Already before school-age, I was told my posture wasn’t great and was adviced by a doctor to practice pulling my shoulders back. My parents didn’t encourage me to do these excercises. Nevertheless, I was suddenly made aware of my posture and tried to figure out, how to position the shoulders properly.
When I started school, the head master of the school gave a talk about how to sit on the school chairs. I remember my back was often hurting when I was trying to force it into the shape of the ergonomically designed chair that was properly adjusted to my size. My teacher’s view of good posture was including an over-arching of the back. Gradually my back grow in a peculiar shape that, as I was always reassured, was ”not a sway back”. I got used to be more or less in pain all the time and only bending backwards seemed to bring some temporary relief. My shoulders were tight and I was becoming increasingly short-sighted.
I started playing the clarinet at the age of ten, which was both hard work and rewarding. At home, picking up the clarinet often helped my shoulders to release, and breathing just seemed to take care of itself. I loved the rich sound of my instrument and enjoyed the effortless dance of my fingers on the silver-plated keys. Performing and even orchestra reheasals or clarinet lessons were compromising my playing quite a lot. When I was anxious to make a good impression, I was trying to both hold my breath and blow at the same time, which caused a lot of tension. I failed to maintain a steady rhythm and struggled with tongue and fingers.
When I began to study music, I moved from the country-side to Helsinki. Suddenly I had to deal with the constant noise of traffic, pavements and concrete, busy strangers and polluted air. My clarinet sound become narrow, I run easily out of breath and my back pain become more intense. Especially sitting through orchestra reheasals was a pain. I knew, I was doing something wrong with my back but nobody seemed to be able to show me how to go back to normal. My hands started to get cramps, sometimes I had to open the fingers of one hand with the help of the other hand. I got used to wake up with numb arms.
During this time in my early twenties, I heard about the Alexander Technique and read a book about it. Because I couldn’t find an Alexander teacher, I seeked for help from experienced clarinetists, massage and a physiotherapist specialized in musicians. I started to do specific exercices, stretching, running and swimming. The muscles in my legs and arms were growing, but I had no idea, how to use this newly acquired strenght for the benefit of my back. Trying to follow the physio’s advice and hold myself in a good posture was making my back hurt like nothing else.
I started to look for something else. My massage therapist recommended a yoga class for musicians which was very gentle and the teacher truly knowleadgeable. I liked his optimistic and educational approach and started to do yoga every day. It seemed to help me a little in managing pain and stress as well. I enjoyed working in silence, without my instrument.
Over several years I kept working with music and started exploring with increasingly challenging yoga styles. When I bumped into an Alexander Technique course for musicians, I was 27 and my only fitness-regime was daily ashtanga yoga. It suited quite well for a busy, young clarinetist: portable, rhytmical, combining breath and movement to gain flexibility and strenght. On the other hand this demanding practice was making me more tight, and now my knees were hurting as well.
The Alexander Technique was something totally different than anything I had tried before. My teacher had very sensitive hands, and she seemed to be able to almost read my toughts. She explained she could feel a certain kind of tensing, when I was still just thinking about standing up from a chair. If I would become aware of that reaction, it would lead me towards the more effortless way of being that I remembered so vividly from my childhood. The Alexander lessons were short but they really helped me to figure things out on my own. Furthemore, the Technique didn’t require long hours of practice. I could apply it anytime and anywhere.
My Alexander teacher always told me to ”pay some gentle attention to the lower back”. Gradually it dawned to me, how much I had been compressing that part of my back. Walking on the streets was different: I was looking at the sky as well as the pavement. Some colleagues made compliments about my clarinet sound. My yoga teacher mentioned, that there was a pleasant juiciness emerging in my practice.
After a year of Alexander lessons, a cycling accident left me with broken front teeth and a split underlip. Playing became a real struggle. Problems with my embouchure were challenging the whole of my body, and the fear of having to give up my carriere was also reflected in my back. Two back injuries from unnecessary harsh yoga adjustments also seriously compromised my breathing.
I decided to move to London and train at the Alexander Teacher Training School. The first year I hardly played the clarinet and I replaced yoga with long walks accross Hyde Park. I loved the training and learned something new every day. I was also frequently in pain, which lead me to gradually resume my yoga practice. It was exhausting to take regular ashtanga classes on top of a full-time Alexander training, but it really taught me how to look after myself in a demanding enviroment. Both my back and my mind became stronger and back pain became an exception rather than a rule.
During the Alexander Teacher training many subtle changes came before my lower back changed it’s shape If you are a constantly arching your back, you are also squashing the back of your ribcage. For a clarinetist this means reduced lung capacity, poorer tone quality and rhytmical inaccuracy due to uncontrolled tension in the fingers and the tongue. When I learned to release my back, it had a dramatic positive impact on my music.
Teaching the Alexander Technique is nowadays my main occupation, altough playing the clarinet feels easier than ever before. When I’ve been working hard, I have some pain but it won’t go on for days and weeks. I’m also more confident than I used to be, since I know that my back is supporting me.
Aino Klippel MStat 2012