Posts tagged Faulty Sensory Awareness
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.

Part 2: Off the Map: My First Alexander Lessons

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

Yesterday, I wrote about my fear of injury as an aspiring musician. When I called Carol McCullough to set up my first Alexander Technique lessons, I had few illusions that I needed some help. It wasn’t just that I was often uncomfortable at the violin, it was a growing sense that I had very little awareness of what was going on.

I spent most of my time at Oberlin either practicing the violin, reading, or on the computer. When I branched out and took a contact improv class in the middle of my fourth year (because: Oberlin), I remember the teacher at the end of the month asking us which parts of our bodies were clearest in our mind. I thought for a while and came up with this list: my hands—since I played the violin and typed with them. And my elbows and knees—since they were bony and stuck out.  

Later that spring, my friend Todd dragged me, somewhat against my will, to a yoga class. I remember the blissed out expression on his face as he went through the poses and my growing sense of frustration and incompetence. The teacher kept telling us to bend from our hips. What did she mean, bend from the hips? Where the *$!% were my hips?

It was as if parts of my body were areas of an old map marked “terra incognita.”

Much of my early Alexander lessons were spent focused on raising my basic awareness. The lessons were hands-on. It was my first experience with educational touch. Carol’s contact was gentle, but assured.

Her hands gave me the most basic feedback: this is where you are in space. Her instructions were reinforced by touch. If she told me that my head was supposed to move from the very top of my body—the atlanto-occipital and atlanto-axial joints, if you’re being technical—then she would give me the experience of moving at those joints. Her hands were saying: this is where your head balances on top of your spine. This is how you move to take advantage of your head-neck joints.

To reinforce my experience, Carol introduced me to Alexander’s idea of “faulty sensory awareness”—or in his more florid moments, “debauched kinesthesia.” I felt a twinge of recognition: through unwitting neglect, my sense of self had grown inaccurate and incomplete.

Many years later I would read A Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s book about how the brain maps the body. In it they talk about the distinction that scientists make between your body image and your body schema.

Your body image is your mental picture of your body. It’s your beliefs about yourself: how you think you move and how you think you appear. In contrast, your body schema is the information coming to your brain from the sensory organs around your body, telling you where your body is actually in space. Your body image is top-down. Your body schema is bottom-up.

The alarming thing is that your body image will almost inevitably override your body schema. Your beliefs will remain unchallenged by the actual and accurate information coming in from your senses. Belief trumps reality.

In my Alexander lessons, I was testing my beliefs—as spotty as they were—against the real structure of my body. It wasn’t intellectual knowledge—it was experiential. It was lived.

Very gradually, my body map started to fill in. The discovery of my hip-joints was a landmark event—I’m talking about the ball-and-socket joint where the thigh bones come into the pelvis. Maybe it sounds silly: but through discovering movement at my hips, I started to rediscover my full mobility and strength. You can’t move easily if you’re locking your hips. You can’t be strong if you’re always bending at the waist and losing the leverage of a lengthening spine.

Then a strange thing happened: I realized I was tall. Let me explain. I was 23 when I started lessons with Carol and I hadn’t been tall for very long. I was a late bloomer. Growing up, I had usually been the shortest kid in my class. And then I grew all at once. I was five feet tall at fourteen and reached my full height—6’1”—three years later at the end of my junior year.

The alarming thing is that your body image will almost inevitably override your body schema. Your beliefs will remain unchallenged by the actual and accurate information coming in from your senses. Belief trumps reality.

But I didn’t really feel tall. This had had some disastrous consequences—my first week at Oberlin, I leapt over some students sitting on the floor of the dorm hallway and concussed myself, smashing my head into the ceiling. Less dramatically, I often had the sense that I was talking with people at eye level, even if they were six inches shorter than me and were obviously looking up.

None of this struck me until after I’d started lessons with Carol and started to see the world from my actual height. It also started to make sense why I was so often uncomfortable. It’s hard to take advantage of your height if at a fundamental level you don’t think you're tall.

A lot of times, students assume that Alexander lessons are going to start with the teacher telling them the right way to move. But lessons really begin with the most basic awareness. It’s hard to get around if your map is incomplete. You have to start by knowing where you are.

Before my lessons with Carol, if I was uncomfortable or in pain, I didn’t know why. With each lesson, I started to realize that there was information available to me that would help make sense of the discomfort. It was a lot more subtle to perceive than the ache of an aching wrist. But if I practiced this simple awareness, I might start to perceive the patterns that not only explained the pain, but could point me in a different direction.

Next: 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.