“Of course”? At the time, I was raising my trumpet to my lips. Had I taken a breath yet? Was I about to take a breath? Was I about to attempt playing without taking a breath at all? I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember, though, is that I was feeling tight all over, and the idea that I could ever play the trumpet without a lot of “unnecessary tension” struck me as a ridiculous dream.
So why was my teacher saying “of course”?
I could see that he himself made playing the trumpet look and sound like the easiest thing in the world, but did he know how to help me achieve the same? Sadly, he did not.
I should explain that I was, at the time, a pretty passionate subscriber to the weight-lifting theory of trumpet playing. You probably know how that one goes: if you just lift weights (or strain at playing the trumpet) for long enough, eventually your muscles will bulk up, and what seems like an effort now will come to seem easy.
It’s common sense, right? Well yes, I thought so - but my trumpet teacher seemed to be proposing another approach, where the act of playing the trumpet got to be easy without my first going through the straining part. Could he serious, though? Could such a thing really be possible? Possible for me?
To cut a long story short, I eventually started having lessons in Alexander Technique, hoping these might help me address this issue. Seven years later, I’m still having regular lessons in the Technique (I’m a slow learner) and am now convinced that an ‘easier’ approach to playing the trumpet is both possible and viable, by-passing the need for 90% of the strain I previously put myself through when playing the instrument.
Paradoxically, much of the ‘work’ in Alexander Technique turns out to involve learning not to do. Not doing can be quite a challenge for an inveterate try-hard like myself. To put this another way, Alexander Technique is largely an education in inhibition. Over time, the student learns (by a combination of verbal instruction and hands-on guidance) to deactivate unhelpful but deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour which, precisely because they are so entrenched, feel utterly ‘right’ and ‘normal’ (which is why it is no tempting to go on repeating them). The experience of functioning without these habitual patterns is likely to feel very odd at first.
How do I hold my trumpet in my non-valve-playing hand? How much ‘grip’ do I really need to hold the instrument? What do I do with my head and neck as I raise the trumpet to my lips to play? How is my weight distributed across my feet (assuming I’m standing)? What is the state of tension or relaxation in my ankles? Are my knees flexed or locked? What awareness do I have of my hips? What does it mean to have ‘free hips’? What do I think am I doing with myself when I take a ‘deep breath’? Am I utterly discombobulating myself whenever I take this ‘deep breath’? What should a ‘deep breath’ feel like? Does it even matter what it feels like? What happens to the muscles at the back of my neck when I take this ‘deep breath’?
Over time, I have slowly made progress in identifying, and then learning to inhibit, unhelpful patterns of holding and tensing in areas such as these, with the result that I now typically feel a lot more comfortable when playing the trumpet than I did seven years ago. I believe that, on the whole, this has benefited my trumpet sound, considerably.
I wouldn’t want to suggest, however, that Alexander Technique has been a magic bullet for me. Unfortunately, I am still likely to get rattled in high pressure situations, and I do still fall back on bad habits at times. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, slow as the learning process may be, Alexander Technique does offer a highly viable path by which a tension-riddled trumpet player may eventually learn to play with a much greater sense of freedom and ease.