Posts in Alexander & Violin
Chair Follies & Sondheim's Follies

I picked up my music last week for Newsies, a touring Broadway show that’s coming to Chicago to start a month long run on December 10th. It got me thinking about the first show that I played in town three years ago: Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It nearly killed me.

I’d been freelancing in Chicago for seven years when I got called to play Follies. The life of a freelance musician can be very feast or famine, so the prospect of solid work for six weeks was exciting. When I say it’s solid work, I actually mean it’s a lot of work: eight to nine shows a week, with only Mondays off. That means double performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays, sometimes Sundays. I knew I was going to be tired, but I was pretty confident that my Alexander training had given me the know-how to get through all the performances intact and healthy.

The first couple of band rehearsals went well. When we joined the cast for the sitzprobe we were on stage for the first time. Follies tells the story of a reunion of old theater performers, and the director Gary Griffin had decided to put the musicians on stage with the actors, so that we seemed like the reunion band. Space was pretty tight: the band was terraced up the back of the stage. I was down on the lowest terrace between Ben on harp and Jill on cello. There wasn’t a lot of space between my music stand and my chair. I had to sit back in the chair in order not to be straddling the music stand with my legs.

It wasn’t a great chair. It was sturdy enough, but the seat sloped backward. That wasn’t ideal—it’s hard to be poised on your sit bones if your chair slopes back. The chair was a little low for me and the cushion, though firm, was thick: my butt sank into it so that my hips were below my knees. The worst part, though, was the back, which was on a spring hinge, and would lean further back if you put your weight on the back of the chair. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t rest against the back of the chair without going into recliner mode. But I was an Alexander teacher—I knew how to sit in a chair. Didn’t Alexander himself say something like (and I’m paraphrasing), “We educate people, not furniture.” Plus, this was my first show. I didn’t want to be that guy, complaining about his chair.

We had a dress rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon and then our first preview performance Tuesday night. Afterwards, my back was pretty achy. The next day we had two previews and after the second show I was in bad shape. My back did not feel good. I limped back to my car, feeling old.

I knew that I was probably playing a little tight—it was my first show, after all. But I wasn’t particularly nervous or stressed out. Yet by the end of the Thursday show, my back was hurting like it had never hurt before, a dull ache that wouldn’t quit. I had a friend visiting from out of town, and after the show all I could do was lie on the floor on my back and wonder how it could possibly be so bad. I was not being a good host.

It wasn’t just my back that hurt. My ego was taking a bruising, too. I was an Alexander teacher. I’d been studying the Technique for 12 years. I had been a certified teacher for 8 years. As a teacher, I had helped students overcome back pain. And here I was, three performances into my first run of a show and my back hurt so much I couldn’t stand. I was a fraud.

I did everything I knew how to do. When I practiced during the next day, I stood up to stay mobile. I did lots of lie-downs. I was going to keep it together. But three quarters of the way through the next show, my back was hurting so much it felt like it was going to give out. Halfway through Losing My Mind, I was thinking, “I’m going to lose MY mind if my back hurts like this for the next six weeks.”

Like I said the chair was cushioned, but the front lip of the chair had a metal bar running underneath the cushion. In desperation, I sat up on the front of chair, so close to my music stand that I was in danger of knocking it over with each down bow. But as soon as my butt touched the solid support of the chair’s edge, I felt this connection shoot up my spine from my sit bones to my head. The relief to my back was instantaneous.

The Stefan chair: nothing special, but it gets the job done.

I also looked a little ridiculous. For the rest of the show, I played sitting on the lip of the chair, looking like I was about to embrace the music stand. After the show I went to Bruce, the Stage Crew Supervisor, and told him I needed to swap out my chair. There weren’t any other options at the theater, so I brought one of my simple black Stefan chairs from home. As tired as I got as the run went on, my back didn’t hurt again. The run turned out to be an amazing experience. I made some of the closest friendships I’ve made in Chicago. And we had the unexpected excitement of performing for Stephen Sondheim himself at one of our final performances.

As an Alexander teacher, I prided myself on my ability to sit in any chair. But my experience with Follies showed me that there are certain circumstances where I don’t want to have to fight my furniture while doing my job. Playing a show eight times a week is tiring enough without having to compensate for a terrible chair.

I’ve now played three shows at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and have a new way of setting up my station. By stacking two of the theater’s chairs, you get extra-height, the seat becomes level, and the back doesn’t push back as much when you lean against it. Tape the legs together and the chair is secure for the rest of the run. It’s even better than my Stefan chair. I don’t know what chair will greet me when I get to the Oriental Theater for the first rehearsal of Newsies in little over a week. But I’m no longer worried about being that guy. If they don’t have a chair that will work for me, I’m happy to bring my own.

Bottom the Weaver and Weaver's Bottom: Markers of Occupation

When I first moved to Chicago, a flutist friend told me about visiting the chiropractor and seeing an x-ray of her back. Though she had left her flute at home, she was shocked to see that the twist of how she held her flute was visible in the structure of her spine. Tom Myers, the Rolfer and author of Anatomy Trains, writes,

Musicians the world over are among those who deal in intense concentration around an object which cannot change shape. The tendency for the body to shape itself around the solid instrument is very strong in all types of music. So strong in fact, that, during a time when I enjoyed a vogue among London’s orchestral musicians, I could often accurately anticipate the player’s instrument before being told, just on the basis of body posture. The accommodation to the flute, or violin (or guitar or saxophone) was so clear that the instrument could almost be ’seen’ still shaping the body, even when it was in its case.

Musicians aren’t the only ones altered by their vocation. A while ago I read Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost, about a forensic anthropologist searching for the remains of victims of the Sri Lankan civil war in the 1980s. In the novel, Ondaatje’s fictional heroine, Anil Tissera, received her education in the United States from a real-life forensic anthropologist, Lawrence Angel. Ondaatje describes what I assume to be true stories about Angel:

Anil had worked with teachers who could take a seven-hundred-year-old skeleton and discover through evidence of physical stress or trauma in those bones what the person’s profession had been. Lawrence Angel, her mentor at the Smithsonian, could, from just the curvature of a spine to the right, recognize a stonemason from Pisa, and from thumb fractures among dead Texans tell that they had spent long evenings gripping the saddle on mechanical barroom bulls. Kenneth Kennedy at Cornell University remembered Angel identifying a trumpet player from the scattered remains in a bus crash. And Kennedy himself, studying a first-millennium mummy of Thebes, discovered marked lines on the flexor ligaments of the phalanges and theorized the man was a scribe, the marks attributed to his constantly holding a stylus.

Ramazzini in his treatise on the diseases of tradesmen had begun it all, talking of metal poisoning among painters. Later the Englishman Thackrah spoke of pelvic deformations among weavers who sat for hours at their looms...

These were the markers of occupation.

Kennedy speculated that “Weaver’s Bottom” gave us Nick Bottom, the Weaver, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—turned into an ass by Puck. Weaver’s bottom is still a diagnosis, called ischial bursitis.

Our careers shape us slowly. An act is repeated and becomes a habit. With enough time, habit affects our health.

We know this. And many of us exercise to combat the sedentariness of our work. But work tends to stay with us during our workouts. I often see runners jog past my studio window. It’s pretty easy to see which runners work at a computer all day. You can still see the office slump: head forward, shoulders rounded, arms up towards the computer that isn’t there. This is not to say that exercise doesn't have many wonderful health benefits. But if, for example, someone has neck or shoulder pain exacerbated by sitting at work all day, they will get limited relief if they unwittingly stay rounded forward on their run.

It can be startling to discover that the contours of an activity have stayed with us, hours after we’ve moved on to something else. And it takes time to reverse the pattern.

I started studying the Alexander Technique right after graduating from conservatory as a violinist. The violin is held on the left, and as I became more aware of my habits at the violin, I began to realize just how much of my life was spent looking to the left. When parallel parking, I would look over my shoulder to the left. When swimming the front crawl, I would breathe only to the left. I would wait for the train—which would be arriving from my right—facing the left. And I fell asleep on my stomach facing left with my left arm raised. It was as if in my sleep, I would still be practicing the violin.

One night I decided to change and lay down on my stomach turned to the right. You would think that this would be a simple matter, but I felt like the mattress itself was pushing up towards me, straining my head to the right. After a minute or so, I gave up and turned back to the left and fell asleep.

But each night I tried again. And each night facing the right became more and more familiar, less and less of a strain. Eventually, it became so comfortable that I began to prefer facing the right. It was a small thing, but a welcome change. Now I know that if I’ve been rehearsing all day or performing at night, I can go home and in at least one little way, undo a mark of being a violinist while I sleep.





 

 

 

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.


 

Tower of Power: Alexander, The Teaching of Action in String Playing, and the Limits of Good Advice

Carol McCullough, my first Alexander Technique teacher, was also a violist. She wrote her DMA thesis on connections between Paul Rolland’s The Teaching of Action in String Playing and the Alexander Technique. It’s a great resource for musicians interested in how the Alexander Technique can be applied to instrumental technique. You can read excerpts from her thesis on Marion Goldberg’s website, The Alexander Technique: The Insider’s Guide.

I wrote recently about a significant moment in my lessons with Carol, when she showed me how the organization of my back was a crucial factor in producing a large sound on the violin. My habits at the violin involved pushing my hips and lower back forward, which took away support from the violin. I describe it as slipping on a banana peel in slow motion. Carol helped me bring my hips underneath me and my “back back,” creating a line of support up from the ground to the instrument. With that support, I discovered that I could produce a fuller sound with less effort.

For those interested in the nitty gritty, here’s the excerpt from Carol’s thesis where she explains the relationship between the support of the back and a large sound.

All string players are taught to increase the amount of weight going into the string through the bow to make a larger sound. However, there must be a corresponding increase in the resistance of the violin to the increase in weight or pressure. If there is not sufficient support of the instrument, as in the case with many players, the increase of weight through the bow will actually force the violin downward. The violin is then moving in the same direction as the bow, thereby eliminating any possibility of resistance… This is analogous to trying to saw a piece of wood while the wood itself is moving in the same direction as the saw, rather than being firmly supported and stationary.

Many players may instinctively increase the support of the instrument as they increase the weight through the bow. This is often accomplished by clamping down on the chin rest with the head, causing over-tensing of the neck muscles; drawing up of the left shoulder, requiring relatively vast amounts of energy; or using the left arm as a rigid support beam, thereby impeding the left arm movements necessary to playing the violin or viola. A given player may exhibit a combination of any or all of these tendencies. A lucky few will accomplish the necessary increase of instrument support in response to increase of bow resistance through the use of leverage in the largest muscles of their body, those of the back.

Here is where being able to direct a lengthening of the back and torso can be of great assistance. As the body lengthens and widens, the upward thrust of the hold of the violin increases the antagonistic action of the bow to the string. The player must make the necessary adjustments as the bow reacts to the increase in antagonistic action. He is not only trying to increase the amount of weight on the string with the bow, however, he is also increasing the resistance of the string to the bow. Instead of trying to accomplish a larger sound through the increase of weight on the string (which chokes the upper partials), the increase in sound is achieved through resistance between the bow and string… Thus the action of producing a large sound is accomplished with the largest muscle groups of the body possible, those of the back, as well as with the least amount of perceived effort. Correspondingly, less sound can be achieved by lessening of the upward thrust of the player’s body.

This upward thrust, combined with the downward pull of gravity on the bow, is the vertical form of the bi-lateral motion advocated by Paul Rolland. Rolland believed that bilateral movement (in which the bow is moving in the opposite direction of the body) is an essential element of string playing. Perhaps the upward thrust of the player combined with the downward pull of gravity with the bow could be termed “bi-vertical.” In essence however, this phenomenon of movements in opposite directions is a three-dimensional entity. The spiraling mechanism of the human structure, explored in the next section, facilitates bi-lateral movement (movement in opposite directions) in both the vertical and horizontal planes.

The next passage discusses how Rolland’s “bi-lateral movement” can be enriched by understanding the “double-spiral arrangement of the human muscular system.” You can continue reading here.

Carol’s thesis gives us one example of how string technique can be put in a whole body context. Alexander teachers often tell musicians that they need to expand their understanding of technique—say right and left hand technique in violin playing—to include the whole body. Yet most of the musicians I’ve worked with know that their instrumental technique involves the whole body. For example, the first teacher to tell me that the power for my sound comes from my back was my violin professor at Oberlin, Greg Fulkerson. And yet it took Alexander lessons with Carol to make this concept a reality. Why didn’t Fulkerson’s advice help me when I was at Oberlin (with the caveat that I was a squirrelly, easily-distracted undergrad)? I think there are at least two reasons.

The first, I think, is that the advice—”your power comes from your back”—wasn’t proceduralized. For example, the main way I learned to produce a big sound when I was studying with Fulkerson was a straight bow (for a consistent sounding point), bow speed, and arm weight. Fulkerson had a bow arm class for his new students which met every day for the first week we were in his studio. We practiced the “reverse crescent” approach to pulling a straight bow at various speeds. And we practiced arm weight. First: arm weight at the frog, at the middle, and at the tip. Then: arm weight through the length of detaché whole bows. The class culminated in a “bow arm exam” in front of the whole studio in which we demonstrated these fundamental techniques. My description probably makes this sound like torture, but I loved it. I thought: Now I’m cooking with gas!

Alexander teachers often tell musicians that they need to expand their understanding of technique to include the whole body. Yet most of the musicians I’ve worked with know that their instrumental technique involves the whole body. For example, the first teacher to tell me that the power for my sound comes from my back was my violin professor at Oberlin. And yet it took Alexander lessons to make this concept a reality. Why?

In contrast, when Fulkerson told me that my power came from my back, it was in passing. If I remember correctly, we were talking after a lesson about insights into my coordination that I’d learned in my contact improv class (because: Oberlin) and he was telling me what he had learned from studying a martial art (Tae kwon do? Aikido? I don’t remember). His insight was not followed by a course of study.

When I brought my violin to my Alexander Technique lessons with Carol, we spent a great deal of time clarifying what was meant by “your power comes from your back.” As I described earlier, this sometimes meant she adjusted my stance as I was playing. But she also used classic Alexander procedures—”hands-on-back-of chair” was particularly important—to show me how to find the most advantageous relationship between my back and my arms. And just as learning a straight bow and arm weight took time, I learned to find the power in my back over the course of several months. This coordination didn’t replace what I had learned at Oberlin—sounding point, bow speed and bow pressure continue to be the most direct ways of affecting my tone—it supplemented and enriched my understanding of how to get a big sound.

The second reason Fulkerson’s advice didn’t help me was that it was generic, not specific to me and my habits. My habit at the violin was to push my head forward, round my shoulders, push my upper back back and hips forward. Many violinists and violists share elements of this pattern with me, but just as many don’t. Imagine a violinist who studied ballet for six years as as child. She habitually stands with a lifted chest and a hyper-extended back. Her path to finding the power in her back is going to be quite different from my path to finding the power in my back.

All of which is to say that finding the whole body context for the teaching and learning of instrumental technique is more of a practical problem than a conceptual one. A great deal of modern string teaching is wonderfully effective and creative. My bow arm class with Fulkerson at Oberlin was an example of instrumental technique teaching at its best. But when it comes to including the whole body, I’ve heard plenty of advice from musicians and teachers that is generic—like “be your tallest self,” “breath into your belly,” “bend your knees”—and doesn’t take into account the students’ existing habits and the process needed for changing them.

I was fortunate to find an Alexander teacher who had a deep knowledge of string playing. How to integrate this kind of knowledge in the teaching of musicians is an important question, probably with multiple possible answers. I think it’s worth tackling, since the benefits to musicians (and their teachers) are manifold, both in reducing the risk of injury, increasing technical ease, and perhaps most importantly, letting music teachers and students get down to the business of making music.


My First Alexander Lessons: a Six-Part Series

Last week I wrote a series of posts describing my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time with Carol McCullough some fifteen years ago. The posts are listed in reverse order on my blog roll. So for clarity and convenience, I’m listing them here in the order in which they were written.

Part 1: A Problem with Painin which fear of injury and the advice from a trusted teacher sends me to my first Alexander lesson.

Part 2: Off the Mapin which I discover that I have no idea where I am in a pretty fundamental way.

Part 3: Everything I Need to Know about the Alexander Technique, I Learned from my Catin which Carol shows me chair and table work and my cat teaches me about habit.

Part 4: When Violins Attackin which my illusions about my heroic poise at the violin are exposed and I discover the tension I’ve conditioned into my playing.

Part 5: Of Chin Rests & Chickensin which I get a much higher chin rest and start to make progress in my Alexander lessons.

Part 6: 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.

Part 6: Remembering Carol

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.

...she asked me to simply 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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Part 4: When Violins Attack: Confronting Habit in my First Alexander Lessons

I stood in the heroic mode of the great violinists. Or did I?

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

I jumped right into my Alexander lessons with Carol, coming twice a week in the beginning. As I mentioned yesterday, for the first two months or so, my lessons involved mostly classic Alexander procedures: chair and table work. As these lessons progressed, I started to notice my habits in these simple movements. I was becoming more aware: I remembered to check in with myself more often outside of lessons, and I would use a mirror, comparing what I felt I was doing with what I was actually doing.

As enjoyable as these early lessons were, I wasn’t very emotionally invested in sitting or standing. I was benefiting from what I was learning and enjoying the experience of moving in an unhabitual and easier way. But it was only when Carol suggested I bring my violin to my lessons that the sheer force of my habits came home to me. The violin was where all my aspirations and neuroticisms were tangled together.

My first lesson with my violin started as the others had with traditional chair and table work. After my table turn, Carol had me sit in a chair (a normal dining room chair with a flat wooden seat) while she went over to my case to take out my violin. When she brought it to me, she told me that she was going to hand it to me but she didn’t want me to raise it up to my shoulder just yet.

There is a wonderful feeling of lightness after a table turn, a heightened sense of your body. I was enjoying that feeling of poise when an odd thing happened. Carol handed me the violin and as I took it with my left hand, I felt my upper back jerk back involuntarily.

We looked at each other. I was puzzled. “Let’s do that again,” Carol said and took back the violin. She gave me a little bit more instruction: “Let me hand the violin to you,” she said, “and this time see if you can just leave yourself alone.”

She handed me the violin again and again my back jerked back. The movement was small, but quite distinct. It didn’t seem particularly healthy.

Again she took the violin away and handed it to me. Again I tried to leave myself alone and yet my back jerked back. We did this over and over again. I couldn’t control the jerk at all.

Then she took the violin away one last time and had an idea. She repeated the instruction: just leave yourself alone. Then she handed the violin to my right hand.

And there was no jerk back. I stayed poised.

The violin is held on the left side of the body (except in the case of “southpaw” fiddlers, who hold on the right). As Carol handed me the instrument, it was a cue to my body to prepare to hold it. But the cue was very specific: my back jerked back only when Carol handed it to my left hand, not my right.

As became clear over the next few lessons, the jerk back in my upper back was part of a larger habit pattern triggered by the violin. My head would push forward and to the left towards the violin chin rest. My shoulders would round forward while my upper spine pushed back. When standing, my hips would push forward, hollowing out my lower back. When sitting my hips would sometimes be more neutral, sometimes rolled back in the chair, making my spine a c-curve slump.

In that first lesson with the violin, I experienced the barest beginnings of the pattern. The only reason I noticed it was because my senses had been primed and my body poised through the traditional chair and table work.

Noticing this pattern helped me make sense of a photo taken at a dress rehearsal for a recital my last semester at Oberlin. I aspired to the heroic stance of the great violinists—if you’ve seen images of Jascha Heifetz, you might know what I mean—and I was clearly not standing heroically in the picture. My head and shoulders were pushed forward, my upper back back. The violin scroll was sloped towards the floor. I was disappointed. What a shame that the photographer caught me in a moment when I had swung the violin down, I thought, surely in the service of some deeply expressive effect.

But in my lessons with Carol, I started to realize this wasn’t a transitory expressive moment immortalized by the camera. It was my posture at the instrument all the time.

I then assumed that my slumpiness at the violin was the result of being tall and having grown so fast in high school. I reasoned that as I got taller, I didn’t adjust my set up—the chin rest and shoulder rest—enough to account for my long neck, and so I was forced to push my head down to my too-low chin rest. But then I discovered a candid shot of me practicing the violin at home at 13, and my posture at the instrument was exactly the same. I’d been holding the violin this way for a very long time.

The discomfort that I had experienced at the violin started to make sense. My head pushing forward was forcing the muscles of my upper back to work harder than they needed to. There was a tug of war between my shoulders rounding forward and my upper spine pushing back: no wonder I’d had those spasms underneath my shoulder blades preparing for my junior recital a few years before. With my head and shoulders pushed forward, the violin sloped down and the instrument felt less stable on my shoulder. My violin professor at Oberlin had constantly harped on me for over-gripping the violin with the thumb of my left hand. No wonder my wrists felt tight, I was constantly gripping the instrument to keep it from slipping off my shoulder.

I took some solace in discovering these habits. I was hopeful that with practice, I could overcome them. Carol also suggested that changing these habits would only be possible if I changed the set up on my violin: my existing chin rest was just too low for the length of my neck. It was forcing me to push my head forward and down.

We were in luck. Cliff Johnson, a retired bass player from the Minnesota Orchestra, made custom violin chin rests, any height and shape you needed. And he lived just a five minute bike ride away. I was excited.

I didn’t realize that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

Next: Of Chin Rests & Chickensin which I get a much higher chin rest and start to make progress in my Alexander lessons.

Part 3: Everything I Need to Know About the Alexander Technique, I Learned from my Cat

Odin's early education was truly top-notch.

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

Actually, I can’t possibly have learned everything I know about the Alexander Technique from my cat, since Odin didn’t come into my life until 7 years after I first started lessons—not to mention a couple years after I’d certified as an Alexander teacher. At any rate, yesterday I wrote about the  emphasis on building my basic awareness in my early lessons. Today, I want to talk about being introduced to traditional Alexander chair and table work. But to make sense of those early lessons, it’s necessary to talk a bit about the nature of habit first. Odin’s quite helpful in this regard, since as a kitten, he gave me an object lesson in habit, especially what it means to be conditioned to a cue.

Odin was a kitten living in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, and for reasons too complicated to get into, he spent his first two weeks off the street at Jerry Coyne’s fruit fly lab at the University of Chicago. A fruit fly lab is a perfect place for a three month old, street-smart kitten: regular food, errant fruit flies to chase, and potted plants in which to bed down.

When I went to pick Odin up, Jerry was excited to show me a trick that he had taught him. He opened up a bag of kitty treats and Odin trotted over. Jerry held the treat at his belt and Odin quickly clambered up his pant leg and snatched the treat from Jerry’s hand. So cute!!

"Ha ha, so cute!" I said outloud, while inwardly grimacing. That was not going to be so cute when Odin was a FULL GROWN CAT CLIMBING MY LEG. But I didn’t say anything. As I headed home with my new feline companion, I silently resolved never to do that again.

Odin settled into life nicely. But one morning a couple of weeks after he arrived home I was making oatmeal and I opened up a bag of raisins. Suddenly Odin climbed up my leg. What was that all about? A week later I casually got out some trail mix and no sooner had I opened the bag then the cat climbed my leg, scaring the crap out of both of us.

This cat is cued and ready to go.

It kept happening. A few months in—the cat getting bigger, claws needing to be cut—I opened up a bag of brown sugar and the cat climbed up my leg, digging deep gouges through my jeans. I grabbed him from my leg and as I was about to shake him and say, “Why are you climbing my leg?!? There are no treats!”, I looked into his perplexed eyes and realized: wait a second. Jerry hadn’t trained Odin to the cue of offering a treat. He’d trained him to the cue of the sound of a bag opening.

I’d thought that if I didn’t offer Odin a treat held up at my belt, that he wouldn’t climb my leg. But everytime I opened a bag, he come running, expecting a treat.

It’s important to know what the cue is.

When we think of our habits, it’s natural to focus on the behavior, whatever it is—a cat climbing your leg, say—and forget to really understand the cue. What sets the behavior off?

This is especially true in the Alexander Technique, because the behavior we’re talking about seems practically invisible, it’s so fundamental. How we prepare to stand. How we get set to sit. Our postural coordination. Most people don’t even think of these habits as habits. They think of them as just how they are.

But these habits are still contextually driven: set off by cues built into our activities and environment. Only by understanding this aspect of habit—the difficulty not only of perceiving them, but knowing what sets them off—can we really understand why Alexander teachers teach the way they teach.

In my first few months of Alexander lessons with Carol, I experienced traditional chair and table work. I described yesterday how Carol was using her hands to give me basic feedback. She was also using her hands to quite literally move me. If we were working with sitting, for example, I would stand in front of the chair and Carol would sit me. This kind of guided movement is a unique experience, and one that I grew to love. There was a feeling of the movement just happening. It felt a little magical—I sometimes felt like Carol was my Jedi master. And it gave me a real experience that moving more easily was possible.

The behavior we’re talking about seems practically invisible, it’s so fundamental...Most people don’t even think of these habits as habits. They think of them as just how they are. But these habits are still contextually driven: set off by cues built into our activities and environment. Only by understanding this aspect of habit—the difficulty not only of perceiving them, but knowing what sets them off—can we really understand why Alexander teachers teach the way they teach.

Table work was equally enjoyable. I would lie on my back on a firm massage table in what was called constructive rest: head supported on a paperback book or two, knees up. Carol would gradually bring about what she called the “lengthening and widening of the back” through gentle manipulation with her hands—or at least, that’s how I would have described it at the time. It was relaxing, yes, but I was expected to stay awake and aware, noticing the changes in my body. At the end of the 15 or so minutes, I would feel flattened, almost pancaked to the table. And when I got up I would feel taller and wider across the shoulders and much lighter in my body.

For a long time, I assumed that chair and table work was teaching me the right way to be: the proper way to stand and sit. I assumed that at a certain point the experience would stick, and I would never forget it, as if she was molding me like a piece of clay into a better version of myself.

But this isn’t how it happens. Carol was showing me what the ideal felt like so that I could eventually experience how my habits pulled me away from the ideal. She was giving me a basis for comparison so that I could sense what actually changed when a habit was cued.

For the first few months, I didn’t bring my violin to my Alexander lessons. For maybe 8 to 16 lessons, we worked on the simpler movements of sitting and standing. I started to get used to the experience of finding my true height, the width of my shoulders, a sense of ease and integration across my back. I was loving it. And then Carol said I should start bringing my violin to my lessons.

And everything went to hell.

Next: When Violins Attackin which my illusions about my heroic poise at the violin are exposed and I discover the tension I’ve conditioned into my playing.

Part 1: A Problem with Pain: Why I started studying the Alexander Technique

Jorja Fleezanis, from a photo by Greg Helgeson.

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

I had just graduated from Oberlin and pain was on my mind. I wasn’t injured, but I figured it was just a matter of time.

I’d watched many of my peers take time off from playing because of injury, usually tendonitis. One friend imploded in spectacular fashion. She was having hand problems, yet still practiced 7 to 9 hours a day. Her doctor father sent her prescription codeine so she could practice through the pain. The day came when she couldn’t play any more and she realized she would have to rehabilitate her hands. She did start to recover, but at a certain point she felt she’d lost too much time, and gave up her aspirations to perform.

I took it as a cautionary tale. If I felt a twinge in the practice room, I would go home for the day. I was supposed to be practicing 4 to 6 hours a day, but if I felt discomfort after 45 minutes, I would pack it in.

As a result, I was never injured, but discomfort was pretty constant—and often mysterious. Before my junior recital, I had some spasms in the muscles beneath my shoulder blades. What was that all about? One winter term I took a contact improv class (because: Oberlin) and at the start of class we would stretch for an hour. As I stretched, I would feel the tightness in my wrists slowly unfurl. After class I would go practice for a few hours and the next morning the tightness in my wrists would be back.

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

That fall I moved to Minneapolis to study with Jorja Fleezanis, then concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. A question dominated my mind: how can I practice enough to be a professional musician and not get injured?

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

The question became even more urgent when I started watching the Minnesota Orchestra play. Jorja was generous with tickets to see the orchestra. I had seen orchestras perform before, but I had never seen an orchestra perform every week. I was staggered by the amount of rep they tore through, not only a new program each week, but a new and challenging program every week. It was physically and mentally demanding beyond anything I had experienced as a student.

Jorja was always taking her students out for dinner after concerts. One night, I finally asked: how are you not in pain? How do you avoid injury? Do you stretch? Yoga? Massage? What?

She said that she had studied the Alexander Technique for six years and that she had learned to sit and to move in ways that didn’t wear on her body. I have a memory of her standing in the restaurant and putting her hands on her hips and talking about finding the connection from the back to the hips to the chair when she played.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of a trusted teacher. I’ve sometimes thought that if Jorja had said she avoided injury by bungee jumping I would have grabbed a cord and leapt off the nearest bridge. That winter, when I came back to Minneapolis after the holiday break, I decided to find a teacher. I was fortunate to find Carol McCullough. I remember our first conversation. “I’m a violist,” she told me. “There’s a lot I can show you.”

This isn’t the time to go into all the insights I gained from my first lessons with Carol. But I often reflect about my early beliefs on being a musician and the inevitability of injury. I think many musicians share the kind of pain problem I had as a conservatory student: they defer a true commitment to the work it takes to be a performer out of fear of injury. Through those first Alexander lessons, I was able to put that fear to rest. Carol showed me a way of working that both reduced the risk of injury and renewed my joy in playing. It’s a way of working that is available to anyone.

Next: Off the Map, in which I discover I have no idea where I am in a very fundamental way.