In Pursuit of "Technique"
I am very interested in the fact that what I teach is called the Alexander Technique. “Technique” is defined broadly in 2 ways:
1) skill or ability in a particular field. "He has excellent technique." Synonyms: skill, ability, proficiency, expertise, mastery, talent, genius, artistry, craftsmanship
2) a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something. "Tape recording is a good technique for evaluating our own communications." Synonyms: method, approach, procedure, system, modus operandi, MO, way
AT certainly directly correlates with the second meaning. In AT, we seek an efficient means by which to approach whatever we choose to do – sitting at a desk or using an electronic device, exercising, mastering a particular skill or caring for a newborn baby. It’s a fundamental approach to movement, breathing, balance, coordination, posture – functions of the physical body. However it also incorporates your whole being – cultivating a more intentional mind-body connection, and even providing a framework to consider one’s own mental habits and emotional responses. It allows you to have conscious choice in how you are engaged in the activities you value, rather than simply defaulting to a single habitual way of being.
As a musician, I have worked for decades with master teachers in developing a vocal “technique.” I practice proficiency in an evolving array of technical skills while singing. When I begin to vocalize, my mind sends mental guiding orders intended to influence my whole body, including specifically the coordination of my respiratory and vocal mechanisms. Then my body gives a physiological response, having experienced these mental intentions over and over again through repeated practice. The more I try to control the outcome, the more my body employs excessive tension or effort to the process – and the less likely that the outcome will be as desired. I may manage to sing the note, but it lacks something: vitality, spontaneity, joyfulness, freedom.
When F.M. Alexander developed his technique over a century ago, he called this attentiveness to process cultivating a “means whereby.” He called focus on result, to the exclusion of process, “end-gaining.”
Herein lies a paradox in developing technique: technique happens through repeated practice, over time. Yet technique is not fixed – it must instead be dynamic. As I’ve slowed down the means by which I do something – singing – and explored the process, my body has redirected patterns of use, but it also continues to learn what that means in each moment. I can consciously choose the mental intention during the process, but then must allow the response to happen. I don’t focus on making a final result (even if I do have a specific goal in mind). Instead I stay engaged in continually renewing my exploration of the “means whereby”.
So as I cultivate singing technique, how can I also be applying the Alexander Technique? (Sounds like a lot of techniques, eh?) Well, let’s return to the first definition: AT is a skill – that you apply to other skills. Frank Pierce Jones (noted AT scholar and Professor of Psychology, Tufts University) wisely said: “The Alexander Technique doesn’t teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing…it leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work toward it.”
So I can have my singing aspirations, and use AT while I work towards that – aha! And that was a big aha! for me – that I could only begin to define how I wanted to develop my singing technique when I came to understand how I was employing the specific Alexander techniques of means whereby and end-gaining in my singing. Only then I was able to recommit to the process, and, with that, I came to understand what “technique” really means to me.