A wheel needs a central point of contact, an axis, in order to turn and spin. One never loses touch with one’s central point—the spine—as one moves through life. But society today has lost that core. It has no idea where it is going.
– Svami Purna
When I was well into my studies as a young cellist, I became fascinated with the question: How does one raise the arms to play? My naive mind wondered: is there a wrong way and a right way, and how does one distinguish between the two? I read a great many books on cello technique and for years I asked this question of my teachers. It seemed to me to be a very important gesture that most people took for granted, and my teachers, with one exception, never discussed it, except very generally to illustrate: ‘do it like this’. But where did ‘this’ originate? Where did the energy come from and how was it to be directed in this fundamental act of preparing to play?
When I began training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I came face to face with a basic tenet of the work: the act of raising the arms is central to all one’s activities and depends upon the entire coordination of the body, not only the arms. I felt as if I had finally come home.
I mentioned in the last installment the following quotations from F.M. Alexander:
Stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine.
Arms and necks are stiffened in performing actions which properly call for the perfect coordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back.
To understand the meaning of these words, we are asked to take a step back—to what precedes the raising of the arms—and that means coming into quiet and taking stock of the state of one’s head/neck and back relationship, what Alexander called the ‘Primary Control.’ If the neck is tight, if the head is not balancing freely on top of the spine, if the back is either rigid or collapsed, what hope have we of raising the arms and using them freely in whatever we do, let alone playing the cello?
Let’s begin by looking at the connection of the arms to the source of their power, the back and yes, the legs too! The moment you think of reaching up or out with the arm, the equilibrium reactions are stimulated. Information is sent to the calf, hamstring, and abdominal muscles to organize the anti-gravity response to start working. The long muscles of the back (the extensors) engage to stabilize the trunk and to deliver the power to the limbs. So both the trunk and pelvis are involved in the preparation for using the arms freely. If you cannot use trunk and pelvis properly, you cannot use the arms well.
In the work of the Alexander Technique, the head/neck/back relationship is primary and the limbs are secondary; the former determines the efficacy of the latter. We cultivate the power of the back in order to use the limbs freely. Once the back is in its place, what we call back and up, rather than pushing or collapsing forward and downward, then we turn our attention to how the arms can be raised. To learn to keep the mind focused on what is primary when raising the arms is a huge challenge for the brain.
Amongst musicians, the arm joint (I refer here to the ‘ball and socket joint’—the ball of the upper arm bone which sits in the socket formed by the juncture of the collar bone and the shoulder blade), is one of the most misunderstood parts of the body. When I ask my students where they think their arm joint is, they usually point to a non-existent joint in the crease of their sleeve top. When I point to the place along the outer arm, indicating that this joint actually lies about 1 ½ inches down from the shoulder girdle, they are invariably surprised.
Tightening the neck, pushing forward or collapsing the lower back and raising the shoulder girdle to raise the arm are three of the most common faults, even amongst professional musicians and teachers of other instruments. To learn to use what Alexander called the ‘lifter muscles’—the latissimus dorsi or the large long muscles that wrap along each side of the back—and to allow the arm to rotate in the socket by sending the elbow away from the shoulder, rather than contracting it inward, contributes to a free, floating arm which is light, very mobile and which can transmit the power of the back, the primary energy supplier.
It can take quite a revision of our thinking to acknowledge that the arms don’t make the effort; they simply transmit the power supplied by the back. They are the agents of the spine and must be quiet and ‘empty’ in order to receive this power. Furthermore, when they are well-supported by the huge, long muscles of the back, they are not heavy, nor do they ever need to be made heavy to produce sound. Making the arms feel heavy to relax them is one of the great myths of cello playing and usually involves collapse of the spinal column, or what we call in Alexander work ‘pulling down.’
My Alexander teacher often quotes his great teacher’s saying: ‘Let the spine light up the fingertips.’ The energy must flow like water from the source to the destination, in our case, the string.