Part 5: Of Chin Rests & Chickens: Progress in my First Alexander Lessons

This is the fifth in a six-part series about my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time.

After I had been studying the Alexander Technique with Carol McCullough for about four months, we decided that if I was going to have any success in applying the Technique to the violin, I would have to increase the height of my violin chin rest. By some miracle, I lived around the corner from Cliff Johnson, who in his retirement from the Minnesota Orchestra had taken to carving custom chin rests.

Cliff's workshop was charmingly low tech. He used a simple plastic contour gauge to copy the shape of your preferred chin rest. He could make the chin rest any height you needed, carving it out of a single block of cherry wood. He would wait to stain it until you were happy with the shape against your jaw, making modifications as needed. He told me about one violinist who struggled to communicate the shape of the chin rest that he wanted, finally cradling his jaw gently with his hand and declaring, “I just want it to feel like this!” After measuring my neck, we settled on a chin rest height of 2 inches—double the height of my current rest—and used the contour of a Morawetz chin rest, I believe, for the top. When he finished the chin rest a week or two later, it bore a small stamp on the underside. It was his 213th chin rest.

At my next Alexander lesson, I came charging in with big plans. I wanted to really Alexanderize my daily violin practice, work with Carol to incorporate "whole body awareness" into my warm-up and scales. I was hot to trot.

Carol listened in bemused silence and then said, “Okay, go ahead and raise your violin.” As I brought the violin up to my shoulder, I pushed my head down towards the instrument, tensing my neck, and may have even clocked my jaw with the impossibly high chin rest. Carol looked at me. “How about we start with that?” she said.

And so began my maddening encounter with what I came to call the dread chicken move.

I wrote yesterday that I had discovered a whole body pattern that was triggered by raising the violin: I pushed my head forward and and rounded my shoulders, while pushing my upper back back as the hips pushed forward. My old chin rest had been too low for my long neck, so it had reinforced this pattern every time I held the violin.

But my new chin rest was made to fit me. It was 2 inches high, for Pete’s sake! Yet the habit remained.

Unlearning the dread chicken move took over my daily practice. Each day I would stand in front of the mirror. I would decide that this time, this time, I would not chicken my head towards the violin when I raised it. And then I would promptly chicken my head towards the violin.

Over and over I practiced. And each time I was defeated by the chicken move. A week in I remember going for a rage walk around Lake of the Isles. I was nearly 24! I had gone to a top conservatory! Why was I learning how to hold the violin as if for the very first time? What had my teachers been thinking? Couldn’t they see that I was tall? Wasn’t the length of my neck a fairly obviously factor in holding the violin? I think I may have even shook my fist at the heavens.

In spite of my self-pity, I kept at it. And it was during this time that I started to really understand Alexander’s principle of non-doing. In my lessons, Carol would remind me: all you have to do is nothing. Don’t worry about doing the correct thing. Not doing your habit is enough.

This was helpful. I had been holding my head in place to keep it from pushing towards the violin. Stiffening was not making things any easier. I had to keep it simple. I would stand in front of the mirror and remind myself: all you have to do is not chicken towards the violin.

I had assumed that through lessons with Carol I would be finding the right way to stand. I started to realize that this was the opposite of the case. My habit had been the one incorrect position. It had made other movement impossible. As I unlearned this pattern, I started to experiment with other possibilities. I had replaced habit with adaptability.

I got better at it. The third week was a turning point. By the end of the week, the chicken move no longer had total power over me.

I was surprised by the feeling of ease and adaptability as I held the instrument. With my head poised on top of my spine, my shoulders didn’t round forward as much. It was easier to find the balance of my hips underneath me and not push them forward. I was less likely to lock my knees and felt more connected to the ground.

I had assumed that through lessons with Carol I would be finding the right way to stand. I started to realize that this was the opposite of the case. My habit had been the one incorrect position. It had made other movement impossible. As I unlearned this pattern, I started to experiment with other possibilities. I had replaced habit with adaptability.

My symptoms of discomfort started to go away. My shoulders and wrists weren’t as tight. The improvements were so gradual that it was only after a few months that I started to realized that my old fears of injury were dissipating.

It’s funny, in my current Alexander teaching practice, I often help violinists and violists with their chin rest set up. I will describe my habit at the instrument and how for the three weeks I struggled to raise my violin without chickening my head towards the instrument. Their eyes will often widen in horror, as if their thinking: three weeks! You mean I won’t be comfortable for three weeks?!?

I’ve now been playing the violin for thirty years. In the grand scheme of things, those three weeks were remarkably short. I remember the frustration. But I also remember the excitement. It was the beginning of the beginning. It set me up for life.

Next: Remembering Carolin which I discover the secret to a big sound on the violin, decide to train as an Alexander teacher, and honor Carol’s memory.