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Part 1 An Alexander Technique Approach to Musicians' Injuries

21 Feb 2014 1:19 PM | Anonymous

Ethan Kind

Part 1

An Alexander Technique Approach to Musicians’ Injuries

Ethan Kind, M.M., certified A.C.A.T., Am.S.A.T.

When I was aspiring to become a concert guitarist, I developed carpal tunnel syndrome practicing six hours a day, seven days a week. I went to an Alexander Technique teacher who taught me how to play the guitar for the first time in my life without sacrificing my body. It was such an amazing experience, that I later trained to become an Alexander Technique teacher. Because I had learned to play the guitar as a perfectionist, I never ever took I cant do it from myself as an answer, when I couldnt perform something difficult on the guitar. This led to my carpal tunnel injury, because I worked harder and harder to play difficult music, not smarter and smarter.

            Im going to look at the most common physical problems that musicians cause to the different parts of their bodies, and show you how to approach these injuries and pains and strains using the principles of the Alexander Technique.  As an Alexander Technique teacher who loves to work with musicians, Im going to convey to you how I work with musicians in physical trouble. There is truly no substitute for going to a teacher, but it is my intention in this article to get you to rethink your approach to your instruments technique and the posture you bring to your instrument, so that you stop harming your body.

            Injuries are not inevitable to a musical performer, but they are common. When they occur, many performers try to play through the pain or take a break from practicing. Playing through the pain never really works. It may look like it is working if you stop hurting, but if you dont change the habits that got you in trouble in the first place, you will start hurting again. Taking a break from practicing may interrupt the pain - tension cycle, but when you go back to the consistent practicing of difficult literature, you will get back into pain, if your habits are the same.

                        Placing parts of the body in certain positions at an instrument and then playing the instrument is what is considered technique, but this means so many musicians dont really know how to play their instrument with the least amount of effort and by using mechanically advantageous postures, as F. M. Alexander would have called them. In the Alexander Technique we teach you it is how you do something that is critical to whether you get in trouble. Getting it done is addictive. What this means, is if you focus only on what comes out of your instrument and not on taking care of yourself physically as you play, you may sound good and end up injured. By definition an addiction is something that feels good but causes harm. An addictive technique is a technique that assists you in sounding good, but eventually harms your body.

            It is this addiction to a technique that youve used to sound good, but is harming your body, that may make it hard to let go of a way of playing that is hurting you. When you change the way you play your instrument, even a little bit, you may have to experience the discomfort of feeling out of control. The discomfort of feeling out of control, as you learn to stop hurting your body, beats ending your career. If you sound good, and youre hurting yourself, you will sound incredible if you use a technique that isnt wearing out your body.If what you are doing at your instrument is causing you pain, then what you are doing is not good technique. By definition good technique allows you to play with ease, to be able to create the interpretation and tone you want without strain, and to play without sacrificing your body.

            In the next few sections of this article, Im going to look at some of the parts of the body musicians harm the most in their playing. They are the back, the neck, the shoulders, the wrists, and the fingers. Im going to look at these areas of the body on different instruments and talk about what it is that the player is doing to harm herself, and then give a clear solution to the problem.  In the Alexander Technique the solution to what a performer is doing that is damaging the body may be as simple as to stop doing what he is doing.  The teacher can then show the performer what the body wants to do. In other words, if you stop tensing the neck, the neck will want to decompress and lengthen. What does a decompressed and lengthening neck look like? This is what Ill address in this paper, so that when you let go of one set of bad habits, you wont replace them with another set of bad habits.

            This replacing one set of bad habits with another set of bad habits is very common. If you focus on what looks right and may be right, and you do the new technique with tension, you will get yourself back into trouble. This is why ergonomically designed chairs and computers dont keep a lot of people out of physical trouble. You can look good and feel bad, and it is my intention to make sure when you look good you feel good.

The Back

            Between the shoulder blades and the lower back are the two areas of the back that I am asked most to help as an Alexander Technique teacher. Whether a performer stands or sits, many performers sway their lower back in an attempt to be upright, and end up overarching the lower back and locking it into place. This tilts the front of the pelvis downwards and pushes the belly forwards, which doesnt allow the abdominal muscles to help support the lower back. What usually happens in the upper back is the performer hunkers down to play well and exaggerates the thoracic curve. This takes the head forward and collapses the chest downwards and immobilizes the shoulder blades.

            The other posture I see in musicians is that the performer sits with the whole back slumped forward, which is a c shaped back. This is really tough on the back and neck. In this posture the player has to curve his neck backwards to be able to see the music, the conductor or other performers. If he is sitting, this places him on the back of his sit bones and the musculature of the back has to really work like mad to keep the performer from falling over. It takes more muscle to slump than it does to be fully upright. The reason it feels the opposite to someone who comes to me is that slumping is their habit, and by the time they make it to an Alexander Technique teacher theyve tried sitting up, and it feels like too much work. It is! Most people who try to sit fully upright already believe it is harder than slumping, and so they try to lock the back to sit up.

            When a performer sits or stands with an overarched swayed back, it feels as if they are very upright, but this isnt so. This causes the performer to lose the support of the pelvis under the back, because the back is physically behind the pelvis. The usual compensation for this is to collapse the upper back and the head and neck go forward to unconsciously attempt to find the center of gravity in the torso. So, the lumbar curve and the thoracic and the cervical curve become exaggerated. The whole back and neck end up so s shaped that the function of the spine as a shock absorber is compromised. The s shape of the spine is designed to reduce the jarring effects of movement on the body as we walk or run, but it is also designed to allow for a cushioned flow from the pelvis to the head, as we do something that requires great precision, like playing a musical instrument.

            This concept of the spine acting as cushion, so that the performer has a place for the head and shoulders to balance and float on top of, is crucial to not causing injuries to the back as the dedicated player puts in hours and hours of practice in relatively static postures at the instrument or in singing. Even most singers stand in one place and perform, as opposed to opera where the singer moves about the stage. So many performers immobilize their backs when they play, because they have learned that the technique required to play their instrument is a place to put their arms or head or back, and you hold it there. And especially as a beginner, when a teacher tells you how to do something, you want to come back to your lesson being able to do what youve been taught.

            So, a pianist is told to sit upright and bend his elbows and play the keys with her fingers. This can be done with balance and poise or with massive tension. A beginner usually uses too much tension and is so focused on playing the music, that ultimately this tension becomes a part of her technique. Even when she has mastered the instrument, she may get into physical trouble because her back is held and not released up into a cushioned upright. Stacked cushions pressed downwards return to their full height when you take the pressure off of them, and they balance on top of each other. It is the same with the back. When you immobilize your back by trying to hold a posture, you stop the movement in the back, so you may look good but feel bad. Also, a held back becomes a compressed back, because when muscles are tensed to hold bones in alignment, the bones are forced closer together. In the backs case you are compressing the discs, and not allowing them to act as jelly filled donuts between the vertebrae, if you see good posture as holding a position.

            The body is designed to be in constant flow no matter how little were moving in an activity, like playing a musical instrument. So, how do you sit or stand to play your instrument or sing and not immobilize your back or slump or overarch the lower back, and be fully upright with much less muscular work than youve been doing? It is either all of your tensing to be upright, or the collapsing (slumping) youve unconsciously created to avoid hurting that is injuring your back. Being conscious is the critical idea here to making changes, so that you bring to consciousness what is necessary to stop hurting. So much posture and technique at the instrument is done unconsciously, in an attempt to find balance and stop hurting and sound good. These unconscious refinements are not usually the best. When you are attempting to find a way around what is hurting you, you usually stack bad habits on top of bad habits, rather than letting go of the original bad habits that are injuring the body.

            If you let go of the bad habits that are hurting your back, how do you do this, and what do you replace them with? If you are overarching your lower back, then you are straining to find good posture by pushing your spine through to the front of your body. To solve this problem in sitting find the balance on your sit bones, and let the sit bones be the bottom of the back. If you are balanced on your sit bones, then the pelvis is level, and you arent arching your lower back. From the top of your head to the sit bones, allow the spine to flow upwards and downwards rather than trying to force the spine forwards into upright. When you align the spine by having the head lead the spine upwards into lengthening, you align the vertebrae in a way that uses considerably less muscular work. As long as you push the spine forwards towards the front of the body, you are locking the back up and in reality pulling the back down with tension.

            You rarely see a performing musician whose upper back isnt curved forward and isnt totally immobilized with the shoulder blades also immobilized along with the thoracic vertebrae. This is the most extraordinary place in the back, because if you can let go of hunkering down in the upper back the vertebrae move apart, there is movement between the shoulder blades, and as the curve in the upper back becomes less and less pronounced allowing the back to lengthen upwards, the chest also opens. Since the ribs are attached to the vertebrae, the more open and vertical the back becomes the more open the chest becomes. If you allow the head to lead a lengthening spine, then as youre sitting or standing, it is as if you are hanging upside down on an inversion table. With the vertebrae aligned and allowing the discs to act as cushions between the vertebrae, you allow the back to flow upwards, and you play or sing with an open back and chest and heart.

The Neck

            The neck is a major place of pain for many musical performers. We also have in our everyday postures so many bad postural problems with the neck. If you were to watch a hundred people walk by, the odds are youd see a hundred collapsed necks with the head pushed forward. Id like to look at the neck from the perspective of the violist, from the flutists view, from the singers perspective, the trumpet players perspective and from the guitarists perspective.

            The violist turns the head and places the jaw on the instrument to secure the instrument to the body, as she uses the right hand and arm to hold up the other end of the instrument. When most violists turn their heads to rest on the chin rest, they shorten the neck as they turn. They also push the head forward to the instrument to try to get as much jaw on the viola to make sure it is secured by the jaw.  This shortening of the neck and pushing the head forward and clamping the head down onto the instrument is very very hard on the neck. Im going to describe how I would teach the violist to change these harsh habits.

            As the violist is standing, I ask him to allow his neck to release and his neck to lengthen as his head moves up. As his head is leading his gently curving neck to lengthen upwards, I ask him to turn his head with a lengthening neck, but not to push the head forwards.  As the viola is resting on his shoulder, I ask him to allow the head to continue to move upwards as the head pivots downwards, so the jaw can rest on the instrument. If you look at what Ive described here, the neck continues to lengthen and be vertically aligned, even as the head pivots downwards to the instrument. So, you have this lengthening neck and a turned released neck, and the instrument is helping the neck support the head. If you play the viola this way, the neck is doing less work than it typically does.

            Before the flutist brings the instrument up to play, I ask her to face straight ahead and feel what it feels like to simply face the whole body in one direction. Then I ask her to release her neck and spiral it to the left. What Im doing here is demonstrating to the flutist that she doesnt need to turn her torso at all to play the flute.  Now bring the flute to her lower lip/chin and dont push the head forward to the flute. She now gets to feel what it feels like to have only her head and neck turned and not her torso, and to play her instrument with a released lengthening neck. Also, the flute needs to be parallel to the floor, which means the neck and head and torso are not leaning to the right, which creates excess tension when a flutist leans.

            Most flutists lean to the right, when they play their instruments. This is an unconscious decision made over time to find a way for the arms to work less by being lowered. This is a very poor postural solution to making the instrument easier to play. This causes a scoliosis in the torso, which makes the back work hard to keep the player from falling over. In the Alexander Technique there is a basic principle that you turn up the volume in your body to compensate for an asymmetric activity. So the whole torso finds a way be fully upright with more weight on one side without locking or leaning. This actually happens, when its clear that that is your intention.

            When a singer sings, many singers lock their necks and push their heads forward to connect to the audience and to project the voice out into the concert hall. There is a term in the Alexander Technique called inhibition. To inhibit a habit is to stop just before you are to sing, choose to inhibit tensing the neck, and then to sing with a free neck. Another application of this concept of inhibition, letting go of an old habit, is for the singer to stop before he sings, not push the head/neck forward, and then to sing with the head releasing upwards instead of forwards.

            When a trumpet player brings the instrument to his face, in many cases he shortens his neck unconsciously, so he doesnt have to lift the instrument as high. This causes tremendous tension in the neck, and it is usually coupled with tensing the neck to have the lips meet the mouthpiece. So, the trumpet player shortens the neck and pushes his head against the mouthpiece and his neck hurts. To inhibit these two painful habits, the trumpet player needs to keep releasing his neck as he brings the instrument to his mouth. This means as he brings his arms up with the instrument, he inhibits tensing his neck in anticipation of playing. Now, as he brings the instrument to his lips, he inhibits pushing his head forwards, and he lets the arms bring the instrument to his lips. Now two things have to happen if the trumpet player doesnt want to strain his neck or the arm pressing the instrument against his lips. He wants to experiment with the minimum pressure necessary for the mouthpiece to be firmly against his lips. Second he wants to experience how little work the neck has to do to meet the mouthpiece, by not immobilizing and pulling the head down and pushing the head forward. In other words the trumpet player wants to bring the instrument to his head without hunkering down and having the musculature of the neck do more than is necessary to meet the instrument.

            When a guitarist plays her instrument, she usually looks at the neck of the guitar, so that she can see what position she is in on the neck.  Many times the guitarist drops the head forward to see the neck, and this really makes the neck and back muscles work hard to support the weight of the head forward. As the guitarist is sitting or standing with the instrument, she wants to let the head release upwards, and then pivot the head to the left with a lengthening free neck. Then, like the violist, pivot the head downwards. Now allow your eyes to see the whole neck from above the instrument, from a head that is on a neck lengthening upwards, on a vertical spine as the eyes look downwards.

            There are two consistent ideas that keep the neck from getting into trouble that Ive addressed on all of these instruments. First is the neck is released and lengthening and second  the neck is aligned upwards, so that the head is not pushed forwards making the neck collapse and the lumbar curve tight and too curved. The neck curves back and gently upwards as the head balances on the atlas of the spine. Whether the head is level facing straight ahead, or turned and level, or turned and pivoting downwards, the neck can be free and the head can be on top of a neck curving back and up vertically on a lengthening spine.

Ethan Kinds blog will continue next month looking at arms and in part 3 guided whole body release.

Anonymous. A Course in Miracles.

Bonpensiere, Luigi. New Pathways to Piano Technique.

Diamond, Dr. John. The Life Energy in Music, Volumes 1-3.


Ethan Kind, formerly Charles Stein, trained as an Alexander Technique teacher at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in New York and has been teaching since 1992. He also has a M.M. degree in classical guitar and was a concert guitarist for ten years. He has also been an athlete all of his life. Mr. Kinds writing (as Charles Stein and Ethan Kind) has been published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia. Mr. Kind lives in Albuquerque, NM, and can be reached at

Mr. Kind has 64 ebooks for musicians and other topics, from running to yoga, offered in a  Kindle version on Amazon. To find out more click here. For a pdf version, visit his website at

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