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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).