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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was no jerk back. I stayed poised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odin's early education was truly top-notch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cat is cued and ready to go.

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

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

It’s important to know what the cue is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everything went to hell.

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