueI distinctly remember the year I visited the gym every day–gosh, I was fit. I was confident. I had strength and stamina.

I wish my knee didn’t hurt as often. I’d be so in shape. Instead, I’m inspecting people’s postures in videos where they’re doing squatting exercises, in case my pain came from bad squatting posture.

Pan, my first trainer, is strict enough that I listen to what he says, but still gentle enough that I don’t feel bad about myself.

Today, he showed me how to bench press. I didn’t care about chest muscles until he announced that he would turn me into Miss Proportionate, and found out I needed to work all my muscles separately.

It turns out that pectoral muscles are difficult to work if you don’t already have some strength in your arms (biceps), because every exercise that involves your pecs involves using your arms as well.

“Am I doing this right?” I say. “I don’t feel anything in my chest. I feel it in my arms.”

“You will feel it soon. You’re not used to working your chest.”

There are benefits to conditioning a muscle or skill even if you don’t think you use it daily, because it can have benefits in other areas of your life. In this case, having strong chest muscles can give you better posture.

Very few women work on their chest muscles, but isolating these muscles helped me understand how all the muscle groups need to be exercised to minimize pains in your body–it’s changed how I approach staying in shape.

My chest muscles are quivering, and I didn’t even know I had them.

 

This makes me think of the music hacks I’ve learned over the years, that have changed how I practice piano.

I recently came across the Alexander technique for music again, and was looking to see if it could improve my piano playing. What is the Alexander Technique?

 

The Alexander technique promises pain-free playing, and its prominent teachers come from Juilliard.

Students say it’s akin to receiving guidance from a massage therapist where someone molds your body to proper shapes for your muscles specifically.

Immediately I start thinking of my daily posture where my shoulders are hunched over unless I make an effort to straighten up. When I heard that the Alexander technique could fix any pains in one’s posture, I thought it was unlikely to work.

I slouch outside of my piano playing. In fact, I already slouch less than normal when playing piano because I’m using my arms. Imagine a werewolf’s hunchback; that’s my normal back.

But now the Alexander technique seems like a great idea because you are fixing the tensions in your body are never noticed, and it’s almost guaranteed to work because everyone has some unwanted tension in their bodies.

I’m going to try one tip from the Alexander Technique for one week: releasing tension in my neck, so that my spine and hips will stop compressing on each other and my back will straighten out.

I tested this technique by releasing neck tension during a piano piece and it seemed to be effective in helping me play more elegantly, but it could also be that my body is compensating for yesterday’s intense workout, or a placebo effect.

 

You are probably holding your neck stiff right now. Imagine a string on the crown of your head pulling your spine upwards, releasing the tension in your neck.

When your neck holds tension, you are compressing your spine downwards and rotating your hip bones backwards so that you are slouching. It might cause back or shoulder or neck pain. This is what it might look like:

Improving Piano Posture Using Alexander Technique

Does releasing tension help your posture straighten out? Touch your neck–it shouldn’t feel strained nor tense. It shouldn’t tilt forward. (Grace’s edit: I previously used the term “relaxed” here, and it’s come to my attention that the correct term is “not tense”, since relaxing implies that you are sagging.)

What if you go about daily life with less tension, even outside of the practice room?

If you would like to try the Alexander technique with me for the next week, I watched this Alexander technique video as an introduction and will incorporate tension release during my daily routines, even outside of piano.

I can’t help thinking that what I’m really learning is that even the oldest routines I have can use a slight tweak to get better results, and perhaps the Alexander technique will be one of these tweaks for piano.

Even if it’s not, I knocked one investigation off the list.

 

Alexander Experiment Details

Added this on Oct 23rd 2018 and added rough diagrams above.

Grace LamThe neck is one of the focal points of your skeletal system as a whole, and downwards pressure from your neck would compress your spine in unruly positions, causing pain.

Originally, I intended to try the Alexander technique for one week, but the results are qualitative and wishy washy; “I feel” and “I think” and all that jazz, nothing actionable.

I want to share concrete results that we can use to make a decision on whether the Alexander technique works for piano and beyond.

That’s why, I’m going to extend the experiment by one week. I will start collecting more stringent data for each session.

The sample size is fairly small (one), but 7 days may provide enough data to see if a particular music technique works. Hanon, for example, only takes around two sessions to get results.

Your experiment can be as simple as you like. I’m going to record my data using a spreadsheet, but I encourage you follow along by trying the Alexander technique for a small amount of time everyday and writing down your results!

Below, I’ve shared some experiment notes because I’m a geek.

If you’re not interested in experimenting with piano technique (or if you don’t play piano at all), then feel free to join the 7 day experiment with something else you’re interested in, such as an exercise or sport.

Try the 1 Week Experiment with me. Type “I am trying the Alexander technique this week” or something similar below this article, in a comment, so that you’re accountable! Commit to 7 days of experimenting something in your life.

 

How to Run the Experiment:

– Every time I sit down to do work on the computer or play piano, I will record data related to the pain (quality, onset, duration) and the specific activity.

– I will remind myself to use the Alexander technique at least 4 times in the session.

– A session will only count if it is greater than 15 mins of sitting down. I will only record activities sitting down for sake of this experiment. Multiple sessions can be recorded throughout the day, but not necessary.

– In the case that the experiment causes me more physical pain in 3 consecutive sessions, I will terminate the experiment but still provide collected results and conclusions.

– The experiment shall last for 7 days.

– I will record data in a spreadsheet! I’m a spreadsheet nerd. You can record using pen and paper as well.

Alexander Technique Hypotheses:

a) Using the Alexander Technique when playing piano (or other instrument) improves quality of playing when the session is longer than 15 mins.
b) Using the Alexander Technique when sitting for more than 15 mins minimizes pain.

Null Hypotheses:

This is provided for reference. We don’t need to do anything with these right now!

a) Using the Alexander Technique when playing piano does not improve the quality of playing when the session is longer than 15 mins.
b) Using the Alexander Technique when sitting for more than 15 mins does not minimize pain.

6 Comments


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6 Comments

  • Reply Bob October 28, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    I will try the Alexander Technique this week…

    • Reply Grace Lam October 28, 2018 at 8:24 pm

      That’s great, Bob! I’m looking forward to hearing about progress, if you’d like to share.

  • Reply Rosie October 28, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    I’m having trouble grasping how the head/neck is supposed to lead the back and hip bones to better posture. I can move my head all around and nothing changes as far as slouching posture. The YouTube example seems to indicate everything below should straighten automatically. What works for me seems to be aligning from the bottom up, rather than top down–but I suppose that would no longer be Alexander technique.

    What caught my interest was numerous other YouTube suggested videos on playing posture. I’ll see what they have to say and get a better feel for the posture subject in general.

    • Reply Grace Lam October 28, 2018 at 10:36 pm

      Hi Rosie, that’s a great question, and perhaps this quote I found may clarify your confusion a little:
      “Joe Searby asked me to stand in front of my chair facing straight ahead, shoulders soft, and to think of my spine as a long spring. He explained that my head, weighing 10-11lb, was pushing down on that spring, compressing it.
      Two-thirds of the head’s weight is distributed in front of the ears, meaning that, naturally, it should move slightly forwards. But when the muscles of the neck are tense, they contract, drawing the head backwards and down, and pulling extra weight on to the spine.”

      The theory says because the source of the tension and pain is tension in the neck, the most logical thing to do, in order to fix your posture, is to release tension in your neck (note: this is different from completely relaxing as you don’t want your neck to sag).

      It’s an old technique, so there is quite a bit of literature on it. I also figure that taking some lessons from an Alexander pianist may not be a bad idea!

      Source of quote: Telegraph UK – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/alternative-medicine/3356106/Alexander-Technique-the-great-curer-of-back-pain.html

      • Reply Rosie October 29, 2018 at 3:00 pm

        Thanks for this additional reference, Grace. I read the whole article and think this statement about it being a thought process helps demystify why I’m not understanding it. “You’re using conscious thought to free tension from the body and ‘retrain’ the musculature of your spine, neck and head.”

        While I’ve heard of the Alexander technique in general, the idea of Alexander pianists is new to me and I’m looking into it further. I love the way you bring new concepts to consider.

        • Reply Grace Lam November 2, 2018 at 8:45 pm

          You’re welcome! I’d love to hear how it goes for you, Rosie.

    What do you think?

    6 Comments