Posts tagged Alexander Technique
Body Learning Podcast: Violinist and Alexander teacher Andrew McCann on his early experience studying the Alexander Technique.

I had the pleasure of talking with Robert Rickover on his Body Learning podcast about my first experience studying the Alexander Technique. We talked about what inspired me to take Alexander lessons, some of the things I learned in those early lessons, how my Alexander lessons helped me as an aspiring violinist, and the ways in which those first lessons continue to influence me as an Alexander teacher today. 

My conversation with Robert was partly inspired by a series of posts I wrote about my lessons with my first Alexander teacher, Carol McCullough. I studied with her for a year-and-a-half before deciding to train as an Alexander teacher.  You can read the series here:

Visit for more conversations about all things Alexander. Robert Rickover also runs the Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique at

Why Do I Have to Wear So Much Plaid? Habit, Change and Why Alexander Lessons Are the Way They Are

The Alexander Technique is an education in movement. It teaches us to attend to movements that are so fundamental to us that we largely take them for granted. We don't think, "This is my habit." We think, "This is who I am."

Habits: Why We Have Them

Our basic coordination is automatic and unconscious. A three year-old thinks about what she has to say, not how she’s standing, beginning, perhaps, with, "Why do I have to wear so much plaid?"

Our basic coordination is automatic and unconscious. A three year-old thinks about what she has to say, not how she’s standing, beginning, perhaps, with, "Why do I have to wear so much plaid?"

Most movement is habitual, meaning it is automatic and unconscious. Past the age of two, we usually don’t think about how we are moving. We don’t attend to the particulars of our gait or how we’re balancing in the chair. We simply walk or sit.

Habits free us to think about other things. My sister at three isn’t thinking about how she is standing, she’s thinking about everything she has to say—beginning perhaps with why she has to wear so much plaid.

This habitual coordination becomes the basis for later skill.

My sister at ten shows a poise at the softball plate that would make an Alexander teacher rejoice: free neck, relaxed shoulders, a lengthening back, bending at the hips and knees, not the waist—and a smile to boot. Moreover, her coordination is at the service of her larger goals. When she goes to slug the ball out of the park, she doesn’t have to micromanage her coordination. It happens for her.

This is the ideal for skilled movement—automatic and goal-oriented. And it is an ideal experienced by almost everyone: when driving, typing, riding a bike, or playing an instrument.

The Problem of Change

Poised and goal-oriented, a ten year old relies on her movement habits to slug the ball out of the park.

Poised and goal-oriented, a ten year old relies on her movement habits to slug the ball out of the park.

Unfortunately, the same learning process that gives us fluid, effective movement can leave us oblivious to the causes of our discomfort or pain. My experience as a violinist is a case in point.

The violin is a notoriously awkward instrument to hold, and by the age of thirteen, I had made it more awkward still.

I pushed my chin forward to hold the instrument, tensed my neck, rounded my shoulders, and pushed my hips forward. By college, the pattern was set. I was playing four or more hours a day and experiencing regular tightness in my wrists and forearms and more mysteriously to me, spasms around my shoulder blades.

In spite of my discomfort, I was unaware of the fact that I was doing anything wrong.

My self-image was of the heroic school of violin playing—standing nobly, violin raised. I remember being surprised to see myself hunched over the instrument in photographs. I assumed that the photographer had caught me at a bad angle. I didn’t make the connection between how I engaged the instrument and my discomfort after a day of practicing.

This lack of awareness is typical when we try to change a deeply ingrained habit.

A bad habit is still a habit. It is still automatic and unconscious. We feel pain, but don’t notice the actions that are causing the pain. We may be frustrated by our inability to perform our best, but we do not perceive the habits that undermine that performance.

An Alexander lesson is foremost an opportunity to attend to the subtleties of coordination, and learn to accurately interpret what you notice. Developing this awareness lays the foundation for lasting change.

What an Alexander Lesson is Like

An awkward instrument made more awkward by how it’s held: a thirteen year old contorts his body to play the violin.

An awkward instrument made more awkward by how it’s held: a thirteen year old contorts his body to play the violin.

Like many, if not most Alexander teachers, I teach the Technique out of my home, in the same room where I teach violin lessons. Because you can apply the Alexander Technique anywhere, you can teach it almost anywhere, and my studio is a familiar, comfortable learning environment. 

You don’t need to buy special exercise clothes to learn the Alexander Technique and for heaven’s sakes, you should keep your clothes on. You could learn the Alexander Technique in formal clothes, if you had to, but most students choose to wear normal, everyday casual clothing. Because we’re working with movement, wearing something that is unrestricting is a good idea. (Avoid skirts or anything too tight to move easily.)

Everyday Movement

A classic Alexander lesson often begins with sitting and standing. This is not because Alexander teachers are obsessed with perfect chair comportment, but because sitting and standing are deeply habitual. When you start to notice how unconscious and automatic your habits are in sitting and standing, you gain insight into all your habits.

Sitting and standing are also relatively low stakes activities and simple. People aren't very emotionally invested in how they sit and stand, so they have more of chance of seeing their patterns objectively. Plus, when you go home from your lesson, you’ll be sitting and standing all the time—so you can start to apply what you’ve learned right away.

Guided Movement: Putting the Focus on Thinking

By 22, the pattern is set and pain problems start to emerge. Now the unconsciousness of habit masks the cause of the problem and makes change more difficult.

By 22, the pattern is set and pain problems start to emerge. Now the unconsciousness of habit masks the cause of the problem and makes change more difficult.

An Alexander lesson is hands-on, but it doesn’t involve direct manipulation of the body in the way that a massage or chiropractic adjustment does. The teacher’s hands are designed to put your focus on your thinking—on your moment-by-moment awareness and your intention to move.

One of the most important roles of the teacher’s hands is to give you feedback. Because our habits are largely unconscious, we need to raise the level of our basic awareness. This is one of the most fundamental things you will gain through lessons: calibrated, accurate awareness—that you are doing what you think you are doing.

Another important feature of an Alexander lesson is that movement is guided. For example, if you’re working on sitting and standing, the teacher will actually sit and stand you.  This is an unusual experience, but one that you rapidly get used to. The guided nature of the movement puts the focus on your thinking. You can practice noticing how you react and experimenting with different intentions, rather than worrying about translating a teacher's instructions into action. Ultimately this practice helps you change your habitual reactions to a real sense of poise and purposeful, healthy action.

Applying the Technique

Alexander lessons begin with sitting and standing, but we will ultimately work on whatever unique challenges you face in your activities. Maybe you’re a photographer and want to learn how to stop tensing your neck when you bring the camera up to your eye. Or you’re a pianist who collapses your shoulders forward towards the keys when you play. Or you’re a graphics designer who grips in your shoulder when you use the mouse. Or you’re a chef who rounds your back when you bend down to take a sheet pan out of the oven.

Whatever your habits, we will spend time in your lessons learning what  triggers these habits and how you can overcome them. By overcoming such habits, you develop a true skill for life— the ability to care for yourself, whatever challenges you face in the future.

Walk Like A Penguin

Tablet Infographic's intermittently viral advice on How to Walk on Ice:

After a month of record-cold temperatures here in Chicago, we’re finally beginning to thaw out. Almost as if to celebrate, an infographic appeared on one of the Alexander Technique Facebook groups with advice on how to walk on ice. On the left, the graphic shows how walking on ice with the front foot forward increases the risk of falling. Whereas on the right, there’s a penguin. Wait a second: a penguin? We’re supposed to learn how to walk on ice from a PENGUIN?

Before I get too carried away, I should say that walking like a penguin when on ice is pretty good advice. In fact, if you experiment with not letting your forward foot get too far in front of you when walking in normal conditions, you'll be all the more prepared for walking on ice in the winter! 

But since seeing this infographic, I’ve become obsessed with what it says about the state of modern humanity that we're taking cues about walking from penguins.

People—penguins are not good at walking:

This is not to diss penguins. Penguins are wonderful creatures. They have, unlike other birds, evolved to swim with extraordinary agility. Emperor penguins, to give one example, will launch themselves from the water onto the ice to avoid predators (like the truly terrifying leopard seal).

But on land, penguins are TERRIBLE at walking—penguins expend twice as much energy on land as any other terrestrial animal of the same size. Penguin legs are short and their feet are big. While longer legs would help a penguin walk more easily, it’s thought that long legs would also lose heat too quickly in the harshly cold environment in which many penguin species live. Waddling looks comical, but it turns out to be the best way to walk if you have really short legs.

In contrast, almost every aspect of the human body has evolved to facilitate efficient walking. Our long necks and tall narrow waists allow the head, ribs and hips to move independently from each other, facilitating the pleasing spiral swing of a healthy walk. The curve of our lower backs—the lumbar spine—positions the torso directly above our pelvis and legs, rather than pitching our torso forward, like in our closest cousin, the chimpanzee. Our human pelvis—the illium—faces sideways and our knees are angled underneath our hips. This allows us to balance our weight on one leg while keeping our trunk upright. And we have a large heel bone—the calcaneus—and well-supported arches, that allow us to roll through the foot and push off the front toes.

Human beings as a species may not be as adept at swimming as penguins, but we are much, much better at walking.

Human adaptations for efficient walking. This image has been modified from Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body to include...a penguin.

It’s particularly bizarre to look to penguins for help with staying stable on ice because there’s so little consequence for a penguin when they slip. It’s one of the delights of watching penguin blooper reels that they fall without injury—even from a significant height. And a penguin falling on its belly introduces another form of locomotion—tobogganing

It turns out that an animal’s size and its danger of injury in a fall are linked. An animal the size of a mouse, amazingly enough, can fall any distance without risk of significant injury. My 15 lb cat has swiped a bug off the ceiling from a high shelf and then leapt the 10 feet to the ground to eat it with little concern. A 40 to 80 pound emperor penguin can trip without fear. But adult humans aren’t so lucky. Any animal above 100 kg (220 lbs) will be at serious risk for injury from a fall of just its own height—picture a horse, cow or elephant. While adult humans weigh less on average than 100 kg, we are quite tall for our weight. Adults can break bones just from tripping, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in seniors above the age of 65. 

To help keep us from falling, we have rescue (or righting) reactions. These are automatic—though most likely learned—reactions to keep an animal from overbalancing. Rescue reactions have been studied in many animals—cats and dogs seem to be the popular laboratory preparations. (Even bats have been studied—though since they sleep upside down, they do not share the same righting reactions common in other mammals.) Rescue reactions in humans are very robust, triggered by information from multiple senses: not just the inner ear (vestibular system), but from the eyes, head balance, sense of body position (proprioception) and touch (such as the contact of the feet on the floor). There are many rescue reactions, from staggering and bracing the legs, to sweeping the arms. “If the limbs are trapped, the trunk will be moved so as to take the impact on the shoulders,” balance researcher TDM Roberts tells us. “The movements are organized as though to avoid impact with the skull at almost any cost.” 

Rescue and righting reactions are studied in the laboratory in many ways, including putting subjects on a "tilt-table." The image is from TDM Roberts Understanding Balance, p. 163.

In December of last year, I experienced my rescue reactions when I stepped on a sheet of black ice walking home from a gig. At the moment my foot began to slip, I felt my arms shoot out and my legs brace of their own accord. I stayed on my feet. I felt particularly lucky because I was more encumbered than usual. I was carrying my violin on my back, my courier bag over my shoulder with my wife’s laptop in it, and a grocery bag with a pyrex that had contained my dinner. Disaster averted.

So if we’ve evolved to walk well and we have well-ingrained rescue reactions, why do we need a tutorial on how to walk on ice? Obviously, winter is dangerous and ice is slippery. But winter is dangerous partly because our built environment is so safe.

Two winters ago, Kyra was leaving the morning after one of those wintry-mix storms that leaves equal parts snow, slush and ice on the ground. She strapped her cello to her back and stepped out on to the front porch with extra caution. But when she reached the stairs, she went flying, not because she wasn’t prepared for the slippery stairs, but because she didn’t expect the hand-rail to be covered in ice as well. She was lucky. Though she landed on her chin, she suffered only minor bruises. She also provided another instance towards a possible hypothesis: that musicians modify their rescue reactions to protect their instrument first, their own heads second.

My near slip in December was a similar point. The black ice was hidden in the shadow of a street lamp. The rest of the sidewalk was clear. The situation was only half-safe, but I expected it to be completely safe, so I nearly fell. This is true of much of our modern environment: an expectation of safety brings with it inattention and complacency. (There’s a similar effect in roadway construction—boring flat roads are more dangerous than dangerous swervy roads because people drive more safely on dangerous swervy roads.) 

Is there one best way to walk on ice? Tutorials on the ‘correct way to move’ are a byproduct of standardization, only sensible in a manufactured landscape. Better to think of unlearning our habits—trading the one wrong way not for the one right way, but for the ability to choose from many possibilities.

With enough time, such modern conveniences can actually change our bodies and our reactions. Researchers in Europe have found that seniors who have lived their lives in cities with cobblestone streets are less likely to fall than seniors who live in cities with smoothly paved streets. Cobblestones are more precarious, they demand attention and adaptability.

Our habitats create our habits. Before studying Alexander, I walked as if still slumped in a classroom chair: head forward, upper-back leaned back, hips forward as if about to “limbo.” Many people walk like this, or in some other strained way. 

The problem with such habits is that they it become our default way of moving, whether the sidewalks are icy or the sidewalks are clear. Looking back on my near fall in December, I wonder: If I still walked with my hips pushed forward, would I have slipped on the ice? It's hard to say. But walking with your hips forward—already out from under you—is a fall waiting to happen.

So is there one best way to walk on ice? Tutorials on the “correct way to move” are a byproduct of standardization, only sensible in a manufactured landscape. Better to think of unlearning our habits—trading the one wrong way not for the one right way, but for the ability to choose from many possibilities. Better yet to practice taking notice of our environment, not slip into a too easy inattention.

I went for a walk this morning down to Lake Michigan, about a mile from my apartment. For most of the way I had little choice but to follow the sidewalk. Trucking along the cement ground, I could experience simple walking, my bipedal inheritance in action: the free balance of my head on my spine, the swing of arms and torso over my hips. I could experiment with walking that was a gentle fall forward, or mix it up and bring my attention to the thrust of my toes from behind.

When I got to the lake, though, I left the sidewalk. Even in flat Chicago, the parkland is gently rolling. The ground is uneven. Most all of the snow had melted from the slight rise overlooking the lake. My feet sank into the muddy ground at odd angles. Though I was still walking, my gait was as changeable as the terrain—here stepping around a puddle, here high-stepping my knees over an unmelted chunk of snow, and once, yes, swaying from foot to foot over a patch of ice, like a penguin.

Thanks to Alexander Technique teacher Jennifer Roig-Francolí for sharing the How to Walk on Ice infographic. I turned to Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body for a guide to human adaptations for walking. The relationship between animal size and risk of injury in a fall comes from Steven Vogel's Life's Devices: The Physical World of Plants and Animals. Rescue reactions are described in TDM Robert's Understanding Balance. Studies on falling on the cobblestone streets of Europe came from the Blakeslee's The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. And the tidbit about drivers driving more safely on more dangerous roads is found in Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic.

Tone Poem

I’ve been struggling for the last few days to write about muscle tone. Muscle tone is all important in the Alexander Technique—but how to evoke it? Make it palpable in writing?

Technical writing is technical. From Tim Cacciatore, et al’s “Improvement in Automatic Postural Coordination Following Alexander Technique lessons in a Person with Low Back Pain.”

The AT aims to improve the “use of the self” by teaching conscious control of tonic muscular activity in relation to actions and events through 2 main principles: (1) the prevention of undesirable increases in tonic muscular activity that are triggered by actions and events (“inhibition”) and (2) the use of conscious, spatially directed motor commands to influence tonic muscular activity (“direction”). Alexander claimed that these principles, when integrated, achieve and maintain a definite, balanced organization of tonic muscle activity that underlies efficient coordination.

Tonic muscle activity. Muscle tone.

What is muscle tone? Here's a trick from chefs for judging the doneness of steak: find the fleshy place between your thumb and first finger. Relax your hand and touch the spot. Rare. Bring your thumb against the side of your palm so that the muscle tones. Medium rare. Grip tightly until the muscle bulges. Well done.

Is muscle tone like musical tone? E. Geoffrey Walsh tells us:

The word ‘tone’ has the same root as the word ‘tune’, and the tension in the tendon of a muscle can be likened to that in the string of a guitar. Based on these considerations, muscle tone in the resting state can be measured by applying rhythmic forces and observing at which rate of application the motion is the greatest. This is the ‘resonant frequency.’ Tone is related to the square of the resonant frequency.

Though I am a musician, I don’t really know what to make of this. Each day I take the violin out if its case. I tighten the hair on the bow—not too tight, not too loose. I check the A against the tuner, then tune the other strings, each a perfect fifth. Two strings vibrate together in a ratio of 3:2. When perfectly in tune—not too slack, not too taut—the resonance should fill the air. No audible beats.

Muscle tone has a history. Kyra was a competitive gymnast for five years. Watch a gymnast dismount: feet driving into the mat, knees locked, hips pitching forward, lower back arched more than it seems possible to be arched. Not just muscle toned—muscle taut. It has been 18 years since Kyra last competed, but the pattern is still there. Yesterday she practiced letting the pattern go. She asked her legs to let go of her low back, to stop pulling it forward into an arch. Somewhat surprisingly they agreed. They let go. Enormous relief, but very disorienting. She both felt more stable and like she might not be able to stand. She went to bed but her legs wouldn’t let her sleep. They felt underemployed. They were looking for something to do. Something to hold on to.

Muscle tone is a state of being. Awake. Asleep. It was the fall of my first year training to become an Alexander Technique teacher. Brinn was only a few months old. His mother, Katie, was in her third year of training and he often came with her to class. I was twenty-five and clueless about babies. One day it was time for Katie to get some work from Joan, so Katie passed Brinn to me. He started out alert, looking around, springy in his body. Where had his mom gone? He could still see her so he started to relax. It was late in the morning. I felt his body start to soften. He rested his head on my shoulder and fell asleep. What chemical is released by the feel of a sleeping baby against your shoulder? I wondered. I was soothed as well. (Stacy came in the room, whispered to Joan: “I’ve never seen Andrew so quiet.”)

Muscle tone is mind. There are so many possible stories. Here's a simple one: I’m visiting the Murrays for a teacher refresher course last June—continuing education, as it’s called. I’m receiving a table turn: I’m lying on my back, head supported on a book, knees up. I’m happy to be a student again—get some work, not just give it. Margie lifts my right leg off the table and I let her have it. It’s relaxed in her hands. Then Joan calls from downstairs. In five minutes we’ll be assembling for the morning demonstration. Margie laughs. Though my leg still rests in her hands, though I haven’t moved it an inch, I’ve taken it back. My leg has filled with sudden purpose. It is all readiness: Time to get up. Time to go to work.

Muscle tone is all of these things. Working with my Alexander students, we discover muscle toned to tautness, hard coils of rope from years of working too hard. We find muscle so underused it has grown slack. Above all, we find muscle without mind. Muscle that is a mystery to its mover. And so we work to wake up. Ask the necessary questions. Give instruction. Redistribute the load.

Do you see the importance of muscle tone? How the work is more than posture and positioning? More than a collection of parts in the right relationship: 90° from here to here, 135° from here to here. More than alignment? It is about fully inhabiting your being. It is about being completely alive.

Tim Cacciatore study, "Improvement in Automatic Postural Coordination Following Alexander Technique Lessons in a Person with Low Back Pain," was published in the journal Physical Therapy, June 2005. E. Geoffrey Walsh's thoughts on muscle tone come from the Oxford Companion to the Body, 2003.

"Lighten Up" or "Pull Up?"; A new study about the Alexander Technique and Parkinson's Disease.

Word came last week about a new study published in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair about the Alexander Technique and patients with Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurological condition affecting movement. Progressive in this sense means that symptoms worsens over time. The condition often begins with slight tremors and reduced facial expressions and may eventually lead to a stiffening and slowing of all movement. Parkinson’s is largely treated with medication, though Parkinson’s patients and their doctors often explore methods that can improve a patient’s quality of life while coping with the disease.

The Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s has been studied before. In 2002, a randomized control trial published in Clinical Rehabilitation assigned 98 Parkinson’s patients either to 24 individual Alexander Technique lessons, 24 individual massage sessions, or no intervention beyond their normal drug treatment. The study showed that Alexander lessons significantly increased the ability of patients to carry out everyday activities (there was no significant change in the massage group). The benefits remained when patients followed up 6 months after their lessons ended. The Parkinson’s patients who took Alexander Technique lessons also had less change in their Parkinson’s medication than either of the other groups (this is notable since medication dose usually increases with time as the disease worsens). The patients themselves reported improvements in balance, posture, walking, and increased coping with the disease and reduced stress.

One of the challenges in a randomized control trial like the 2002 study is to explain why a particular intervention is effective. In the 2002 study, massage was used to control for the effects of touch. Though massage and the Alexander Technique use touch quite differently, they use an equivalent amount of touch in a session. Since the Alexander Technique had a beneficial effect but massage did not, the researchers could conclude that touch alone wasn’t enough to benefit the Parkinson’s patients. The patients who took Alexander Technique lessons clearly learned something, but what?

Enter the most recent study: “Lighten Up: Specific Postural Instructions Affect Axial Rigidity and Step Initiation in Patients with Parkinson’s Disease,” by lead author, Dr Rajal Cohen. (You can read it in full here)

This was a smaller study and deceptively simple: 20 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s Disease practiced two contrasting postural instructions for all of ten minutes each. One set of instructions, called “Pull Up,” was based on effortful conceptions of posture. The other set of instructions, “Lighten Up,” were based on the Alexander Technique of releasing into length.

The research team then measured axial rigidity (increased axial rigidity interferes with movement), postural sway (sway can increase the risk of falling in Parkinson’s patients), and the smoothness and efficiency of initiating movement.

The study is fascinating to anyone who is interested in movement and posture because it shows that how we think about posture can make a measurable difference in the quality of our posture and movement.

During the study, the Parkinson’s patients read contrasting explanations for the two separate set of instructions. The “Pull Up” instructions were based on familiar conceptions of posture:

Parkinson’s makes you weaker, so it is important to activate your core muscles to pull yourself up to your full height. For the next few minutes I would like you to focus on feeling your neck and trunk muscles work strongly to pull you up.

The patients then practiced these specific “Pull Up” instructions (which might be familiar to anyone who has worked with either a personal trainer or a drill sergeant):

Use your core muscles to pull yourself up to your fullest height; engage the muscles in your abdomen and lower back; feel your neck and trunk muscles working to pull you up; pull your stomach in, your head and chest up, and your shoulders back.

“Lighten Up” instructions were based on the Alexander Technique. The researchers had the subjects read this explanation:

Whatever our condition, we make matters worse by pulling ourselves down, and especially by tightening the neck and pulling the head down. For the next few minutes I would like you to focus on allowing an upward direction.

Then the patients practiced the following instruction:

Notice that you are pulling yourself down and give yourself permission to stop doing it; let your head balance easily at the top of your spine; allow your spine to be uncompressed and your torso to open effortlessly; let your shoulders and chest be open and light.

As a control, the researchers had the patients practice a “relaxed” condition:

Imagine that it is the end of a long day and you feel tired and lazy; allow your head to feel heavy and sink slightly forward and down; relax your shoulders and allow them to hang heavily.

The researchers varied the order in which the patients practiced “Pull Up,” “Lighten Up,” and “Relaxed,” to control for possible carryover effects from the different instructions. What did they find? When patients practiced “Lighten Up,” they showed less axial rigidity, less postural sway, and increased smoothness of initiating movement than when they practiced “Pull Up” or “Relaxed.”

There are a couple of surprising things about these results. The authors note that since Parkinson’s Disease has such a detrimental effect on motor control, they did not expect the patients to show a measurable difference when practicing something so subtle as differing postural intentions. Most remarkable to me is that such brief instructions, given without the hands-on guidance found in a traditional Alexander lesson, would have a beneficial result. The study gives some inkling of why a course of lessons—like the 24 lessons in the 2002 study of Parkinson’s patients—might be so positive.

One of the things that excites me about this study is the way in which it clearly articulates the difference between how Alexander Technique teachers approach posture—lightening up to make things easier—versus more familiar approaches to posture—pulling up to make you stronger. We Alexander teachers often feel like we are in danger of getting swept away in the great wave of “core conditioning,” struggling to prove the benefits of a gentler approach to movement than “power through” and “no pain no gain.” If this study can help convince people that lightening into length has proven benefits, it might help not only Parkinson’s patients, but anyone who wants to move more easily and effectively.

Embracing Incompetence

I was working with a violinist in his Alexander Technique lesson last week. Like many violinists, he has the tendency to push his hips slightly forward and lean back when he holds the violin. In his lesson, I helped him find a more neutral way of standing, with his shoulders aligned with his hips. “I can’t stand like this!” he declared. “I’m bending forward!” It was only when I had him look at himself in the mirror that he saw that he wasn’t bending forward at all, he was standing normally.

Alexander called this, “unreliable sensory appreciation.” It turns out our proprioception—our sense of where our bodies are in space—is based on our habits. It’s not objective. When we try to change, we feel weird, even if the new way of moving is more coordinated and even free of pain. Making progress in the Alexander Technique begins when we recognize that the way we feel isn’t necessarily accurate.

When you are learning anything, whether the Alexander Technique or a musical instrument, you go through four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence

That first step, going from unconscious to conscious incompetence, can be a little rough. No matter what you’re learning, it can be disconcerting when you realize that you don’t know what you’re doing.

What’s true in the Alexander Technique is also true in practicing music. In my last two posts, I have recommended that you mentally practice a passage before physically playing it. The combination of mental and physical practice turns out to be more effective than physical practice alone.

The downside of mental practice is that you will become much more conscious of the difference between how you want to sound and how you actually sound. If you are not used to practicing so consciously—if you are in the habit of running through pieces before you’ve really learned them, all the while imagining you are at Carnegie Hall—you may find that your newly effective practicing is demoralizing. As the violinist James Buswell has written,

  • As your ear is hearing more, you will think you are getting worse instead of better.
  • As you think more clearly, you will feel stupid.
  • As you identify more problems, you will think that there are an infinite number of them.

This feeling of incompetence is actually a sign of progress.

The psychologist David Dunning has researched incompetence by having his subjects both take a test and say how well they thought they did on the test. Those who did most poorly were also most likely to overestimate how well they’d done. He explains:

When you’re incompetent you suffer a double burden, first you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But second, the same skills that allow a person to make correct decisions are the same skills that allow you to accurately assess whether you’re doing well… For example, the skills that allow you to write a grammatical sentence are exactly the same set of skills that you need to recognize whether you’re writing grammatically or whether another person is writing grammatically. So almost by definition, the incompetent are not going to be able to recognize that they’re incompetent. If they could recognize that they were incompetent, they would probably have some skill that would make them more competent than they are.

No one wants to feel incompetent. And many students will give up when they’re faced with their own inadequacies. But this is the very stage when persistence is the most necessary: regular practice of comparing what you think you are doing with what you’re actually doing until the two converge. So the next time that you suddenly recognize your own incompetence, celebrate the feeling: it shows that you are learning something. Keep practicing. You’re on your way.

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.

Practicing at the Speed of Thought

Walter Carrington, one of the great Alexander Technique teachers, told a story once about the Imperial Riding Academy in Berlin. When the chief riding instructor took the cadets out on horseback at the school, he would say to them, “Now, gentleman, when I give the order ‘ride canter,’ what do you say?” And the assembled cadets, each sitting astride their own horse, would answer, “I have time.”

As Walter explains it, when you have an entire class of cadets on horseback and an order is given, it’s very important that everyone not react immediately. The cadets are, after all, learning how to ride on horseback. They don’t yet know what they’re doing. If their first priority is to execute the command as quickly as possible, then suddenly you have a room full of horses on the move and it could get dangerous very quickly.

Taking time is just as important to musicians as it is to novice cadets at a riding academy. When musicians take time, it usually means practicing slowly. The great violin pedagogue, Ivan Galamian, was once asked to pick just one practice strategy. “Playing through at half speed,” he said, “because it gives you time to think.”

There’s another way to practice slowly, and that is to take time before you begin. Before raising the instrument to play or putting your hands on the piano keys or beginning to sing, you pause. In that time, you fully imagine how you want the music to sound before you’re preoccupied with actually making it.

One advantage of practicing this way is that when you’ve fully imagined how you want to play something and then you actually play it, it’s as if you’ve practiced it twice. Another advantage is that you can discover how well you actually know the piece. It’s much easier to barrel through a piece than to imagine yourself playing it in every dimension. It’s a good rule of thumb that if you can’t imagine yourself playing a piece at tempo, you probably can’t actually play it at tempo—even if you can “get through it.” You may also find that by imagining yourself playing a piece slowly, you can then play through it in smaller chunks at tempo.

In the Alexander Technique, taking time is the secret to undoing the power our habits have over us. Many people assume that they can change a habit by “doing the right thing”. But our habits are triggered automatically. You can truly want to do the “right thing,” but when the time comes the old habit takes over. One secret in changing a habit is identifying that trigger to act and then choosing not to act at all. To take time. Then you have a chance to imagine what you’d rather do.

Not all music making requires such slow thinking. By the time we get to the stage for a performance, we want to get the point where the music happens without us being so deliberate about it. But we can make more progress if we take time in the beginning, if we practice at the speed of thought.

The Alexander Technique @ The 2015 Music in the Mountains Conservatory

I have some exciting news!

Last summer, I had the pleasure of teaching the Alexander Technique at the Music in the Mountains Conservatory, a program for high school and college musicians in Durango, CO. The Alexander program was popular with the students, and with the support of the Artistic Director, Matt Albert, the festival administration and faculty, the Alexander Technique program is not only returning to the 2015 Music in the Mountains Conservatory, it’s expanding!

Last summer, we offered an Alexander Technique group class, private Alexander lessons, and an unexpected and wonderful collaboration with Adam Marks in his public speaking class. While the details are still being worked out for next summer, we'll be adding two Alexander Technique assistants and the the program will include regular small group classes, private lessons, and workshops on all aspects of applying Alexander to practicing and performing.

The Music in the Mountains Alexander Technique program will be organized around four big topics:

  • Your Instrument & You
  • Habit & Change
  • Practicing Effectively & Sustainably
  • The Joy of Performing

For the rest of this week, I will be posting short essays that touch on these topics and which I hope will be useful to high school and college music students.

The Conservatory will run from July 12 to August 1, 2015. It is rare for students to have the opportunity to study the Alexander Technique so intensively at a summer festival and I am grateful to Matt and the festival administration for supporting this program. Help us spread the word: if you’re a teacher of high school or college musicians, send them to the Music in the Mountains website and download this brochure for a complete list of programs and the stellar teaching faculty. The early application deadline—with a discounted fee—is January 16, 2015.

And stay tuned to this space for the latest developments!

Alexander and the Art of Vegetable Prep

My friend Ben commented the other day on one of my posts, “I would love to know how you would prep vegetables in the Alexander way.” It got me to thinking.

One way to Alexanderize vegetable prep is to look at the relationship of the cook’s head, neck and back during the actions of cooking. A kitchen is a challenging environment to move around in. It’s not just the sharp knives and the heat of the stove. It’s the height of the counter and the fact that you’re looking down towards the food much of the time. Everyone develops different habits in the kitchen. Ben is in Brazil, so I can’t elaborate on his habits in the kitchen right now. But an Alexander approach to cooking would look at his habits in the kitchen and then help him find ease in his head, neck and back while he’s wielding his knife.

But Alexander is also about process—the thinking that enables our freedom in movement. Something you should know about Ben is that he’s a great cook—he’s been to culinary school and everything. So as I was thinking of what to say in response to his comment, I realized—wait a second, he already knows how to Alexanderize vegetable prep because he knows about mise en place.

One of the best discussions of mise en place that I’ve read recently is from Michael Ruhlman’s cookbook, Ruhlman’s Twenty. I pulled it out tonight and the discussion is so Alexandrian that I thought I would quote a lot of it:

Cooking is an infinitely nuanced series of actions, the outcome of which is dependent on countless variables… Because all the variables in cooking can never be accounted for, whether you’re cooking from a book or cooking by instinct, it stands to reason that the most important first step in the kitchen is simply to think, even if all you’re making is buttered toast...

Before you begin. Stand still. Think.

It’s an incredibly powerful tool… When you’re cooking, imagine what is about to happen. Imagine what you expect to happen. Imagine what you expect something to look like. A piece of meat in a sauté pan—how seared should it look? What should the oil look like before you put the meat in the pan? If it doesn’t match up with the image in your head, ask yourself why… Think about what you’re cooking. Stay ahead of it.

Organize and prepare. These are the two critical acts in the kitchen, and they happen by thinking first. Begin any task with these two acts—organize and prepare—and you’re on your way. Ignore them and you’ve put yourself at risk even before you’ve begin. Ninety-five percent of kitchen failures can be traced back to a failure to organize and prepare at the outset.

Restaurant kitchens have a French term for organization and preparation—and it’s every bit as useful in a home kitchen—mise en place.

Mise en place (MEEZ ohn plahs) translate literally to “put in place,” but what it really means is “organize and prepare.” It means everything in its place, on your countertop, beside your stove, on your stove, and, most critically, in your mind…

The importance of mise en place cannot be overstated. It doesn’t mean simply putting all your ingredients in ramekins on your cutting board or next to your stove (let alone, if you’re following a recipe, to have read the recipe all the way through). It’s ultimately about thinking. Organizing your mise en place forces you to think through your actions, to plan in your mind the course of your actions.

The second mandate in the ethos of mise en place, one that is rarely made explicit, is to recognize not only what you need in front of you, but also what does not belong, what should not be on your board, beside the stove, in your brain.

One of the keys to successful cooking is to remove the obstacles that may be in your path. Clear your way. If cooking is an unbroken series of actions, one motion leading to another leading to another, then it should be obvious that any obstacles that might trip up those actions ought to be removed before you begin. Clear your path, and you are less likely to stumble. This means having all your ingredients before you and having the mixing bowl out so that you don’t have to interrupt your cooking to hunt for it. It also means removing anything extraneous from your work area. Get rid of that shopping list, empty glass of milk, and car keys on your counter. Even if the objects are out of your way but still in your vision, remove them…

There are all kinds of home cooks—people who cook to unwind; people who cook as a hobby; people who cook because they want to feed their family healthful, tasty, economical meals; and people who cook because it’s the least objectionable option in fulfilling a daily need. Regardless of what kind of cook you are, the most basic rules apply. First and foremost is that cooking is easier, faster, more efficient, more successful, and more fun when you think first, when you prepare and organize, when you set up your mise en place.

There’s a lot of overlap between Alexander work and skillful cooking. I think that at a pretty basic level it’s because both are about skillful action guided by a perceiving mind. In the case of the cook, one who is watching, smelling, listening and tasting. But I also think there’s something about heat: once the food is on the burner, it’s hard to turn back. So the control you have is in the preparation.

And the same is true in movement. Skillful movement is prepared: not just in the broad sense of being prepared—like an actor knowing her lines or a musician knowing the music. It’s that control of the movement is in the preparation to the movement. To improve how you move, start with how you prepare to move. If there’s tension in the anticipation to move, let it go. Then the movement might even take care of itself.


Alexander & Cooking: Is Only the Exhaustive Truly Interesting?

It was winter term my third year at Oberlin when the cooking thing really took off. There were 8 of us that January who decided to forego the dorm meal plan and cook in a commandeered second floor kitchen of South dorm. We stored all of our cooking gear in a giant red suitcase that I’d inherited from my grandmother, dragging it clanging down the dorm’s psychedelic hallway carpeting each afternoon around 5:00. I’d grown up helping my parents cook, but that winter term was the first time that I’d got so involved in all aspects of cooking. An inherited copy of the San Francisco Junior League Cookbook proved especially popular: the shrimp in tomato sauce with basil and feta served over angel hair pasta; lasagna noodles cooked, spread with pesto, rolled up into pinwheels and baked. There were some misfires: we improvised the seasoning of a vegetable soup, tossing in a teaspoon or two of every spice we owned until the broth tasted like soap.

When I graduated and moved to Minneapolis I was on my own for the first time. It took me a couple months before I learned to scale down the recipes and not cook for a crowd. That Christmas my mom got me the new edition of The Joy of Cooking, my first real cookbook, and I followed family members around all vacation, reading to them about the differences between black, oolong, and green teas, and how the English say aubergine, not eggplant. Back in Minneapolis after the holiday, I made up for the loneliness of cooking solo with the ambition of trying something new—at least there was less embarrassment when you screwed up. I overcooked my first roast chicken. Burned rice to the bottom of the pan. Dried out a cake. Broke mayonnaise.

This was also when I first started studying the Alexander Technique and I think there were overlapping drives between my interest in studying Alexander and my cooking obsession: the pleasure of eating well and feeling good after an Alexander lesson; wanting to refine my palette and deepen my self-perception; the desire to really understand—whether it was how food came together or how I moved. These proclivities were reinforced by my violin teacher, Jorja Fleezanis, and her husband, Michael Steinberg. They constantly involved us students in their meals, whether casual dinners or holiday festivities. I tried to match their example, making dishes that I hoped would impress. I may have made my first pie—the first time without my mom, at least—in advance of having Thanksgiving at their house. At some point that year, Michael turned to me and in his droll lilt said, “Thomas Mann once wrote, ‘Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.'” Well, if all else fails, I remember thinking, at least Thomas Mann understands me.

When I left Minnesota for grad school and to train as an Alexander teacher in Urbana, my closest friendships were forged through food and cooking. It was also when I became aware of the wave of cooking educators: Alton Brown and Good Eats, Christopher Kimball and Cooks Illustrated, Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. The point wasn’t just to follow a recipe: it was to understand the techniques and science behind it. At some point during my Alexander training I was browsing through the cooking section of a favorite bookstore and came across this quote in The Way to Cook by Julia Child, the patron saint of all cooking gurus:

Wherever possible [in this book], I have put things together by method—veal chops are with pork chops because they cook the same way. Chicken stew in red wine is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew—if you can do one, you can do the others because they are assembled, simmered, and sauced the same way. It makes sense to me, also, that all braised meats be grouped together so that their similarities are clearly evident...The technique is what’s important here, and when you realize a stew is a stew is a stew, and a roast is a roast whether it be beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.

It was worth practicing a recipe to understand the technique behind it. When you understood the technique, you could cook any recipe that used that technique. You might even be able to write a recipe of your own!

At the time, we were reading Alexander’s fourth book, and I was struck by the similarity between Julia Child’s words and his “working to principle.”

Learning to “do” by this procedure is not learning to “do” exercises in a trial-and-error plan, but learning to work to a principle, not only in using the self but in the application of the technique outside the self. A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to “do an exercise” will most assuredly have to go on learning to “do exercises” ad infinitum.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

What excited me most about this connection was a shift in attention. The time spent cooking was the same, but my mind was heightened to the connections between this dish and another. A simple breakfast of scrambled eggs taught me the process that also thickened the custard in my ice cream dessert. From kneading bread dough I learned how gluten forms, and why I should use a lighter touch with pie dough so that the crust was flaky, not tough. My Alexander insights were more complex. I was making connections between how I moved and how I learned through many disciplines: performing as a violinist and my novice attempts at teaching Alexander, swimming and biking, even the tilt of my head and swing of my arm when wielding a knife in my kitchen.

There’s a zeal to making connections and among my favorite cookbook authors, an edge of contempt for the mere follower of recipes. In his tome on baking, I’m Just Here for More Food, Alton Brown organizes his recipes by mixing method. Each method is described only once, at the beginning of the chapter—“which you will commit to memory,” he declares in the introduction.

Lots of recipe books basically repeat the same instructions over and over. They do this because it’s traditional and because they assume that you are not learning anything. I’m going to assume that you will.

Whether you thrill at this exhortation (as I do) or find it off-putting is largely a matter of intention. If your goal is to become the best possible cook, it can be incredibly exciting to be working in this way. If your goal is simply to put dinner on the table, it's a bit too much.

When I’m at home visiting my family, the discussions around what’s-for-dinner begin with, “Let’s keep it simple!” This is a preventive measure aimed at my historic tendency to deliver over-elaborate dinners three hours late when everyone is too limp with hunger to appreciate it. I have gradually acquired the pleasure of simple dinners, made with whatever’s in the fridge.

A similar shift has occurred in my Alexander teaching practice. When I finally certified as a teacher 11 years ago, I had been studying the Alexander Technique intensively for 4 ½ years. I could not identify with students who came to me who were only interested in 10 lessons, much less 6. While I still thrill at the students who become enthusiasts—studying three times a week for the first three months and then once a week for several years—I am just as engaged by students who are more tentative. Every bit of learning has value. Not only the exhaustive is interesting.

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.




That's Right: Nothing is the Solution to "Text Neck."

Recently my Facebook feed has blown up with articles and news segments about the dangers of “text neck.” It turns out that spending hours a day hunched over your smartphone texting is a bad idea and leads to all sorts of neck and upper back issues. Who knew? The news stories have given some good counsel—like limiting the amount of time you spend on your phone and moving your body in ways that are different than hunching over a phone. But as I’ve read the advice about preventing “text neck,” I keep wondering, do we give ourselves any choice in the matter?

I was reminded of a student who came to me for Alexander Technique lessons several years ago, just before the smartphone revolution. He was a doctor complaining of neck pain. He tried to set up regular lessons, but like many doctors, his schedule was not entirely his own. Even when we managed consistent lessons, he was always on call. With most of my students, I ask that they leave their phones off so that we can work without interruption. But he had to leave his pager on, just in case he had to respond to an emergency at the hospital.

I have to admit, he was a challenging student. At the start of each lesson, he would fill me in with a detailed report on his neck symptoms at work. He monitored himself ceaselessly to see if there was any improvement. He was obsessed with finding the “correct way to move” and gave himself detailed instructions using his voluminous knowledge of human anatomy. He would inform me, “I need to tone up through the erector spinae group, widen through the trapezius and release into the quads.” I suggested that he not micro-manage his movements, and told him the parable of the centipede who tried to control all one hundred legs consciously and ceased to be able to walk at all.  I tried to convince him that the first step was to leave himself alone. He needed to practice “non-doing:” it would give him a chance to observe himself and see if he could discover if his movement habits contributed to his neck problem.

One lesson I finally succeeded in getting him to stand quietly, leaving himself alone. I had just placed my hand where his head meets his neck and was helping him experience a “free neck”—moving his head gently back and forth in the “no” direction—when his pager went off. At the sound of the buzzing, his neck tensed dramatically, the back of his head pulled back, and his shoulders went up around his ears.

He duly checked his pager—it was not an emergency. We looked at each other. “I think we know why you have some neck tension,” I said.

‘Push notifications’ inform us not only of texts or phone calls, they alert us to e-mail, Facebook status updates, tweets, breaking news, traffic reports, weather alerts, and the latest available level on Angry Birds Star Wars II. Our response becomes habitual. The alert sounds and we jump into action. If that habit includes pushing our head forward 30 degrees, we may not even notice our necks tense to carry the 40 lbs of functional weight. That’s the thing about habits: they are unconscious and automatic.

The head is a heavy object. The average head weighs about 10 pounds. When your neck is free and the head is poised on a lengthening spine, it has a functional weight of 10 pounds. But for every degree the head is held forward—whether towards a cell phone, a computer, a book, a music stand, or a musical instrument—its functional weight increases dramatically. As this study by Kenneth K. Hansraj found, a 10 pound head held 30 degrees forward has a functional weight of 40 pounds.

So what we do with our heads has an enormous impact on the health of our necks, shoulders and backs. With my doctor student, the anxiety around the insistent and unbidden summons of his pager caused a spasm of tension in his neck, jerking his head back into his spine. The action was particularly dramatic in his Alexander lesson because it happened right after I had helped him find length in the neck and freedom at the head-neck joints. In his everyday life, though, he rarely freed his neck and it became increasingly tense and painful throughout the week.

Smartphones and doctors' pagers are similar in one important respect: they are stimulus response-machines. And smart phones are even more stimulating: "push notifications” inform us not only of texts or phone calls, they alert us to e-mail, Facebook status updates, tweets, breaking news, traffic reports, weather alerts, and the latest available level on Angry Birds Star Wars II. Our response becomes habitual. The alert sounds and we jump into action. If that habit includes pushing our head forward 30 degrees, we may not even notice our necks tense to carry the 40 lbs of functional weight. That’s the thing about habits: they are unconscious and automatic.

But there’s a key difference between doctors' pagers and our smartphones. Doctors are required to have a pager and may even, like my former student, resent its constant thrall. But if you’re anything like me, you love your smartphone. In fact, you could say that the stimulus from within—”I wonder what my friends think of that cat photo I just posted on Facebook,” for example—is as strong as the push notification from without.

Understanding the power of habit is as important in preventing “text neck” as limiting our time on our phones—maybe more so, since so many of us enjoy the time we spend on our phones and don't have any intention of reducing it down. With my doctor student, we practiced a different response to his pager: when it sounded, he would remind himself to pause, take his time in responding, free his neck. We can do the same thing with our phones. The next time it pings, we can give our necks a break. We can take a moment, however fleeting, and do nothing.


When a Slump becomes a Slouch: How much should we read into posture?

Kyra studied tae kwon do when she was in college. One day her instructor took her aside and said, “You need to work on your confidence.” Kyra was confused. She didn’t think she had a problem with confidence. If anything she was a pretty cocky 20 year-old. “Why do you think I’m not confident?” she asked. And her instructor said, “You’re always looking down during class.” “Oh!” Kyra laughed, “That’s because I’m a cellist!”

When cellists hold their instrument, the tuning pegs by the scroll tend to rest just behind the cellist’s left ear. To avoid the pegs, some will push their heads forward and look down. There are other reasons for this habit: if you look down, you can see your fingers and watch your bow’s contact point with the string.

Not every cellist has this pattern. And it’s not a great habit to have (you can have neck and shoulder issues from the weight of the head going forward). Regardless, Kyra had developed the habit of looking down while studying the cello. It didn’t mean she was insecure.

I made a similar mistake to Kyra’s tae kwon do instructor this summer. I taught the Alexander Technique at the Music in the Mountains Festival Conservatory to high school and college age musicians. We met in a group class in the mornings and students could also sign up for private Alexander lessons on a volunteer basis in the afternoons. In the first class, a couple students struck me as especially slouchy. They seemed wary and rarely smiled. I silently discounted them, figuring that they wouldn’t get much from the class.

We tend to read a lot into body language. A person who slumps in a chair is a slouch: lazy, disinterested, maybe even dumb. A person who looks down is shy or diffident. A person who sits up straight is confident and interested. But maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

I was completely wrong. Over the course of the two weeks, they became by far the most interested in the Alexander class. They signed up for the most private lessons. They were the most eager to apply what they were learning to their instruments. As I got to know them, I discovered that they were not only keenly intelligent, but talented in a number of areas outside of music.

Of course, these were student musicians at a classical music summer festival, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that they were smart and talented. I ended up being a little appalled by how quickly I had judged them based on their posture. As we worked together, I started to realize how much they didn’t want to be stuck in a slump. They were eager to change.

We tend to read a lot into body language. A person who slumps in a chair is a slouch: lazy, disinterested, maybe even dumb. A person who looks down is shy or diffident. A person who sits up straight is confident and interested. But maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

Earlier this week I told stories about a 5 year-old and an 8 year-old in music lessons. In both cases, a lucky bit of instruction helped them find more poise at their instruments in a matter of moments. But they were both young children. At a certain age—and it certainly varies with each child—patterns become more locked in the body. Then it takes more time to help students overcome the dictates of their habits.

There is a real danger to see the locking in of those patterns as a failure of character, when so often it is the result of forces outside the child’s control. As teachers, it is incumbent upon us to empower our students to take responsibility for themselves—literally, the ability to respond differently, whether it’s looking up and out in tae kwon do class or finding poise at their instrument. But in helping them take responsibility we shouldn’t judge them for their patterns. All too often, our children’s habits are but a shadow of the environments we have built for them.

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.


Distractible, Tired & Slouching: The Wondrous Effects of Sitting All Day at School

I’ve been writing this week about how music teachers can help their students find poise without resorting to nagging them about their posture. Music teachers often bring a great deal of ingenuity to teaching technique and musicianship, but then resort to simple exhortations like “sit up straight” or “stand tall” when teaching poise. From my work as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve learned that poise is a subject just as worthy of creative study as, say, vibrato in string technique.

As much as I enjoy giving this advice, it's a little unfair. After all, music teachers don’t teach in a vacuum. If their students show up distractible, tired and slouching to their lessons, it’s not the fault of their music teacher. Their students could just be sitting all day in school.

Two recent posts brought home to me the extent of the challenge. The first was a piece in the Washington Post by Angela Hanson, a pediatric occupational therapist. She wrote about her work with children with attentional issues in school. She argues that children require a minimum of outdoor play—unencumbered movement—in order to develop attentional control.

She describes working with a 6 year-old boy who was struggling to connect with his peers and pay attention in school. He attended her TimberNook camp over the summer, which gives children a week of immersion in the woods.

In the beginning of the week, he consistently pursued total control over his play experiences with peers. He was also very anxious about trying new things, had trouble playing independently, and had multiple sensory issues.

Amazingly, by the end of the week, he started to let go of this need to control all social situations. He also started tolerating and asking to go barefoot, made new friends, and became less anxious with new experiences. The changes were really quite remarkable. All he needed was time and practice to play with peers in the woods—in order to foster his emotional, physical, and social development.

When Hanson met with the boy’s teachers at the start of the fall, she told them that he needed an hour of recess a day at minimum. The teachers were sympathetic, but they told her that the maximum they could do was 15 minutes a day. Curricular demands—especially preparing for standardized tests—made that amount of recess time impossible. For a 6 year-old.

The second piece was published on Grant Wiggins’ blog. An anonymous teacher wrote about her experience shadowing two students at her high school—first a 10th grade student and then a 12th grade student. This was her first takeaway after two days of being a student at her high school:

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day... In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

Of course, we know that students sit all day and that sitting is tiring, but after years of standing in front of a class—lecturing, able to move around—this teacher had forgotten. And lest we put all the blame on American public schools, this teacher taught at a private school overseas.

In case these two pieces don’t depress you enough, what does sitting all day do to the back? The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to the coordination of the back as much as anything. Sitting weakens the back. The c-curve slump that chairs and desks encourage becomes locked into place, as connective tissue hardens to support the collapsed posture. Many students appear to grow into their chairs: you can still see the shape of the chair in their back when they stand up. After years of sitting, they can’t “sit up straight,” even if saying “sit up straight” was good advice. Their backs are no longer responsive to the command.

Yesterday, I wrote about Kyra teaching a cello lesson to a five year-old. She found a creative way to help her student find poise without saying, “sit up straight!” As I wrote at the end of the post, one of the reasons that her strategy worked was that she was teaching a very young child, who still retained a lot of mobility. She might not have had the same luck teaching an older student. In my Alexander practice, I find that it takes several lessons before teenage and college students—as young as they are—start to rediscover the coordination of their backs.

The regimented sedentariness of many schools is a huge problem. It impacts student learning, creativity and health. Because of this, Alexander Technique and music teachers are natural allies. They can team up to bring more rhyme and reason—not to mention movement and poise—to how we teach our children, both in school and out.






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.