The Real Instrument

Marie Bessesen

Instrument n. 1 tool or implement, esp. for delicate or scientific work. 2 device for producing musical sounds. 3a thing used in performing an action. b person made use of. ………

Vehicle n. 1 conveyance for transporting people, goods, etc., esp. on land. 2 medium for thought, feeling, or action. 3 liquid, etc., as a medium for suspending pigments, drugs, etc.

While I was working with a student as she played the clarinet her sound kept getting clearer and more resonant. Seemingly small adjustments to her head and neck made a significant difference in how she was playing, which, in turn made a difference in the sound she was producing. Suddenly she stopped playing, pointed a finger at herself and said with certainty, “I am the real instrument.”

“YES” I said, “That is it!”

That is the crux of the Alexander Technique – realizing that how we move and use ourselves, and how we think about how we move, makes all the difference in the outcome of what we are doing. We are the instrument or vehicle for any thought we have and any action we perform.

Sometimes people talk about Alexander’s main discovery as being that of primary control (head, neck, and back relationship and direction), and I agree that it is very important. I think however, the most important discovery he made was prior to that specific discovery when he realized that he was causing his vocal problems by what he was doing and that he could actually change himself by paying attention to how he was moving and reacting to a stimulus. He didn’t say “oh, that is just how I am” or “things can’t change.” He took the time and initiative to figure out how his participating in the process made a difference. He realized he was the true instrument and he set about figuring out how to “play” his own instrument in the best way possible. That realization led him to his discovery the primary control.

Having an external measure, such as the quality of sound while playing a musical instrument, gives immediate feedback about how we are using ourselves. It is a lesson to all of us about how our own use makes a difference in what we do. And although many of us aren’t playing such an obvious external instrument, we ARE in a sense “playing” whatever we do. We are interacting with our environment and there are outcomes and consequences to HOW we do that.

You can use his own voice for example as your musical instrument.

Try an experiment with your own voice to see how this all works. The next time you speak to someone, think about the fact that you are creating those sounds and vibrations with your body. This may seem obvious but many of us haven’t stopped to think how we are producing the sound and how we might do it “play ourselves” better. We do what is familiar and what kinesthetically “feels” like “our voice” and unless we lose our voice or get a sore throat, we generally go on automatic pilot and just talk. Notice what happens when you give a thought to the following:
• Leave your neck easy when you talk. Include your three-dimensional neck and the part of your neck up behind your jaw.
• Make sure the air is moving out while you speak-- This doesn’t mean make a breathy sound. It means make sure your air is vibrating your vocal cords rather than making the sound by muscularly pinching your cords.
• Leave your tongue alone. Obviously it is necessary to use your tongue while forming consonants and vowels. Otherwise make sure it is not pushing down in your mouth or on your jaw. This will allow the air to move more easily up and over your tongue on the way out and you won’t be pressing down on your vocal folds.

The invitation of the Alexander Technique is really then to explore how we go about things and how, when we refine our instrument and thus refine our interactions with our environment, we “play” our entire instrument- the full mind-body. The challenge is to learn how to play yourself in the best, most efficient, most effective, useful manner to serve your chosen actions. (Yes, the AT will help a bank robber be a better bank robber – the choice of what you do with it is up to you; that is another discussion.)

As you start to play your own instrument you will experience how amazingly subtle we can be with our awareness and how amazing it is that what we perceive as such a small change or shift in how we do an activity can make such a large difference in the outcome (like what was happening with the clarinet player). This is totally fascinating and can open up a whole world of awareness and perception that is enormously satisfying and useful.

And then a most fascinating thing often occurs. The act and process of playing, continuing the discovery process and refining the means of doing an activity, becomes the goal. The outcome will occur and improve, but the juice, the rasa (essence), is in the flow of the action and activity rather than just the accomplishment.