Innovative and intelligent mind-body method

A review by Martin Finnegan for 'Australian Alexander Teachers Journal.

Alexander Technique Teacher Martin Finnegan

A new terminology and approach to the guitar based on principles of the Alexander Technique and dance.

" The Author, Peter Inglis is an accomplished musician who has supported names like Stephane Grappelli and Kate Ceberano and his classical quartet - "The Peter Inglis String Quartet" - now makes sublime sounds around Sydney.

He says that he has gone through the mill of guitar learning orthodoxy and having found the experience less than ideal, has formulated a new and different approach. This book is meant as a physical and musical resource - best used by the self-taught possessing a lot of initiative, but preferably with a guitar teacher - and an Alexander Teacher!

Guitar Playing and how it Works by Peter Inglis
Guitar Playing and how it Works

Guitar Technique explained

"Guitar Playing and how it Works" addresses the task of guitar playing in a straightforward and disarmingly simple way. The author's first words in the book are that "Anybody can play music and play it well. That's the way humans have evolved!"

Peter Inglis has taken many different influences including dance, martial arts, mysticism, philosophy and of course Alexander Technique and synthesized them into his own approach to the guitar. This approach appealed to me personally as this book is essentially for those seeking knowledge outside of the rigid structures of orthodoxy. Frankly, I just don't have 10-20 years to spend learning the guitar, but I do enjoy playing and would like to get a bit better at it. For the serious student of the guitar it may prove an invaluable and authentic shortcut to guitar mastery, simply by avoiding learning activities that are self-defeating and just plain unnecessary.

So the good news is that anybody can play music and play it well. Realistically though, I will probably never reach the stratospheric heights of a Jimi Hendrix, a Steve Vai or a Pat Metheny, but it certainly is possible to become an entirely competent musician - at least enough to amuse yourself and the family pet.

What is Musical talent?

All it takes is a little knowledge, a lot of practice and of course a good teacher! With those ingredients it is possible to develop the basic components of guitar performance to a high degree. This is the promise of this new approach to learning the guitar.

What! No years of practicing scales and boring studies! Well, no…and yes. You do of course have practice and address technical stuff like scales etc, but that's only one small part of it! Playing the guitar is a whole-body experience! Just like Music.

The author states right there on page one that he is exploring the guitar by "following the natural functioning of the body as it interacts with the physics and physicality of the guitar and the aural demands of music.".

The Technique

F.M. Alexander

Enter the Alexander Technique. Alexander's principles are introduced early on in a simple way so as not to overwhelm the reader, and are brought back in here and there where needed. It's a good balance, as just in day-to-day life, Alexander Technique itself isn't the point, but one of the means to help achieve an optimum outcome.

Guitar Technique explained

The author begins with a plea to the reader to 'connect with your spine' by practicing semi-supine and moves on to sitting with the guitar with an emphasis on lengthening spine and the head going forward and up. This may be where those not initiated into the Alexander technique might of course come into some difficulty. However they wouldn't be the first musician to play with a little extra tension, and one can only hope that those who have an interest (or probably more likely, an experience of pain) will be inspired to follow the Alexander path further.

New Terminology

As Alexander Teachers we know how important language is! One important aspect of Peter's approach is the use of new and different musical terms.

For example he states that the term "plucking" is a loaded word. "For most people it suggests a movement involving a squeezing, gripping and pulling". It is loaded with preconceptions about the degree of force or effort required to produce a sound. The author suggests that the terms "stroking" and "rippling" might be better words to describe the actions of the fingers on the strings and will help the student to discover how little effort is required to work the fingers!

Flowing, connected movements in the right hand

Dexterity and independence of the fingers is, in an orthodox approach to the guitar, something that can only be acquired by "finger exercises". The author takes a different view - that finger independence is not achieved by rote practice of drills and exercises alone but actually develops as a normal function when you play with an understanding of the natural, connected movements of the fingers, combined with an awareness of rhythm.

Rhythm and Eurhythmics

One thing I noticed about this book, and that had me wondering a bit is that there are quite a few pictures of dancers. What the hell has all this dancing got to do with playing a vibrant piece of classical guitar or peeling off a down and dirty riff on the old Fender Strat? Well quite a lot, as it turns out.

Chapter 3 is all about rhythm Rhythm. Rhythm is movement. And what's the best way to find a rhythm? Walking, I hear you say. That's right.

Movement is the basis of all musical rhythm

"Usually in a one-to-one teaching session when I have a new piece for my students to learn, I tell them to put down their guitar, and we walk the rhythm", says the author.

But, that's not all folks. We also have swaying, skipping, running and marching. All of which have their musical equivalents. This is making it a whole body experience.

What we are really talking about here is something called Eurhythmics (no, not the 80's rock band). Eurhythmics insists that rhythm, articulation and dynamics in musical performance must arise from bodily movement.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

A method of music education using body movement. It was developed by the Swiss composer-teacher Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) and has achieved widespread influence in the 20th century.

After studying in Paris and Vienna with Fauré and Bruckner, Jaques-Dalcroze became fascinated with rhythm during a year spent in Algiers directing a small theatre orchestra. During the 1890s he searched for ways to help his students at the Geneva Cons to listen and respond more accurately.

Experimenting with exercises of walking and breathing, beating time, gesture, and improvisation, he encouraged the idea that music comes from the original instrument, the human body. Jaques-Dalcroze and his colleagues eventually explored lunging, skipping, pulling a partner, carrying an imaginary weight, and many other ways of involving the whole body in the experience of music. - Reference : The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2004 Historica Foundation of Canada www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com

A small personal revelation about Barre Chords

Barre chords have always been a problem for me. They positively invite an excessive use of tension! Your hand hurts, your arm hurts and eventually your back hurts trying to sustain barre chords, without ever seeming to get them working efficiently!

What to do? Lets look at the idea of expansion and embrace as articulated in Chapter 4. "The strings are not so much 'held down' as they are 'embraced' by the subtle expansion of your back. Pretend you are cradling a large beach ball. Now imagine the ball is expanding…" (The Expanding posture).

Barre chords on the guitar are supported by the expansion of the back Barre chords on the guitar are supported by the expansion of the back

Wow! Of course! It's the expansion (widening) in my back, as opposed to a contracting, that needs my attention. Suddenly the barre chord is so much easier, in every sense. This is something that so many accomplished guitarists know (just watch them play barre chords!) but generally you never hear about it! This leads into the idea of "one coordinated gesture".

"Mistakes playing a musical instrument are usually due to making contradictory gestures simultaneously. One goal of practice should be to eliminate contradictory gestures. This means avoiding contracting use of shortening movements and using instead expanding gestures."

Sound familiar? ("transmission of the gesture of expansion").

How to Learn - Holism, Reductionism

It's sad but true that learning new things can become increasingly difficult, as we grow older. Now for those of us who may have lost the golden energy of youth, so useful for learning quickly, there is also some help. The author emphasizes using conscious repetition in a bid to recruit the powers of the sub-conscious mind to do the work of moving your fingers, all in the correct sequence. As he points out... "when the going gets tough you really want the sub-conscious to do the work... the conscious mind just doesn't have the time".

There are also two ways to learn the guitar both of which are needed. A holistic approach is essential to play "music" and perform. The reductionist approach - breaking down the activity into its component parts - should be applied only when there are problems, where there is a need to analyze defects in your playing. In short reductionism helps you work out what you did and holism puts it back together!

A lot of modern guitar teaching, in the author's view, tends to begin with a reductionist approach and end with it too! (That's my personal experience as well!) Holism addresses the totality of a musical performance.

Reductionism

"Reductionism" is the beaking down of an activity into it's component parts. A purely reductionistic approach to playing guitar would assert that by practising the identified component parts separately, they can then be brought together in a musical performance - These concepts are explored further in ' Guitar Playing and how it works ' by Peter Inglis.'

Mental States

Your mental state is obviously vitally important as well. The author makes a statement that seems evident to me, but probably only because I have done three years of Alexander training: "The first thing is to acknowledge that you can change your mental state and emotional state at will."

This is true but often a difficult ask for most people! When you have practical Alexander skills that allow you to change your physiology and hence your mental state, it becomes especially efficacious.

He touches here on what is, in my own view a crucial point in playing music, teaching the Alexander Technique and everything else we do: where is our attention? He paraphrases the author Colin Wilson: "Attention is like a searchlight… a beam which can be narrowed or widened, and brought to bear on objects close at hand or focused out to infinity.".

Peter Inglis Quartet performing at the Art Gallery of NSW

The art of attention, working together with practical Alexander skills, is fundamental to achieving an optimal mental-physical state in which to perform music. He describes the ideal state as being "un-self conscious", that is attention focused on the production of musical sounds. Here's part of the suggested checklist of items that the performer can apply "relaxed attention" to in performance:

  1. Rhythmic pulse
  2. The tune you are playing
  3. The tune another instrument is playing
  4. The singer
  5. Timing
  6. The relationship between your head - neck - torso

Conclusion

This is truly an innovative and intelligent mind-body method for playing the guitar, using some of the finest products of the human mind (e.g. Alexander) to create a unique creative synthesis.

Overall this book and this approach are a revelation, even to someone who knows something about the Alexander Technique. It works even better under the guidance of the author or a suitable teacher. Highly recommended for aspiring guitarists or Alexander Teachers who want an insight into the workings of guitar playing.

Alexander Technique Teacher Martin Finnegan

Guitar Playing and how it Works by Peter Inglis
Guitar Playing and how it Works