Meet Your Startle Response

I first started studying the Alexander Technique the year after I graduated from Oberlin. I was living in Minneapolis, studying violin with Jorja Fleezanis and taking Alexander lessons twice a week with Carol McCullough. In my early Alexander lessons, Carol was teaching me to “free my neck,” to find the delicate balance of my head on top of my spine. She suggested that a free neck was essential to experiencing ease and coordination of my whole body. I was skeptical. A free neck was pleasant enough, but as a musician, I was pretty concerned about my hands and arms. What did the neck have to do with all of that?

Then one day I was driving over to Jorja’s house for a violin lesson. As I was exiting the highway, I was nearly sideswiped by a car getting on. I had to swerve out of his way—we barely missed each other at 60 miles an hour. As I rounded the exit ramp and joined slower-moving traffic, I noticed my head was jammed back into my neck and my shoulders were up by my ears. Oh! I thought. Neck tension! When I got to my lesson it took me a few minutes to relax enough to play. I used what Carol had taught me: I freed up my neck at the nodding joint, found an easy length up my spine, and relaxed my shoulders. It helped me settle down.

Meet Your Startle Response:

What I had experienced that day in the car is the startle response. Many of us have heard of the fight-or-flight response: it’s the burst of adrenalin that sends the heart racing, increases our breathing, and makes our palms sweaty. In that moment of alarm, there is also a tensing of the entire musculature. Frank Pierce Jones, an Alexander Technique teacher and professor of experimental psychology, first described the startle response in his research in the 1960’s.

The pattern of startle is remarkably regular. It begins with an eye-blink; the head is thrust forward; the shoulders are raised and the arms stiffened; abdominal muscles shorten; breathing stops and the knees are flexed. The pattern permits minor variations but its primary features are the same.

The startle response is very fast. As Jones goes on to say:

It is difficult to observe and more difficult to control. Its chief interest here lies in the fact that it is a model of other, slower response patterns: fear, anxiety, fatigue, and pain all show postural changes from the norm which are similar to those that are seen in startle.

A full blown startle response—as when you narrowly avoid a car accident—is almost impossible to control. There is one case study that showed a buddhist monk with decades of experience meditating could suppress his startle response to a gun shot while meditating. Musicians rarely experience as dramatic a stimulus as a gun shot while rehearsing or performing, but they will experience a slower version of startle often. It may seem paradoxical, but knowing about your own startle response can be a crucial tool in cultivating greater freedom and ease in your music-making.

Startle In the Practice Room:

The startle response is especially helpful in the practice room. When you are overwhelmed by the technical demands of a piece, it can be hard to figure out what is causing the tension. Assuming that the piece isn’t completely beyond you, it’s often the case that there are one or two moments that are causing the problem, but they are masked by a general feeling of difficulty.

I was nearly sideswiped by a car getting on the highway. I had to swerve out of his way—we barely missed each other at 60 miles an hour. As I rounded the exit ramp and joined slower-moving traffic, I noticed my head was jammed back into my neck and my shoulders were up by my ears. Oh! I thought. Neck tension!

Yesterday I wrote about practicing at the speed of thought. Try this approach first: before beginning to play, think through the passage in your head. By imagining the passage completely before you begin, you are less likely to be surprised by its hurdles and therefore less likely to go into startle.

If you still tense up and can’t identify the reason, you can video yourself—many phones now even video in slow-motion, which is especially helpful. Try the following: set up your phone/camera and before hitting record, think through the passage. Press record and play through the passage uninterrupted.

When you play back the video, look for the moment when you start to tense up. Use the list that Frank Pierce Jones provides: Do your eyes tense—either blinking or bugging out like deer in the headlights? Does your head brace and neck tense? Do your shoulders lift? It's going to be subtle. When you identify the moment of startle, look at what is happening in the music in that moment. Is it a leap? A tricky fingering or string crossing? A difficult rhythm? A dramatic dynamic change?

When you have identified the problem, practice it in the way you know best—though a good bet would be to practice it slowly. As you work on the technical challenge, cultivate ease: soften your eyes (rather than staring unblinkingly at the music), release at the head-neck joint and shoulders and think of an easy length along your spine. Remember to allow your breath to flow uninterrupted. With time and attention, you may find that you are detoxifying the passage. When you meet the challenging moment, you’ve rehearsed a sense of ease and can greet it with the energy of the musical moment, not with the tension of what could go wrong.

Startle On Stage:

Speaking of what could go wrong, when I was a student, I was often perplexed by why some performances would go off the rails. I would make a mistake and then things would get worse and worse.

None of us are perfect. Mistakes are inevitable in performance, whether by our own error or others in our ensembles. When mistakes happen, we are likely to go into startle. As a student, I even remember amplifying the moment by grimacing, as if trying to show my teacher or studio-mates that I knew I'd made a mistake! If we don't release out of startle, we will stay tight, making it more and more likely for more mistakes to happen. 

Just after that moment of startle, we can notice the pattern, and without breaking the flow of the music, remind ourselves to soften the eyes, free up at the neck, lengthen along the spine, relax the shoulders, release the belly and breathe. This seems like a long list to think while playing music, but it’s all one state change: from startled to released again. It's a practical way to let our mistakes go.

We’re used to thinking that negative emotions should be avoided. But since it’s difficult to control the startle response—after all, you would have to guarantee that nothing unexpected ever happened to you—it’s better to embrace it. The startle response is a wonderful teacher. By showing us how we tense up, the startle response points the way to greater freedom and ease.