Horn students explore Alexander Technique

Can a collaborative approach to Alexander Technique help students tackle stressful performance situations and avoid strains and tensions?

Between October 2017 and March 2018 the horn students at the Grieg Academy, Assistant Professor of horn Ilene Chanon and Alexander Technique teacher Stephen Parker embarked upon a collaborative Alexander Technique project with financial support from CEMPE.

For the students involved, the project resulted in improved concentration during practice and concerts, a reduction in frequency of pain, tension and discomfort during horn playing, an increase in situations where optimal performance is achieved, and an increase in observational skills. Collaborative Alexander Technique (AT) lessons may help students to become more aware of the relationship between their body and their instrument, thereby allowing for greater ease of playing and avoidance of performance-inhibiting tension, Ilene Chanon concludes.

Description

The class schedule consisted of twelve individual half-hour AT lessons for the students, four one-and-a-half hour interactive group AT lessons and twelve half-hour AT lessons for the Assistant Professor of Horn, Ilene Chanon. The horn studio comprised one second-year bachelor student, one fourth-year bachelor student and one International Diploma student. The students had no experience of AT before the project.

An interactive learning process was utilised whereby the students built on their increased knowledge of certain principles obtained in individual AT lessons and exercised their observational and listening skills in group lessons. Chanon was an active collaborator during all group lessons, addressing horn technique and musicality, while Stephen Parker tackled the Alexander Technique (AT) principles. Chanon’s private instruction in AT enabled her to follow the progression of the students over the duration of the project, during horn lessons and in horn studio class sessions.

The students completed an Alexander Technique questionnaire before and after the project to determine whether there were any changes in thinking, physical well-being during playing and quality of performance. The questionnaire addressed thought processes during practice and performance as well as the students’ perception of pain, discomfort and tension relating to the quality of their horn playing. In addition to the questionnaire, Ilene Chanon made observations regarding improvement and progression in horn technique, expression and overall performance.

Results

Although the project lasted only six months, the size of the horn class was relatively small and the overall student attendance rate was only 80%, many noticeable changes have occurred in the horn playing and habits of the three students.

Questionairre responses

The questionnaire was designed to specifically address the following aspects:

  1. Thoughts and attention
  2. Pain, tension and discomfort
  3. Optimal playing

Thoughts and attention

Before AT the students’ attention was more easily distracted away from their playing towards other non-related thoughts, especially while practising. When asked about what they thought about while practising, some responses were “things other than horn playing” and “my thoughts stray when I
receive messages on my phone”. After AT the concrete tools that AT instilled in the students helped them improve their concentration during concerts and practice. Some examples of the replacement of distracting thoughts with constructive, helpful thoughts include AT principles such as, “both feet planted on the floor”, “direction of head” and “open chest.” When measured on a scale of 1 to10 – 10 being most often – thoughts strayed 30% less often after the AT lessons (from an average of 3.5 on the scale before AT and down to 2.5 after AT).

Pain, tension and discomfort

There was a considerable drop in frequency of unwanted pain, tension and discomfort during horn playing after AT instruction. On a scale of 1 to 10 – 10 being the most pain, tension and discomfort – the results showed a reduction in occurrence of pain, tension and discomfort from an average
of 3.8 on the scale before AT to 3.1 after AT. Pain, tension and discomfort are experienced in the back, shoulders, neck, arms and lips. The AT lessons seem to have led to an enhanced awareness of the body during playing, resulting in the mentioning of some new areas of tension and discomfort, such as the stomach and legs.

Optimal playing

Before AT optimal playing occurred mostly during individual horn lessons, but after AT optimal playing was achieved in all situations, including rehearsals and concerts. The major causes hindering optimal playing shifted from “lack of air” and “lack of self-confidence” before AT
to “thinking about technical difficulties” after AT. Although nervousness and stress were present both before and after AT, the adjustments made in stance and thinking during AT sessions resulted in an enhanced uptake of air, which in turn improved self-confidence and enabled a higher
standard of playing in additional situations. Unwanted tension had a less negative effect on quality of playing after AT principles were incorporated into the students playing habits. On a scale of 1 to 10 – 10 having the greatest effect – the students recorded an average of 5.7 on the scale before AT and 4.7 after AT.

Ilene Chanon's observations

Prior to AT lessons, Student A had a visible and audible hesitation in his playing at the beginning of each new phrase as well as a rigid posture. By the end of the academic year the habits of hesitation and rigid posture had been eliminated. Student A now has softer initial attacks and a more fluid stance, which corresponds with a more fluent style of playing.

Student B began the AT process with the challenges of shallow breathing and a backward-leaning posture. The sound was relatively small, and the low register was especially weak. Student B worked on shifting her weight forward, allowing the lungs to be filled to capacity. By June 2018 the sound was bigger and rounder and the low register greatly improved.

Student C exhibited a tendency to narrow her field of focus inward while performing, inhibiting a connection with the audience. Parker emphasised eye contact and a more open approach to performance. When Student C dared to look at the audience and establish contact, the character of the music became much more evident.

Project leader Ilene Chanon observed positive changes during the Alexander Technique project

An increase in observational skills was developed during the interactive group lessons resulting in an accelerated learning environment. The students built on their knowledge of AT principles learned during individual AT lessons and were encouraged to actively observe the tendencies of their peers through visual scrutiny and intense listening. Through careful observation of their peers, the students recognised their own habits and noticed the clear connection between the visual, physical habits of playing and the resulting audible sounds produced.

Conclusion

The results of this project support the notion that the addition of interactive, collaborative Alexander Technique lessons to applied horn studies at universities and conservatories help the students to become more aware of the relationship between their body and their instrument,
thereby allowing for greater ease of playing and avoidance of performance-inhibiting tension. The students in this project have demonstrated much improvement in their ability to produce the best sound and technique even in the most stressful of situations. Project leader Ilene Chanon concludes that a collaborative Alexander Technique programme would be a welcome supplement to any horn studio, greatly enhancing the breadth of education as horn players.

Read the full project report, including the AT questionairre.

Last updated: 30. July 2018