It’s been an interesting time, these past months. Actually, let me think – how long has it been? I think I had my last piano lesson sometime in October, so that’s nine months ago! My right arm had started to ache like crazy in June last year, mostly when I played the piano, but also using my computer. The strength had gone from my hands, and I had real trouble getting comfortable in bed, let alone falling and remaining asleep, without my arm aching and tingling from the shoulder down to my fingers. I’d toss and turn, trying to find a good position so I could sleep, and often I’d be woken throughout the night by the pain and discomfort.
Last August, I paid a visit to my rheumatologist, who sent me for X-rays to examine another, quite unrelated, issue I was dealing with. When I phoned him for the results of those tests (which were all clear), I asked him about the debilitating pain in my right arm, and he suggested that I come in so he could give me “a shot in the wrist”. He’d said it in such an off-handed manner, and I understood that he was referring to cortisone injections, which I was rather reluctant to have. I’d had those shots in other parts of my body, with varied results, and generally with intense pain, so understandably, I was rather hesitant. This brilliant idea came from my doctor’s assumption that I might have carpal tunnel syndrome. In response to my long silence on the other end of the phone, he offered that, as an alternative, maybe I’d prefer to do some tests first, which would take 3-4 weeks, to confirm the diagnosis, after which time I could then come in and get that shot.
No. I wasn’t ready to do that. Not without researching other, less invasive, less …well, less steroid-based treatment approaches. Not being a lover of either quick fixes or cortisone, I decided to head to Google, and search for answers to my questions. I typed in “pain in arm when playing piano“, and this first response, an article called “Pianist’s Injuries: Movement Retraining is the Key to Recovery” by Thomas Mark, came up at the top of the list. After I’d read through the article, I clicked on one of the links listed on the right side of the web page under Techniques, for Alexander Technique, and as I read about the Tasmanian, F.M. Alexander, and how he’d healed himself of problems with his voice during performances, my heart skipped a beat…
He consulted doctors who could not help, so he resolved to discover the cause of his problem and cure it on his own. Observing himself with mirrors he eventually detected patterns of tension in his head and neck as he spoke. He developed strategies to release the tension and short-circuit his old habits. In time, he learned to speak without tension in his neck and he recovered full use of his voice.
He’d then gone on to develop strategies and teaching methods to help others, in particular, but not restricted to actors, dancers, and musicians, with the promise – and this is the bit that got me – to help injured musicians! As I researched Google further, I discovered that prestigious schools such as the Julliard School and others teach this technique, and that…
Over the years, a number of prominent musicians have publicly endorsed the Alexander Technique: Yehudi Menuhin, Paul McCartney, Sting, Julian Bream, James Galway and the conductor Sir Adrian Boult, to name but a few.
I immediately set out to find someone to teach me, and discovered the School for F.M. Alexander Studies, right here in Melbourne. The school is on the other side of the city to where I live and work, but I found that one of their teachers, Jenny Thirtle, the Assistant Director of the School, lives and teaches private classes in the next suburb to me. BRILLIANT!!
So, for the past nine months, I’ve been seeing Jenny for one-on-one lessons, and not only has the pain in my arm subsided, so that I can play the piano without pain or further injury, but my whole posture has altered. I also discovered an Alexander yoga class in Brighton at the Yoga Hut that I’ve been going to for several months now, and it’s wonderful! I have a fair bit to learn still. My Alexander journey is just beginning, but yesterday, I had my first piano lesson since my injuries began.
How deliciously happy I was to see Michael again, and to walk into that most beautiful of piano rooms. My lesson began with Mozart. I’d taken to playing the Sonata in C again, instead of the Sonata in F that I’d been struggling with last year. I hadn’t played more than a dozen bars, when Michael pulled me up for my timing. We continued, and I learned a wonderful new way of playing the trills from notes in Mr. Spivakovsky’s book, and played through all three of the sonata’s movements, at the end of which, Michael asked me, “OK, good. What else?”
“Something new!” I said. I’m not sure if my thinking had merit, but I’d hoped it might be a good idea to learn a new piece from scratch, using my newly acquired Alexander skills, and that it that might allow for new, correct habits to form, rather than trying to replace old and unwanted ones in some other piece I’d played for years. Michael thought about it, and said “Well, not Brahms, right? We want something gentler for your hands, don’t we.” Well, did I? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure. What if I did try Brahms again, and applied all I’d learned from Jenny? What if I could do it? What if?
And that’s what I did. Michael brought down his father’s book. I sat down at the piano, spent a few moments organising myself, and raised my hands to the keys. I played through the Brahms, with Michael sitting close by, and as I played, I found that I had the wherewithal to check my posture, notice where I was holding my shoulders unnecessarily, and give the instruction to let them go. As I played, my eyes moved from the page down to my fingers, playing mostly from memory, even after over a year’s absence from these notes. It was both surprising and exhilarating. At the end, I felt so happy, and so relieved – nothing hurt! Not even a bit. Not during, and not after. Of course, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I need to wait till I’ve practiced it for awhile, over time, and then see. But I certainly am encouraged!
One of the things I love most about the Alexander technique is that it’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Once you learn balance, it never leaves you, and if you find yourself off-balance at any time, you know what to do to get back in balance, in an instant. You don’t need to go see a Balance Specialist to have them do something to you to fix you up, until the next time, when you’ll have to go back to them for another fix. I now know what to do if I’m in trouble. If my back hurts, I know what to do. If my arms hurt, or my hands, I know it’s just a matter of organisation of my body. If I mess up on the piano, I check in with my body. I’m usually scrunching up my shoulders again, which is my habit to do so, or I’m collapsing down in myself, or overusing my forearm muscles, or something else. And all I need to do is stop, spend a few seconds instructing my body in organising itself again, and then play on. Usually, the issue is resolved immediately! I love it. No running to the physiotherapist or chiropractor to fix me up every time, or wondering if I need to see a rheumatologist, or my GP again. I can begin to take care of myself. It’s just a matter of applying the technique.
Have I piqued your interest? Are you perhaps a musician in pain? Here are some links where you can find out more…
F. Matthius Alexander – Wikipedia
School for F.M. Alexander Studies in Melbourne, Australia
Now, if you’re happy to wait 3-4 years (not!), I’ll be fully trained to teach you this amazing technique. I’m hoping to start my training course at the school in Fitzroy later this year, or early next year at the latest.