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Part 2 An Alexander Technique Approach to Musicians' Injuries

02 May 2014 1:04 PM | Anonymous

Part 2

An Alexander Technique Approach to Musicians’ Injuries

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

The Shoulders

            So many of the physical problems of the arms, neck and hands can be traced back to the shoulders. Ideally the shoulder girdle floats on top of the ribcage. The shoulder girdle consists of the shoulder blade and collar bone and the musculature that stabilizes or mobilizes the shoulder girdle. My experience with performing musicians is that the vast majority of performers immobilize their shoulders to some extent in playing their instrument. What this means is that instead of letting the shoulder girdle constantly change position on the ribcage with ease, in many cases the shoulders are frozen to near immobility, or they are muscled into movement from held positions. Lets look at what the violinist, the clarinetist, the pianist and the flutist do to their shoulders in playing their instruments.

            The violin rests on the players shoulder, and the instrument is partially supported by the left arm. The bow is held up by the right arm. This means that both shoulders are actively involved in supporting and playing the instrument. The left shoulder is relatively quiet compared to the bow arm, because the neck of the violin is so short. Place your left arm in the violin playing position and hold it there with excess tension. Now consciously see how much less work you can do in the shoulder and be aware of the left shoulder floating on the ribcage with a free shoulder blade. There is never ever any reason to immobilize the shoulder blades. This means that when the arm moves, the shoulder blades are allowed to change positions as constantly and freely as the arms.

            Now lift your right arm into the bowing position, and if youre not a violinist, think about having to support your right arm nonstop as you play the violin for hours. This thought probably makes you tighten your right shoulder to support your arm. Now, be aware that for the violinist to make music, the right arm is in nonstop movement. When the bow aint moving, then nothing comes out. This is so obvious, but in a way it isnt. The reason it is very important to bring this thought to consciousness, is because if you are going to support an arm that is in constant flow, you have to find a way to do so without interfering with the freedom of the arm to move continuously. If you have a sense of the arm feeling light, as if it is being held up for you, and simultaneously of the shoulder girdle floating on the ribcage, rather than pressed against the ribs, then you can move the bow with a floating arm, rather than muscle the arm and the bow across the strings. 

            The clarinetist supports the instrument in front of the torso with the right arm and thumb, and both shoulders support arms, hands and fingers that play the keys. Most clarinetists slump forward to hold the instrument, collapsing the upper back under the shoulder girdle, as the head goes forward and down to meet the mouthpiece. So, if the clarinetist is fully upright with the head leading upwards and the instrument is brought to his head, then the shoulders have a platform to support them. When the clarinetist slumps forward, the ribcage collapses down and forward and the trapezius muscles have to work extra hard to support the shoulder girdle.

            With the fully upright torso, the shoulders can be light on the ribcage, and the clarinetist can become aware that the instrument is not heavy and need not force the right shoulder to be raised or depressed downwards to support the clarinet. Visually when the clarinetists shoulders are balanced, then they look the same side to side. They arent. The right shoulder has more going on in it, since it is supporting the clarinets weight. But the right shoulder can be more energized and dynamic and use more muscle to support the instrument, without becoming held and static. Then, the clarinetist can experience the right arm and shoulder and hand as alive and light and free as the left shoulder.

            Pianists are a very interesting group when it comes to shoulders. A great many pianists believe they have to hold their elbows out from the sides, and they believe they generate volume and power on the instrument from the shoulders. Both are not necessarily true. My experience with pianists is that you dont have to hold your arms away from your sides, because the shoulders dont play the instrument. The shoulders only function at the piano is to float on the shoulder girdle and to move the arms, which means to place the hands and fingers over the notes that are to be played. It is the triceps that drive the hands and fingers into the keys to play crashing chords. Many pianists experience these crashing chords as coming from the shoulders, but what they are experiencing are the shoulders tensing up as the triceps drives the lower arm and hand and fingers into the keys.

            Let me restate the shoulders main function at the piano. It is to move the arm to place the hands and fingers precisely over the notes to be played, and if you allow the shoulders to be light and free with the upper arms suspended lightly over the sides, not held away from the sides of the torso for the purpose of volume, they will place the fingers with amazing precision. This is a huge shift for many pianists not to think of the shoulders as large muscles that make a lot of noise, and to begin thinking of the shoulders and the muscles of the chest and back assisting the hands in playing the right notes. A great many pianists experience accuracy on the piano as the hands playing accurately, without any experiential sense that it is the refined elegant and precise movement of the shoulders that create precision on the instrument.

            It is playing of the flute in my opinion that creates the most difficulty for the shoulders. The instrument is supported asymmetrically at head level, and the arms never move. It is essentially a static position for the arms and shoulders, and it is within this static position that the Alexander Technique teacher wants to show the flutist how play without creating rigid shoulders arms and hands. So bring your arms up into the playing position of the flute and imagine holding them there for hours. This thought probably had you tighten every muscle in your shoulders and arms. Now lower your arms and imagine there are strings tied to your arms, like a marionette, and let your arms be lifted up for you, and imagine and experience them being held up for you. If the flutist continues to return to this thought and the physical experience of suspension every time he plays the flute, he will create a technique where the thought creates an internal experience of supporting the flute with free arms and light mobile shoulders that arent held rigid.

            In all of the instruments I looked at, there is a constant theme of asking the performer to be light and mobile in the shoulders, whether the shoulders are moved a lot or not at all. The shoulders of performers are called upon to support weight, even if it is their own weight, and to be simultaneously available for movement. It is these two seemingly conflicting functions that can be brought together without physical problems, if the performer realizes that an arm supported never needs to be held immobile.

The Wrists

            What originally sent me to an Alexander Technique teacher was a wrist problem - carpal tunnel syndrome. I had been trying to play the guitar with extreme accuracy and extreme cleanness. This meant that I was trying to press the strings so hard, so that every note rang true without any buzzes. I pressed the strings so hard to achieve this, that I was harming my wrist. Ultimately what I learned from the Alexander Technique teacher was to use the minimum pressure to get the job done. So, I took a scale, and finger by finger I practiced using just enough pressure to get a clean note. This wasnt all I had to change. I changed my whole posture at the instrument, so that I was in complete balance in my body at the guitar, and my shoulders were supported by my torso, so that my freed up arms were able to back up my hands and wrists.

            When you play an instrument with extreme tension, youre forcing the bones in the wrists against each other and they begin wearing each other out.  This gets further exacerbated when the wrists are continually changing shape, like the bow arm of a cellist. Over time, if a performer is hurting in her wrists, she will unconsciously reduce the movement in the wrist and brace for constant pain. You will really cause physical and musical problems on your instrument, if you try to avoid hurting your wrist by compromising your technique.

            When a cellist bows the instrument, as the arm moves the bow from one end of the bow to the other end, the hands relationship to the arm continuously changes. The freer the wrist is, the smoother the bow is moved across the string. If the shoulder joint, the elbow and the wrist are all allowed to be free, then the bow is moved with ease and elegance. If there is any holding in any of these joints, then the cellist has to do a whole lot of compensating in the other joints to get the sound she wants. In fact, protecting the wrist from pain on a cello could cause the player to do all kinds of odd compensating movements in the torso to get the job done. I like to think of the wrist moving the hand and leading the arm and sending the bow across the strings. If you think about how I expressed this, you can get a feel for the constantly changing shape of the wrist leading the bow and arm across the strings, as the arm changes shape in all of its joints continuously also.

            What do you do about the static wrists that dont change shape on an instrument, like the flute? You do not immobilize the wrists to hold the instrument. As you hold the flute to the mouth, you do not have to immobilize the wrists or the elbows or the shoulders. What does it mean to not immobilize a part of your body supporting an instrument?  The easiest demonstration would be to hold a ball in your hand and squeeze it, and as you are squeezing it, move your hand, which of course means changing the hands relationship to the arm through movement in the wrist. Now, as you squeeze the ball, how free can you be in the wrist, as you move the hand? The musculature of the forearm moves the hand, but you dont have to contract the forearm muscles before you move the hand. Now, as youre holding the ball with the arm horizontal and the hand aligned with the arm, you can support the ball with a free wrist, but with enough forearm support, so that the hand doesnt drop.

            This is how you would support the flute, as you prepare to play it. If a flutist has the instrument in position to play, and I push the flute down, then it should move with ease. Another way to say this is the flutist should think of the arms and hands as always available for movement, when the instrument is in playing position. So, the player has enough support and tone in the hands and arms and wrists to place the instrument against the lip and chin, with just enough support to get the job done. Ive used the trick of telling the flutist to play as if the instrument is super glued to the bottom of the lip, and this really shows the player he doesnt have to press the flute as much against the face as he thought he needed to.

            Can the wrists be in what is generally considered an awkward position on an instrument, and the performer not cause problems in the wrist? The problem I had as a guitarist was with the left wrist, which wasnt a hand position issue, but me trying to drive my fingers through the back of the instrument to get a clean sound.  I did not have a problem with my right wrist, which plays the strings. Even though I played with a high arched wrist to create the sound I wanted on the instrument. This high arched wrist allowed me to strike the strings perpendicularly, so I could get the clean precise sound I wanted.

            From an ergonomic perspective, this may not be the ideal thing to do, but I never had any problems with my right wrist for the following reasons. First I did not immobilize my wrist. Second, I didnt continuously change the shape of my wrist to get the consistent sound out of each finger I wanted. I found that wrist position that allowed all of my fingers to have a rich tone, but I didnt holdthe position. I allowed my hand to drop with dynamic into the right place. This meant I did the minimum necessary to sustain a high wrist, so if someone had wanted to move my hand, they could have.

            Id like to talk some more about this idea of a dynamic supported wrist that allows the hand to be moved easily by the player or someone else, to demonstrate that the wrist is not held rigidly. When a music teacher tells a student to hold an arm a certain way or the hands a certain way, the student invariably does this in such a tense way, that the teacher cant move the hand or arm for the student. But what if the teacher said, Im going to place your arm for you in a general position, and I want you to let me be able to move the arm for you? This is the Alexander Technique approach to musical technique.

            This means the teacher is from the very beginning demonstrating to the student that technique is built on movement and flow, and not on rigid positions held onto to play and create accuracy. The sound that comes out of an instrument from the player who is in a body that flows from head to toe is very different from the player who holds onto a technique. Now, there are some amazing players out there with held technique, but there is a wondrous sound and feeling and interpretation that comes from a player who trusts her body to be accurate, rather than holds the body to be accurate. It is extraordinary to hear a performer who plays or sings with the whole body in flow, which means no muscles locked or held.

The Fingers

            Except for singing, all of the instruments in the classical music world use fingers in playing their instruments. Even the timpanist holds the mallets or the trombone player holds the slide with his fingers. What is it that causes most of the problems in the fingers in the musical performing world? So many musicians hold a ton of tension in their fingers, as they play the piano or hold the timpani mallets or hold the double bass bow. Why is this? Im going to look at body awareness in general and the tension in the bodies of performers.

            As youre reading this, do a whole body inventory of tension and posture from head to toe. Notice if youre sitting comfortably. Notice if there is unnecessary tension in parts of your body as you read this. Odds are youre not doing the minimum necessary in your body to read this. Why would you need a tight jaw or tight thighs to read what Ive written? You dont, but this is the excess work we do in our bodies so much of the time. F. M. Alexanders genius was that he recognized that we got our bodies in trouble by what we did to ourselves 24/7. We spend possibly all of our time doing what we do in poor posture and with too much muscle. And in fact, if your posture is poor, and/or youre off balance as you do something, you will use too much muscle to maintain balance and too much muscle to get the job done.

            This is what so many musicians do on their instruments. When you bring a slumped or overarched torso and locked legs to an instrument, you transfer this tension into your arms, your fingers etc. A very simple exercise: pick up your instrument, go to your instrument or prepare to sing, and do a whole body inventory. Notice what you are doing head to toe. Another way of saying this is to project ahead two hours, if you were to be in this place of being prepared to play and not playing. Where would you begin to feel tension and/or hurt?  This clearly shows you where you are doing too much work in your body. This is 100% unnecessary, but it is the norm.

            There is no perfect posture or perfect balance or perfect amount of minimum work to do in the body as you play your instrument. What there is is your developed or required consciousness connection to the voluntary musculature of the body that allows you to choose the alignment and technique and amount of work you want to do to get the job done (the instrument played). You feel the tension in your legs, and you ask and allow it to release. You feel yourself slumped over, and you ask and allow the head to lead the spine upwards into lengthening. You feel the tension in the fingers and you ask and allow them to release. We know when we ask an arm to bend, it bends. Alexanders genius was that he recognized if we asked the musculature of the fingers to release, even without any external movement, they would release. Then when you did move these released fingers, you would experience no resistance in your fingers, and youd feel the space and ease between the joints.

            Even if you didnt initially feel the fingers letting go after you ordered them to, Alexander asked the student to trust the process. By renewing the orders to the fingers to release, these repeated thoughts would have a greater and greater release effect on the fingers the more they were repeated. This is how Alexander reconnected the mind to the body and gave the person back control over his body. But this is control at a very subtle level. It is pretty easy to move a part of your body or to hold a position with no conscious concern for how much muscle youre using. For example you press the strings of a double bass over and over with no concern for how much tension youre holding in your fingers and how hard youre pressing the strings, and over time you get really good at playing your instrument. Then one day you begin to notice that your fingers are hurting, lets say you analyze your technique, and find youre doing everything right at the instrument. What do you do at this point? Then it has to be an internal issue, a tension issue, a doing too much work issue.

            I ask the double bass player to play a scale slowly, and to really experience what he is feeling in his hand and fingers and arm and shoulder and neck and as he presses and holds down each note with his left hand. Because this instrument does take more strength than any other stringed instrument to hold a string down, then he may begin to realize how he locks up the whole arm and hand and fingers to press the string against the neck of the bass. I then ask him to experiment with the minimum amount of strength necessary to press the string. I may ask him to imagine someone pushing his fingers into the string for him. This can really help him experience how much excess work he is doing.

            Here is a very important thing to demonstrate to any musician who has to hold a string down. It takes strength to hold a string down.  A stringed instrument player has to maintain pressure on a string for it to sound. There are two things that need to happen if the player is not to strain and damage the fingers over time. The first is the player needs to begin pressing the string and find the minimum pressure to get the job done. If he plays a scale very slowly, he can place all of his awareness on doing the minimum with each finger. This is a technique change to consistently press the string just enough to get the job done. Second, is what I call lengthening the finger into the string. This is truly a physical change throughout the whole finger in how the finger meets and presses the string.

            As the double bass player is about to press the string, he thinks and sends the finger into the string. What this means is that doesnt tense the finger before he presses the string, he thinks of the finger lengthening into the string. Here is a simple demonstration of this. As youre sitting at a table, tense your middle finger, and then press it into the table, and feel how the joints of the finger are already locked up in preparation of pressing the table. Now release the finger and then begin pressing into the table and simultaneously lengthening the finger as it pushes into the table. This is a very different experience of the finger, than if you lock up the finger before you put pressure on it.

            This is a perfect example of how we cause problems in joints by anticipating what we need to do to get the job done, if we tighten up before we play the instrument. It is an extraordinary kindness to your body and yourself, if you dont tense your musculature before you play or sing.

 Its time that every performer realize that all injuries are healable, if you dont continue to try and play through them, and that all injuries are preventable, if you find a way to play the most difficult music with the least amount of effort.

The final post of Ethan Kinds blog next month will conclude with a guided whole body release for performers.


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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