Keyed up

Posted Jul 3, 2011

Paul Alexander

Now Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander gets to play Carnegie Hall.

Or whenever the NFL lockout ends and he begins one of the most challenging chapters of his 18-year career with the club when he teaches his group the new Bengals playbook in the tightest window imaginable.

"It's a big change in style and we've had no practice time," Alexander says. "We'll have to work harder than we've ever worked before."

Another book that is just rolling off the presses ought to help. Three years worth of lessons with concert pianist Albert Muhlbock have produced "Perform: A journey for athletes, musicians, coaches and teachers," Alexander's intriguing book that becomes available Tuesday and he admits "doesn't tell you how to block the five technique."

Instead, it focuses on the mental game and the observation of elite performances springing out of what he sees as common ground shared by his two unlikely co-stars. There is Muhlbock, a 44-year-old Austrian who has performed recitals from the Brahms Hall in the Vienna Musikverein to the Beijing Concert Hall in China to the Steinway Hall in New York City. And there is former NFL offensive lineman Willie Anderson, the greatest right tackle the Bengals have ever had who went to four Pro Bowls under Alexander.

"Both guys are extremely talented and the similarities became clear along the way on how elite people perform under pressure," Alexander says. "The book is a series of about 60 vignettes on how you apply it."

Muhlbock, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, met Alexander when he began teaching Alexander's daughter Carolyn and from her first lesson the NFL coach thought the teacher-pianist was special. The coach and maestro ended up recently pulling off a combo block in a duet at CCM's "Pianopalooza" before a crowd of about 1,000.

"When I started out, I was nervous playing in front of 20 people and then it just kind of grew," says the 51-year-old Alexander, who minored in music while he was playing at Cortland State. "Albert's amazing. He's got a way of taking very difficult material and making it easy. To me, that's the thrust of ingenuity.

"You look at the pressure he's under. He's got to hit 20,000 notes during a performance and if there are four bad ones, it's a bad night. How he controls his body and his mind, it's not much different than football, where everything is supposed to slow down in super slow motion when you understand it and execute it well."

Alexander's players have never met Muhlbock, but they know him because Alexander talks about him since Alexander has an hour lesson with him every other week. And now Anderson, who retired after the 2008 season, knows Muhlbock, too, because Alexander has let him read the parts of the book with him in it.

"To me it's a book that everyone can enjoy," Muhlbock says. "It's written so that not just a football player and a pianist can take something from it. It's got something for everyone."

That's the idea when it goes on sale on the Web site with Alexander eying not just coaches, but teachers as well as students, athletes and any combination thereof. Alexander begins at the beginning, when he met Anderson at the 1996 scouting combine.

"One time I asked Willie why he was so good against Jevon Kearse. I mean, Willie never gave up a sack to Jevon Kearse," Alexander says of the former Titans Pro Bowl pass rusher Anderson faced twice a year. "He said, 'I never look at him.  He's a freak. When we break the huddle, I keep my eyes down on the ground and I concentrate on what I have to do.' That says so much. A lot of guys get intimidated by great players. But don't worry about what the other guy has to do. Worry about you."

That's one of the vignettes. So is the time Alexander used The Alexander Technique on right guard Bobbie Williams. That's F.M. Alexander, not Paul. And, it's no relation.

"Albert taught me about it and if you ask Bobbie about it his face will light up; it helped," this Alexander says.

F.M. Alexander was an actor from more than a century ago who came down with laryngitis and found new ways to speak by relieving tension in his neck and body. Paul Alexander used a similar method with Williams two years ago.

"Bobbie is so big and so strong that sometimes he'd have a hard time moving to his left out of a right-handed stance," Alexander says. "I'd have him visualize that someone had tied a rope around his left ankle. So instead of stepping, the motion is pulling. It takes away tension and incorporates more muscle, and it becomes more fluid."

After each session with Muhlbock, Alexander wrote out a diary. He also used material from his PowerPoint presentations he has given at coaching seminars. But he restricted his writing of the manuscript to the past two offseasons.

Now there's an appendix. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's playbook that is waiting for left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the rest of the guys. Even though Alexander cut his teeth in the NFL on the West Coast principles guiding the new playbook, he says there are elements he's learning. But he's more than familiar with the big-picture goals the offense has in mind and that should ease the transition up front, particularly when it comes to pass protections.

But Albert Muhlbock, whose interest in sports was reserved for hiking and biking up until three years ago, may be a key.

"There's way too much information to be digested in the short amount of time it has to be learned," Alexander says. "So the challenge is going to be breaking it down in bits and pieces and learning it as we go. It's going to be hard, but it's going to be fun, too."

The curtain, he hopes, is about to be coming up soon.


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