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.”

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.

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.

Observations

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.”

Feelings

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?”

Needs

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”

Requests

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.”

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.

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.