By Nicole Rafferty, third-year trainee.
While studying Alexander for the last few years and in the new Alexander training course in Denver, I’ve taken much of what I’ve learned into improving my violin technique. This blog will focus on how I’ve incorporated the technique into analyzing and improving my left hand technique.
When I first started taking Alexander Technique lessons I, like most violinists, suffered from excessive tension in my left hand resulting in a pinky finger that remained clenched back in towards the palm of my hand when not in use and a slow and uneven reaction time across the fingers especially in fast passages. As would be expected, these issues severely hindered my playing, making it difficult to advance my overall playing ability. As I started going through the Alexander Technique process I became aware that my left hand issues were actually a result of a misuse of my primary control.
If you’re not new to Alexander Technique, I probably haven’t said anything that would surprise you. The Alexander Technique is all about understanding the primary control (the relationship between the head, neck and back) and how it benefits the whole system and as I started my journey with the technique I would spend most of my time trying to understand the primary control. However, as I became more and more able to direct my primary control and appreciate the other things that were going on in my body, such as locked knees or a tensed hand, my Alexander teacher and I began looking at my left hand specifically.
What we noticed were the tension issues I mentioned at the beginning. In order to start dealing with these issues we decided to work on unwinding my left hand by creating a series of activities away from the violin in which I could start moving my hand and fingers in different ways, while incorporating my Alexander “directions” (using my brain to give suggestions to my coordination). We did this because a lot of my tension issues resulted in a lack of control.
In one of the first activities I would sit down and start directing (giving directions from the brain) as I normally would when I sat down. I would then turn my hands over with as much directions as I could and either rest them on my lap or on a table with my fingers together. I would then start directing through each of my fingers. For me, one of the best ways to do this was by imagining the bones in my hand expanding in either direction and expanding out through my fingertips. While I’m doing this I would go back to thinking my primary directions (for my neck, head and back). After doing this for a while I would then move on to trying to move the fingers in certain patterns while still directing my overall coordination. For instance, I would move my finger in to a “spock” finger pattern, with the pointer finger and middle finger together and the ring finger and the pinky finger together and a space in between my middle finger and my ring finger. To my surprise, for quite some time this was extremely difficult for me to do without tension or twitching.
After that series of exercises we worked on moving my fingers from the base knuckle (where the fingers join the palm of the hand) with the other joints remaining straight. We did this because I was actually unable to consciously move my fingers from that joint. Believe it or not, this is a detriment to violinists because being able to access the movement in the base knuckle allows us to have greater control of the hand and keep the palm nice and open to allow the fastest and most easeful movement of the fingers. Like with the first activity we did this activity sitting while continually going back to my primary control directions. We also did this standing and with hands on the back of the chair, because if you haven’t guessed already that particular motion of the fingers (being straight while moving at the knuckles) is exactly what we do when we put hands on the back of the chair.
After several months of working with those exercises away from the violin and gaining a great deal of muscular control, I took this exploration further outside of my lessons. I began starting to work on my left hand with the violin. One of the first problems I tried to tackle was the clenching of my pinky finger when I was playing. In order to do this, I had to learn to direct my primary control while holding my violin, then while putting left arm up, and finally while putting my fingers down. When I came to this last step I had to pay special attention to my pinky finger by imagining electrical impulses (or sending directions) from the base of my elbow all the way up my arm and through my pinky finger and out the tip. I began to notice that not only my pinky finger but the others as well were shortening and pulling back toward my hand instead of lengthening toward the strings when I wanted to use them, so I took it a step further by thinking the direction for my pinky finger and resting it on the D string very gently while playing an open A, a first finger B, a second finger C, and a third finger D on the A string. At first this was extremely difficult, but the more I did it and the better I paid attention to my directions while doing it the less tense my hand became and the more capable I felt moving my fingers in an organized fashion with little tension.
What I feel is important to say at this point is that all these specific movements came secondary to working with my primary control and the principles of inhibition and direction. As my awareness and understanding of these aspects of the technique got better the movements got better.
photo of Nicole’s left hand, used by permission