Using the Alexander Technique to Play like Primrose

WilliamWilliam PrimroseBYU (Submission date: 05/19/2005) Primrose is universally known as the virtuoso violist. In this article I explain through the lenses of the Alexander Technique what allowed him to reach his full potential and how everyone has this inborn potential.

It is obvious, even to the untrained eye, that Mr. Primrose had excellent use of himself. You need not venture beyond one of his video recordings of the Paganini Caprices for proof of this. The virtuoso violinist Mischa Elman is said to have exclaimed upon seeing his performance, “It must be easier on viola!” (the opposite is true of course). What gave Mr. Primrose this exceptional ability to stay easeful while playing the most difficult passages? His response to a question about practicing from the interview with David Dalton (Playing the Viola) provides some insight, “Now, there are students many years younger than I, who practice this etude sedulously, and their hand is never terribly facile. But we must remember that to an extent, dexterity lies in an inherent muscular and nervous system.” This is strikingly similar to what Patrick Macdonald, one of the first teachers trained by Alexander, had to say about exercises, “Exercises, particularly those calculated to bring about relaxation, will, in nearly every case, exaggerate the unwanted condition. Only those whose use of their bodies is extremely good can do exercises with impunity. The reason for this is that exercises make no fundamental change, they only promote what is already there, and if what is already there is bad, it is folly to accentuate it.”

primrose3Mr. Primrose was a natural, not just with regards to the viola- but in his everyday life. He never lost his childlike poise, even in the face of great challenge. Janos Starker (virtuoso cellist) described him as, “a man of enormous courage, humility, knowledge, and insatiable curiosity … a man reaching heights but never losing sight of his frailties, while unflinchingly pursuing the loftiest goals.” Those attributes are paramount to successful study and application of the Alexander Technique. F. M. Alexander described what he called the ‘right mental attitude’ as one of a curious child engaged in learning, par for the course for Mr. Primrose.

You might be thinking, “I’m no natural, how could I ever hope to play like Primrose?” What Alexander discovered is that it is natural to use ourselves well, but for most people it is not habitual. We all have the potential to use ourselves (and in fact play the viola) as Primrose did, but we must learn to not do what takes us out of this natural state of being. Another way of saying this would be that rather than trying to directly do what he did, we must first not do what he didn’t do. There would be no way for someone to play like Mr. Primrose if he were actively pulling his head and limbs into his torso and shorting his stature; which brings us to Mr. Alexander’s discovery of an organizing principle of coordination of the self, what he called the ‘Primary Control.’

Alexander described the ‘Primary Control’ as “A certain relationship of the head, neck, and back.” It is not a position, but a dynamic relationship of a lengthening spine with the skull balanced delicately at the top and the ribs free to move with the breath. Alexander discovered that the organization of the Primary Control profoundly affects the quality of general use of the whole self. If the Primary Control is well organized, the general coordination of the self trends toward integration and organization, whereas if the Primary Control is not in a healthy relationship there is a tendency toward mal-coordination and disintegration. The Primary Control does not operate in a vacuum, as use of other parts affect it and the whole, but as the area in question contains the majority of our nervous system and is the central axis of support for balance and movement its role to play is both basic and of the utmost importance. If the habitual use of the Primary Control includes mal-coordination and disintegration it will manifest in the specific parts and in the activities of life which depend on the use of the self (everything). Put simply, use affects functioning.

A free-spirited young violinist named Karen Tuttle was so taken by Mr. Primrose’s ease of playing after seeing him perform with the London String Quartet in Los Angeles, that she immediately asked to study with him. He agreed on the conditions that she move to the East-coast to study at Curtis and that she switch from violin to viola. Ms. Tuttle is quoted from the interview ‘Body and Soul, “But because [he was so natural], trying to elicit information from him about something he did technically was a bit like asking the average person, ‘How do you breathe?’ Still I knew that I would be able to unravel my own technical problems by watching Primrose and absorbing what he did. Watching him was a great lesson in itself.”  Ms.Tuttle eventually became his teaching assistant and Mr. Primrose would often refer students to her for technical questions claiming that she knew more about his playing than he did himself.

Ms. Tuttle began to notice that Primrose had what she called ‘releases’ before events in playing such as shifts, crescendi, changing the direction of the bow, etc; most noticeably in the neck and lower back/pelvic region. In other words, she was noticing that Mr. Primrose’s ‘Primary Control’ was becoming more organized and available in preparation for a movement/activity. What’s more, the release and subsequent movement continued through the gesture. She eventually developed a system of playing that she called ‘coordination’ in which she strived to integrate musical ideas, appropriate ‘releases’ in the body, and emotions with the ultimate goal of bringing as much of her self into the picture while playing the viola as possible (as Primrose did naturally).

While her discoveries were groundbreaking, very few of her students could grasp what she was on to. A likely culprit is the word, “release.” The true meaning of what she called ‘releases’ has little to do with physical gestures and superficial positions/movements. What she called release had to do with the initiation of the movement, however the movement itself was expansive and active, not collapsing and floppy. What she called release movements, are akin to what Alexander called lengthening and widening. The external movements involved in Tuttle coordination will happen naturally in someone who uses herself well, there is no need to consciously and artificially impose them.

Without the underlying natural use, the movements that are involved in Tuttle’s coordination are not very helpful. Tuttle had this to say about her use of the word release, “Release movements are predominantly subtle, have a soft yielding quality and, in those players inherently capable of them, they appear smooth and natural rather than extraneous or self-conscious … release is actually what initiates the movement.” In other words, natural movement starts with an undoing, because of this the movements involved in coordination can’t be done in the way most people understand doing. You can’t do an undoing after all.

primroseage12We do not come into this world with an instruction manual when we are born, and our general use patterns are developed before we are terribly self aware. How we learn to balance, move, and think as children becomes our habitual use in everything we do later in life. As children, we learned intuitively and the self was a relatively blank canvas. We must remember that the self works as a whole and it is impossible to separate the mind, body, spirit. When we perform a specific task such as playing the viola, everything we know about balance, beauty, and indeed all of our personal experiences are in play as those experiences have been fed into our nervous system and have become integrated into the self.

If those experiences have had an effect of disintegrating of the self there will be general mal-coordination that manifests in everything we do. This is not to say that there is some rule that having pleasant experiences will produce good use or that bad experiences will produce bad use. It is how we react that counts. Most people believe that they are a slave to their experiences, “I’m like this because my horrible childhood.” Primrose states, “The student of whom I am very suspicious from the outset is the person who comes and presents me with a long list of teachers with whom he has studied … students who are always seeking the magic potion or are looking for greener pastures when the cure really lies within themselves.”

There are far too many reasons as to why our natural use is disrupted to spend much time on the topic in this context, but generally if we learn to respond to the various stimuli of life with fear, anxiety, and overworking, a specific activity will be experienced as scary, stressful, and difficult. If we meet the stimuli of life with curiosity, freedom, and expansiveness, the activity will be perceived as enlivening, interesting, and relatively easeful; regardless of the specific activity. This provides an explanation for the many accounts of individuals overcoming great hardship while remaining relatively unscathed, and similarly people for whom the smallest inconvenience is reacted to and experienced as the greatest hardship.

Alexander developed an extremely effective technique to free us from the cycle of stimulus and habitual response allowing the possibility for change on a deep level. Through the technique one can learn to let go of the things holding us back from reaching our full potential. F.M. Alexander was a Shakespearian reciter. Fairly early in his career he began losing his voice when he recited. As he only lost his voice when reciting he decided that something he was doing while reciting must have been causing the trouble. He consulted with a physician who agreed with him but could not tell him what he was doing while reciting so he set out find the source of his troubles by using mirrors to observe himself while he recited. F.M. began to notice that when he recited he pulled his head ‘backward and downwards’ onto his spine which in turn was putting pressure on his vocal mechanisms. He concluded that this must be the root of his trouble. What was more, he discovered that this pulling the head into the spine was often the first reaction to the thought of doing any activity.

He also noticed that when he decided to put his head ‘forward and up’ he could not maintain this direction of the head when reciting. He could not feel his habit engaging when we he started to recite, instead he felt as if his head was forward and up when it was in fact being pulled back and down onto his spine. This was a major turning point in his self-exploration because he realized that his feeling sense (proprioception) was not trustworthy. He later realized that he must simultaneously give the intention for each part of the process of the activity while withholding consent to the idea of doing the activity. In other words, if he thought of reciting he would immediately pull his head back and down into his spine because the habitual thought of reciting manifested the habitual coordination associated with the habitual thought.

Alexander came up with an ingenious process to get himself out of the rut he was in. He would give himself the stimulus to do something (such as reciting) but instead of reacting he would say no to any habitual reactions and instead projected the thoughts for “his neck to be free, for his head to go forward and up, his back to lengthen and widen, and his knees to go away” which he came up with as preventative directions against the habits associated with his mis-use patterns. These things happen naturally in someone who has good use. Once he found himself sufficiently well organized by thinking the directions he would either give consent to the activity while simultaneously saying no to his habit and projecting the directions, do nothing, or do some other activity. In this way he slowly restored his childlike use of himself.

We typically haphazardly stumble through the learning processes of life with no idea how to create habits other than the common experience that we must do the task in question “right” many, many times and a habit eventually sets in. At this point we have little conscious control over the habit apart from the ability to initiate (and/or hopefully stop) it. In the dreaded case that one learns a wrong (or bad) habit, common experience is that it is infinitely more difficult to “break” a habit than to create a new one.

Playing the viola is a ridiculously difficult proposition. There are so many things must be going well simultaneously that one simply does not have the conscious bandwidth for all aspects of playing to be directly controlled. Therein lies the need to create a set of habits. Similarly, we do not have the conscious bandwidth to directly control all aspects of balance, breathing, movement, or even thinking, so again we must form habits. The quality of all these habits collectively can be called the habitual use of the self. Charles C. Noble once said, “First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”

The deepest sets of habits are the habits of being: temperament, reactivity, balance, presence & focus, fearfulness, etc. All other habits and functions of the self are affected and built on top of these. Similar to the obvious fact that when one begins playing an instrument the first habits develop and act as a basis for all following habits. Where you hold the instrument determines which bow path is straight, where the fingers and arm are in relation to the torso, etc. It is fairly well known (especially in the viola community) that set-up is important, however little is known about what goes on underneath the instrument. Many positional rules exist, such as holding the instrument parallel to the floor, but what good is that if the person is hunched and pulling all limbs into the torso, or is only able to stand by stiffening the legs and ribs? Where would the viola be if they stopped hunching and unstiffened?

William_primrose2The viola is an inanimate object after all, so what we call viola technique can’t be separated realistically from the technique of movement while balancing in gravity. We are simultaneously moving around the viola, supporting it, and manipulating it. Most people are so bent out of shape by their habits before they ever pick up the viola that telling them, release this, raise your elbow, or whatever specific instruction that seems appropriate only layers on more habits to the onion of habits they’ve already created.

This is not to say that new habits layered on top of a mess can’t be helpful, at least temporarily. Instead my point is that we can use the Alexander Technique as a shortcut to something more substantial; to cut right to the core of our being and to break the cycle of reacting and doing in the old way. This is the starting point to play like Primrose, to be a natural. The old pathways will always be there and will be tempting, but to get where you want to go you must take a new path, there is no way to get new ends with old means.

Interview with Peggy Williams

pwiIn An interview with Peggy Williams (compiled by Glen Park) one catches a detailed glimpse of what training with F.M. Alexander was like. In addition to the fact that Alexander was likely in the prime of his teaching ability when Peggy trained, Patrick Macdonald and Walter Carrington (arguably the two most influential teacher trainers in the years following Alexander’s death) were assisting.

Ms. Williams relates how her experience in training released many emotional and physical demons from her difficult child & adulthood, listing daily breakdowns into tears, backaches, and fatigue. This went on for an astounding eighteen months before she “let herself be still.” A great example of how we can slow change by trying to hold ourselves together, rather than letting go of control. This “letting go” on her part was intimately tied to her idea of giving direction. “It was only when I stopped giving the orders to myself verbally that I really began to understand what it was all about,” she said.

Peggy tells a story of someone getting offended by her reactions to working with him and refusing to work with her which was a “guilty relief.” Ms.Williams asserts that tight wrists and hands were the cause of her experience, which was a major part of what I experienced in not-so-great turns from trainees. As I became more and more sensitive to the subtleties of direction and already achy from physical changes taking place, being pushed and pulled on- especially in a forward and down direction was very agitating. The possibility for interpersonal difficulties in training is a constant dynamic. Projection, giving/receiving feedback, and being practiced on by people with less refined skills was often uncomfortable.

One trainee in particular preferred to experiment without feedback, putting me in the position of either quietly taking what felt like abuse, or refusing to work in that way. After these experiences I empathized with my trainers more as they get quite a bit of inexperienced hands while the trainees figure things out. All the being said, what I experienced as a horrible Alexander experience would most likely be perceived as decent by the average person because relative to where they are. Patrick Macdonald is quoted as saying that for 30 years he took people down but relative to where they were it was up.

Ms. Williams gave this advice from working with Alexander, “Occasionally he’d stand one of us behind a pupil and put our hands on their shoulders and tell us that we must expect that the more our fingers felt like cotton-wool and useless the better it was.” She also warns against making non-doing an end in itself adding, “I just know what’s needed and I’m allowing for what is needed to happen.” She speaks to the different styles of teaching; stating, “I’ve heard praise for all sorts of people, though I personally wouldn’t want their hands near me. But different people have different things to offer.”

Peggy shares many anecdotal stories of Alexander’s input in relation to an AT concept, “Occasionally FM would come into class and look at us all sitting round and he’d say, “Just look at you all sitting round trying to be right” adding, “You still do see students and teachers doing this sort of thine, sitting up like rigid dummies … It gives then technique a bad name.” More and more I’m realizing how easy a trap this is to fall into. All teachers know that we are not supposed to “do” the directions, but what is it we are doing when our eye glaze over and we start to stiffen?

As for the question of the development of the technique she had this to say, “I’d like to see people if they are teaching the technique definitely teaching the technique and not mixing it with other things, that is for sure. I don’t like experimenting, except if you’re experimenting with your own skills and your own use in the framework of what Alexander taught.” adding, “There are many therapies that are valid in themselves. If you can use this technique to make you better at doing something else, that is absolutely fine, but I don’t like the idea of using part [Alexander] technique and part massage or something different.” This type of sentiment is abundant among the first generations of teachers but is somewhat fading with Alexander yoga, pilates, etc. I am in agreement with Peggy as surely the technique can (and should) be applied to specific activities but trying to learn bits and pieces of several moralities can muddy the water.

Perhaps more than anything else you get a sense of the tremendous difficulties you go through while training and learning the technique from this interview. Ms. Williams even comes right out and says that learning and changing is painful, however she offers the valuable advice that one ought to “Enjoy the hard work and thought.”

Ten potential pitfalls in studying the Alexander Technique & How to avoid them

pitfallsign2Studying the Alexander Technique can seem like a never-ending road filled with mysterious obstacles and seductive bunny trails that often lead to dead-ends. However, it can be less so if you become aware of these potential pitfalls:

1) Doing the directions

Alexander called the directions “preventative orders” because they are meant to stop you from actively shortening your stature, narrowing your back, and pulling in your limbs. Any new found expanded state is a result of getting out of the way of natural upright. You can’t do an undoing, so don’t force yourself to lengthen or widen. Think (wish, intend, imagine) the change you’d like to see happen and then allow yourself to breathe. Repeat.

2) Relaxing (releasing all muscle tone)

The Alexander Technique is about finding an easeful way of balancing, moving, and being; where your mind and muscles work for you, not against you. We are looking for healthy muscle tone without excess, thinking without effort; that doesn’t mean no work. Don’t let non-doing become nothing doing.

3) Letting your feelings guide you

If we do what feels right, we are doing our habit. A general rule of thumb: if it feels right, it’s wrong; if it feels wrong, it’s new. This is different from learning to recognize your habit(s), which we all must do. Eventually your kinesthetic sense does become more reliable, but we must move out of the realm of feeling and into the realm of thought to improve even then. Alexander once said, “When the time comes that you can trust your feelings, you won’t want to use it [kinesthetic sense].”

4) Trying to levitate

No matter how much up direction you give yourself, you must still be grounded for it to be useful. A lengthening of the body comes from the ground and goes up. Don’t be so concerned with your head going forward and up that you lift your feet off the ground.

5) Focusing on specific parts without relation to the whole

Concentrating often narrows our view, not allowing us to see the entire system we are affecting. We then start “fixing” specific problems only to move on to the next problem that we faultily perceive to be independent of the last one. We then feel like we’ve accomplished something by “fixing” many little things, but in reality we haven’t achieved anything useful if we don’t account for part’s relation to the whole; in fact, you even run the risk of destabilizing the entire system.

The most common example of this I see is “putting the head forward and up” as if forward and up were a position of the head, not a relationship of the head to the whole body. When we perceive a problem, it’s best to take a wider view of the area surrounding the problem rather than directly fixing it.

6) Believing that the startle pattern is a habit

We go into the startle pattern (head and limbs pulled into the torso like a turtle going into it’s shell) because we are afraid of something. Whether it’s stage fright or fear of falling on the ground; the startle pattern is a reaction to a thought or feeling; either of which can be habitual. If we don’t want to startle, the thing to do is find the thought/feeling that is causing the startle pattern and inhibit (say no to) it. This is not to say that you won’t have to explore why you are having those thoughts or feelings.

7) Inhibiting doing the activity instead of inhibiting the thought of doing the activity.

This sounds complicated, but it’s actually very simple. Inhibiting (or saying no) can end up being plain old stiffening if we are not clear about what we are inhibiting. Are we saying no to the thought (and therefore the habitual reaction) of sitting or standing while doing chair work, or are we saying no to the activity and muscling through? It is helpful to ask, “What am I inhibiting?” then “How am I doing that?”

8) Mind-wandering

Going inside to try and figure things out, thinking about what you’re going to do later, or anything other than what’s going on in the moment (being present and aware of your thoughts, seeing the room, hearing, and feeling your contact with the ground) just gets in the way of your goal. Even if you are planning for a future event, it’s not helpful to leave the present while thinking about it.

9) Trying to get it right

One of the most powerful experiences in my practice of the Alexander Technique was in a chair turn with Barbara Kent where I realized that no matter how hard I tried to get it right, I couldn’t sit in the chair without stiffening and plopping down into the chair. Barbara picked up on this and said, “Let’s try it again and this time, let’s both be wrong.” I then effortlessly made it to the chair with no plop. Barbara then followed up with a smile, “It’s never going to be perfect, so there’s no point in trying to be.”

10) Being hard on ourselves

Our habits have gotten us to where we are in life. Thank them, and then gently let them know that they are no longer needed. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction- therefore the more effort we exert in trying to overcome our habits the more difficulty there will be in doing just that.

In my experience it’s much easier to tell when we are headed in the wrong direction than when things are going well. This list is far from exhaustive, but if kept in mind it provides clues about when we’ve fallen off the straight and narrow path and makes the difficult journey of personal transformation easier to navigate.

Mindfulness and the Alexander Technique

092914bucks-carl-sketch-master675There have been several articles in the New York times on mindfulness recently and it would seem that mindfulness is back in vogue. One that caught my eye most recently was focused on a study that found that pausing, even for just half a second, between having a thought and making a decision to act on that thought improved decision making.

Now this isn’t shocking new information to many people, especially anyone who has studied the Alexander Technique; but the question, “How do we access the space between thought and action?” is still an interesting one.

Most mindfulness practices when boiled down to their essence consist of these instructions:

  1. Be conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Pay attention without judgement to the present moment, not letting your mind wander elsewhere.
  2. Include your self doing the activity in your awareness, don’t solely focus on what you’re doing.
  3. When you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention to your breathing/feelings.

There are many variations and exercises designed to cultivate this state of ‘mindfulness’ but they are all essentially related to the above. The principles seem simple enough but try putting them into practice. You will soon find that it’s difficult to notice your mind wandering and come back to the awareness of your breath when you’re doing nothing, let alone when there is a task at hand.

Here’s where the Alexander Technique is invaluable. Through hands on experiences from a teacher your awareness of your self is significantly improved so it doesn’t require so much effort to pay attention to what you’re doing.

Most people have difficulty being conscious of what they are doing because there is a general misunderstanding of the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is not the voice in your head as many of us believe; however, we can be conscious of the voice in our head. Consciousness is also not our brains telling our bodies what to do non-verbally (i.e. desire for coffee, lift right arm to pick up coffee). We can be conscious and experience these things, but for the most part we are watching our unconscious habits unfolding. This is different than making a conscious decision. Consciousness essentially allows us to do two things. Pick a direction and stop; although not necessarily in that order. Generally you must stop doing your habit(s) that are taking you in directions you don’t want to be going to move in a direction you do want to go.

The difficulty here is that we have so many unconscious habits going on below the level of our awareness and it’s nearly impossible to stop doing something we don’t know we’re doing.

One thing I never liked about the word mindfulness is that it implies a separation between the mind, body, and consciousness. The three are parts of a whole that are intimately connected and functionally equivalent. The nervous system takes in sensory information and responds to the various stimuli we encounter. Our consciousness is able to access a limited amount of that information at any given time in order to act as a failsafe to our instinctual reactions. If the wrong response is learned one can inhibit the reaction by being conscious (or mindful if you will) and creating a space between stimulus and response for choice.

F.M. Alexander discovered that the information registered by the nervous system could be distorted by patterns of malcoordination and muscular rigidity that originated in the conceptualization of movement and posture. This is a huge point to consider because if our sensory information is flawed, even if we make the space for choice our decision is based on unreliable sources. Therefore, proper use of the self which results in reliable sensory feedback is an essential first step to a successful mindfulness practice.

There are some things often taught as mindfulness that actually take you away from being consciously aware.

  1. Close your eyes when you pay attention to your breath.

Closing your eyes doesn’t bring you into the moment, it’s essentially hiding from it. You can’t very well take a moment to close your eyes to pay attention to your breath while driving on the freeway.

  1. Imagine a sunny day (or some other scenario that is pleasant).

Again this type of instruction takes your consciousness away from your self. It’s much more helpful to be aware of what is there and your reaction to it. Whatever is there will still be there when you come back from your happy place.

AT-Mindfulness Tips:

  1. Find the top of the spine (roughly between your ears/behind your eyes). See if you can keep your awareness of the top of your spine without losing your other senses; keep seeing, hearing, feeling your feet on the ground etc. This will expand and quicken your conscious awareness as you learn not to hyper-focus on one thing at the cost of everything else in your awareness.
  2. Seeing is a great indicator of the quality of your consciousness in any given moment. If your vision goes blurry, your presence has a similar quality. When you think about something, do you still see? Or do you turn your eyes toward your brain to concentrate? Is it necessary to leave the present moment to think?
  3. When you have the urge to do something (pick up your phone when it rings, cross the street on green, etc.), take a second to stop and find the top of your spine. Keep the awareness of the top of your spine as you give consent to the activity or choose to do something else. Notice if you are reacting or actually making a choice.

The Shoulders: To rest or not to rest?

Finding neutral for the shoulders is one of the most challenging things one can do in terms of the use of the self in my experience. Add a complex activity that requires a certain level of ease in the shoulder girdle on top and you’ve got a recipe for paradox and frustration.

shoulder1Let’s begin with the basic anatomy of the shoulder girdle. When I refer to the “shoulder girdle” I mean the hands & arms, shoulder blades, and collar bone. You may be surprised to learn that the only jointed (bone to bone) connection of the shoulder girdle to the rest of the skeleton is in the front of the torso at the top of the sternum.

Find your collar-bone (clavicle) by palpating the bone and follow it toward the mid-line until find two roundish protrusions at either side of the top of chest bone (sternum). You are on top of the sternoclavicular joint(s) where the shoulder girdle meets the rest of the skeleton.

shoulder3If you follow the collar bone out from the mid-line toward the arm until it reaches the furthest bony protrusion you’ve found the point where the clavicle meets the shoulder blade (scapula), the acromioclavicular joint. It’s called the acromioclavicular joint because it is where the clavicle and the point of the scapula furthest from the mid-line, called the acromion process (processes are protrusions that allow for muscle and ligament attachment), meet. This should not be confused with the glenohumeral joint where the upper arm attaches to the shoulder blade; there is no direct bone to bone attachment of the upper arm to the collarbone.

shoulder2Now, palpate your way back to toward the mid-line from the acromion, this time following the shoulder blade until it reaches what will feel like the corner of a triangle. You are feeling the “spine” of the scapula. Depending on your muscle build you may have to press quite firmly and the scapula may seemingly disappear into muscle. The strong muscles of the back are what support and stabilize the shoulder girdle as there are no bone to bone attachments in the back. The structure of the shoulder girdle, while providing extreme freedom of movement, also brings an ambiguousness when looking for a neutral position for the shoulders and arms.

backmusclesIt shouldn’t be a surprise that how we use ourselves in our daily activities has a profound effect on the resting lengths of our muscles. It is this phenomenon that we are observing when we see pianists and people who spend hours at the computer still in the shape they work from when walking, eating, watching TV, etc. In the case of the shoulder girdle this can be quite extreme. Because of the lack of bony structural support, the resting position of our shoulders is almost completely determined by the resting lengths of our muscles. If we overstretch our muscles in daily activity, we run the risk of deteriorating the support that allows the shoulders to find a comfortable resting position.

supervsdeepbackAlong the way to becoming a “serious” violist, I was told to keep my shoulders relaxed. So I went about figuring out how to do that. I am meticulous in the practice room and before long I had discovered that I could relax my left shoulder while playing although my right didn’t really follow suit. The static nature of the left shoulder in violin & viola playing allows for a certain amount of relaxation (release of all/most muscle tone) while the larger more dynamic movements of the bow require the arm muscles which originate in the back to be active for movement to occur. The left shoulder can relax even more if you use a shoulder rest as you then virtually never have to move your shoulder.

On the surface you’d think that one less thing to worry about (moving the shoulder to balance the instrument) and a little less muscular effort would be good; so for years I ignorantly thought, “I’m raising my right shoulder, that’s not good.” Yet, after hours of playing it was not my right shoulder that cracked and popped, it was my left. Even after years of receiving praise for my tone which of course comes primarily from the bow, I thought, “But my left is down so it must be better than my right,” and went about trying to lower my right. Needless to say I was unsuccessful.

It wasn’t until years of Alexander work that I realized what I was actually doing was relaxing my left shoulder to the point that it was resting on my rib cage. This was the grinding bone on bone I felt in the form of constant cracking and popping when I moved my arm. I was robbing my shoulder girdle of it’s muscular support by relaxing it and then dragging it across my rib cage.

me at 11It turns out that the last thing we want to do when doing any activity is relax (release all/most muscle tone). The word activity even contains active! To remedy my issue, I had to relearn to play the viola without the shoulder rest. I found that every little shift was a welcome opportunity for movement in my shoulder girdle. Rather than trying to hold myself still or relax into a blob I was free to move and the movement had an organizing effect on my shoulder girdle which helped remind my shoulder blades where neutral was. I had been taught that raising my shoulder was off limits movement-wise on the viola. How ridiculous a notion it was to make a movement off limits when all of the great violinists and even Primrose himself did this occasional subtle lift of the shoulder.

This rule I assume was a reaction to the common problem of violists & violinists clamping down on the instrument between their necks and shoulders, which isn’t much better. Although, too much tension is less likely to destabilize your shoulder girdle. In my case, relaxing resulted in my left shoulder’s neutral resting place being painful; I’ve over-stretched the muscles and they now rest on bone and nerves. It takes subtle conscious direction of my shoulder for the pain to subside, which is annoying to say the least.

johnnorestI’m not sure if it is laziness, bad teaching, or what exactly is at the root of the shoulder rest debate in the string playing world. String teachers having a very small part of the body of knowledge necessary is possible, pun very much intended. It could just come down to the fact that playing the viola is extremely difficult and the shoulder rest is a seductive little crutch that can allow us to avoid having to learn how to properly use our shoulder girdle in the process of playing the viola, which is not simple and takes a long time to do.

Once again the most healthy option seems to be to stop trying to gain our end without reasoning out a means whereby to attain it. We need means that at the very least don’t leave us physically and mentally damaged or with a mediocre end: the music which we care so dearly about.

Using Nonviolent Communication to Enhance AT Practice

nonviolentNonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion by Marshall B Rosenberg PhD is a powerful tool that helps one connect to their own feelings and needs as well as the feelings and needs of others. Typically, I would be writing about how the Alexander Technique enhances some other activity; my primary focus in this essay will be how to use NVC to enhance your AT practice.

While the author comes out early and states that NVC contains nothing new, he has pooled together a wealth of information with practical application and exercises designed to free us from the cycle of reactions so that our words “become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.”

The NVC Model as stated by Marshall Rosenberg:

  1. The concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being
  2. How we are feeling in relation to what we are observing
  3. The needs, values, desires, etc. that are creating our feelings
  4. The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Within this form, there are two parts to NVC:

  1. Expressing Honestly
  2. Receiving Empathically

Let’s take a look at the different aspects of NVC and how they apply to the AT.


Dr. Rosenberg makes the point that judgement, making comparisons, and evaluation is life-alienating communication and traps our focus on rightness and wrongness; the result being that we only think of analyzing and classifying wrongness instead of focusing on unmet needs. If you think of this in the context of the type of awareness we deal with in Alexander work a typical thought process of a student might go like this: “I can’t get into the chair without stiffening my legs, and my neck is tight! Sally can do it, she’s better than me. I’m not very good at this. What’s wrong with me?”

Instead of focusing on what we may be doing “wrong” if we turn our attention to what we are needing in the moment to achieve our goal we will find our goal more attainable. MBR, “We learn to be ‘up in our head’ wondering, ‘What is it that others think is right for me to say and do?’ Rather than to be in touch with our feelings.” What happens when we as Alexander students try to do what we think the teacher wants or even try to directly do what we think is right without being in touch with what we are feeling and needing in the moment? Alexander use to say, “You want to feel-out whether you are right or not. I am giving you a conception to eradicate that. I don’t want you to care a damn if you’re right or not. Directly [if] you don’t care if you are right or not, the impending obstacle is gone.”


NVC differentiates actual feelings from “words and statements that describe thoughts, assessments, and interpretations.” Some examples relevant to AT:

“My ankle is tight” vs “My weight is on the front of my foot”

“The student has a lot of up” vs “There is internal movement happening in this moment”

“I’m pulling down” vs “My head is going backward in space toward my spine”

NVC also puts emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s feelings. Dr. Rosenberg reminds us, “What others do may be the stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause.” adding “We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do as well as our particular needs and expectations in that moment.” In the context of the AT it is very important to take responsibility for our feelings. People often say things like:

“My back hurts” not “Something I’m doing is hurting my back”

“My arm hurts when I play the violin” not “My reaction to the stimulus of playing the violin is hurting my arm”

The idea that you can’t trust your feelings is thrown around quite a bit in the Alexander world. While it may be true that our feelings may not accurately represent the situation, they do accurately represent our interpretation of the situation, so it’s best to pay attention to them and ask, “What am I needing that is causing this feeling?”


Dr. Rosenberg strongly emphasises that needs are the root of feelings and that previously mentioned life alienating communication is often an expression of our unmet needs. He suggests that, “Expressing our needs directly gives us a better chance of having them met than using evaluation, interpretations, and images” and that we ought to practice translating evaluations into unmet needs. Some examples:

“My arm is tight, there are flaws in my technique.” vs. “I have a (unmet) need for comfort while playing”

“I’m not good at initiating movement” vs. “I have a need to improve my skill of initiating movement”


MBR, “The clearer we are about what we want back, the more likely it is that we’ll get it.” This statement reminds me of the Alexander concept of direction. The clearer our conception and request for neck free, head forward and up, torso lengthening and widening, knees forward and away; the more likely we’ll get it. Dr. Rosenberg advocates for, “Making requests in clear, positive, concrete action language [as this] reveals what we really want.” adding, “How can you do a don’t?” This is an interesting point as it is common practice in the AT to say, “don’t do this, don’t do that.” When we choose to use this methodology we should be careful to at least hint at what we do want.

I recently heard a story from a music professor who had hired an Alexander teacher to teach a class and was horrified when the teacher proceeded to humiliate a student on stage saying, “Don’t do that!” repeatedly when the student didn’t have any idea how to not do what she was doing or what she ought to do instead. It is interesting to note that Alexander framed the directions positively, perhaps he was onto the same thing.

Expressing Honestly & Receiving Empathically

Worrying about what others think, that we might be wrong or not good enough can be a stimulus for us to be dishonest with ourselves and others. However, if we are not honest with ourselves about our problems we can’t possibly hope to resolve them. Dr Rosenberg’s instructions in regards to receiving empathically is striking similar to Alexander’s concept of inhibition. MBR, “When we sense ourselves being defensive or unable to empathize, we need to stop, breathe, scream nonviolently or take time out.” When we allow ourselves to be truly present, noticing what feelings and needs arise without reacting, we then can make a choice as to how to respond. MBR notes that our habits of reacting by advising, one-upping, educating, counseling, storytelling, shutting down, sympathizing, interrogating, explaining, and correcting get in the way of true empathy- simply being with the other person (or yourself) and listening for what they (or you) are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting.

The remainder of the book goes on to explore the power of empathy, expressing anger fully, the protective use of force, liberating ourselves and counseling others, and expressing appreciation in NVC. On a personal note, NVC has helped me become more empathic with myself and others which has enriched my Alexander practice. NVC has proved itself invaluable in interacting with people who have violent and/or passive-aggressive habits of communication. I use to avoid possible friction; now I see an opportunity to practice inhibition by not reacting with the same sentiment I receive, followed by searching for their feelings and needs in hopes that empathy can provide some healing.

Finally let’s compare a statement from Judy Leibowitz to one by Marshall Rosenberg:

JL: “Ultimately, the Alexander Technique will help you deal with any life situation. To accomplish this you must give yourself the most important gift you can give to yourself: time. It takes time to incorporate and direct your energies to learning the Alexander Technique, you will not only change in ways that you want but also discover new and unexpected beneficial changes in your life.”

MBR: “Probably the most important part of learning how to live the process that we have been discussing is to take our time.  We may feel awkward deviating from the habitual behaviors that our conditioning has rendered automatic, but if our intention is to live life in harmony with our values, then we’ll want to take our time.”