By Sandor Slomovits | Photos by Tobi Hollander
For much of his life, Reinaldo Couto was a professional classical violinist, as a chamber musician and as a member of a number of major orchestras in his native Brazil, Europe, and the U.S. In 1990, in his late forties, he made a big career change. He started studying to become a certified Alexander Technique (AT) teacher.
The Alexander Technique was founded in the late 19th century by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian Shakespearian actor, who developed it to help overcome his own recurring hoarseness and laryngitis in performances. Alexander observed and studied his own body to find what movements and postural habits caused the tension in his neck and back that he theorized was the cause of his breathing problems and vocal fatigue. He gradually developed an approach to posture and movement that allowed him, and subsequent teachers and students of the Alexander Technique, to learn to use their bodies, in any activity, in more relaxed, free, and efficient ways. The Alexander Technique has become a part of the training of many actors, musicians, and dancers, but is also used by people in all walks of life to help relieve back pain and other physical distress.
Reinaldo Couto, who was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, moved permanently to the U.S. in 1979, at the age of 38. In 1990, after experiencing many physical problems playing the violin, he became aware of the Alexander Technique through a book by Dr. Wilfred Barlow, an English physician. “It made complete sense to me right away,” he said.
I understood that I might have created my problems by incorrect use of my body in all those years while I studied and played the violin. I decided that I wanted to change and, because I was having so many difficulties, decided to make a big change and I enrolled in the Alexander Technique teacher training program.
He moved to Champaign Urbana in Illinois, completed the three-year, 1,600-hour training to become a certified Alexander Technique teacher, and stopped playing the violin professionally. He moved to Ann Arbor in 1994 and has had a full-time practice as an Alexander Technique teacher here since then.
Reinaldo is a slight man with penetrating, dark eyes and a shock of white hair. He greets visitors with a warm, welcoming air, moves deliberately, and carries himself with an attitude of patience and calmness. He smiles easily and has a lively sense of humor. An example: he’s taped a sign on the door that he wants his clients to use, “Enter Via This Portal.” He loves the wildlife near his house and keeps a large supply of peanuts on hand to feed the squirrels and crows and other birds that visit his yard. The squirrels, and even some of the blue jays, are so comfortable around him that they often eat the peanuts right from his hand.
I met Reinaldo briefly some years ago when a mutual friend, a musician, introduced us and told me a little of Reinaldo’s backstory. When we reconnected recently, I asked Reinaldo to tell me more about his life as a musician, and how and why he had made the change to becoming an Alexander teacher. Although I too am a musician, we didn’t focus on the commonality of our experiences in music. Instead, we found ourselves talking mostly about how he arrived at the juncture between his music and the Alexander Technique, and his reflections about the modality itself. Reinaldo offered to introduce me to the Alexander Technique and I have continued to study with him. I have noticed some subtle changes in my posture and a significantly heightened awareness of how I stand, sit, move, and even breathe. As he says later in the interview, “It takes time. It’s a learning process.”
Sandor Slomovits: Are there other musicians in your family?
Reinaldo Couto: My father and two of my uncles were M.D.s, one was a dentist, another uncle was a state Supreme Court justice, and my two aunts were schoolteachers. My sister is a lawyer who just retired from the federal justice department, my middle brother is a retired federal judge, and my baby brother was the C.E.O. for a Germany-based pharmaceutical company. I’m the only black sheep. (Laughter)
Sandor Slomovits: But it turns out you are also a healer. Your heritage finally caught up with you. (More laughter)
Reinaldo Couto: Well, I see myself as a teacher of a technique that helps people break away from musculoskeletal habits that may be decades old, and that are limiting their range of movements and, in many cases, promoting conditions that can be very painful. By teaching the Alexander Technique I also help people avoid acquiring such habits in the first place.
Sandor Slomovits: How do you describe Alexander Technique to people who have never heard of it?
Reinaldo Couto: The Alexander Technique is a way of changing inefficient habits of movements in our everyday activities, which interferes with our innate ability to move easily and according to how we are designed. Because it is not a series of treatments or exercises, but rather a re-education of the way the mind and the body interact, it changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. By learning how to avoid conflicting and unnecessary tension on our skeletal muscles, we achieve a sense of well-being, good balance, and better range and freedom of movement.
Sandor: Was it a shoulder injury that made you stop playing the violin and take up Alexander work?
Reinaldo: I was hurting all over the place. I didn’t have a particular place that I could say, ‘I have this injury, I’ll get physical therapy.’ I tried several things because playing became very difficult. I also used to drive a lot because I did mostly freelance playing. I was in Charleston, South Carolina, and I was freelancing in Baltimore, in Ohio, in Florida, in Georgia.
Sandor: A lot of driving…
Reinaldo: A lot of driving, a lot of playing. I was in the Mantovani Orchestra and I traveled a lot with them. At the time it was wonderful, all these adventures, going to Asia, almost everywhere in the United States and some other countries.
Sandor: Did you continue playing music professionally after you started doing the Alexander work?
Reinaldo: I didn’t. The last professional job I played was the Opera Festival in Sarasota, Florida, in 1993. Then I started to dedicate myself to the Alexander Technique. I didn’t stop playing violin on my own. The research I did with the violin and the Alexander Technique was something I really enjoyed because I didn’t need to make my money (from music) for a living. I was free to do what I wanted with the violin. I started trying to figure out why it is easy for some people and why it is so difficult for others. I was hitting dead ends for a long time because I was alone, I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it. I was using my experience as a violinist and my experience as an Alexander teacher to try and figure out why it was that, for some people, it (playing the violin) became so physically distressing.
You know Oistrakh (the great violinist) and many other violinists play with ease, they produce a lot with very little effort, so looking at them gave me some clues. Or Itzhak Perlman: because of his polio he can only play sitting down, and in spite of that he is one of the best violin players ever. So, just here you can see two very different approaches. David Oistrakh was a very short man who stood when he played, and Itzhak Perlman, a man with a very large and strong torso and arms, plays seated, and both of them produce top of the top results. So what is it that unites them on that plane of absolute excellence? I used to look for what they were doing, but it became very confusing because each of their approaches to the violin is very different. Things started to clear up when I was able to see what they were not doing that would get in the way of their amazing coordination. In simple words, they play without putting wrenches in the works. (Laughter)
It’s something I had to learn by experience, because it’s very easy to think, “OK, it works for me, it will work for somebody else.” But it doesn’t work that way. There’s no one recipe for all cakes. I was too much in transition to show anybody else what I was doing with the violin because I would try something and the next day it (the experimentation) might take me in a different direction. I had that delusion for some time that I knew what I was doing. (Laughter) That delusion started to come crumbling apart little by little by the experience of facing my reality.
Sandor: This was while you were still doing the Alexander training?
Reinaldo: No, this was already during my professional Alexander life. When I was studying the Alexander Technique things became so chaotic about my body because things were changing. I used to be a hunchback and I became a non-hunchback. I had a much better back, but this caused me a lot of inconvenience in a way because…
Sandor: You’d gotten used to the way you were…
Reinaldo: Yeah! I had to get used to my body working in a different way. If you’re doing something as specialized as playing the violin… I had to really uproot my old habits, I had to go dig below ground, (laughter) find the root of my problems. I did find many.
Sandor: You still play, I see you have a music stand with music on it…
Reinaldo: Yes. When I started to experiment I stopped playing the repertoire, because every time I wanted to check on something, I’d have to find a piece of music that served me. So I thought, “OK, I’ll improvise something.” I created the situation I needed so I could experiment with the particular idea that I was trying to develop. Like if I wanted to see why shifting was not working…remember I had enough knowledge of the instrument that I could invent shifts, or bow changing, or crossing strings, arpeggios, scales, or a sustained melody. I got to the point where I had a (method of tone) production that was much better than it was before. I had a more beautiful sound and was able to produce that sound with the playing being so much easier. I didn’t hurt any more. But right now I don’t have a repertoire, and I couldn’t care less, because I don’t think at my age I’m going to restart my violin career. But I am plenty young enough and I’m strong, that I might eventually be able to enjoy playing chamber music with friends.
Sandor: So you don’t specialize in working with violinists, but work with all sorts of people.
Reinaldo: Actually, I rarely work with musicians. I work with doctors, lawyers, gardeners… I am not here to specialize in working with musicians or violinists. The work I did with my violin was my own thing. I was free to not be effective in my playing, to not be reliable in my playing for a while. I was in transition from something that I liked to do but was causing me a lot of harm, into doing it without suffering, and getting a better result.
I used to be a violinist. Now I am an AT teacher. If I can work with AT with someone who plays tennis or golf, I can work with someone who plays the cello, or the violin or the clarinet, because my way of approaching an instrument now is better. I’ve learned how to see what not to do that gets in the way of playing. It’s not necessarily the violin, or cello or clarinet, it could be just sitting in a car, driving, or dancing. The Alexander Technique is used by a lot of people who move for a living, dancers, actors, musicians…
Sandor: But you don’t teach people to dance, to act, to play music.
Reinaldo: No. I don’t teach people to dance or to play golf or tennis. (Laughter) I don’t know how to do those things. But I can teach people to do what they’re doing without harming themselves, and get better results.
Sandor: What brought you to Ann Arbor?
Reinaldo: My ex-wife used to live here before we met on the Mantovani tour. I will forever be grateful to her for introducing me to this wonderful place. Ann Arbor is an amazing city, culturally, scientifically, artistically, but a lot of people have no idea that there is something that could help them achieve a better quality of life; that it is really not necessary to endure pain.
I go out sometimes and sit somewhere to have lunch, to have dinner, and I see these young people, college students, so oblivious of their bodies, already hunching over and hurting their spines. That is a very good way to start building trouble for the future. Bulging or chipped discs pressing on nerves can be very debilitating. It would be good for people to know that there is something here that works, and if we take care of ourselves before it is too late, we may be able to avoid intrusive surgery or getting addicted to painkillers.
The Alexander Technique deals with habits of movement that we’ve acquired. We in the Alexander Technique learn how to observe people and see what they are doing that’s not good for them, and we have a technique to guide them out of it. But it takes time. It’s almost like learning how to play a musical instrument. It’s not learning, it’s re-learning. When we were kids, we were very efficient about moving. I was, and then I became a hunchback, and then I became efficient about moving again.
There is a very important factor to consider when we talk about the mobility of the body in all species that have a head, neck, and spine, including us humans; it is the ability to lengthen the spine before we move. That lengthening of the spine facilitates mobility and is achieved by a certain relationship between the head and the neck. It is what Alexander called the primary control. We can observe the primary control in action on our dogs, cats, flying birds, or David Oistrakh playing the violin or Fred Astaire dancing. And kids! Just watch them squatting, sitting on the floor, or moving around with their backs straight and long as can be. Unfortunately, many of us lose the ability to use the primary control to our advantage as we grow up, and instead we start developing habits of movement that promote the compression of the spine. The main staple of the Alexander Technique is to restore the healthy functioning of the primary control, which promotes freedom of movement, plus the healthy functioning of our main means of support that is our spine.
Sandor: Talk a little, please, about what you do in a session.
Reinaldo: If you take a simple action, like sitting in a chair, the act of sitting in a chair is a very modern act. Cultures that are less bound by chairs, they squat to talk, drink tea…but if you think about sitting in a chair, what is involved? We stand in front of a chair and we do our best to get to the chair without breaking it or breaking ourselves. (Laughter) And there’s a lot of effort involved.
The body is a very interesting mechanism, because we can use part of the body to compensate for the weight of another part. And that’s what a squat does, a squat is the oldest movement that we had to get close to the ground. So, if you go to sit in a chair, forget about sitting, think of a squat, because the squat is still very close to us. We squatted when we were kids and we still squat in many places (around the world). You squat until the chair stops you, and then you sit. That is a wonderful opportunity to get the mind together with the body. When we teach the Alexander Technique, we use movements that people don’t use all the time, like squatting, or using two chairs to lengthen the back out of the pelvis, lengthen the spine out, we do some work on the table to sense what’s going on in the back, in the legs, and in the arms.
The guiding touch we use is very light. The less they feel us doing things to them, the better it is, the less present you (the teacher) are, the better you are. The Alexander Technique is not the place you come to for pulling, pushing… it’s more like guiding. If you can guide a person to make their own discoveries, that is the best teaching.
When people start hurting, they start protecting what hurts, and the protecting can be worse than what is causing the pain. That is the point of the Alexander Technique. The way we see it, that particular problem (whatever is causing the pain,) may not be the problem, but a symptom of what is going wrong with the body as a whole. You go to what’s producing that symptom and, as we take care of the cause, the symptoms fade away. Like bulging discs. I’ve had many, many people come here, and they can barely move. If I see that they are not beyond the point of when they really would need surgery, I tell them, “You take two or three months.” After two three months they forgot how bad it was. They were going to have surgery; they didn’t need it any more. Because you’re treating the cause instead of the symptom. This is a learning process. It’s not me doing something to you. We’re doing something together.
Sandor: Who is your ideal Alexander student?
Reinaldo: The ones that come to me for prevention; the ones that see people around them struggling with inefficient and painful bodies and don’t want that for themselves; the ones who are willing to invest in themselves so as to grow into their older days with beautiful poise, balance, and mobility.