Heather Stegmaier, M.AmSAT

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Friday
Oct302015

Working With Performers

Today I had the privilege of working with young musicians and actors in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Connecticut. Associate Professor of Flute Dionne Jackson invited me to give a masterclass for her students and students in the music and drama program. I worked with six performers for 15 minutes each while an audience of their peers looked on, and even in that short amount of time big changes were happening! The students shed layers of tension which allowed them to breathe better, connect with themselves, and perform with more ease. The Alexander Technique is vital to a performing arts education—I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work with this talented group of students.

Saturday
May162015

Practice and Performance

Any musician knows that it takes hours of practice to prepare for a performance. Athletes call it training. Students call it studying.  No matter what, in life’s great activities there is practice, then there is performance. 

These two things feel different. Practicing has elements of exploration, repetition, and incremental growth. Performance is all about adrenaline, trusting your skills, and letting go of fear.

Life is about 90% practice and 10% performance. Practicing the Alexander Technique (AT) is like having the ultimate tool in your arsenal when you need it the most.

The Alexander Technique is a set of skills that allow you to live better in practice and performance. When you learn the skills of the Alexander Technique by taking lessons, you are being guided through the experience by your teacher and then asked to practice these skills at home. I always encourage my students to practice in a quiet, safe environment such as practicing inhibition while lying in Conscious Rest position. This helps to build a strong foundation for the cognitive skills of the Alexander Technique. That way, when “performance” time comes, you have your AT skills at your disposal.

Alexander Technique in performance, what does this mean? Yes, there are daily activities in which AT helps tremendously: driving, working at a computer, and playing a musical instrument. But then there are those moments in life where the heat is on, you are experiencing something very unique, and only have this moment to make it right. For example, a deer runs out in front of your car while you’re driving. In this moment you must react. But how? You may be frozen with fear. Or, you may call upon inhibition to not react in fear, get out of your own way, and allow your body to do the right thing.

Recently, I gave birth for the first time. Leading up to the birth I educated myself about childbirth and did everything I was able to in order to have a healthy pregnancy. I used AT to help my body make room in itself for the growing baby and manage the ten million other changes. I knew I would use AT for the birth, but man, I didn’t know how vital it would be!

Childbirth is life’s ultimate performance.  You have no clue how it’s going to go down! Don’t worry—I will spare you the gory details. But I will share with you that the Alexander Technique was my anchor and I could not have had a successful birth without it.

The Alexander Technique gave me the power to:

  • Not allow fear to dictate my childbirth experience;
  • Free my neck and consciously not let my neck and shoulders do the work (which they so desperately wanted to do);
  • Direct my energy where it was needed at any given time, and let go of the rest;
  • Truly rest when I was able— meaning in the 30 seconds between contractions I was able to stop completely and rest, rather than continue to react to the pain inefficiently;
  • As a result of all this, my endurance increased.

Bottom line, the Alexander Technique allowed me to not react in fear, get out of my own way, and allow my body to do the right thing.

I want to hear from you in the comments below! What ultimate life performance has AT helped you with? Have you had a moment in your life where you wish you had the skills of the AT to help you? Please share your experiences below!

Thursday
Aug212014

Working with Young Musicians

I had the opportunity to work with several piano students recently. Their piano teacher invited me to come during their regularly scheduled lesson time to work with them on such things as sitting more poised at the piano, freeing tension in the wrists, and incorporating body awareness to improve their playing. Their teacher recognized the importance of teaching these skills at a young age (middle and high school) so that they may continue to play the piano pain- and injury-free for many years to come. 

Many young musicians suffer from excess tension in the neck, shoulders, and wrists. Many also have picked up poor postural habits and may be either totally unaware of how they use their bodies, or hyperaware and self-conscious. This can all lead to chronic pain, exhaustion, and not advancing their skills as a musician. If not addressed, the students will often either give up music when they go to college, or—if they decide to major in music—will inevitably come across repetitive strain injuries or debilitating chronic pain. 

The Alexander Technique is an essential tool for musicians to help prevent injury and improve performance. If learned in middle and high school, the Alexander Technique can really improve  the musical life of a student.

 The students I worked with were excited to learn how to use their bodies in a more efficient way when playing the piano. We worked on such elements as how to sit with poise by lengthening the spine and knowing where your sit bones meet the chair. By becoming more aware of their entire self, they can recognize that how they use their body can really help their piano playing. Musicians tend to get really focused and “zoomed in” to both the music and their fingers on the keys. By bringing awareness to their entire self, the students transformed into poised pianists who were able to move more easily and with less effort. One student, who sat with her spine curved in a “C” shape, commented that by lengthening the spine and sitting more upright she felt much more comfortable! 

Their teacher also saw the difference over the course of each lesson. She said, “I invited Heather to work with some of my piano students on a one-on-one basis and watched as relaxed breathing, ease, and beautiful, stress-free postures emerged from my students’ bodies.  It is such a joy to see students overcome struggles and be able to create more beautiful sounds at the piano.” 

By teaching young musicians how to use their bodies efficiently as they continue their musical studies, they will be equipped with knowledge that will not only improve their technicality and musicianship, but help them to prevent injury and burn out. The Alexander Technique is an invaluable tool that can really make a difference in the life of a young musician. I know this from my own experience, and I am so happy I can pass on my knowledge to the next generation of musicians. 

I’d love to hear from you! What is your experience as a musician with pain and tension? Are you a music teacher who struggles to address these issues with their students? Please leave a comment below. 

Friday
Jul182014

Please Don’t Take a Deep Breath

Our breath is essential to life. Just like digestion, it is an automatic bodily function that we don’t really need to think about. Or do we? When was the last time you thought about your breath: the quality of it, or how it affects your overall well-being?

As with most things, we don’t bring awareness to our breath until something goes wrong. If you’re feeling stressed out, you take a deep breath to attempt to calm yourself. This creates an on/off switch, going from not thinking about it in general to emergency mode when stressed.

Just as breath is essential to life, the overall functioning of our respiratory system is essential to our well-being. I will show you how you can bring awareness to your breath every day in order to create balance.

Try this now:

  1. Sitting quietly, pay attention to your breath right now. Don’t try to change anything. Simply observe. Are you holding your breath? Breathing shallowly or irregularly? If so, continue to just observe without making any changes.
  2. If you notice you are holding your breath, have a conscious thought to stop holding your breath. Just like sending a wish out to yourself, “I wish to not hold my breath.”
  3. Continue having this thought to not hold your breath. After a few moments, notice if anything changes. Your breath may become more frequent, or maybe you take a nice deep inhale without even trying.

This approach is more gentle for your system than the on/off approach of “take a deep breath” that is all too familiar. Think about it: If you are in a state of stress, your body is tight and your breath is held. Then all of a sudden, you are forcing yourself to take a deep inhale. All that tightness in your body caused by the stress is still present and your inhale is forced through the tightness.

The alternative approach described above applies the principles of the Alexander Technique to create a much more gentle response to stress:

  • First, you are bringing awareness to yourself and observing your breath. This is very powerful and gives you a lot of information about your stress reaction.
  • Second, rather than overriding what is happening in your body with action (e.g. taking a deep breath), you are asking to stop holding. This is like hitting the pause button and giving yourself time to create change. By wishing for not holding your breath, you are giving your body an opportunity to rid itself of tightness.
  • The act of undoing and stopping allows the body to recalibrate and return to its natural state of well-being. The breath will follow because steady breathing is an important piece of our natural functioning.

If you are a singer, actor, or wind player you know this all too well. Your craft relies on your breath. But even so, people who are using their breath skillfully can acquire many habits that can create issues with their respiratory functioning. Tightness and tension can very much interfere with and hinder sound quality.

The Alexander Technique offers many tools to create balance and better functioning surrounding your breath. This leads to overall well-being and feeling good!

Wednesday
Jan222014

Move and Bend With Ease

Standing, sitting, moving, bending…these are daily activities we all do. But are you doing them in a way that creates pain in your body?

The Alexander Technique offers a great way to move and bend that promotes easefulness and creates less strain in the body. And it has a fun name: Monkey!

 Here’s what it looks like:

Now you can see why we call it monkey, right? Of course, I don’t expect you to walk around like this! But it’s a great way to practice important fundamentals of movement:

* Bend at the hip, knee, and ankle joints


* Keep your head, neck, and back integrated


* Allow your arms to be free

You can do many activities by using Monkey such as washing the dishes and picking something up off the ground. Just keep bending and using your legs to get lower. This way, your back is not strained and your arms are free to do what they need to do.

Here's how it looks picking a book from the floor:

This sounds easy and pretty obvious way to move, right?

But how often have you used this position to pick something up off the ground? 

In the second picture, I am bending at the waist and locking my knees back--and I still can't reach the book. In order to get lower, I will have to strain my back and neck tremendously.

Let me get one thing clear: the waist is not an anatomical body part! When you bend at the waist, you are actually bending at the spine. This puts severe strain on your back. Stop it!

By incorporating Monkey into how you move, you are even better able to do daily tasks such as sitting and picking up heavy objects.

Try it now:

  1. Stand up and just go ahead and bend your knees. Easy!
  2. Now, stand up again, and think about your head, neck, and back being one integrated unit. Using Alexander’s Directions, think about your neck being free, your head rising forward and up, and your back lengthening and widening. Keep this idea going…
  3. Next, as you bend your knees again, also bend at the hip joints. You can place your hands on the front of your pelvis and feel where the movement takes place. Notice that as your knees bend forward, your pelvis goes back. Joints are made for bending, use them!

 

OOK, let’s put this into action. Here in Connecticut in January it’s pretty snowy, and I had to shovel my driveway this morning. This could literally be back breaking work, but I have the Alexander Technique to employ! Here’s how I used Monkey to shovel snow today. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 What are other ways you see yourself using Monkey? Please leave me a note in the comments below!