Pedro de Alcantara literally wrote the book on Alexander Technique and music. Actually two of them!
Pedro also produces a wonderful YouTube series called 5-Minute Voice, which he describes as: “Simple vocal exercises for everyone, fun to practice and health-giving.”
Pedro will be a guest teacher in the TVF Plus program in November 2017.
Enjoy the interview!
Peter: I’m very excited to be here with Pedro de Alcantara. Specifically, I wanted to ask you, Pedro, about Integrated Practice. I’ve been very fascinated by the subtitle of your book: Coordination, Rhythm and Sound. One of the things that you say on the back coverthat I’ve been thinking a lot about and find very interesting is how you can use the musical text itself as your guide towards psychophysical and creative freedom. Can you say more about that?
Pedro: I’ll try, but it’s a big subject. And put it this way, the bigger the idea the harder it is to talk about it. We can talk about sports easily enough, but metaphysics is a little harder. And the idea of using the musical text to integrate yourself is both big and simple, and to see the simplicity you have to try to do it many times, then one day you say, “Okay, I’m singing a song by Schubert—and that song has rhythm, text, vowels and consonants, it has modulations, it has some things that at first are very challenging and because they’re challenging I’m feeling that the song is making me screw up my technique.”
Essentially, you’re saying, “The song is the trigger of my screwing up.” The reverse of the medal is that you can say, “The song is pointing indirectly at places where there is space and time, and the song is asking me to do a one-octave interval at some point in German with two vowels or two syllables, or something. If I really find the time that I need to do that octave, the very fact of finding the time—which is built into the song—is going to coordinate me.”
It’s as if the song is saying, “Pedro, in here you have four bars, and if you really feel the pull of the 3rd bar and the change in harmony that comes with the bar, the pull is going to take you some place; so, ride the pull of the 3rd bar instead of using muscle power.”
Then the song says to you, “Pedro, listen to us, we have these intervals here for you, and the octave leap is very friendly if you stay with it and don’t run away from it. If you are really listening to the relationship between the two notes plus what’s happening with the piano, listen to that interval leap and your voice will respond very positively.” At some point, you say, “Oh my god, the phrase is inviting me to respond positively to the leap, the intervals, the changing vowels, the meaning of the words,” and if you really respond positively you’re using the musical text to coordinate yourself. Instead of blaming the song for your stiff neck, you say, “The song is teaching me a new feeling.”
Peter: That’s very interesting. While we’re on the topic of singers, I work with a lot of singers and one thing we’ve been exploring in our work together is this idea of listening vs. feeling vs. thinking. I wonder if you had any thoughts on how those three are integrated.
Pedro: You’re always having experiences all day long, different experiences and right now your experience is sitting across a table from me and listening to me and recording me and asking questions in a friendly room in the house of someone you know. And that’s the experience you’re having. It’s the afternoon at 4:30, and that’s your experience.
The experience comes with a tremendous amount of sensations. You’re sitting there watching me and talking to me, and you can see things in the room and hear that my stomach just grumbled right now, and so I’m ready for my afternoon snack; and you can feel the floor with your feet. Out of those sensations you can start exercising some discernment. “I can feel that under my feet there is a thick carpet.” Discernment means that you can tell the difference between thick carpet and the wooden floor. You can tell the difference between thick carpet and a floor mat or your shoes, and that’s discernment. Beyond discernment there is the possibility of judgment: “This is good and this is bad.” “I like it, I don’t like it.” “This is right, this is wrong.” “This is bad and I am bad.” And that’s judgment.
Now we have four things in sequence: experience, sensation, discernment, and judgment. Judgment isn’t very helpful. It tends to override discernment and sensation; if you get involved with judgment you’re not feeling things anymore; then you’re judging them.
When it comes to thinking, feeling, and hearing, be in an experience and let the sensations come and let them be what they will—with no judgment. If while having lots of sensations you decide to exercise discernment, that might be very useful. You’re having an experience sitting at the piano playing and singing and your discernment says, “I’m playing in C Major and I’m going to sing a G, I’m going to sing a 5th above the tonic.” That’s discernment and it can be very, very good.
So, I don’t really know how thinking and hearing and listening and sensing relates. But I know that judgment isn’t helpful, and truly being in the experience and having a wealth of sensations is very helpful, and discernment may be very good and, often, necessary.
I like quoting from the Bible—not that I know the Bible well—but most people think that the Bible says, “Money is the root of all evil.” It’s a famous quote, apparently from the Bible, except the Bible doesn’t say that; instead, it says, “Love of money is the root of all evil.” Money isn’t the root of all evil; it’s love of money that is the root of all evil, right? So, I’m going to use that as an analogy to talk about thinking and feeling and put it this way: There’s a tradition in which teachers of the Alexander Technique say to students that they shouldn’t pay attention to feeling, because of faulty sensory awareness; it’s the equivalent of saying that, because of faulty sensory awareness, feeling is the root of all evil. But I think that the problem isn’t with feeling per se, it’s with judgment, particularly if you’re misreading your feelings because you have a filter, and the filter might be a bit faulty. So, I’d say that judgment is the root of all evil; and, to be more precise, judgment that you make after filtering your feelings with an unreliable filter is the root of all evil.
But if you suspend judgment, feeling becomes absolutely wonderful. I would let my singing students have feelings but I would invite them to just have the feelings and not rush to judgment. That is what I think.
Peter: Okay, that’s really helpful. Switching gears a little bit, what advice would you give to, say, a voice teacher or singer on simple ways they could employ some of your ideas—whether it’s Alexander or some of these ideas of creative practice—into their daily practice routines or just their overall sense of artistry?
Pedro: Suppose you give a party. 50 people come, and the morning after the kitchen is a mess. You have a sink full of dirty dishes, and you have three hours to clean your house before your parents come home because you gave the party without their permission.
Then you have that cleaning task, plus and a bit of a hangover. If you become obsessed by the task, you’re going to rush and be awkward and break some glasses, and make the mess bigger. Instead of rushing to the task, you work on yourself and back off the task and say, “I’m going to take at least 10 minutes to make some coffee and clear my hangover, and look at what I need to do and decide on a plan of, like, what’s the first thing I want to do.”
You work on yourself, the better to work on the task. The first thing is to empty the ashtrays and open the windows, because that will make everything else easier. Just to give another example, suppose you’re reading my book Integrated Practice, and you have all this information in front of you and you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed. What are you going to do? Well, work on yourself and then decide what you are going to do. Work on yourself and decide if you really want to understand Chapter 8, or if the information is too much, do something else; read two pages from Chapter 9 instead.
My advice to people in answer to your question is: Work on yourself and make your own decisions, take it easy and go from there. That is my very, very broad answer to a broad question.
Pedro: Now I’ll give a narrower answer to your question. Someone wrote a book I’ve been reading called The One Thing. The book says that people who succeed, succeed because they decide on the one thing they’re going to do either in the short, near, or long term.
On the very short term, what is the one thing I’m going to do? I’m going to think about your question and try to find an answer. I’m not going to think about the next thing, which is what I’ll in 20 minutes from now, or the email sitting there and asking for my attention, or anything else. The one thing is to address some issue to which you commit in the short term, and I’m going to decide to do that one thing.
I’ve been finding it very useful in my practice. For instance, in my cello practice: what do I have to do with this one phrase to make it comfortable and meaningful? I can’t do a whole phrase right now; it’s too difficult. What can I do for these two bars? It’s a bit too much information, so what can I do for the first note of the first bar of this one phrase? Okay, that’s my one thing and I’m going to play one note.
If I decided to play one note and instead I play two, then I’ve failed in my decision-making by rushing into the future. If I’m doubling my task from one to two notes, I’m increasing my task by 100%, which is a lot. To decide on the one thing can be very useful. Give yourself a nano-goal, a very small goal—that’s your goal for the next 10 seconds, and afterward you can have another goal; but for the next 10 seconds, that’s your goal.
Peter: That’s great. My last question is about what you think that instrumentalists can learn from singers and vice versa. It seems to me there is a divide, at least classically, in how we’re trained and we sort of stay in our own circles. But I feel, as a person who has a leg in both camps, that we’re all musicians and there’s something to be learned from each other. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.
Pedro: As you know, I trained as a cellist. My main teacher in my music learning in college was a pianist and not a cellist. I had wonderful cello teachers, but I considered that the guy who really shaped my thinking and my discipline was a pianist who was my teacher of solfège, theory and analysis, and also chamber music.
I studied some Aikido as well in my youth. I haven’t practiced it in years, but I did some Aikido and I found that many things I learned from Aikido I think there are directly or indirectly applicable to playing the cello and the piano, and also to teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. I did some ballroom dance classes for a year and there were plenty of things in those ballroom classes, rhythm and posturing in learning movements that you’re not comfortable with, that have an immediate application to playing or teaching the cello.
If you don’t make false assumptions about your learning experiences, you can learn from anything and anybody, anytime. The real question is not so much “Can singers learn from instrumentalists, and vice versa?” but “How can you become a free-thinking learner who sees learning opportunities at every step?” Then you’re going to learn from singers, dancers, martial artists, little kids, watching people in the park, watching a clip of Nat King Cole singing that could really get rid of some long-standing headaches of yours because watching a guy with such space in his face suddenly gives you the space you’ve been looking for. You momentarily become Nat King Cole by watching him in a certain way, and your tension headache is gone.
Learning never stops!