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Claiming my space

Steve Eddins
Posted on Monday, July 10, 2023

I’m writing today about something I learned last year at horn camp, and which has been reinforced by new experiences since then: claiming my space.

Let me first back up, though, to 2017. That year, I learned about Alexander Technique (AT) for the first time, from KBHC faculty member Stasia Siena. It’s not easy for me to describe it concisely, but I think of it as learning different ways to be aware of one’s body, both at rest and in motion. This increased awareness, in turn, enables one to find new ways to position and use one’s body in different activities.

AT is often used by performing artists. Musicians use AT to become more efficient in their motion and positioning, reducing unnecessary tension and helping to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Wind instrument players can gain better understanding how the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and upper and lower torso all affect the way the lungs can expand and contract during inhalation and exhalation. In addition to lessons from Stasia each summer at horn camp, I have also learned about AT through lessons with Miriam Bolkosky, cellist and AT coach in the Boston area.

A key point for wind players is to position yourself to give the lungs maximum space for expansion. As I confessed to Stasia last month, I am an incurable sloucher. I tend to sit hunched forward, with my shoulders rounded forward. This position squeezes my lungs and upper airway. By letting my head, neck, shoulders, and upper chest flow upward, I can give my lungs and airway more space.

Last year, Stasia and Miriam both worked me to think also about expanding space side-to-side by, for example, moving both elbows outward just a bit when playing. In addition to giving the upper torso more horizontal space, this has the effect of moving the horn slightly higher and away from the body. Stasia had me move my arms into approximate playing position (without holding the horn), interlock the finger tips of my hands, and then gently pull my hands outward. This action helped me to feel how the muscles in my arms, shoulders, and back can act together to expand my upper torso side-to-side.

I began experimenting with this positioning, both in the practice room and in orchestra. I played with my head and upper torso higher, my upper chest out, my arms pulling very gently outward, and with the bell a bit higher and slightly out from my body. When I remember to do this, I can use more air with less effort, I get better projection, and I just feel better.

There’s another effect, though, which is a little magical: I feel more confident! Like I actually know what I’m doing. When I’m sitting in the horn 1 chair, I feel like I can play out more and set the example for the section. It’s something like a power pose, and the psychological effect is strong for me.

I’ve come to think of all of this together as claiming my space. It’s a version of manspreading, except in a good way, and with my upper body instead of my legs, and not on a subway train. This short phrase, “claiming my space,” is a useful mnemonic, a quick way to remind myself of how to feel.

In a horn camp ensemble performance last month (a horn octet), I was reminded of what happens when I forget to claim my space. At one point, my part involved making percussive sounds using the horn’s bell. The notation and counting was unfamiliar. Also, I couldn’t hear the cues that I expected because the performance space sounded a lot different than the rehearsal space. As a result, I lost count. Mentally, I then went into a kind of bear-down-and-concentrate-harder mode in order to find my place and get back on track. Later, I realized that a side effect was to revert to old habits: lean forward, hunch forward, roll the shoulders forward, with the horn lower and close in to my torso. I think this all constricted my lung and airway space, and that contributed to problems that I had with some high notes a few measures later. I strained inefficiently to reach them, and they came out sounding pinched and flat.

Reflecting later on the performance, I concluded that claiming my space is not yet practiced enough to become automatic for me. When other things happen that demand extra mental attention, my body reverts to its habitual position.

But I’ll keep at it!