For Instrumentalists: 5 Warning Signs That Your Primary Control Is Not Functioning As It Should While Playing Your Music

Are you familiar with the "primary control"? It's a term used by F.M. Alexander. He defines the primary control as a "certain use of the head and neck in relation to the rest of the body." When working properly the primary control acts as an integrating force that facilitates ease and freedom of movement throughout the organism. Misuse of the primary control is always reflected as some misuse somewhere else in the organism resulting in undue muscle tension, fatigue or some form of poor coordination.


Here is how Alexander puts it:


"I found that in practice this use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole, involving control in process right through the organism, and that when I interfered with the employment of the primary control of my manner of use, this was always associated with a lowering of the standard of my general functioning." , The Universal Constant in Living by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London), page 8.


Here are 5 warning signs that your primary control is not working 'as it should' when you perform or practise your music with your instrument:


1. You feel exhausted after a performance and even after practising.

Performances can be a great challenge, and sometimes stressful. Adrenaline-level  rises and we want to perform as best as we can. Naturally later, when the tension fades we may feel tired. Nevertheless, the performance does not need to be exhausting, it can even leave us with more energy.


When practising we are in control of ourselves, we  are able to direct our energy, we can take breaks and watch out for the warning signs. If practising and performing becomes strenuous and exhausting, your primary control is very likely interfered with.

2. You lost the mastery of the skill  you had acquired

That can be quite frustrating. You know that you have the skills and you  could perform it, but sometimes it just seems out of your control, and it does not work. The reaction to this situation is often to try harder, even though the results don't warrant.


Thankfully there is a way to becoming more aware of how the primary control functions and to recognising, when it is interfered with. This awareness allows making changes in a constructive and conscious way, based on knowledge and therefore becoming, in effect, one's own teacher.

3. You are so busy with what parts of your body do as your hands, feet or vocal organs that you are little or not at all aware of what the rest of your body is doing.

I had this problem for quite a while during my early Cello studies. (Until I got to know the Alexander Technique). In music education we are often trained to focus on the fine-motoric skills and the functioning of the relevant body parts when faced with technical problems. In fact there are plenty of schools and views on how to use the little finger or the thumb on the bow, let alone the demands on the left hand in technical challenging parts.


We may become very skilled in fine motoric and develop i.e. great sensitivity and fluidity of movement in the fingers, but if the primary control is not working properly, we shall develop undue intensities of tension in other parts of the body possibly showing up in pain. The awareness of the primary control`s functioning and of the body as a whole is the key to very rewarding results in music making.

4. You've built up misdirected tension accompanied by corresponding over tension or lack of tonus in other parts of the body. These are recognisable as i.e. a stiff jaw, restricted movement, stiff fingers, restricted breathing, fixed vision or heavy arms, collapse.

Whether you experience restriction in movement, stiffness in any part of the body or restricted breathing/being out of breath or in extreme cases even dizziness, these are all signs of the primary control’s misfunctioning, in contrast to what it is designed for.


5. You experience pain and fatigue.

When the primary control is working properly you experience lightness and freedom, a feeling of yourself functioning organised as a whole and  − joy.


When you experience pain, discomfort, fatigue, these are all signs that your primary control has to be taken care of.


So what can we do against restricted functioning of the primary control?

The key word is awareness.


By the Alexander Technique you will increase the awareness of yourself as a whole until you will be able to recognise the interference within the head-neck relationship and the resulting interference throughout the body.  With the help of the teacher of the Alexander Technique you will be able to carry out the activity without the habitual interference, and experience the lightness and freedom when your primary control is working properly. By repetition of these experiences you will develop a new standard of functioning whereby you will be able recognising whether you play your instrument with maximum freedom and control but if not, you will be able to find out why and inhibit the interference.


In effect you may attain the knowledge of yourself as a tool in order to deal with the demands of playing your music-instrument in an optimal way.


A great way to improve the working of the primary control, to 'set yourself up' optimally prior to playing your instrument and release interference right after you've played your instrument is to practise the Constructive Resting Position or Semi Supine. You best do this right before and after practising. Check also my blog section about Semi Supine.


Anna Schweizer

Alexander Technik Lehrerin und Cellistin

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