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.”

Interview with Walter Carrington

walter210pxIn the Interview with Walter Carrington by Sean Carey, Walter describes a plethora of events on the training course with F.M. including personal stories, clarification of historical events, and practical lessons- mostly from Alexander himself.

Walter was attracted to the work by the transformations he saw in his mother and friend who had taken lessons from Alexander. There was a common theme of some of the trainees (including Walter) of being young men with not much of an idea what they wanted to do with their lives; the training course seemed new and interesting to them.

Walter talks extensively about the problems on the first training courses, while simultaneously defending Alexander. He quotes F.M. as saying, “All they were doing was going around imitating me like a cartload of monkeys!” According to Walter, Alexander expected the trainees to read the books and figure it out for themselves. When the trainees realized that they wouldn’t be taught they were disenchanted, and similarly so was Alexander when he realized they were so clueless. Reflecting to my own training I do remember after the first year (all I had originally planned to complete) thinking that I hadn’t learned anything about how to teach the Technique, even though the following two years were mostly the same in practice. I think this, wanting to find out what it was really about, kept me coming back. Strangely, there is no secret; only further refinement. Sometimes I joked, “I realized that somehow I became an Alexander teacher while I was busy working on myself.”

Walter provides many insights into the development of the Technique, both F.M.’s own personal development and his own additions as well as the additions of the other teachers of his generation. He says about the use of the hands, “It was only gradually that he [FM] began to find more and more that it was what he did with his hands that counted. As long as he made the right kind of soothing noises it didn’t seem to matter what he said.” He admits that F.M. never said where to put or how to use the hands; which kept with his minimalist approach. The advantage of having such an approach, according to Walter, is that the students learn most this way. Another interesting point is the connection of Delsarte to the origins of Alexander’s work. While most teachers admit that Alexander’s discovery and development of the technique as outlined in his books is pure fantasy and that there is no way he could have created the technique from nothing, very few teachers ask questions about his influences.

Walter does tell to the best of his ability the origins of the procedures, most of which were not of Alexander’s invention. Particularly of interest is how the saddle came to be used in the case of a child without the use of her legs. Crawling, which was developed by Dart and incorporated into training by Carrington, was a point of contention; he was defensive of crawling (or creeping as they say in England), as it was a criticism of his style by other schools of thought in the AT community at the time. He criticizes the wide stance that Patrick Mcdonald had students use, saying that it makes it easier for the students to get in and out of the chair but students learn less about inhibition and direction. He also warns against straightening the back against the wall (Dr. Barlow). The stories clarifying infighting between teachers from the first training courses litter the book and are a pretty big waste time as the people in question are all dead and the quarrels have little relevance to the principals of the work.

Walter points out that it was only by chance that table work was created at all; that at some point someone had the idea that the assistant teachers ought to put people on the table instead of always laying people on the floor. Also interesting is that Alexander had little to do with the development of table-work and that it was mostly the assistant teachers. While on the subject of tables, Walter objects to massage stating, “Massage is a terribly bad thing except for the most superficial kind of massage” adding that deep massage can actually damage tissue and make working with people on the AT more difficult. He had similar feelings about Rolfing.

There are long sections devoted to examining Alexander’s life views. While interesting, these kinds of questions have an undertone of suggestion that F.M. Alexander was some kind of Jesus type character who knew the truth and therefore should be emulated. Not only is this obviously false, from what I can gather about Alexander he would have wanted nothing of the sort; I believe he would have wanted people to figure their life views out for themselves. Carrington and Alexander both had an attitude toward religion that can be summed up as, “I don’t know.” A some-what related point that Carrington makes is, “FM always contended that it’s almost impossible to know what’s right, but that one could with time practically establish what is wrong and then set-up measures to avoid it.”

Among Alexander’s views explored were his views on other modalities such as Reich’s work, Osteopathy, Freud, and the Bates method. He was strongly opposed to all of them for separating the whole into parts and/or being an unproven theory being worked out on people (rather than a method derived from practical work and its theories coming from said work). While he may have been “right” in both cases, the attitude did not help the spread of his own work and often alienated the work from others; such was the case with Feldenkrais.

I believe the infighting between “similar” methods is related to the infighting between the first generation teachers and it certainly didn’t help any of the parties involved. On the whole, I was disappointed to see how much of the interview was concerned with these matters. That being said, the interview does offer an intimate view into the work of Alexander through Walter’s unique perspective.

Friction: An under-appreciated aspect in relating with objects & people

pushing-thru-resistance1-300x207Friction is often considered a dirty word in the context of relating one person or thing to another. In the Thesaurus, next to friction you will find: conflict, opposition, hostility, resentment, disagreement, antagonism, resistance, erosion, and so on. Many people will also make an association with pain and difficulty when thinking of friction in their lives.

In my experience, friction is a key indicator of the quality of contact or connection (relationship) between two objects (or people).

What I consider to be a good quality bow hold/grip (I’m not a huge fan of the standard terminology by the way) is one that the friction of the skin of the fingers against the wood of the stick and frog is enough when force is applied through the arm to initiate movement of the bow or change direction of the bow. This type of friction is known as Static friction: friction between two or more solid objects that are not moving relative to each other. When this friction is established you can hold the bow without any squeezing or gripping of the bow with the muscles of the hand and doing less gripping actually increases friction. A 2012 study has demonstrated the potential for a negative coefficient of friction, meaning that a decrease in force leads to an increase in friction. This contradicts the common belief that an increase of normal force improves friction.

I’d also like to point out that the shape of the hand is much less important than the quality of the contact. Amontons’ second law of dry friction states that: The force of friction is independent of the apparent area of contact (the amount of surface area contact doesn’t really matter).

Friction between two objects that are moving in relation to one another(kinetic friction or sliding/rubbing) results in a release of energy. According to the law of conservation of energy, no energy is destroyed due to friction, though it may be lost to the system of concern. If we return to the bow as an example, if sliding occurs there is a loss of energy that would otherwise go into the string (probably in the form of heat). This release of energy can deteriorate the relationship and even the wear on the objects themselves.

Since we are looking at friction in the context of relating to people and things, we will call moving independently of the person or thing too little friction. When there is too little friction a solid connection is never established. The two objects can become completely separated or crash into each other violently.

Just the right amount of friction fosters a responsive connection that acts to unify the two objects in such a way that they can move together or in opposition to one another without losing energy or loosening the bond.

It is my belief that these principles go beyond the physical realm. For example: a couple that challenges each other to grow individually is a healthy form of friction. Too much friction in this relationship and the bond can become heated and deteriorate, too little friction and there is not enough of a bond between the two, allowing for them to move apart and/or occasionally bump into each other. With just the right amount of friction the two are responsive to each other’s movements and can move together or apart(in their interests and development) and simultaneously balance each other’s differences and needs. These dynamics can be found in all relationships.

Over the years I have learned not to fight or run away from friction, but rather to let myself meet and be challenged by it. This creates an internal condition of healthy working.

When working with the Alexander Technique, it is possible to undo changes in the shape of the body resulting from trauma and/or bad habits of using one’s self with extremely subtle manipulation from a teacher. I found the following physics principles to be insightful in the process: The change of an object’s shape is called strain. The force causing it is called stress. Stress does not necessarily cause permanent change. As deformation occurs, internal forces oppose the applied force. If the applied stress is not too large these opposing forces may completely resist the applied force, allowing the object to assume a new equilibrium state and to return to its original shape when the force is removed.

That new equilibrium state is what we are constantly trying to find, and it is an ever moving target. An AT teacher can help you learn to guide your own internal forces to oppose the forces of habit that are disturbing your equilibrium and keeping you from achieving your goals and full potential.

Connecting Links

IreneTaskerfmalexanderbooksConnecting Links is a transcript of an informal talk given by Irene Tasker in 1967. By this point Irene had over fifty years of experience teaching the Alexander Technique. She had a unique position as a teacher of Montessori who applied the Alexander Technique to her teaching of mostly ‘disabled’ children with tremendous success. A proponent of the technique in the field of education, she had close ties to John Dewey and was herself a connecting link as she was instrumental in the writing and editing of the majority of Alexander’s books.

In the talk she describes the largest takeaway from her work with Montessori as observation and attention to the ‘means whereby’ recalling, “I learned from Montessori that my function as a teacher was primarily to observe and, according to what I observed, to provide each child with material best suited to him at his particular stage, and then acting as his guide, to give him the least help necessary to enable him to educate himself.” She stresses repeatedly through the talk the importance of giving the means, not the ends. I can’t help but compare this to my philosophy of teaching the viola where my main goal is to teach my students how to practice, how to figure out problems on their own.

Ms. Tasker’s descriptions of the writing and editing of F.M.’s books was a very interesting section in the talk. I had no idea that she and Ms. Ethel Webb had worked so extensively on them and they deserve added credit. She seemed to be a bit defensive about some criticism of Alexander’s books that were circulating at the time stating, “On the question of repetition, F.M. was insistent that you had to say things over and over again if you wanted them to sink in.” She also very fairly asserts that, “I think it is true to say that there are some people who prefer to know first about the Technique and from what they read decide whether or not to know it. Equally, there are others who are not interested to read about the Technique and the philosophy with it, until they know the effects of the working of the Technique upon themselves.”

A point that comes up in the talk has been bouncing around my mind, as I enjoy writing about the AT; to express concepts previously unexpressed in language is bound to be problematic and that writing which concerns itself with truth requires work to understand. I often find that only after I experience a truth, that I can recognize and appreciate it.

There is a wonderfully charming and heartwarming account of Ms. Tasker’s application of the Alexander Technique at the “little school” as well as other teaching positions she held over the years. She stresses the importance of applying the work to speaking advising, “I don’t think too much importance can be placed on the application of the work to speaking” adding “I think it should be part of the training of Alexander teachers. It is true that we teach with our hands to convey sensory experiences, but it is speech which conveys the ideas of which the sensory experiences are the counterpart.” Reflecting back on my training, I wish more emphasis was put on this, it took quite a while before I felt I could keep my inhibition and direction going while speaking and was often tempted to work in silence. We certainly did not spend the kind of time Alexander did working with speaking from what I can gather from the accounts of the early trainings.

I can’t help but relate to Ms. Tasker’s experience with the work. She describes taking the concept of inhibition to an extreme and F.M.’s response, “The other extreme of too hasty reaction, [F.M. went on] is drift.” I find this point to be one of the most difficult in practicing the AT. It seems Ms. Tasker did also as she mentions, “To keep the delicate balance between refusing consent to wrong doing and giving consent to the new doing seems to me the never-ending task for us all, both in our own use and carrying over that use into teaching.”

I love her response to the ever present question of progress in the AT: “We tend to speak of the ‘work’ and ‘the progress of the work’ forgetting that ‘we’ are the work.” I take that to mean that the collective body of Alexander teachers and students working (inhibiting and directing) will determine any progress in the work as a whole, not the perfect image or breakthrough scientific theory of the Technique.

Although the talk is nearly fifty years old, it seems as relevant as ever. Perhaps Ms. Tasker and I are kindred spirits as her emphasis on “not knowing”, that we [teachers] are the learners, and using Technique to connect the different parts of our understanding so we are more than the sum of the parts reflect my own values.

The Alexander Technique

theatliebconnThe Alexander Technique by Judith Leibowitz & Bill Connington opens, not with a technical definition or theoretical/philosophical description as many books on the Alexander technique do, instead the authors choose to begin with a relatable list of a variety of imaginary people with stress related ailments asking the reader what they have in common followed by a very straightforward explanation that excess tension and stress are direct results of misuse of the body. They even go so far as to list a number of conditions that can be alleviated by using the Alexander Technique.

Many modalities preach awareness, however, few directly improve specific awarenesses. The authors assert that Alexander’s technique heightened his awareness on many levels; including (from the Introduction):

  • kinesthetic- He became aware of (1) the feelings and tensions in his body and (2) his body in space.
  • visual- He saw his habits more clearly.
  • structural- He had greater knowledge of his anatomy and movement.
  • intellectual- He was more clearly aware of his thinking process.
  • emotional- He saw how he interacted and behaved with other people and his environment.

The book has a warm, personal and relatable style, detailing the personal journeys of Judy (who overcame many aspects of Polio) and Bill (who overcame personally learned mal-coordination to hone his skill as an actor). After the authors’ stories the book moves into case studies of many Alexander students which are more akin to personal stories of transformation from students than scientific case studies keeping the tone personal. Along with the theme of personal transformation, there seems to be an interest in childhood development as the later crops up repeatedly throughout the book and it’s importance is stressed; the authors on the subject, “We have to overcome our schooling and conditioning, which was of a goal-oriented or “end-gaining” nature that often leads to a fear of learning and of succeeding.”

Another theme that is recurrent is mindset. The authors assert that mindsets or beliefs create muscular holdings in the body and that leaving one’s self alone is key. They cite Zen in the Art of Archery as an accurate description of the Alexander process and go on to describe the relationship between the principals of the AT; Inhibition, Mental Directions, and Sensory Awareness (in that order). They detail the primary directions and their meaning. Interestingly, the direction, “and let my shoulders widen” is given equal value to the other directions.

The authors make a case for learning basic anatomy stating, “Because the mental directions refer to the anatomical structure, understanding the structure will help understand direction.” The authors make a case against visualization which is interesting as many teachers do not follow this advice, “Unlike some teachers, we do not ask our students to think of their bodies as balloons filled with helium, or to imagine the tension draining out of their bodies like water down a sink drain- in other words, we do not work with what is usually known as visualization.”

In the next chapters on mind-body connection and self-image & psychological factors there are more stories from the authors about how the AT accelerated progress in psychotherapy, relating the experience to the work of Reich. There are also many more stories of personal transformation related to those topics from students keeping with the overall personal and relatable tone of the book.

Some interesting tidbits to put in context of time are the questions, “How much does an AT lesson cost?” and “How often should I take lessons?” The answer to the former is $30-70, which means the cost hasn’t risen all that much since the book was written in 1990. The answer to the later is also interesting as she mentions that Alexander would tell people to come for a “course of lessons” meaning five lessons a week for six weeks. The authors advocates for three lessons a week for two weeks, two lessons for two weeks, then a lesson per week citing financial and time constraint changes in the average person since Alexander’s death. Also interesting is the advice to get a referral from your doctor and send in an insurance claim/reimburse form for your Alexander lessons; I wonder what the success rate for this practice is.

Following this is a section on what happens in lessons which in addition to the overall style and tone of the book make it an excellent introduction to the Alexander technique. The authors note that group classes are more economical but, “You must remember that the hands-on help is the most important part of the lesson.” Also in this section is useful information for student and teacher, “The Alexander teacher never forces a change upon a student but asks the student to think the directions so that messages are sent from the student’s brain through the nervous system to the muscles.”

The second half of the book contains “The Leibowitz Procedures” which Judy developed while teaching actors at Juilliard. While Judy notes that the Leibowitz Procedures and the Alexander Technique are not the same thing, they include many of the movements a teacher would guide a student through in an Alexander lesson. The section opens with instructions on how to observe yourself accompanied by a long list of questions leading to awareness of specific parts. This is then taken into activities including speaking, sitting at the computer, writing, talking on the phone, driving, climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects, vacuuming, carrying bags, sleeping, and gardening.

Following this trend Judy takes the procedures and applies them to sports and exercise activities such as weightlifting, swimming, biking, aerobics, walking, running, golf, tennis, dancing, skiing, riding, horse riding, and yoga. Judy mentioned earlier in the book that one of the purposes of the book was to offer a chance for the many people who don’t have access to an Alexander teacher nearby something to work with on their own. The Liebowitz Procedures are some of the best instructions for self-study that I’ve come across, however there is much less of a chance for success without a teacher’s hands as the authors admit.

The book concludes by stating that the Alexander technique is a tool for living and will help you deal with any life situation, but that you must give yourself plenty of time. As Judy had a hand in training most of the teachers that trained me, I can clearly see her influence in their teaching. It’s interesting to me to note the points where my trainers departed from her methodology as she didn’t have a cookie-cutter process. It’s clear through her writings and her influence on several generations of teachers that her commitment to the principals and skill made her a master teacher of the Alexander technique.

Positions vs Conditions

ImageTwo aspects of life’s balancing act that we must constantly grapple with are positions and conditions. The two are often at odds with one another, although they don’t have to be.  Whether referring to a position of the arm in relation to the viola or an appointed position (otherwise known as a job), if the condition(s) of the mind-body are not in the required state that the position demands, the position will be exceedingly difficult to “hold on” to and may cause physical, mental, and emotional distress if the position is held for too long (if it is even obtainable in the first place).

Most people associate positions with rigidity, stiffness, and holding – however, this does not have to be the case. The typical approach in learning to master a position is to do it (force ourselves into a shape) as best we can and hold on to it as long as possible with hopes that we will eventually build enough stamina to stay there for long periods. What we are usually doing at this point is practicing our misconception of what the position requires (also known as our habit).

While we may build stamina in holding a rigid pose, the advantage of the position (why it was thought up in the first place) is probably being negated by this excess tension. In fact, if moving into a position without first creating satisfactory conditions is the habitual response to the stimulus of any activity, not only will any mechanical advantage of the position be lost, the result may be worse than if he or she was in no particular position at all during the activity.

I can’t even begin to count the number of music students I’ve seen trying to find the “perfect position” for the instrument (or hands, arms, etc.) without taking into account what they are doing with their bodies. The students that do bring the body into the picture typically impose a posture that to the untrained eye looks upright and erect, however, underneath the skin there often is a ball of knots. This rigid forced upright may look and sound better than a collapsed posture but it won’t look, sound, or feel nearly as good as natural upright; something which is not imposed on the body. Natural upright emerges when the postural mechanisms are un-interfered with.

How does one achieve natural upright and improve conditions?

One must first value freedom of the joints, maintaining one’s length and width between the joints, and allowing energetic flow through the whole system; and prioritize those values above the molding of the body.

To translate that back into the career example, one must value freedom of thought (keep an open mind and don’t act habitually), honoring and balancing every aspect of the job, and connecting all of the different aspects of the work.

If one continually values positions over conditions, he/she will eventually find that they are unable to do what is required of them in a satisfactory manner. Take for example a violist whose habit is a little slump and has decided to force herself into an upright playing posture advocated by a teacher. To her teacher she looks pretty good externally, but internally there is no sense of flow, her joints are held, and her muscles are stiff and shortened. Instead of stopping the downward pull of her deep postural muscles (improving conditions) she creates a new habit of hauling herself out of the slump with the superficial external muscles. Essentially one group of muscles is fighting another to stay upright, and anytime she needs to move the muscles that hold her in her position have to be overwhelmed by the muscles moving her. She notices that her intonation has suffered and holding herself up is incredibly exhausting. She goes on practicing the new posture and gains endurance; however nothing seems to improve other than her ability to stay in the posture for longer periods.

Take the member of an organization that was only appointed to his management/administrative position for political reasons. He has no practical experience (unsatisfactory conditions) doing the job he was hired to do, but his father donates large amounts of money to the organization. He proceeds to make a mistake that costs the company a large contract and they have to fire several low-level employees. When the company fires the individual, his father ceases to donate any money to the organization.

Take the tenured professor that has a great deal of knowledge and experience but she is teaching at a third rate school and the students can’t even begin to grasp the material she wants to focus on. The professor becomes uninterested in teaching due to the lack of stimulation and her students suffer. In the music world this happens often as the number of positions and good students are so limited. Perhaps a very talented student chooses to go to this third rate institution for the exceptional teacher; however, this puts the student in a worse position to improve his conditions.

In all of these examples it is clear that if we force ourselves (or others) into positions we are not ready for, we can harm ourselves and others. However, if the conditions are satisfactory, positions offer a wonderful framework with which one can work on his or her self.

Grow to your full potential within the construct of the position. Keep yourself free enough that you don’t get stuck in the position. Maintain balance between your needs and the demands being put on you. If thought of in this way, positions can provide improved stability, efficiency, and accuracy.

Body Learning

LB-body-learningBody Learning by Michael J. Gelb was one of the first texts I read on the Alexander Technique, as it was required reading in the very first group introduction to the AT class I took. Upon re-reading it I see now why my teacher and so many others recommend the book to people with little or no experience with the AT. The book contains all of the core concepts of the Alexander Technique with minimal pontificating on possibilities of the future of mankind and other dense topics that plague many AT books, including ones written to be introductions. Also somewhat important in an introduction to the Alexander technique, which can sometimes be seen as a strange and esoteric practice, is the fact that Michael Gelb carriers some weight as an author from his other books which lends itself to the AT; not to mention the many endorsements by well-known individuals in related fields and a foreword by Walter Carrington.

I don’t remember being very taken by the book when I read it in college except for a few points here and there which were revolutionary for me at the time, mostly to do with observing without judgement and the effects of trying to be ‘right’ vs letting the right thing do itself. Being such a stereotypical Westerner, anything resembling Zen was far outside my experience except for the times I’d stumbled into it while practicing the viola. The author quotes F.M. Alexander, “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their right is right.”

As I read the book more recently, I was interested in the book as a potential teaching tool for my students. Right off the bat, I have to say I love the title and cover photo. As with his other books, he shows off his cleverness with double-entendre (ex. Thinking for a Change). I was more than satisfied with the descriptions of Alexander, the detailed timeline of his life and the development of his work, as well as his organizing the principals into ‘operational ideas’ which comprise the first two sections of the book. Mr. Gelb repeatedly makes it known that it is essential to work with a qualified Alexander teacher as the book does leave one wanting something to practice. At one point he describes the “ultimate Alexander exercise” as picking up your phone and making a lesson appointment. In all fairness, there are questions designed to broaden ones awareness at the end of each chapter but the book is hardly a do-it-yourself guide- the primary focus seems to be on building awareness which is the first and arguably largest step.

In fact, I get the sense that Mr. Gelb may be intentionally leaving certain explanations vague as to let a teacher fill in the blanks with hand-on experience (the best way to learn the work). He moves very quickly through many concepts and one is left with a general idea of the technique without a lot of specifics about the inner workings, which again may be best for the beginner as it is somewhat well-known amongst Alexander teachers that a lot of theoretical knowledge of the technique can actually slow learning in the practical sense, the two must be cultivated together, organically.

The author sums up what is commonly known as the mind-body problem quite concisely by stating, “[so long as we keep in mind that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.] Most personality problems are the result of conflict between these parts. Our bodies tell us one thing, our thoughts another and our emotions yet another (for example, I want to eat some cake; no, I shouldn’t, I’ll get fat; I feel guilty about eating, and so on.)” Another favorite quote of mine from the author illustrating that habits are always there but we can choose not to indulge, “I use to be characterized by a raised chest, tight stomach, set jaw, and hunched shoulders- the classic male defensive-aggressive posture. Now I am free to save this for special occasions!”

Mr. Gelb moves from the principals of the AT into a section “Learning how to Learn” which contains relevant ideas to the AT such as, how children so easily learn, fear, cultivating attention, experimentation, and non-interference vs effort. He then uses a number of illustrations of himself applying the principals of the technique to learning skills including: singing, juggling, teaching, riding a unicycle, speed reading, writing, running, swimming, public speaking, and Aikido. This is the best part of the book in my opinion as it shows the AT in action vs concepts out of context. While his explanations of the concepts earlier in the book are sometimes only adequate, the personal stories of his application of the technique are very useful and entertaining. The only exception to this being the section on Alexander work and organization change as he never bridges the gap between philosophical ideas and practical applications; although it is a cute look at the subject of organizational change through Alexander jargon, showing how organizations behave like organisms.

In Body Learning, Michael Gelb also manages to bring together most of the gems from many of the authoritative Alexander Technique texts; you would normally have to wade through many pages and chapters of dense writing to find these otherwise, and that’s asking a lot of someone who isn’t terribly invested in learning the technique. You could argue that this is the best aspect of the book, as many of the source materials are out of print and there is no shortage of explanations of the principles and applications of the work available nowadays, perhaps this was different when the book was written in 1981.

Overall, Body Learning is a worthwhile read to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique, even those with a lot of experience as the wonderful quotes, application descriptions, and pictures alone make it worth reading; it also makes a great gift to friends who are curious about the technique. The organization of the book also lends itself well to the group class setting as you can have a class per section in the book, giving the next section as homework to speed-up the understanding, and reduce the amount of time in class spent on explaining the concepts so you can get to the most important part- the hands-on work.

Can Laziness be a Virtue?

lazy3I have always held the belief that I am lazy. I procrastinate, spend more time watching TV than I should, and will often go to great lengths to avoid doing work that I don’t want to do.

Interestingly, in my efforts to avoid work I often end up doing more work in one form or another. One of my most recurrent habits around this is getting home and throwing my clothes on the floor because it feels like less work than putting them away, however I then have to go and pick them up later and inevitably have to wash them or iron them because I was avoiding the less labor intensive work upfront.

I often feel paralyzed, as so much of my mental processing power is being consumed by worrying about needing to do whatever the specific thing is, that I don’t have any room left for the task. The fear of the difficulty involved in the task, fear of the unknown in doing the task, fear of the unknown resulting from not doing the task, among others; also can be paralyzing. As a result of this, everything I do manage to accomplish suffers, not to mention the physical toll of the added stress.

My usual response to noticing these tendencies is to jump on my own case. In my mind it goes something like, “You lazy good for nothing! Get to work! You are worthless!” and so on- with many variations.

laziness - Just a derogatory word for efficiencyOne day I stumbled on a little “demotivational poster” (right). It is a picture of a doorstop still in the package, being used as a doorstop with the caption reading, “Laziness: Just a derogatory word for efficiency.” At first I thought it was simply funny and cute, but it got me curious about the nature of laziness as I have always strived for efficiency of movement in viola playing and I kind of liked the idea that I could change the way I framed my beliefs about myself; so I began investigating laziness.

The following excerpts are from the Wikipedia article on Laziness which I found fascinating and drove me to look deeper:

“Leonard Carmichael notes that “laziness is not a word that appears in the table of contents of most technical books on psychology… It is a guilty secret of modern psychology that more is understood about the motivation of thirsty rats and hungry pecking pigeons as they press levers or hit targets than is known about the way in which poets make themselves write poems or scientists force themselves into the laboratory when the good golfing days of spring arrive.”

“Frédéric Bastiat argues that idleness is the result of people focusing on the pleasant immediate effects of their actions rather than potentially negative long-term consequences.”

“Hal Cranmer writes, “For all these arguments against laziness, it is amazing we work so hard to achieve it. Even those hard-working Puritans were willing to break their backs every day in exchange for an eternity of lying around on a cloud and playing the harp. Every industry is trying to do its part to give its customers more leisure time.”

Going back to the “demotivational poster,” there was a silver lining in my version of laziness: The desire to accomplish tasks with minimal effort/maximum efficiency. This sounds quite Alexandrian to me, and F.M. was far from what I would consider lazy.

So I set out to define laziness in my own terms and this is what I came up with:

Laziness is a misconception of the method/process of least work required to complete a specific task. This often leads to extra work because associated with this misconception is the temptation to skip steps in an attempt to gain the result.

Taking a look at the definition of work is helpful in understanding this concept.

Work = Force x Distance (W=Fd)

If we skip steps that we later have to complete, we are increasing the distance it takes to get from the beginning to the end of any given task. Let’s look at a very basic example. Say we need to get from A to D and the distance between each letter is 1 distance unit. If we take the most direct route it will look like this:

A – B – C – D = Distance of 3

But if we skip B and we must move linearly, it will look something like this:

A – (skipped B) – C – B – C – D = Distance of 5

Anyone who has forgotten to pick up milk on the way home has experienced this. We do it to ourselves frequently and often subconsciously. When this happens we dramatically increase the work needed to get from A to D; in the above example: W=Fx3 vs W=Fx5.

While we are still looking at work (W=Fd), it’s important to note that excessive force also significantly increases work. Let’s say we are trying twice as hard as necessary to get from point A to point B; it would look something like W=(Fx2)d vs W=Fd.

I soon discovered that my personal definitions of laziness were at odds with one another. On one hand was essentially work avoidance and on the other was striving for efficiency. These two mix like oil and water. You can’t be efficient if you do no work. You can only increase efficiency in a system where there is an abundance of force, otherwise you must add force to the equation.

This made complete sense in relation to my physical patterns of use. I’m a slumper and need to do what feels like more work than my habit to be upright. In reality I have a habit of pulling myself down which is more work than supporting my spine in natural upright, but my perception is that being upright is more work.

lazy2Work avoidance feels good in the moment because we faultily perceive efficiency. This is one of many examples of how what Alexander described as faulty sensory awareness (or debauched kinesthesia) is deeply rooted in our belief systems and behaviors (and it’s a two way street).

Perhaps most interesting; whenever I do get around to the task at hand I almost always find that however difficult I anticipated the activity being, it’s never that bad; and I am often pleasantly surprised by how fun it is to do work when I approach it with the right mental attitude (one of curiosity).

A note about procrastination: Sometimes even when I want to do a task desperately I often forget to do it. I have found forgetfulness to be a defense mechanism to avoid painful experiences. The tasks I most often forget are the ones that I anticipate will cause me mental or physical anguish (even if those fears are not based in reality). At this point it’s generally helpful to tell myself that it’s okay to be afraid, and ask, “Is there really anything to be afraid of?”

This essay came out of a question I asked myself, “Can laziness be a virtue?” I believe the answer is yes if we change our definition of laziness from work avoidance and create the following conditions:

1) Inhibit the desire to avoid work. 

You can’t get something from nothing, so unless your desire is to do nothing you must do work. It is interesting that the world’s major religions strongly warn against laziness in the form of work avoidance.

From Wikipedia:

One of the seven deadly sins in Catholic thought is sloth, which is often defined as spiritual and/or physical apathy or laziness.

In Buddhism, the term kausīdya is commonly translated as “laziness” or “spiritual sloth”. Kausīdya is defined as clinging to unwholesome activities such as lying down, procrastinating, and not being enthusiastic about or engaging in virtuous activity.

The Arabic term used in the Quran for laziness, inactivity, and sluggishness is kَsَl‎ (Arabic: كَسَل‎.). The opposite of laziness is Jihad al-Nafs (Arabic: النضال ضد الذات), i.e. the struggle against the self, against one’s own ego.

2) Hone your skills of perception to the point that you can tell the difference between required work and unnecessary work.

We must check in with others to sharpen our own skills of perception, as reality it relative. Don’t be so sure of yourself that you are not open to being wrong about your views of yourself and the world around you. Don’t be afraid to do the wrong thing in an effort to find the right. Find an Alexander teacher!

3) Properly conceptualize the activity and strive for efficiency (remove what is unnecessary).

Once you discover the extra things you are doing, stop doing them. F.M. once said, “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” Strive to do less in any given activity (while still honoring the requirements of the task); repeat. In this way, laziness can become a virtue.

The AT: In Conversation with John Nicholls and Sean Carey

JNbookjpgHaving had a fair amount of personal experience with John Nicholls in lessons and classes, I had some preconceived ideas about how this book would read. I expected a straight-forward pseudo-medical explanation with scientific research to support the ideas without the “hippie stuff” that comes with many of his generation’s group of teachers. I was surprised that within the first chapter the conversation had already included Buddhist meditation, Gurdjieff, and possibilities for world change as a result of AT work. The subject of morality came up as John Dewey, Dr. Frank Pierce Jones, and Aldous Huxley believed that the technique lead to a form of ethics/morality. John Nicholls inferred that, “[the AT] may help the construction of a personal morality out of one’s own experience;” that the AT helps “to connect with the inner guide.” JN drew connections through many seemingly unrelated areas; he pointed out an interesting parallel to the schooling of horses, noting that the idea of “Self-carriage” or support of the limbs by the back is very similar to the idea of Primary Control. All of the subjects were approached and discussed in very practical ways without making any far reaching claims lacking evidence.

Coming back to the practical wisdom put down in the text, John offers many practical tips to young teachers including the need to tailor one’s teaching & explanation of the technique to the individual needs of the student. A particularly interesting opposition in this area that Alexander teachers often come up against is the reluctance to call the technique a cure for any specific ailment as it’s true nature is an educational (or re-educational) method and any cure comes about as a side-effect; however JN states, “It would be quite wrong and unfair to deny the technique to people who just wanted a cure for their back pain and say ‘We’re not talking to you because we’re educational and not therapeutic folk’.” Once the subject of scientific proof of the AT comes up there is an interesting point that, “any lack of complete scientific explanation of how the Technique works has a lot to do with the absence of explanation in the whole neurophysiology of posture, balance, and locomotion.”

One thing that was clarified in my own process of thinking when I first read this book was the simultaneousness of inhibition and direction. At an earlier point of my process I thought of inhibition as something one did before directing, not continuing to inhibit my habit while simultaneously directing the new intent, but now it’s obvious that the two really go hand-in-hand.

He also makes good points about the different “styles” or “schools” of AT teaching noting that “the general public doesn’t always find the vast differences that we [teachers] often find.” He warns about being a “paper-back psychologist” repeatedly; noting that, “if we start presenting ourselves as quasi-psychotherapists, we are inviting a big load of psychological transference and projection.” More so than any other teacher I’ve encountered, JN discusses psychodynamics in formal terms and points at a potential weakness in AT training as there is a general lack of knowledge in this area amongst Alexander teachers. He does not suggest combining the two within the same session, in fact he warns against mixing various therapies within an AT lesson with many good examples of why it’s not a great idea.

An interesting theme that runs through the book is John Nicholls obvious interest in deep psychological processes and consciousness itself, he states, “If we are to be consciously present in the moment then we must be consciously inhabiting our own bodies, not trying to be disembodied intellects.” A point that is made repeatedly in different ways is that the AT helps put the insight of many other disciplines into action. On the contrary he makes the point that insight without practical application isn’t of much value stating, “We all know people who’ve had endless counselling and who can talk with amazing insight into their problems but still carry on behaving quite stupidly. They’ve failed to take that final step of translating insight into behavioral change.”

The appendix includes the 1986 FM Alexander Memorial Lecture which further expands on position of the AT in relation to “Depth Psychology” (starting with Freud and Jung), “Body Work” (Feldenkrais, Rofl, etc.), Eastern Practices (Mindfulness, Zen), and the interconnectedness of these modalities through a set of themes:

2.Understanding and Controlling Reactions
3.Connecting with feelings
4.Integration of Body and Mind
5.Search for Natural Functioning
6.Search for a central core Self, I
7.Vital force, bio-energy, Chi, etc.

John describes the AT as, “a very precise tool for putting into practice the ideals of these larger movements.” It seems to me that No.7 is actually the most common through-line as all of the aforementioned disciplines seek to remove blockages of energy. A related point that is made and also serves as a through line is a reminder of the emphasis that F.M. Alexander put on “reducing thoracic rigidity.” John Nicholls adds, “Figuratively it’s as if the ribs are indeed a cage for most people, symbolically and physically imprisoning themselves. But undoing that cage can be a liberating and joyful experience.”

While the Alexander community doesn’t throw around the term master teacher, John Nicholls certainly would be in the running if there were such a distinction as his hands-on skills are excellent, he is extremely clear in his explanations, is active in learning relevant skills and information, yet is committed to not distorting the technique. This book is a very good read for anyone training or teaching the technique- especially for those interested in the Alexander Technique’s place in what John describes as “a larger context.”

My Story

As an up and coming classical violist & violinist, I began experiencing a plateau in the development of my playing. No one else seemed to think there was anything wrong, actually quite the opposite, but I knew that my lessons weren’t  getting me where I needed to go and no matter how many hours I spent in the practice room I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. The problem seemed to be centered around the physical aspect of playing, specifically how to support the instrument and remain free enough to move around. I used all manor of gadgets to aid my me in my struggle and became an expert on the the various devices.

My professor suggested I try the Alexander Technique. Without any idea of what it was other than that it would help my playing, I pretended to have pain while playing so that the dean would let me in to the already full class. I was amazed that almost instantly, with the help of the teacher, my playing improved dramatically and felt easier. I knew right away that this is what I had been yearning for.

BWV-1001-editOne of the most surprising side-effects of the Alexander Technique was that my thought and speaking became noticeably more articulate. Early in my AT lessons I remember glancing at the Bach Adagio in g minor which had previously looked like an indecipherable mass of black ink. However, this time I could clearly read the differences between the tiny divisions of notes as easily as I read this page. The effects were so total and profound that I knew I was destined to teach the Alexander Technique.

Trying not to try

tryingnottotryI woke up and turned on my radio to find that there was a wonderful talk about something I had been ruminating on for quite some time now, “Trying not to try.” I called in and managed to get in a plug for the Alexander Technique. It was sort of ironic as I was so nervous that the idea of trying not to try went out the window, but here it is for your listening pleasure:

Trying not to try

Check out my essay on this topic:

How the desire to do things keeps us from doing them (well)

Excerpt: If musicians play a piece and try very hard to “make” a beautiful sound and to “make” or “create” music, what happens? Short answer: Music. Alternatively, if we play a piece and don’t try to “create,” what happens? Is it no longer music? Is it boring? Is it no longer our interpretation if we don’t try to “make it our own?”



The Illusion of Viola Technique

forever-alwaysAs musicians we tend to segregate our practice time. We reserve time specifically for scales, run-throughs, and “technique,” among other things. The aspect of technique was always my primary interest. I would easily bore of concertos and sonatas, often before getting them up to a performance level, but I could practice the same passage focusing on improving my technique endlessly without boredom if it offered the kinds of challenges I needed to grow. I found that improvements that came from this type of practice had an overall improvement on my playing no matter if I was sight-reading or playing the passage I had been practicing.

Fast forward some years to when I discovered the Alexander Technique. I would come out of lessons with such a heightened awareness of my body that I would rush to the practice room to work on my viola technique before it wore off. I’d lift and drop my fingers with less and less effort. I’d hold the bow with just the friction of the skin against the wood. I’d stop and inhibit my shoulders raising here and there. Everything seemed to get easier and sound better all at once.

Along with this awareness of what was going on with my body while playing the viola, came an awareness of the aftermath. For the first time in ten years of viola playing I was in pain after only a few hours of playing per day. In fact, if I had an orchestra rehearsal I would not be able to practice more than one hour that day or the next day would have to be a day off. The discomfort was far worse than anything I had ever experienced resulting from playing. I had had acute pain during music festivals where I’d play 6-10 hours in a day for weeks, but not from only a few hours a day.

My only tool at the time to relieve the pain was to lie on the floor with a few books under my head. The discomfort was such a strong stimulus that if it was possible, I’d lie down every 30-45 minutes to undo what I was doing to myself while playing. I was somewhat aware of it, but my skill of inhibition was not refined enough to help much while playing which was even more habitual than sitting and standing. At the time there was no way I could avoid the hours of playing/practicing without failing my courses so I figured that I’d just have to build in lots of breaks and stop when I just couldn’t take it anymore in rehearsals.

I went on for years taking Alexander lessons to improve my viola technique and I spent a long time practicing inhibition in various ways. I’d practice on the floor. I’d tease myself with the viola, holding it in my right hand and bring it to my neck trying to notice if I was actually bringing my neck forward to the viola. Taking long periods off the viola helped. I had the great fortune of being able to stop playing for a couple of months which let me forget some of my muscle memory. Relearning to play from a somewhat blank slate was very useful. I even taught myself to play without the shoulder rest because I had never played without one and like learning a fresh piece of music, it wasn’t habitual. It was this last venture (and accumulation of a number of AT lessons) that lead me to a great discovery.

Figuring out how to balance the viola without gripping it constantly is a real parlor trick. My old method of doing this was to adapt the viola to me somehow. I realized that if I was to be able to balance the viola without gripping or filling in the empty space with gear I had to relearn how to use my arms, shoulders, and torso to balance the viola. I will get into the specifics of how to balance the viola without the shoulder rest and the dangers of the shoulder rest in my next post, but for now I’d like to focus on the significance of the discovery that viola technique can’t be separated from the use of the self.

harp illusionThe 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 moving around the viola, supporting it, and manipulating it. The viola can only respond to what we do. Suddenly my experience of the AT applied to the viola got vastly clearer and I realized what an idiot I had been for separating the two skills in my mind. I realized that by narrowly focusing on my fingers and arms I drew myself closer to the viola seemingly in an attempt to bring my self (brain, spine, heart, consciousness) closer to the activity.

What was so wonderful about the AT in relation to viola playing for me was that it gave me such a strong distinction of what was me, where I was in space, and what was the viola and where it was in relation to me. Before, I was unconsciously melting into the viola and trying to move around the viola in unnatural ways because I was unaware of how my body worked from a muscular and skeletal level. I knew where I had to get to on the viola and would will my way there, often without reasoning out how I was to get there realistically. Interestingly, this new distinction also had a side effect of helping me separate myself from the identity of being a violist. Suddenly I was me and the viola was the viola instead of some unnatural hybrid. Looking back I had probably heard a teacher say that the viola is an extension of you or something along those lines which I obviously took to an extreme.

I then decided to put my primary focus on letting my consciousness live inside my body rather than superimposing it onto the viola. That’s not to say that the viola, my fingers, etc., weren’t in my awareness, but they were no longer my primary focus. I shifted my attention to what Alexander called, “The Primary Control.” This stated as simply as possible: a certain relationship of the skull, spine, and limbs; where the head and limbs are supported by the central axis of the body that is lengthening naturally in response to gravity, and in turn the head and limbs are not being pulled into the torso.

When the primary control of the body is functioning properly the use of the limbs becomes near effortless in experience. The ribs become free to ride the breath, and movements are initiated from a lengthening of the whole body, from the spine right out to the fingertips and toes. Contrast that idea to what most musicians think they need to do to play: grip the bow, press the fingers into the string, hold the viola, etc.

Intimately tied to the new efficient and easeful way of playing was my mental attitude. I found I could do a new fingering on the fly without missing a beat and play at tempos I wouldn’t be able to dream of if I was consciously micromanaging my fingers in the way I use to. By being mentally present and aware of my primary control with a curious attitude toward the process of playing I could consciously put myself “in the zone.” Thinking of the sounds I wanted to produce in my mind while leaving myself alone (not trying to do the sounds) and letting my body do what it already knew how to do, produced the best results. I’d often be surprised that a bowing or fingering I’d never done before came out, but somehow it was exactly what I had conceptualized sound wise.

If I was determined to get it right the corresponding muscular response was a tightening and pulling in, partly because I was afraid of getting it wrong which invokes the startle pattern (head and limbs pulled into the torso). Even if the result was relatively pleasant sounding, I could feel that I was doing more than I needed or wanted to muscularly to achieve my musical goal and too much playing in this mental state would lead to physical pain.

There is a certain amount of skill one can attain in the realm of control. I’m amazed by what others can do in this realm. I hit the plateau relatively early which I suppose was a blessing in disguise. There was a phase where I got worse before I got better in learning how to give up control of the small things in order to gain more overall control. This was one of the more depressing times in my playing career. I felt like I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and there I was having spent ten years practicing something I hadn’t a clue about.

noviolaThe truth was that I actually did know a lot about playing the viola, but I was too busy getting in my own way to let my voice come through. Ironically I had to forget about the viola to get better at playing it. I would no longer take my viola to Alexander lessons, and while on the training course I didn’t have the time or energy to practice more than an hour here and there, often going a week or two without practicing (I don’t count playing as practicing). However, working on my use kept me feeling warmed up. I never once felt rusty when I’d get my viola out and play.

Now, I’m not saying that I can go and perfectly sight-read a new concerto now. You still have to learn your notes. What I am saying is that there might not be a need to spend so many hours honing the technique of using your hands and body by focusing on them while playing. The best way to improve that aspect of your viola technique may well be without the viola in the picture. Your mind-body are your instrument, the viola technique may just be an illusion.

Understanding the Primary Directions: Which way is up?

upThe primary directions, or preventative orders as Alexander sometimes called them, are deceptively simple and can be painfully misleading at times. For years I would think to myself something like, “Allow the neck to be free to let the head go forward and up to allow the back to lengthen and widen to let the knees go forward and away” without any idea what those words meant. My AT teachers told me to “think” the directions, so I repeated those words to myself with little effect to the point where I wondered if there was any value in thinking the directions. Eventually I started to actively investigate for myself what those words meant and what I was actually doing when I was “thinking the directions.”

What does it mean to direct?

Simply put, directing in the Alexander sense is having an intention for something to happen while simultaneously withholding consent (inhibiting) the immediate (habitual) response that comes up with the idea of the activity. When going well this essentially forces us to learn a new way of doing whatever task we are intending to do as we are saying no to traveling down the old neural pathway and forging a new one.

Directing is more of a mental activity than a practice of manipulating specific parts of the body. Just as a conductor doesn’t leave the podium, pick up a specific instrument and play when he wants a part of the orchestra to follow his direction; consciousness doesn’t need to leave our heads to give a cue to the part of the body we want to direct. An example illustrating the difference could be intending/imagining the tips of the fingers moving away from the wrists and letting what happens happen vs consciously controlling the path of the fingertip and actively doing something. The later is consciously doing your habit, as any movement we can conjure up on the fly is one that has been learned and ingrained. The former is experimenting with something new. Bring an awareness of this distinction as you read on.

Allow the neck to be free

Freeing the neck is an undoing of holding, pushing, and pulling on the neck by the various neck muscles. You can’t do an undoing, so to allow the neck to be free you are gently asking the muscles of the neck, especially those under the back of the skull, to release into length.

Notice any pulling of the crown of your head into your upper back. Notice if you are pulling on the skull with the muscles of the sides of the neck or holding the jaw still. If you can perceive either of these or anything else that seems to be pulling the head off it’s balancing point (located roughly between your ears and behind your eyes), gently ask whatever it is to do less.

To put [allow, wish, etc.] the head forward and up

forward and upThis is perhaps the most confusing of the preventive orders as the word “put” seems to imply that “head forward and up” is a position of the head. Adding: in relation to the neck brings some clarity but still can be misleading because of the temptation to hold the head in a place one has deemed forward and up in relation to the neck.

Defining the forward as an unlocking of the head from the top of the spine is helpful. This often has the side effect of the neck moving back in space and the nose dropping just a bit in relation to the ground. Notice I said, “side effect” not “drop your nose and move your neck back.”


“What’s up?” you might ask. The deep muscles that run along the spine provide a natural upward flow that opposes gravity. These deep muscles are made up of special fibers that are much more resilient in the face of the constant force of gravity than our superficial musculature. The skull was designed to be poised atop the upward flow of the spine. Balancing the head on top of the spine is similar to balancing a ball on top of a column of air. The major difference being that the head can’t completely fall off because we’ve got muscles and ligaments keeping it attached.

When the head leaves the upward flow of the spine two things can happen. The more superficial muscles that are not designed to do the work of the deep spinal muscles kick in to catch and hold the falling skull and/or the weight of the skull pulls on our ligaments and muscles in unnatural ways; either option can seriously bend us out of shape and cause lasting side effects.

Because the natural tendency for the body to organize in opposition to gravity and for the head to move forward and up in relation to the spine, the thing to “do” is to stop pulling the head in directions that take it away from the top of the spine (most often back and down in relation to the spine).

To allow the back to lengthen and widen

What are we talking about when we say back? Is it our superficial back (skin, back of the ribs, spinous processes) or is it deeper and fuller? Clearly defining what we are looking at is very helpful in understanding this direction.

laminectomyLengthening comes from allowing the force of gravity to move through the bodies of the vertebra (front of the spine) so the deep spinal muscles, which are not under conscious control, can react in kind. When we interfere by holding ourselves upright (most people’s conception of sitting or standing up straight) we are shifting the workload from muscles that were designed to support the skeleton for long periods in gravity to muscles that were designed to lift heavy objects or strike a death blow to an animal (activities that require short bursts of great power).

The two most common postural patterns that interfere with the natural up flow of the spine are the slumped and overextended patterns (or some combination of the two). Slumped being (not exclusively) a downward and inward pull on the chest in the front of the torso. Overextended (again not exclusively) being a pushing forward and up through the mid-back. Both habits disrupt the central axis of the body causing alarm signals to be sent throughout the nervous system that bracing is needed to keep one from falling.

The direction [allow the back to lengthen and widen] is meant to undo bracing the ribs and contorting of the spine. Finding gravity can help stop the bracing in the torso. Place a hand firmly on the top of your head, applying gentle downward pressure. Without collapsing in the neck or torso, let that pressure move through the bodies of the vertebra of your spine all of the way through your spine down to your tail. This tells your spine which way is up. Now, without removing your hand, let your ribs move freely with the breath. You are lengthening and widening.

To let the knees go forward and away

Any effective use of the direction [let the knees go forward and away] doesn’t come from pushing the knees forward in space by conscious muscular effort. It’s very helpful to ask, “knees away from what?” The quick answer being: away from the pelvis which is the base of the spine and torso.

Human vs Gorilla legIt is important to understand that our limbs come out of our backs. It’s easier to see in our similar the gorilla (right), but we still have the same basic set-up. Thinking of our gluteus maximus (glutes as they are commonly known) originating from the sides of the sacrum (roughly under the buttocks) and then out from the sacrum and lengthening down the backs and sides of the legs is essential to sending the knees forward and away from the pelvis. Another way of saying knees forward and away is: knees not pulled backward and up into the hip joints.

Opposition & Secondary Directions

The knees are also moving forward and away from the heels. Notice that there is always a two way street with the directions. Head forward/back back, knees forward and away/heels back and down. Without thinking oppositionally there is a tendency for one part to drag another along with a movement.

When you think knees forward and away from heels directed back and down away from your lengthening and widening torso that is directed back and up in relation to the head that’s directed forward and up; you’ve got the whole thing and could go round starting anywhere. Because of the limitations of language, we can’t say or verbally think all of that at once, but we can think the kinesthetic meaning of those words all at once when we have some idea of what they mean. Alexander would say, “All together and one at a time” to that affect.

Surprisingly absent in the primary directions is anything about the arms. Thinking of the arms coming off the back, elbows going away from the back and away from the wrists similarly to the knees away direction for the legs is a good first step. Alexander gave us the directions: fingers lengthening, wrists in, elbows apart to add on to the primary directions when using the hands. It can be helpful to think: shoulders widening and elbows dropping in addition to these.

You can always get more and more subtle, creative, and clear with your directions. You can direct your little toes to lengthen away from the ankle, or your eyelids to soften for example. You can widen the lenses and become more global by thinking: I’ve got time, Do less, I’m going up and letting down. Once you’ve sent a direction let it go. If nothing happens, send another. You wouldn’t hold onto a letter and expect it to get to it’s addressee. Lastly, have fun! The more imaginative, lighthearted, and curious you are in the attitude you bring to the game, the more effective the results will be.

Allow the neck to be free; for the head to go forward and up; for the torso to lengthen and widen; for the knees to go forward and away

Breathing and vocal exercises

thumbI came to the Alexander Technique without many (if any) preconceived notions about how to breathe. The first time I can remember consciously changing my breathing to affect a physical change was after getting a tip from one of the coaches in my middle school gym class. I found that I could slow my heart rate by extending my exhales, which was somewhat helpful in running “the mile” as we not so affectionately called the four laps around the soccer field we would often be forced to endure.

The effectiveness of this technique was most notably proven when I went to have my wisdom teeth removed. I observed that my heart rate was quite high because of my nervousness and when the dental assistant went to check my pulse & blood pressure I was worried that they might not want to do the surgery; so I subsequently began extending my exhales only to get a startled response from the nurse that my blood pressure was surprisingly low. I mentioned to her that I was purposefully lowering my heart rate and when I stopped the exercise, my vitals returned to normal.

The only other influential breathing activity I’d experienced was to coordinate my breathing with my bowing while playing the viola. The general rule was to exhale before starting to play, preferably beginning during the exhale. A different teacher instructed students to inhale on the up bows and exhale on the down bows. The later was a lot to think about and other than insuring that I wasn’t holding my breath I didn’t find the practice particularly helpful. The former often only had an influence on the first few notes or phrase and the results were mixed.

Spending three years “doing nothing” on an Alexander Technique training course made me question the value of breathing exercises. For a long period I poo-pooed them as a whole and thought less of anyone who indulged in them other than variations of the whispered “ah.” I took yoga classes and refused to participate in “yoga breathing.” I saw that the yogis as well as my classmates who had done various breathing and speaking training had a tendency to violently suck in air or gasp for breath when they would demonstrate speaking or breathing the “correct” way. These experiences reinforced my belief that learning “how” to breathe was not really possible. It dawned on me that the thing to “do” was to look at how not to breathe and subsequently how to stop doing those things.

Breathing is governed by the autonomic nervous system. We don’t need to consciously tell our bodies to breathe; which is a damn good thing because when we are asleep, unconscious, or extremely focused on a task we still need oxygen. It can even be annoying to be conscious of breathing. Some cousins of mine use to play a malicious game where they would say, “You are now breathing consciously” and sure enough, it worked. The difficulty in being conscious of the breath’s comings and goings is getting out of the way.

“How do you get out of the way?” you might ask. Some examples of ways we interfere with breathing are: Holding/bracing in the ribs, breathing in when we haven’t fully expelled the stale air, pulling our head & limbs into the breathing container (torso), shortening and contorting our spines (therefore limiting the range of motion in the rib’s facet joints), tightening the jaw and/or facial muscles, sucking in air with the nostrils, “belly breathing,” “chest breathing,” “breathing with the diaphragm” (you can’t directly control your diaphragm so I’m not sure what people are doing when they say this), or pretty much any idea about breathing with a specific part. If we can not do all of that, we are in pretty good shape.

Recently a good friend of mine showed me some breathing exercises designed to improve energy flow through the body. I was skeptical as usual. When he demonstrated, I was horrified by the tension and misuse through-out his body and I was ready to throw away the procedure as another tension creator. I started in on him with a lecture about how useless and harmful what he was doing was. Instead of agreeing, he really let me have it and insisted I try the exercise. I only humored him because I valued his friendship and respected his knowledge and intelligence in other fields tremendously. I figured I would give it a try but with the prerequisite being that I would prioritize my use over getting the exercise “right.” What I found rocked my beliefs around breathing and vocal exercises to the core.

It wasn’t that this particular procedure was the most profound thing I had encountered, instead I realized that just because I was observing misuse is people doing breathing and vocal exercises didn’t mean that the exercises themselves were of no value. I remembered a quote that had bounced around the training course that went something like, “speaking is an athletic activity;” the only difference from what we traditionally view as athletic being the use of different muscle groups, similar to viola playing. When I thought of breathing/vocal exercises as specific activities, not something that I needed to be doing in relation to “normal” breathing I no longer had the associated stigma that I was doing something “wrong.”

I now can see the value of breathing and vocal exercises. The value is similar to that of push-ups or head-stands in that they are challenges to the system. However, there is a real danger of damaging the system if how you are using the vocal mechanisms isn’t your top priority and/or you try to make these exercises your normal. I liken yoga breathing to singing an aria. The major difficulty not being doing the activity itself, but doing the activity and not interfering in any of the ways I mentioned above while doing the activity.

I much prefer being able to isolate breathing and speaking exercises from
normal use as I no longer feel like I need to abstain from such acts. This personal break-through did not weaken my resolve for non-doing, if anything it reinforced my belief that the Alexander technique is a prerequisite to adequately/fully enjoy the benefits of almost any specific activity. The more global awareness I can bring to an activity while striving for minimal physical effort has proven time and time again to enhance everything I do.

I suppose the next step for me is inhibiting the desire to be right to the point that if I see someone doing an activity with misuse: A) not to judge them for doing something “wrong” and B) not to associate the wrongness with them or the activity itself. We humans are capable of doing all kinds of amazing things. My wish is that we can just be a bit more mindful while doing them!

Instructions for the whispered “Ah”

Allow the tongue to rest behind the lower teeth. When you find yourself on an exhale whisper out the vowel “ah” like in the word “father.” Don’t try to extend your exhale by pushing for more than is there. At the end of the exhale close your mouth and let the breath come in through the nostrils without sniffing or sucking in the air. Let the inhale be as reflexive as possible (wait for it). There’s no need to try and tank up on the inhale, let whatever wants to come in come. As you start another round of the activity, think of something funny to bring a smile behind your eyes. Allow the muscles in the cheeks and forehead to relax as you whisper out another “ah.” Continue with this process with an intent for the back of your skull to move away from your upper back. After about 10 cycles, let yourself go back to normal breathing.

The same thing can be done with vocalizing or whispered/voiced counting in sets of 5-10. Try this lying on the floor, sitting, and in upright. Add in the Alexander directions periodically.

Traveling from A to B

bridgeWhen I was a child, I played in the community orchestra in Panama City, FL- The Orchestra of St. Andrew’s Bay. The conductor of the orchestra, Rusty Garner, would occasionally pass down a practice tip as the orchestra was full of local amateurs and children who needed help with the challenging standard repertoire we would regularly perform. One of the things he said stuck with me at the time and little did I know, I’d still be exploring the meaning of what he said to this day.

Rusty had learned this trick while studying bassoon performance at the New England Conservatory and I have never heard it put quite so simply. He asserted that if you are ever having trouble with a difficult musical passage, you can be sure of one thing: The problem(s) lay between the notes. 

In other words: hitting the notes (at the right time, in-tune, appropriate volume, color, articulation, etc.) was not the issue so much as the process of getting there.

Contrast this to many musician’s conception of practicing; the practice of “hitting (or arriving at) the notes.” We tend to trust that our bodies will be able to sort out the rest and if anything goes wrong the answer is to try harder and play the passage or specific note in question over and over again.

The truth is that when we play a note late or out of tune, it’s not because we have bad technique or a bad ear- it’s because we haven’t properly conceptualized and embodied how to get from point A to point B (musically, psycho-physically, & emotionally).

Let’s call getting from note A to note B a “movement phrase.” Then to go from note B to note C is another movement phrase. If note B is a  sour note, there is no need to practice picking B out of the air or going from B to C, as the first problem in need of attention lies between A and B.

At this point, be curious about the process of getting from A to B. How far is it from A to B? Get use to the feeling of moving between the two without being afraid of missing your target. It’s perfectly fine (and probably necessary) to be wrong at this stage. Decide if you want to show the distance (slide) or hide it. Even if you want to hide a shift, don’t jerk your hand from one point to another- let your fingertips lead the whole arm into the movement and enjoy the journey rather than trying to get it overwith as soon as possible.

Just like musical phrases, movement phrases can be very long and complicated; but also can be broken down until you’ve reached the most basic point A to point B and then put back together again. In this way, we can take the most difficult and complicated musical passages and make them as simple as getting from A to B.

Turning a bad situation into a growth opportunity

Calvin-hobbes-32-uppwyd2ye8-1024x768In life we are often presented with situations that are less than ideal. Whether they be work related, interpersonal, or even habits of body and mind, the default response to these difficult circumstances is to “fix” them or to avoid them if at all possible.

It should be fairly obvious that avoiding the situation can not result in personal growth or a change in the situation (unless by accident- which happens rarely). Things may change over time seemingly by themselves, although in reality other factors apart from you are affecting the potential for change. This route leaves the outcome of the situation completely to chance. Depending on the situation, this can work out well or be disastrous (or somewhere in between).

If we attempt to fix the situation by doing something about it directly a few things can happen. Examining the word “fix” provides some insight into this process, so let’s take a look at some possible definitions of the word and how they apply to this idea.

1)To put into a stable or unalterable form.
If we take a bad situation and try to fix it directly, we often end up solidifying the situation; making it more difficult or impossible to change. This is because every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you push on something, it will push back, unless it’s already moving in that direction.

In example: If you need someone to do something they don’t want to do, telling them to do it will likely result in the person digging in their heels; making the goal of getting them to do whatever is required more difficult or just plain impossible. If you force the action/change there will be collateral damage because you are breaking/deforming the structure holding the situation together. In this example you can destroy the relationship between you and the person you’d like to do something.

2)To correct or set right
This at first glance this would appear to be a good thing to do. You see a problem and correct it; no more problem right? Unfortunately it is never this simple. When you change something within a system of balance (we all live in many systems of balance) you are affecting the entire system, not just the thing you changed. Therefore, when you fix one problem in a system another inevitably arises as the problem you fixed was balanced with something else. You can’t remove something without replacing it with something else. Our tendency to repeatedly fall into this trap is exacerbated by two things: faulty perception of what the real problem is, and our next definition of fixing:

3)To direct one’s efforts or attention; concentrate
This definition would again seem to be a good on the surface, however, how we go about directing our attention (concentrating) often leads to too narrow a view, not allowing us to see the entire system we are affecting. We then start fixing 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 done much of anything (except maybe destabilizing the system) if we don’t account for their relation to the whole. I have to continually remind myself of this in working with the Alexander Technique, as it’s completely unhelpful to lengthen one part of the body at the expense of another- something which is almost guaranteed to happen if I do not keep the whole person in front of me in my awareness.

How can I improve/resolve a bad situation if I can’t fix it without collateral damage?

The first step is to turn our attention inward. How can we create the conditions for a change to be possible? The current state of balance (conditions) in the system we are looking at does not allow for the change we perceive is necessary. Be curious about what’s going on in the system. It’s helpful to refrain from thinking about things in terms of good/bad, right/wrong, specific problems/solutions as these types of thinking narrow our focus. If you do narrow in on a “problem” take a wider view of the area surrounding the problem and rather than directly fixing it, ask, “What can I do in myself to encourage the problem to change?”

If someone has a habit of verbally attacking you, you may be tempted to give them a taste of their own medicine or teach them a lesson. This will only result in them digging their heels in or, if enough pressure is applied, they will break and there will be collateral damage- which isn’t of much value either. Ask yourself, “What is their intention? Why might they be treating me this way? What could I have done to cause them to react this way? What do I know about this habit? What can I do to meet their needs without causing a negative reaction? What is likely to happen if I proceed with my planned action?” (This requires taking time before acting and the result is often different than what we expect.) “How can I learn from this?”

In short, don’t jump to fix a problem; open yourself to the possible solutions to make room for a change. This ensures personal growth, regardless of the outcome in the specific situation (and it’s usually the best way to improve a bad situation anyways).

10 Things I need to be reminded of from time to time

1) When I see a wound, not to go sticking my finger in it right away. Give it time to heal before taking off the scab.

2) I’m not special, a genius, or gifted with any supernatural powers and there’s no point in wasting time pretending I am.

3) Spend more time working than complaining, criticizing, and condemning.

4) Instead of going through the motions, it’s better to do nothing if I’m going to be unproductive and save my energy for the real work.

5) Stop relying on outside factors for motivation.

6) Treat people with the respect I would like to receive.

7) I don’t have to react with the same intensity/sentiment that I meet/come up against.

8) Take more time to figure out the process before trying to achieve my goal.

9) Learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the present.

10) Don’t worry about where I am in relation to others, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Perception & Reality: A two-way street

perception-vs-reality “I believe everything, and I believe nothing” – F.M. Alexander

Many of us don’t make a distinction between our perception of the world around us and reality. We assume that what we see is what is there. That is, until someone or something comes along and makes us realize that what we had held as true is actually false.

When I was a child, I once saw Santa’s back one early Christmas morning as he was making his exit out the front door of my family’s Florida apartment (we had no chimney). I went chasing after him but when I looked outside the apartment he wasn’t there. Magic, I thought. All the proof I needed was the load of presents that had appeared under the tree.

Of course my parents had supplied the presents during the night, but I believed in Santa Claus so he was real to me. So real in fact, that I perceived him in my presence with my own eyes. The same thing happens with our perception of ourselves. If I believe that I have bad posture, for example, I will see just that when I look in the mirror – no matter what shape I take.

For years I was a very reactive, angry person. Even after years of Alexander work had changed my state of reactivity immensely, I still believed (and subsequently perceived that) I was very reactive. It was not until someone told me that the sound of my voice was calming and complimented me for having great patience that I began to change my view. I thought she was joking at first because I had always thought of my voice as an agitated extension of my inner state and I certainly had little patience.

While this insight did not completely change my views in an instant or keep me from continuing to work with my reactivity, it poked a large hole in the dam that was my belief system at the time. Before I perceived the change, it wasn’t real (embodied) to me. I then noticed that the more my beliefs about who I was changed, the more I perceived change, and the more easily I actually changed. Who I wanted to be was no longer fighting against who I thought I was.

It is very important to remember that how we see the world has less to do with what is actually there than what we have decided is there. The brain receives some information through the sensory mechanisms, but then must fill in the blanks. This is where our belief systems come into play. If we are Theistic, for example, we will see things through that framework and that is real to us. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans many believed it was an act of god to cleanse the evil that resided there. Whether you believe this — or that the hurricane was caused by a tropical depression — doesn’t matter because either will be real to you if you believe them. They can co-exist.

What Alexander discovered was that poor use of the body was causing what he called “faulty sensory awareness” and “debauched kinestesia.” In other words the information received by his brain from his sensory mechanisms was being disrupted by excess muscle tension and misalignment; causing his perception of what was happening and what he was doing to be inaccurate. The Alexander Technique improves your awareness of reality by removing the blockages of information between brain and sensory organs. In addition, the AT indirectly allows us to observe without judgment, letting our habitual belief system take a vacation by taking us out of our habitual state of being. Without the later step, there is no room for change. F.M. once said that “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.” Similar to what Wilhelm Reich called “character armoring”, our beliefs (another habitual response to stimuli) are literally held in the muscle memory. This is why change is a slow process: the mind makes a decision but the body must be taught to work with the new belief system (or lack thereof).

If we are upright and don’t believe we are, it won’t be part of our reality. If we are unaware that we are constantly slumping and in pain, it won’t be part of our reality. Whatever we believe is real to us. To change our reality we must change our beliefs.

How the desire to do things keeps us from doing them (well)

Keep your shoulders down!

Keep your elbows down! Keep your wrists bent!

Bend your knees! Plant your heels in the ground!

Chest out!

If you were to embody these things without the viola you wouldn’t look or feel very natural, yet when we bring the viola into the picture, these things all make sense to us. Why? Other than pure brainwashing from our teachers, we are always (at least we should be) looking for a beautiful sound; and we will try anything, and I mean anything, to get it. Well, you might ask: Isn’t playing the viola all about the sound and the music? Don’t I need to make a good sound? What’s your point? My point is, when we get caught up in listening to our sound or “making” music, we often forget about the body entirely.

If musicians play a piece and try very hard to “make” a beautiful sound and to “make” or “create” music, what happens? Short answer: Music. Alternatively, if we play a piece and don’t try to “create,” what happens? Is it no longer music? Is it boring? Is it no longer our interpretation if we don’t try to “make it our own?”

Once we bring the bow to the string and begin to play, no matter what we do (or don’t do), it is our individual interpretation. Trying to make it our own becomes redundant; we are already playing, who else could it be? Even if you use your teachers markings for bowings, fingerings, etc., in the end it is you on stage not your teacher.

Your incorporation of the teacher’s musical ideas does not remove your personal stamp. If you mimicked everything your teacher did, it is still filtered through your mind-body, therefore becoming yours. This doesn’t mean discredit the teacher or that a teacher can’t help us find our individual sound (quite the contrary). However, “our sound” is something that, in its purest form, is found, not created.

Our sound in inherent, it is what comes out when we play. When we remove the blockages of energy in the body our pure sound and ideas are free to emerge. A very good example of this is when we play friend’s/colleague’s instruments. I have often gotten the comment, “Your viola doesn’t sound very different than xyz person’s viola.” I sound like me, regardless of the viola and so do you.

So you are saying that I shouldn’t try? That makes no sense. I got where I am in life by trying hard in the things I do. That is why I am successful! If you want to understand this idea you first must examine the word try, and I don’t mean look it up in the dictionary. Ask yourself: what does it mean to try? What motivates you to try? Use it in a sentence as you normally would.

It is incredibly important to understand what words mean to us, not just what some scholar decided they mean, although it’s usually helpful if the definitions line up. For me. to try means: to attempt to do something/do something that I am not sure of/familiar with. i.e.: I’m going to try to play a new concerto, I’m going to try to snowboard, I’m going to try xyz food that I’m not familiar with. Trying implies a journey into the unknown.

Here it is helpful to define learning, again this is my personal definition: learning is moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar and back again, or put another way, letting ourselves become acquainted with the unfamiliar. If you already knew how to perform xyz activity you wouldn’t have to try you would simply skip to doing (just do it). i.e.: I am going to play the Bartok, snowboard, and eat pizza. For learning to occur you must try, however, once you have become familiar with the activity there is less of a/no longer a need to try (experiment).

If you have ever felt a quasi-out-of-body experience while performing, for example: feeling the fingers moving “with a mind of their own,” that was doing without trying (or in Alexander Technique jargon: non-doing). This only happens with pieces we are very familiar with. If you began trying while in this state of “non-doing doing” it would likely result in a train wreck (or train of thought wreck).

When I first had this experience, I was afraid. I watched my fingers and bow moving, I watched the notes go by on the page as if I had entered the piece into a computer; all the time thinking, “God, I hope this keeps going to the end of the movement, I hardly know where I am!” This thing that had taken over didn’t feel like me. Was I possessed by the composer for a brief period? Who was playing? This unfamiliar me was my body. After weeks and months of preparation your body learns the intricate movements, like steps to a dance, of the piece you are playing. It has them memorized. The need for your conscious self to mirco-manage the movements is gone because the music has been embodied.

The body has an innate intelligence which is not under our direct control, however we influence it indirectly through our thoughts constantly. When the body’s intelligence is well organized and not interfered with you can achieve the effortless flow described above. However, when the running commentary in our heads enters into the picture, such as the fear of losing one’s place on the page during a performance in the example above; the possibility of effortless flow of movement and thought can be, and often is, overcome by our fight or flight (startle) response, effectively slamming on the muscular and mental brakes. Most people are unknowingly in a constant variation on the startle pattern (head and limbs pulled into the torso like a turtle going into it’s shell).

One of the reasons for this is that most people’s typical response to want and desire is to create tension by throwing more energy at the problem. I observed a beautiful example of this in a border-collie named Fluffy. If I spoke her name she would be filled with the desire for petting/attention like most animals, including us! She would quiver with energy, her muscles activated by this desire. If you withheld the petting what happend? Her desire for petting became greater until she couldn’t stand it anymore and she left her comfortable position to further insist on attention. In Fluffy’s case this is fine; if you ignored her long enough she would eventually let go of this excess tension by giving up the desire for attention (a form of inhibition).

However, Imagine if Fluffy was unable to eventually give up the desire for attention. Her muscular response would be constant. Most musicians and people in general are in this constant state of want, desire, and tension. Like Fluffy, if the want/desire is not met, the tension becomes greater. Unlike Fluffy, most people lack the ability to let go, and the problems they face are more complex than walking across the room!

Like want and desire, every thought that enters your head has a physical and emotional response. Therefore thought is action, or at the very least thought initiates action. i.e.: you are angry and clench your jaw, you are happy and smile. “I missed the shift” (fill in a typical thought/physical/emotional response you might have here) “I didn’t get the job” (________).

Once you gain the ability to inhibit (pause, say no to your habit, and choose a different option) your physical and emotional responses to stimuli, you can begin to differentiate between real thought and the running commentary in our heads. Essentially, the running commentaries in our heads are habitual mental reactions to stimuli. The stimuli can be internal or external. These reactions are usually deeply interwoven with our belief systems (how we have decided to view the world).

It is important to remember that emotions, and other parts of the body can create thought, albeit sometimes illogical thought; the relationship is not a one-way street. “I’m hungry, sad, angry, in love, in pain, happy, etc.” What we experience as the mind (pre-frontal cortex), body (reptilian brain & nervous system), and emotions (limbic brain) work as a whole, they are literally connected of course, to create our version of reality (perception). For more on this see my post Perception & Reality: A two way street.

Now, think about how badly you want to play beautifully; how badly you want to be a successful musician. Those wants and desires give us the motivation to practice, however, once we have removed the viola from its case, the desire to play the viola (well) becomes worse than useless, it creates excess tension.

The harder you try the more resistance you come against. Newton gave us the gem: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is one of the few absolute truths in our universe. Push against a wall or table, no matter how little or great the force you exert the wall/table pushes back with exactly the same amount of force. Now imagine the amount of force you use to push down on the strings of the viola (left or right side), the harder you press the more resistance; the more energy you use beyond the required amount, the more perceived difficulty there will be in accomplishing whatever musical (or career) goals you set.

This is in stark contrast to most violist’s strategy to just try harder when things aren’t going well. Essentially, you are doing what you have been doing (your habit) with more vigor and expecting a different result. Then the typical response is to get angry or depressed when it’s still not going well. If it’s not going well do less (of your habit), not more; and if that doesn’t work, change your conception of the activity (create a new habit).

The desperate need to succeed in our society has led to some serious crises in learning. Goal orientation can be a major factor. If your goal is to get an orchestra job, you (hopefully) desire that goal, but constantly thinking or worrying about getting or not getting the job is destructive behavior. In Alexander Technique lingo this destructive habit is called end-gaining. Your limited mental resources become consumed by the thought of the end and there is no room left for the means.

Instead think about the process, how are you going to get this job? Then you must do whatever is necessary to achieve the goal (the means whereby in AT jargon) while simultaneously giving up the desire to attain the said goal.This may sound elementary or even bizarre, but the fact of the matter is that most people are so caught up with the end goal that they don’t consider the means whereby to achieve their goals.

Here enters the destructive version of trying, similar to the idea mentioned above that trying to play the viola once you are already playing is redundant and causes excess tension. If you are already doing the things you need to do to attain your goal, there is no longer a need to try. In fact, the harder you try (doing you habit with more mental and physical effort) the more resistance you will come against. This is the universe’s way of saying, “You can’t get there from here.”

I have many life goals and I think about them constantly, but I’m not constantly tense! Faulty perception (aka debauched kinesthesia) enables us to unknowingly carry excess tension. We have an idea in our head (a definition/belief) of what tense is. Similarly we have a idea of what “relaxed” is. The fallacy here is that tense and relaxed are places (static). Relaxed by definition implies no tension. If I had no tension I would literally fall on the ground like wet noodle. “Tense” is ambiguous. Tension comes in various amounts. Some tension is necessary for movement. This is more complex than simple semantics. Redefining what you think you already know gives you a greater understanding of the concepts. You may already be able to draw the conclusion that your perception is faulty from the above; however that is the tiny tip of a massive iceberg.

Chances are that as you were reading you have crept in closer to the text without even noticing. But I wasn’t trying to keep my head back. Okay, try to keep your head back now. Do you feel your neck muscles tighten as you pull your head back? Is it excessive tension or just the amount needed to maintain your head’s (dynamic) “place” in space? If you now stop paying attention to you head/neck/back relationship (AT jargon: Primary Control) you will most likely creep toward the text again and also be completely oblivious to this.

What’s your point, why have you gone off topic? My point is: now that you are aware of the behavior, you are one step closer to the ability to change the habit. In other words, your awareness level, to some degree, has been raised. Okay, so how do I combat the habit of creeping toward the text? Well, fighting the tendency, as I explained earlier, only creates more resistance. Reversing the old adage “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” reveals a more accurate depiction of reality “When the tough get going, the going gets tough.” Instead simply notice what is taking place and breathe. If you feel that your body desires to find a new position; listen to it, consider the process, and simply allow it to move.

So you are saying that I am constantly carrying excess tension and I don’t even know it? Yes, most people carry so much excess tension that they can easily require five to ten times the amount of effort really needed to complete any given activity. How can this be, and how did this happen? Let’s return to the viola as a means to examine this tendency. If your left hand is overly tense, it requires more effort to lift and drop your fingers on the fingerboard. Anyone can and probably has felt this. Tense your hand and try to move your fingers, now let go of that tension and move. Excess tension restricts freedom of movement. Just as we fall into bad habits with viola technique, we also fall into bad habits in the technique of movement (in reality, they are one in the same and it is ridiculous to think otherwise; the viola is an inanimate object after all!).

What lead us into these problems? Apart from end-gaining, linear thinking is another factor that gets us stuck in an endless cycle of trying. Success=good, failure=bad. Shoulder down=good, shoulder up=bad (Shoulder up=tight, down=relaxed) elbow up=good, elbow down=bad (or vice versa). You can fill in good or bad (and other associations) in the blank for any habit this way. The thing to remember is that none of those things are inherently good or bad (and they imply that the body is static which is a fallacy).

We associate good/bad, tight/loose, etc.; in ways that are often not based in reality, but instead are based on our faulty perception of reality. Your shoulder can be down and tight, you can succeed and not learn, are these good? You can fail and learn, is this bad? What are the effects of this type of thinking? Again, complete disregard for the process. No one stops to ask, “Why is xyz good or bad?” or even, “How do I accomplish xyz?” Now trying (in the form of experimentation) is surprisingly absent. Instead, the desire to get it right takes over and trying just becomes mental and muscular efforting.

Remember the linear thought mentioned earlier: shoulder down=good (relaxed), shoulder up=bad (tense)? I use to subscribe to this idea, as many violists do and after/during playing my left shoulder would be down and my right shoulder was a good bit higher. For years I 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 for years. Needless to say I was unsuccessful.

I was brainwashed to think shoulder up=bad, shoulder down=good. So just as in my own playing, when I saw this shoulder up (left or right) in my students, I would address it, telling them, “No, no, you must keep the shoulder down.” It wasn’t until years of Alexander work that I realized what I was actually doing was pulling my left arm and shoulder into my rib cage. This was the grinding bone on bone I felt in the form of constant cracking and popping. Suddenly when I looked in the mirror I saw a lop-sided version of myself I didn’t even recognize; and it wasn’t my right shoulder up, it was my left shoulder down to an extreme.

Now, pause for a moment. I am not suggesting that either shoulder should be up always (also up is different than forward); instead I am suggesting that the shoulders should be free to move where they need to. This is dramatically different than the idea that, “You must keep the shoulders down!” A word of warning, because of the nature of faulty perception you can’t always trust your senses (kinesthetic feelings, vision, hearing). Like many people who suffer from anorexia, my vision was being disrupted by my faulty perception; because of this, you must have a teacher for reference. However, if the teacher suffers from faulty perception also, like in my case, brainwashing can occur. This is why it is of the utmost importance to study with a variety of the best teachers you can.

Brainwashing is such a strong word; it is not as if I were in a cult! Actually, it is. We use the same methods on ourselves that cults (and religion) use to get people into an endless cycle of linear thinking; we trick our brain (perception) into thinking that “Down=good” is an absolute truth. If we believe something is true (absolutely), we are close-minded and will have a very difficult time changing. When we are in this brainwashed state, “down=good” is as universal a truth as Newton’s action/reaction. To escape this thinking, we must re-wire the brain through questioning.

But, if it is true that my perception is faulty, how do I know which teachers to trust? Short answer: raise your awareness of what a good teacher is. Ask yourself: Which teachers have the best students?  Which teachers teach at the best schools? Which teachers are the best players? What do they have in common? What is different? You don’t necessarily have to study with them, and they are not necessarily the best teachers; but using the pinnacles of the viola world as a reference point can be very helpful in finding a good teacher. Take lots of lessons from many different teachers. Ask about the processes of playing the viola. If the teacher can’t explain anything, he/she probably isn’t a good teacher. Form your own opinions by combining the ideas that work for you. Instead of thinking linearly, think dynamically; ponder and pontificate on probable possibilities. Try in the form of experimentation. Always keep an open mind and don’t be so sure of yourself that you are not open to the possibility of being wrong.

But many great performers were/are not known for their teaching ability, does that mean there is nothing to learn from them? Anyone with an inquisitive mind, a keen eye for the body, and a “good ear” will be able to learn something from anyone, and much can be learned from mimicking. However, faulty perception can blur what the teacher is actually doing into what you think they are doing. Because what the teacher is doing is being filtered through your mind and body (through the eyes and ears, into the brain etc.), it stops being what the teacher is doing and becomes your interpretation of what the teacher is doing.

This problem can be further compounded if the teacher doesn’t know (or has faulty perception of) what he/she is actually doing. Think about the times you’ve misunderstood what your teacher was doing. If the teacher is skilled and has an eye for this, she/he first informs you that you have misconstrued the concept and then demonstrates or explains the difference between what he/she is actually doing and what you are doing (raising your awareness of reality).

Conversely, if the teacher has faulty perception she/he is most likely interpreting what you are doing incorrectly. For example, no viola teacher ever told me that I was pulling my left shoulder into my chest. They (I’m assuming) were all caught up in the fallacy down=good, up=bad; it simply is not that simple. We tend to idolize our teachers to the point that they can do/say no wrong (whatever they say is true). This is not the case. They, like us, are human; and no human is perfect. If we forget this, we open ourselves to brainwashing.

How do I stop these tendencies? There are many methods that can help, but the first step is to take an inquisitive stance toward learning (AT lingo: right mental attitude). Stop trying to answer questions you don’t know the answer to with knowledge you already have. Don’t think linearly (cause & effect) think dynamically (many possibilities). Again, learning requires an expedition into the mysterious, so don’t be afraid of the unknown. Don’t pretend you already know the answer if you don’t, you are only cheating yourself out of learning with this behavior. Don’t jump to conclusions, wait for them come to you. Inhibit the desire to be right and don’t be afraid of being wrong. If you don’t understand something, ask how (and then maybe why? [in that order]).

It is interesting that why is the last of the “five W’s of writing” (who, what, when, where, why). Thinking about why often puts us in a state of paralysis, sometimes referred to as the “paralysis of analysis.” Try to use why as a last resort and connect why to how. I am not suggesting that why is useless or unimportant, however it can be very helpful to temporarily forget about why. Asking the question, “Why is my bow path crooked?” is a helpful first step in changing the habit, in that you are now aware of the habit. Essentially you are actually asking, “How can I straighten my bow path? But, once you have begun to perform, in the practice room or the concert hall, thinking, “Why is my bow path crooked?” is a nothing but a distraction.

Taking personal responsibility for what you are doing is an important component. A more useful (and more realistic) version of the question “Why is my bow path crooked?” is “What am doing to make my bow path crooked?” Going back to the five W’s, try asking: Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? When do you want to do it? Where do you want to do it? How are you going to do it? Then, maybe, why do you want to do it? To get the right answers (the answers you are looking for) you must ask the right questions.

Similar to the idea that you must temporarily give up the desire to achieve your goals to better attain them, you must temporarily forget about why you are learning a task while learning that task. The task you are trying to learn (how to play the viola) requires so much concentration that your brain simply doesn’t have enough processing power to think about both the question and the process. Contrary to common belief, playing the viola is no joke.

This is why you only feel the quasi-out-of-body experience when performing well rehearsed music. In this state, there is less interference between the mind and body, energy flows freely through the body, and the running commentary in your head disappears. Some have described a feeling of no longer existing when in this “flow” state. This is why there can be no ego for real music to occur.

Can I gain control of my mind/body’s ability to go in and out this flow state? Short answer: Yes, but indirectly. You can cultivate this state by performance practice. To enter this state of “flow” you must meet certain prerequisites:

1)    You must have the piece well prepared, meaning you have not practiced in mistakes and stops. The old rule of practicing a shift or phrase one-hundred times correctly in a row to have it learned is excessive, but you must hit the notes more often than not if you ever hope to achieve flow. Go slowly enough that you don’t lose the feeling of your head/neck/back relationship (primary control). Think of what feels like a slow tempo and play half that speed. This is how your body learns the fastest. Pay attention (raise your awareness) to what your body is doing (unconsciously) and what you are doing to your body (consciously); give yourself gentle direction(s) (AT lingo: for mental intention/conception without physically trying to do the thought).

2)    Quiet the voice in your head. Practice meditation, the Alexander technique, or anything that works for you. There are many methods and books focused on this topic.

3)    Give up (inhibit) the desire to play well (in-tune, in rhythm, etc.), otherwise you will be filled with the fear of failure (or success). Fear, like want and desire, evokes a strong muscular response, which will restrict your freedom of movement and end or all together inhibit “flow.”

4)    Finally, play for people you care about; nerves are the aspect of flow that we cannot control. I cannot stress the importance of performance practice enough. The time to learn how to go in and out of flow is not during the performance.

Why are these ideas not taught at music schools? Some schools do offer one semester group Alexander class, which is the first baby step in addressing the problem. However, many schools offer nothing in the way of body education. My alma mater, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, only offered a one day a year Feldenkrias and/or AT workshop that was completely arranged by the viola professor and not even funded by the school.

The state of the university education is utterly disgraceful and I am ashamed and appalled by student’s (and teacher’s) general lack of interest in learning as well as the selling Degrees for profit model that most school’s administrations have adopted. I was completely ripped of my inspiration (and propelled into major depression multiple times) by lack of opportunity for learning and excess busy work at one of these so-called “learning institutions.” The idea that you must attend a “learning institution” to learn is ridiculous, elitist, and must be disregarded if we really wish to improve education in our time. It took a year of relative solitude and the Alexander Technique for me to rehabilitate my childlike love for music.

In your opinion, what was the problem? We must remember that school does not give you an education. Leaning is not inherent in the ivory towers of our “learning institutions.”  From my experiences it would appear that music schooling will be especially torturous if your real goal is to learn as opposed to getting a degree or diploma.

Real musician’s music is embodied fully, it does not solely reside inside their heads. There are many incredibly gifted players that are not considered great musicians these days. I think that this is most likely because they approach their instrument in a theoretical, mechanical, and technical way; which is required to gain proficiency on the instrument, but then they get stuck there (in that habit) and approach music making in the same theoretical, mechanical, and technical way. It’s not a science as much as the universities have tried to make it one.

Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, academics (who are mostly failed performers themselves), have infiltrated the music world and spread the plague of forcing years of advanced theory and piano down our throats (to the point that the pure childlike joy of music can be, at least temporarily, lost). Also musical-academics tend to go on to be administers, further deepening the requirement of such courses.

The loss of connection to the body and soul is how “higher” education has become more about a track than real learning. This is why I came to the conclusion that I need “music school” about as much as I need a hole in the head if my real goal is to become a great violist. The worst case where the musical technicians/academics went wrong was compartmentalization. They try to educate your brain solely, rather than taking a holistic approach to educating the body, mind, and soul. This is why you must educate yourself to educate your self.

You talk a lot about being childlike, are you trying to become/make “adult-child prodigies?” While I am not advocating becoming a man-child, yes. If we become childlike we can become like a child prodigy. There is an idea floating around the music world that once you leave your teenage years you either stop learning or learning is significantly slowed. Why do so many musicians (and people in general) experience and believe this? What causes us to lose the ease of learning, a skill that all of us once had, and why is it thought to be a natural process?

When we were children, the mind and body worked in conjunction to learn. Both were completely blank slates when we were babies, and as we learned to walk and talk, instinctively, we educated ourselves wholly. Contrast that with the nearly universally accepted idea that to learn you are solely “feeding your head.” It is when we stop playing with our bodies that learning slows and dies. We are missing an essential part of the puzzle.

Think about when you lost the desire to go outside and play (to experience the pure joy of motion). A life without motion is a life without joy. But I walk/run/go to the gym all the time, surely this doesn’t apply to me. When we stop trying in the form of experimentation and faultily perceive that we know how to use our bodies, we open ourselves to habit. Exactly in the same way, when we stop experimenting on the viola, we stop learning and open ourselves to habit.