The Knee Brain: Connecting Mind & Movement with an 8 year-old

I was a little surprised when Elaine asked me to teach violin to her 8 year-old daughter, Emily. Elaine and I played in a local orchestra together, and while I had just certified as an Alexander Technique teacher and was looking for students, I didn’t think I was truly qualified to teach the violin to an 8 year-old. I had taught the violin before, mostly to college students as part of my assistantship at the University of Illinois. But teaching elementary age children is a skill unto itself. What sequence of pieces would I use? Wheren’t there games that I should learn? Shouldn’t I get Suzuki-certified first? But Elaine reassured me. She could advise me on pieces to assign—she was an experienced teacher, herself. She just thought that her daughter would be more motivated to practice if she wasn’t taking lessons with her mother.

When Emily came for her first lesson, I couldn’t help but notice that she had developed a common habit when standing and holding the violin. Her chin rest was a little low for her, so she jutted her chin forward towards the instrument. She pushed her upper back back and hips forward. She locked her knees back and stood with her feet wide apart. Her pattern was actually pretty similar to my old habit at the violin, though I hadn’t constantly locked my knees.

I couldn’t do anything about her chin rest—there weren’t as many chin rest options then as there are now. I did want to address her habit in standing, but I wasn’t sure how best to proceed. My Alexander training had prepared me to work with adults. I wasn’t sure how to translate it for an 8 year-old. I didn’t think that having an 8 year-old learn Alexander’s directions—“let the neck be free, head to release forward and up, back to lengthen and widen”—was quite developmentally appropriate. After all, when she stood without holding the violin, her neck was already free and her back was lengthening and widening. We just needed to find a way for her to hold the violin without interfering with her poise. Not sure what to do, I reminded myself that Emily had come for violin lessons, not Alexander lessons. So, I concentrated on getting into a rhythm around her violin study.

Emily had started on the violin with her mother and her technique was solid. Her bow hand and arm looked good. Her left hand had a nice shape to it. So I concentrated on working with her on music. When she would launch into a piece, however, her technique would deteriorated rapidly. Her bow hand would turn into what I called the “claw of death.” Her left wrist would push up to the violin neck and fingers smush down on the fingerboard. It was not a pretty picture.

I started to appreciate something said to me by Robin Kearton, another Alexander Technique teacher and violinist in Champaign-Urbana. Over the years, Robin has taught string playing to vast numbers of elementary age children. “The whole challenge of teaching children,” she told me, “Is getting them to inhibit.”

Inhibition is central to the Alexander Technique. It means, simply enough, to stop and think. Inhibition is a crucial skill in habit change: by not responding habitually, you make space for a new experience. I wanted to help Emily inhibit, but I didn’t want to make her stiff or self-conscious. So we played “preparation games.” Emily would sing through the piece beforehand. She would mime the bowing in the air. She would tell me the left hand fingering she would use. And once the piece was clear in her mind, she would play through it, often beautifully. We started joking about engaging her “bow brain” and her “violin brain” before she played.

But her stance at the instrument hadn’t improved. I was stymied by her low chin rest. In the Alexander Technique, we usually start with the freedom of the neck when helping students find their poise. But I couldn’t really help Emily “free her neck” until her chin rest fit her better. So one lesson I decided to start at the opposite end and help her unlock her knees.

When I was at Oberlin and locked my knees performing in studio class, my teacher would sometimes yell, “bend your knees!” from the back of the auditorium. As I’ve learned since, “bend your knees”—like “sit up straight”—isn’t the best advice.

Based on an image in Jennifer Johnson's essential, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body." 

Based on an image in Jennifer Johnson's essential, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body." 

Locking the knees when standing is bad, but bending the knees isn’t any better. It might even be worse: while I can’t claim statistical significance, most all of my students with chronic knee problems have stood with habitually bent knees. Bending the knees constantly when standing can put body weight into the knee cap and patellar ligament, which isn’t made to bear weight constantly. Luckily, there’s a third option: gently unlocked. The thigh bone is supported on top of the tibia, dynamically balanced and ready to move.

In her lesson, Emily and I played a simple knee game. We would bend our knees. We would lock our knees. Then we would find “gently unlocked” in between. Surprisingly, when Emily unlocked her knees, her hips automatically stopped pushing forward and came underneath her. Her back lengthened up and stopped pushing back at the upper spine. While she still had the tendency to push her head forward towards her low chin rest, overall, her stance was dramatically improved.

To her “bow brain” and “violin brain” we added her “knee brain.” She would remember to let her knees remain unlocked as she sang through the music, mimed the bowing and spoke the fingering. When she would play through the piece, not only was her playing better, she started moving more naturally—easily, in sympathy with the music.

Just as with Kyra’s five year-old cello student, I was fortunate that Emily was so young and flexible. With older students, unlocking the knees is still important, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to an automatic improvement across the body. For Emily, unlocking her knees was a master key. But more than that, my experience with her taught me that the real challenge with children is not teaching them the correct posture, but helping them remember their innate poise. Poise is so much more than a position in space: it is presence of mind.