A Technician’s Primary Tool: The Human Body
By Heather Walker, Certified teacher of the Alexander Technique
This article was published in the Piano Technicians Journal, May 2013.
As a piano technician you are highly trained and sensitized to the functioning of a piano and all its components. Specifically this entails judging and adjusting subtleties of piano touch and tone. However, are you equally aware of how you are using your whole being during piano tuning, repairs, and regulation? Although you may be highly trained and have top-quality tools, the basis for all your work is an efficient and healthy use of your body. Your body is your primary tool: a complex and intricate instrument that responds best when used correctly, according to its design. If you are using this tool with too much tension, unbalanced force, or wrong mechanics, you may end up with discomfort or injury as a result. Technicians, artisans, and musicians know an injury can be painful, frustrating, and even career-ending.
We are designed with an efficient and natural system of coordination which allows us to be upright with fluidity of movement. As little children we unconsciously use our innate ability to be well coordinated, staying balanced with ease, sitting upright with little effort, and staying fluid in our joints. As time passes, habits of tension are layered over this natural ease of movement and prevent us from functioning well. We develop symptoms such as fatigue, back pain, headaches, postural problems, tendonitis, and inability to recuperate quickly from stress. This is especially noticeable with repetitive activities which are performed for many hours, such as tuning and repairing pianos. Although these habits are long-standing, it is possible to change them. The Alexander Technique is a simple and practical method to “un-learn” these habitual movement patterns and regain a natural ability to move gracefully with less effort.
Most people can’t accurately register the amount of tension in their bodies, or tell what damaging habitual movement patterns are going on. Beyond the five most commonly named senses, we have a sixth sense, the kinaesthetic sense, which is the ability of the body to internally feel movements, tension, and other sensory experience. If you close your eyes and raise your arm up in the air you will be able to feel all sorts of information about how your arm is extended out from you. This is different from touch, a tactile sense. The awareness of the kinaesthetic sense is often dormant or faulty in many people but can be re-awakened and trained, like our other senses. It is the job of an Alexander Technique teacher to help with this re-education of the sense of kinaesthesia.
There are many ways you may be compromising your natural ease of movement while working on pianos. Many technicians work long hours with their arms raised or with a slight spiral in their torso. In most cases, these activities are performed with a compressed or shortened spine and a tight neck, but the average person is not able to feel this. Moving with excess tension, compression, and downward pull in your body requires more effort because you are working from a mechanical disadvantage. It is imperative that you train yourself to notice and release this tightening and pulling down to be able to avoid the strain that will go with it. Otherwise you will be blocking a part of the natural fluid movement pattern that allows you to be easily upright against gravity. When those reactions are unconscious and habitual, they are potentially damaging to your overall optimum functioning.
Many of you may feel you must “hold yourselves up” through muscular work, whether while standing, “sitting up straight” or sustaining any specific posture for long. This “holding up” happens because you are not correctly using your proper support structure, your skeleton, to drop your body weight into the ground. An example of this is sitting improperly on a chair – not understanding the design of your torso and how it can be supported. If you are sitting at this moment, pause for a moment and try imaging and sensing your bony structure and where it is connecting to any source of support.
Now let’s refine this picture for you, so the mechanics can work as designed. Your spine is much longer than you imagine: the top vertebrae is almost between your ears. Try nodding your head in a “yes” motion, like a teeter-totter, from much higher up than you are used to moving it. The spine lengthens from between your ears all the way down through the middle of your torso. If you rub your hand up and down your back and feel the little bumps there, you may think this is your support structure. However, these little bony “wings” are long extentions at the back of your vertebrae called processes. The weight-bearing part of your spine is the front half of your vertebrae, which are mostly centered right in the middle of your torso, left to right, and front to back. Now image that the weight of your torso is flowing down the front of your vertebrae, through the middle of you, into a bowl-shaped structure called the pelvis. At the bottom of this bowl are two rocker-shaped bones commonly called the “sit bones.” These are meant to transfer the weight of your torso into the piano bench. If you’re unclear on this, place both hands, flat, under your butt while you rock slightly forward and back on a firm surface, and you should be able to feel the bones as they press into your hands. This pelvic “bowl” needs to be balanced to release the weight through the sit bones. Imagine yourself in a slump: water would be pouring out the back of the bowl. Now imagine yourself sitting up “extra-straight” ie, over-arching your back: water would be pouring out the front of the bowl. What we are looking for in this instance and all aspects of efficient, easeful movement is the concept of dynamic neutral, or fluid balance. We want to let go of over- or under-engagement and continually come back to the place of most ease, where we are centered and balanced within ourselves and not having to use extra effort.
Alexander Technique sessions start with very simple ideas and movements such as standing, walking, sitting, and bending, because we go through these motions all day long. The teacher uses guiding touch, what we call “hands-on work,” to help re-educate the student through the sensory and nervous system. It is the combination of kinaesthetic education with visual and verbal guidance that allows the student to sharpen awareness and learn through body experience, not just intellectually. While you are learning and progressing, you are also developing a deeper body awareness and clarity of thinking.
Most Alexander Technique lessons also include some “lying-down work,” using the floor or a massage table so the student can learn how to prevent and release excess tension in a different relationship to gravity. This is a basic activity that you can practice immediately on your own, for 10-15 minutes daily if possible. It is incredibly good for our backs, for calming our state of mind, for allowing muscles to release and expand, and for generally allowing us to recuperate energy and be more efficient during the rest of the day. Even if you don’t know what to do specifically in terms of awareness and release, gravity will be working on your behalf to lengthen your spine and open your torso. For more information, please see the accompanying directions for “Alexander Technique: Lying Down Work”.
The Alexander Technique can be introduced through a workshop or a series of group lessons, where students immediately gain insight and ideas to use in their day to day life. However, the Alexander Technique is most effective when taught privately in a one-on-one situation. Certified teachers must complete a three-year, full-time training course. The Alexander Technique has been taught for over a hundred years, based on principles and skills that apply to anyone.
Heather Walker is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique based in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. She is also a professional musician with music degrees from the University of British Columbia and the Québec Conservatory of Music. She will be teaching introductory Alexander Technique workshops at the PTG Annual Convention and Technical Institute in Chicago, July 2013.
For Alexander Technique lessons and workshops, contact:
Heather Walker 250-716-3464 www.SoundBeingStudio.com
For more information:
The Canadian Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique: www.canstat.ca
The American Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique: www.amsatonline.org
The complete guide to the Alexander Technique: www.alexandertechnique.com