This is the sixth in a six-part series about my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time.
For the last week I’ve been writing about my earliest experiences studying the Alexander Technique with Carol McCullough. Yesterday, I wrote about my most frustrating period, when I confronted my most persistent habits around holding the violin. The work was in a sense tediously remedial—after all, I’d last thought about how I held the violin when I was nine! I might not have persisted if Carol hadn’t lit a beacon for me.
It was at the end of a lesson in my first couple months of studying with her. I was standing and holding the instrument. Carol had asked me to leave my head off the chin rest, just to balance the violin between my collar bone and left hand. Then she asked me to bow an open string. She stood behind me and with her hands made a few deft adjustments to how I was standing. At the time, I had no idea what she had done. All I knew was that the most resonant, rich sound emerged from my violin.
I was stunned. I had worked in my violin lessons at Oberlin for years to produce a big sound. This seemed just as big, but with half the effort.
The experience kept me motivated. Throughout the frustration of changing my habits around holding the violin, I was determined that I would eventually be able to find that sound on my own.
I studied with Carol for almost a year-and-a-half. Carol was happy to lend me any book off her her shelf, and I devoured anything written about the Technique. Carol had trained as a teacher with Joan and Alex Murray, and she introduced me to the Dart Procedures—developed by the Murray’s in collaboration with the neuroanatomist, Raymond Dart—that explored connections between developmental movement patterns and the Alexander Technique.
Over time I came to know her family: her husband, Brian—also an Alexander teacher and musician (he’s a trombonist)—and her kids, Ben (5) and Gwen (2). Gwen was often an unwitting teaching aid. It’s a common idea in the Alexander Technique that our coordination is innate and we lose our inherent poise as we age. It’s one thing to be told that children are a model of good use, but another thing to see it in action. At the end of one lessons, Carol demonstrated the counter-balance of the head and hips as Gwen perched, alert and interested in her arms. Carol gently tipped Gwen forward and then brought her back to neutral: her head maintaining its alert balance the entire time. It reinforced her main point: you don’t have to add anything to your coordination. If you unlearn your habits, there is an innate organization you can rely on.
Gwen could clarify instructions that were quite subtle. For example, Carol would sometimes use the direction “up and away from the hands” to describe the contact of your hands with an object. One day Gwen toddled into her teaching room while I was sitting in the chair and placed a hand on my knee. The contact was solid and yet gentle. “That’s up and away from the hands,” Carol said.
Our work at the violin deepened. She introduced me to the string pedagogy of Paul Rolland. She had written her DMA dissertation connecting principles of the Alexander Technique and Rolland’s major work, The Teaching of Action in String Playing. You can read excerpts of it here.
She helped me understand how she had helped me produce that resonant sound from my violin. As any string player knows, we increase volume by increasing bow speed and pressure across the string. I spent a lot of time in my lessons at Oberlin using “arm weight” to produce a big core sound, the kind of sound that could be heard over an orchestra when playing one of the great violin concertos.
Carol pointed out that the pressure of the bow down on the string has to be matched by an upthrust from the violin. Otherwise the pressure of the bow will tend to push the violin down towards the floor, away from the weight of the bow. The downward pressure of the bow needs to be met by a supporting thrust up from the instrument. But how to produce that support up?
Carol showed how my habit of holding the violin had undermined this support. I would push my hips forward, hollowing out my lower back and taking support away from the violin—like slipping on a banana peel in slow motion. In lessons, she would show me over and over how if I didn’t go into my habit, if I had my back back and hips underneath me, then a line of support ran from the ground, through my hips and back, to the collar-bone, supporting the violin. The sound that emerged was resonant and rich, and required less weight from my arm.
During this entire time, I continued to study violin privately with Jorja Fleezanis. Anyone who has worked with Jorja knows that she performs and teaches from a place of intense musical expression. She was constantly pushing me to reach deeper, find more authentic expression in the music I was preparing with her. It was both inspiring and at times overwhelming. In these moments, Carol provided an ideal counterweight. Jorja would insist on the most transcendent musical end, and Carol would help me find the means to reach it without tying myself in knots. I’ve sometimes thought that this is the ideal teaching combination for an aspiring performing artist—a music teacher who holds out expectations of complete expressive commitment and an Alexander teacher to help find the sustainable means.
As I reached the end of my second year in Minneapolis, I started to think about going back to school. Carol encouraged me to consider training as an Alexander teacher. She recommended that I visit Joan and Alex Murray’s training course in Champaign-Urbana. I could train as a teacher and get my masters in the School of Music at the University of Illinois. My visit to Urbana was odd. I visited the Murray’s course on a Friday, when half the class was assisting in Rebecca Nettl-Fiol’s Alexander for Dance class. I couldn’t quite gauge the feeling in the room. I had a private lesson with Joan and enjoyed it—and then gave a surprisingly calm and collected audition at the University—but didn’t really make a connection between the two. I came back to Minneapolis and expressed my doubts to Carol. I wasn’t really sure whether this was for me. She shared how positive her experience was and then grew as emphatic as I’d ever seen her: “This is something you have to do. You have to train. You have to train!”
I trusted her. I was accepted at the University and the Murray’s welcomed me with open arms. I moved to Urbana.
A few months into my first fall in Urbana, we learned that Carol had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had been having difficulties with her balance and was sometimes having trouble finding her words. She went to her doctor, and very shortly after the tumor was discovered, went into surgery to have it removed.
It was hard to stay current on her progress from Urbana. I was so absorbed in my new life. She had been right: I was loving my training. It felt like such a privilege to be working with the Murrays.
Carol and Brian came to visit the training course sometime that year. We went out for lunch. She joked about being a “fat head”—apparently fat from elsewhere in the body is used to cover the scalp where a tumor has been removed. She and Brian spoke about their mixed feelings about her medical treatment. Her surgery had been very successful—her symptoms had been almost instantly alleviated. But the radiation threatened to affect her motor coordination, and she was concerned about how it would affect her ability play the viola and teach down the road.
It was the last time that I would see her. I’m ashamed now by how little I remember of her last year. I remember her getting better, and then things getting much worse. She passed away in September, 2003, a few months after I had certified as an Alexander teacher. She was 46. Brian asked me to return to Minneapolis to speak at her memorial service.
I think about Carol often. She had an enormous influence over my life as a violinist. And she was a model for the kind of Alexander Technique teacher I want to be: engaged and persistent and curious. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to be her colleague. And I often think of that moment in her teaching room in the first few months of lessons, when she showed me how to unlock that resonant sound from my instrument: the two of us standing there, the instrument, the room, all of us, ringing.