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.

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.

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.