Lori Schiff: On How Alexander Technique Can Enhance Learning and Performance Under Pressure

Alexander Technique has been around for over a century, and is taught in many music schools around the world, so it’s very likely that you’ve heard a friend, teacher, or fellow musician mention it at some point or another.

But what is it, exactly? If you’re like most, you might not be so sure.

Is it about breath control? Learning how to stand or play with good posture? Or maybe about injury prevention? Releasing tension? Does it involve stretching? Is it like yoga?

And is it something we can learn on our own? Or do we need a special teacher?

And how do I know if I need it anyway? Ack! So many questions!

Not to worry! Today we’ll be talking to the perfect person to help us understand how musicians can benefit from learning Alexander Technique.

Lori Schiff is a full-time Alexander Technique teacher at The Juilliard School, where she has been on the faculty since 1991. However, she was also once a trumpet player, and completed her bachelors at Northwestern, and her masters at the Manhattan School of Music, before life led her down a slightly different path.

In this 42-min chat, we’ll explore:

-Lori’s “origin story” – where she describes what led her to explore Alexander Technique as a trumpet player, and how this eventually led to her becoming an Alexander teacher full-time (0:00)

-What changed, playing-wise, when she began studying Alexander Technique (7:49)

-How the physical changes that result from Alexander training affect the mental experience of playing and performing as well (8:40)

-I ask if her increased sense of “ease” also transferred from the practice room to the stage (9:04)

-Lori provides an example of something a violinist might express frustration about in performance (bow arm tension under pressure, shakes, etc.), and how Alexander Technique training could change this experience (9:51)

-The difference between telling yourself to “relax” and achieving a more “active” or selective kind of tension release via Alexander training (10:58)

-How greater physical awareness and control doesn’t just have a positive impact on playing, but can also interrupt the stress response and reduce one’s nerves and anxiety under pressure too (11:22)

-I ask Lori if she has any suggestions or tips on how to address tremors or (bow) shakes from the Alexander perspective (12:39) 

-How does one manage to become more aware of one’s body, but avoid getting too hyper-focused on the minutiae of motor movements, in a way that could lead to “choking” under pressure? (16:19)

-Misconceptions about Alexander are pretty common. Is it about posture? Breathing? Relaxation? (Spoiler alert: not exactly – there’s more of a mental component than you might think) (18:13)

-Lori explains why she isn’t especially keen on the word “posture” as a description of what happens in Alexander (20:25)

-How do we know if we would benefit from Alexander Technique? What are some signs that we should look into it? (22:51)

-Are there any pre-requisites, in order to have a successful experience with Alexander Technique? What role does age play? Experience? Any particular physical requirements or limitations? (24:00)

-Are private lessons really necessary? What about group classes? Do you need one-to-one contact in order to really learn and benefit, or can you get what you need from a book? (24:24)

-What should we be looking for in an Alexander teacher? (27:13)

-Is Skype a viable way to get Alexander lessons? (27:38)

-Are there any little things we can do in orchestra (or while sitting at computer, chopping onions for chili, etc.) that could help us? (29:31)

-I get really excited about Lori’s use of the phrase “is it necessary?”, because of how non-judgmental it is, and how it focuses our attention on function, rather than whether something is good or bad (and beating ourselves up about it). Lori elaborates on this aspect of Alexander Technique a bit further. (32:01)

-Are there any Alexander Technique details that are specific to singers? (33:27)

-What is “constructive rest”? Lori describes how to do one of the few “exercises” that exist in Alexander Technique – an activity that she suggests could be particularly useful on the day of a performance or audition (34:51)

-Is there any synergy between Arnold Jacobs’s teachings and Alexander Technique? (Lori studied with Jacobs). (38:57)

-How Alexander Technique helped Lori get “exponentially” more from her trumpet lessons (and how it could accelerate your learning as well). (40:59)