Posts tagged Learning
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: http://www.alexanderand.com/blog/2014/11/18/my-first-alexander-lessons

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

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.

Start with Meaning: A Conversation with Adam Marks about Teaching Public Speaking to Musicians

Adam Marks' public speaking class was one of the highlights for me of last summer’s Music in the Mountain’s Conservatory. I was teaching the Alexander Technique to the festival students, and Adam not only invited me to sit in on his class, but encouraged me to help the students apply the Alexander Technique when they practiced speaking in front of the class. Since Adam and I are both returning to teach at the 2015 Music in the Mountains Conservatory, I asked him to talk with me about how he developed his public speaking program and how it can help musicians enhance their performances.

Pianist Adam Marks, practicing what he preaches.

Pianist Adam Marks, practicing what he preaches.

Adam: We were raised in an era of very strict conventions around concerts. This is how to begin a concert. This is how to transition between pieces. And we entered our professional lives just as things were changing quite a bit. We’re at the fulcrum of a very interesting shift.

Andrew: Especially in chamber music, it’s rare to see a group perform without one of the performers speaking from the stage. It seems like one of the things that you’re trying to do in your public speaking classes is to really enhance the entire performance.

Adam: If you start by saying to a group of musicians, "Who here has been to a concert where somebody talked and it was awful?” Everyone will raise their hand. And the bottom line is that if you have nothing to say, you shouldn’t say it. Speaking shouldn’t just fill time or check off a box.There’s an opportunity to bridge a gap here. To share some of your self.

Andrew: What drew you to explore the public speaking aspect of being a musician?

Adam: I had trained in speaking. I did competitive speech and debate starting in middle school. And then I took courses and was competing pretty regularly in speech and debate in high school. And when I was at Brandeis for my undergraduate, trying to make myself a legitimate pianist—whatever that means—I was also getting a minor in theater.

At the end of my college time, I started to play contemporary music. And I realized that it required a bridge to the audience if you wanted it to appeal to anyone but a “new music audience.” And they didn’t necessarily need help to understand, but permission to engage.

Andrew: It’s so common to go to a new music concert and have a performer give a semi-technical description of, say, metric modulation in the Elliott Carter piece they’re about to play. But you seem to steer away from technical explanations.

I started to map out the experience that I wanted to have on stage. I would think about the performance as a whole: how I wanted my time to be. I’m responsible for that time. And I realized, the more you put these things together—speaking and performing—the stronger they both are.

Adam: There’s never a completely homogenous audience. So I always say: “Figure out things that will actually make sense to everyone.” And usually that means starting with your journey, your engagement with what makes Carter Carter, whether in that metric-modulational way or not. Because for the person who knows everything about metric modulation, you can give them a new way to listen and engage. And for the person who has no understanding of metric modulation, you can suggest where to put their ear and how to think about the music.

Andrew: What do you find among the students you’ve worked with: is there a sense of buy-in to the idea of talking from the stage or is there resistance?

Adam: People have so much fear surrounding public speaking. I try to remove some of those fears as early as possible. I like to start from the place of: “You don’t have to do this in public.” You have to learn how to do this for yourself and for this room. And we take some of the pressure off of the performance aspect of it.

I mean, if somebody were coming in to study violin for the first time you wouldn’t begin with, “Let’s start by imagining a recital in which you play all of the Bach partitas.” You wouldn’t. You would say, “Let’s start with some fundamentals and build some skills you can eventually take to the stage.”

Andrew: One of the things that interested me in watching the class was that you didn’t start with techniques like, say, voice projection or diction. You started with meaning.

Adam: If you start very technically, everyone gets stuck thinking, “Here’s the mechanism I must engage with.” But if you start with meaning, you connect to the musical work we inspire students to do. If we’re being good musicians, good chamber musicians in particular, we have to be able to articulate our ideas. And if we start with what we already have, use those skills first and learn how to adapt them for an audience, it’s far more empowering. The chance of success goes way up.

And I also find that people will forgive style if the content is meaningful, and not the other way around.

Andrew: When I’ve watched you speak at a concert, it seems clear to me that you know what you want to say, but it still sounds extemporaneous. In the class, the students were developing very short and succinct statements or stories—maybe 30 seconds. But you didn’t have most of them speak extemporaneously—most of them memorized their talks. Is that a distinction between being a beginner at public speaking and being more experienced?

Adam. Yes, I think so. Actually, with anyone—at any level—knowing how you end is crucial. So I’ll usually memorize how I want to end and really practice that, because it’s so crucial to know how to stop. I think that’s where a lot of people fail. Knowing how to stop and how to transition is the most important thing to anchor.

We speak every day. It’s our primary means of communication. We get nervous when it becomes performance. So when we figure out everything around the presentation before dealing with the technical, we tap into that everyday experience as opposed to creating an artifice. And that’s a perfect connection to Alexander. Alexander is about finding the natural movement and releasing the unnecessary things that we have built up to create a more natural flow in your body.

In terms of what we’re doing with students, when you’re dealing with something that is so brief and so short, the beginning and the end are the same. It’s something that is doable. It’s concrete. You can rehearse it and they can deliver it.

They’re also developing their identities of self at that age. So as their voice gets stronger, as their persona on stage becomes more vivid, there’s more room for flexibility. So if a student were doing something longer, and they had maybe three points they wanted to get out, I would focus them on learning the three points, and then memorizing the last sentence.

Andrew: Something that had never occurred to me until I sat in on your classes was that talking from the stage could transition into the performance itself. You really emphasized that the ending of the talk could match the energy of the next piece on the program.

Adam: That came from my own exploration. When I first started speaking at my concerts, I would have all this energy. I really like talking spontaneously. And I would have all of these ideas and my mind would be racing and then I would sit down at the piano and I would think, “Wait, I have to be calm and still now.” It would be very very difficult.

So I started to map out the experience that I wanted to have on stage. I would think about the performance as a whole: how I wanted my time to be. I’m responsible for that time. And I realized, the more you put these things together—speaking and performing—the stronger they both are.

Andrew: As much as you start with meaning, that doesn’t mean that you neglect technique. And I think that this is one of the connections between how you teach public speaking and how I approach teaching Alexander, that the physical coordination is there in support of the meaning, the need to express something.

Adam: Yes, I mean, we speak every day. It’s our primary means of communication. We get nervous when it becomes performance. So when we figure out everything around the presentation before dealing with the technical, we tap into that everyday experience as opposed to creating an artifice. And that’s a perfect connection to Alexander. Alexander is about finding the natural movement and releasing the unnecessary things that we have built up to create a more natural flow in your body. Am I right?

Andrew: Yes. And just as there’s a widespread fear of public speaking, there’s also a widespread policing of posture. So it was exciting to be able to address how the students were, as Alexander teachers like to say, “using themselves” when they were up speaking before the class. And make that a hopefully more positive experience.

Adam: You brought a vocabulary to the classroom that I’ve never gotten to work with in real time with students. I do address the physical on a very basic level. For you to have your laser-cat eyes on that kind of stuff and to help people release in a very physical way, it just changes things so much. And I felt that what you were doing was so complementary.

Andrew: Yes, there was this basic compatibility of approach. I mean, if you take a student standing in front of the classroom, preparing to speak: head forward, shoulders rounded, and hips cocked at an angle. This is clearly not a great place to connect with people as a speaker or as a performer.

Well, why do they have that pattern? The typical way that people talk about it is that there’s apathy, they’re checked out as a teenager. It’s this typical teenage angst.

But it’s not really: It’s a lack of organization in the body, and it’s a lack of organization that comes from sitting all day, and becoming the shape of the furniture that you sit in—or even the shape of the instrument that you play.

You can’t really change the shape that you see by just “standing up straight.” They need to really perceive where their support is coming from. They need to notice how they might be interfering with their breath, that when they let the breath recover, now they have the air they need to speak. But it’s not something that’s put on. It’s an experience of the coordination that supports what they have to say.

Adam: It’s supporting something greater. I think that everybody needs a reason to do something new or to do something different. And in a classroom setting, they can get feedback about what’s changing about their presentation. Physically, verbally, musically. The more we unite all of those things, the better.

People aren’t going to a festival to learn how to have better posture, or learn how to speak in public. They’re learning how to be better musicians. And these things help you be better musicians. When they realize that, that’s where the buy-in comes from. But it takes time. It’s a luxury to have a couple weeks.

Andrew: Yes, and like you said at the beginning, the speaking connects the performers to the audience. I can’t even tell you how many audience members came up to me after the final concert at Music in the Mountains last summer—I think one literally had a tear in her eye—and said, “The students! They’re so well-spoken!”

Praised as an “excellent pianist” with “titanic force” (New York Times), Adam Marks is an active soloist, chamber musician, and educator. He has appeared as soloist with the Mission Chamber Orchestra, Manchester Symphony Orchestra, the National Repertory Orchestra, and at notable venues including Salle Cortot, Carnegie Hall, Miller Theatre, Logan Center for the Arts, Millennium Park, Ravinia, and the New World Symphony Stage. He was a laureate of the 2008 Orleans Competition for contemporary music in Orleans, France. Recent performances include recitals in Brazil, Singapore, and Croatia. Highlights of the 2014-2015 season include a residency with Yale University composers, appearances with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and a return to the Dame Myra Hess Recital Series and live broadcast on WFMT. Adam is currently appearing on stage in Fiasco Theatre’s critically-acclaimed revival of Into The Woods at Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway. To learn more about Adam, visit adammarks.com.

The Music in the Mountains Conservatory is a summer festival for high school and college-aged classical musicians. It runs from July 12 to August 1, 2015. The application deadline is March 16, 2015.

Related posts from the Alexander & blog: Finding the Story and When a Slump Becomes a Slouch: How Much Should We Read Into Posture?

Sometimes Not Breathing Is Believing

Technically, this pigeon is playing the English horn. [Artist unknown]

Technically, this pigeon is playing the English horn. [Artist unknown]

When I was training as an Alexander Technique teacher, Vivien Mackie—the well-known Alexander teacher and cellist—came to Urbana to visit the Murray’s training course. While in town, she gave a master class to undergraduate musicians at one of the local universities. I had never seen an Alexander teacher teach a master class, so I decided to sit in and watch.

One of the students was an oboist. The oboe can be richly beautiful. But this young man would puff himself up like a pouter pigeon before he began playing, and the sound that emerged from his instrument was harsh and laser-like—I imagined it peeling the varnish off the floor of the stage.

Vivien Mackie let him play for a bit and then had him stop. “I want you to try something, just as an experiment,” she said. (I’m paraphrasing.) “Just try once to begin playing without taking a breath.”

He looked a little confused, but nodded congenially. He turned back to his instrument, puffed himself up with a big breath once again, and resumed sandblasting the stage to a smooth sheen.

Vivien stopped him again. “Just try once playing without taking a big breath.”

He nodded, turned again to his instrument, puffed himself up with a big breath, and started power-washing the grooves in the floor with his sound.

Vivien interrupted him again. “I know it sounds crazy,” she said. “But just once, for me, try playing without taking a big breath.”

He nodded, and this time, he finally took no noticeable breath before beginning to play. The most beautiful sound poured from his instrument. I don’t know who was more astonished: him or me.

Many years later I had a similar experience with a professional flutist. She had taken a series of Alexander lessons with me before and was back for a refresher. This time she was in the midst of preparing for an orchestra audition.

She had to prepare a long list of orchestral excerpts—20 second to 1 minute long selections of some of the most difficult music written for her instrument. Each lesson would begin with some classic Alexander—reminders to find her length and freedom of movement in relatively simple activities. And then she would take out her piccolo and we would look to find the same freedom of movement when she was playing through each excerpt.

I remember one lesson in particular. She decided to play through a piccolo excerpt from the Lieutenant Kije Suite by the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev. It’s a jaunty little melody that begins in a reasonable register and then suddenly leaps up an octave and is very, very high.

When she reached the octave leap, several things happened at once: she pushed her chin forward towards the piccolo, tensed her neck, and blew about twice as much air through her instrument as she had before.

The first half of the melody sounded great. After the octave leap, it wasn’t as good. The notes either sounded shrill or didn’t really speak. She told me that the piece had never been a problem for her when she was playing with full orchestra in concert. But as an audition excerpt, it had become her bete noire.

The first thing I asked her to do was pay attention to her head balance when she played through the excerpt. It is often the case that releasing tension at the head and neck will make a difficult moment much easier. She was surprised to discover that she had been pushing her chin forward and tensing her neck at the moment the music leapt an octave. But the awareness didn’t help her much. Even with some practice, she couldn’t really do anything about it. The Prokofiev was already giving her plenty to think about it—adding the thought of a free neck was one thought too many.

A lot of musicians assume that learning the Alexander Technique means playing their instrument with perfect posture. And if you want to police these musicians’ posture, you could have faulted the oboist for puffing up his chest, or the flutist for tensing her neck. But these actions were really symptoms of their beliefs about what was necessary to play their instrument in that moment.

While we had been working on her head balance, I noticed that she was still pushing a ton of air through the instrument when she got to the octave leap. Now this is a tricky moment in teaching. I don’t know how to play the piccolo. And I don’t know if you need a lot more air to leap an octave on the piccolo. But I figured it was worth exploring.

So I said, “Just as an experiment: this time, when you play through Mr Prokofiev here, don’t change anything when you get to the octave leap. Just use the same amount of air.”

And she did. And when she got to the moment, the music leapt out of her instrument: the higher octave was just as clear and just as musically jaunty as the lower octave. And without the drive to push so much air through the instrument, she didn’t push her chin forward or tense her neck.

A lot of musicians assume that learning the Alexander Technique means playing their instrument with perfect posture. And if you want to police these musicians’ posture, you could have faulted the oboist for puffing up his chest, or the flutist for tensing her neck. But these actions were really symptoms of their beliefs about what was necessary to play their instrument in that moment.

The oboist was young and relatively inexperienced. He believed that he needed a ton of air to play the oboe. With Vivien Mackie’s help, he was surprised to discover that he not only didn’t need to take a big breath to play, but that his sound quality improved enormously when he took no noticeable breath at all.

My flutist student was a much more experienced player. She knew how much air was required to play the Prokofiev and could play it without much concern in a full orchestra. The tension in that moment came from the pressure of preparing for an audition—the need to nail the part, get it right the first time.

Both of these experiences are satisfying as a teacher. Look, the experiment worked! And it's tempting to say that such magic moments are enough. Now and forever more, these musicians will play with their new found ease! What complicates (and also enriches) the process, is that it's not just a matter of changing a movement pattern, but of changing a belief about what is possible. It's one thing to experience that you can get more from doing less. It's another thing to believe it.

 

If Evolution is to Blame for Back Pain, Why Do We Even Bother?

Alexander Technique students often experience relief from back pain through lessons. But if evolution is to blame for back pain, are we just deluding ourselves?

One day in the spring of my final semester in college I was in a hurry to check my mail between classes. I started running from the conservatory to the mailroom and after barely half a block, had to stop because my lower back hurt. I am tall and slim, much like my dad. When I was growing up, he suffered from periods of lower back pain, so even though I wasn’t particularly active or fit in college, I didn’t think, “Boy, I need to get in shape.” I thought instead, “Well, I guess it’s my build.”

This way of thinking about pain and discomfort is pretty common: my problem isn’t because of how I do things, but because of who I am. When it comes to back pain, this way of thinking has gotten a boost from some evolutionary biologists. They argue that evolution is to blame for back pain.

I’m glad I didn’t know about this line of thinking back in college. If I had, I wouldn’t have just thought: “My back hurts because of my build.” I would have thought, “My back hurts because I’m human.”

What do evolutionary biologists mean when they say that evolution is to blame for back pain?

In popular culture, it’s common to think of evolution as a perfecting process, where our species just keeps getting better and better all the time. But evolution—at least the natural selection kind—is a blind process. Species don’t get better or worse: they adapt to what is. When the environment changes, species either evolve over time to fit it or don’t. Most importantly, new adaptations in a species are constrained by what has come before.

For example, in the recent Cosmos series, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains that eyes originally evolved in water. When animals emerged on land some 375 million years ago, evolution couldn’t start over and “design” eyes for the land. Terrestrial eyes had to evolve from aquatic eyes: and so humans, to give one example, can’t focus on something that is held up right in front of our face. Who knew?

Such constraints on evolution explain the origins of back pain in humans. Our primate ancestors were quadrupeds. Our upright stance and bipedal locomotion are recent adaptations. There just hasn’t been enough time for our backs to have adapted to being upright.

Bruce Latimer, an anthropologist and anatomist at Case Western University, makes this argument to LiveScience. "We're the only mammals that spontaneously fracture vertebra," he says, comparing the spine to a stack of cups and saucers (the cups are the vertebrae and the saucers are the intervertebral disks). He continues:

Then take a book like a dictionary and put it on top. This is the head. If you are really careful, you can balance it — otherwise there's a lot of porcelain on the ground… Then imagine taking this and putting in all the curves that you naturally have in the spine. I could give you all the duct tape in the world, and you still couldn't possibly balance it.

Latimer is featured on Neil Shubin's wonderful PBS series Your Inner Fish. (It is currently streaming on Netflix.) PBS has made a three minute clip featuring Latimer available on youtube:

If our backs are an "engineering nightmare" (strong words!), does this mean we can’t do anything about back pain? If my Alexander students experience relief from back pain in their lessons, are they just deluding themselves?

In his 2013 book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman suggests that back pain might not be as inevitable as it seems.

Bipedalism first evolved some 6 million years ago, when our hominid ancestors, Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, first stood upright. Approximately 2 million years ago, the earliest human-like hunter-gatherers emerged, including Homo erectus. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, evolved some 200,000 years ago. Lieberman notes that there are important anatomical differences in the spines of Homo sapiens and Homo erectus, specifically one less lumbar vertebra in Homo sapiens, which implies that there was evolutionary pressure selecting for stronger spines in modern humans.

To Lieberman, two predominantly cultural changes help explain the high incidence of modern back pain: the agricultural revolution, 11,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution, some 200 years ago. Lieberman argues that back pain is a “mismatch disease” that results when our evolved adaptations fail to match the demands of our modern, cultural environment. Our hunter-gatherer ancestor’s lives were neither as rigorous as early farmers nor as sedentary as our contemporary lifestyle:

He writes:

No one has yet quantified the incidence of lower back pain among hunter-gatherers, but foragers rarely sit in chairs, they never sleep on soft mattresses, they often walk while carrying moderate loads, and they also dig, climb, prepare food, and run. They also don’t engage in hours of strenuous work such as hoeing or lifting that repetitively load the back. In other words, hunter-gatherers use their backs moderately—neither as intensively as subsistence farmers nor as minimally as sedentary office workers…

He refers readers to Michael Adams' model of lower back pain risk, then continues:

A healthy back requires an appropriate balance between how much you use your back and how well your back functions. A normal, fit back needs to have a considerable degree of flexibility, strength, and endurance, as well as some degree of coordination and balance. Since people who are mostly sitters tend to have weak and inflexible backs, they are more likely to experience muscle strains, torn ligaments, stressed joints, bulging disks, and other causes of pain if and when they subject their backs to unusual, stressful movements.

Lieberman’s account fits with my experience of back pain at the end of college. Like many college-aged Americans, I had been sitting everyday for hours upon a time for a decade and a half. When I sat in class I leaned back with my weight resting on my tail bone and my lower spine in a c-curve. Yes, my back hurt, but not enough to send me to a doctor. Even so, years later, Joan Murray (the co-director of the Alexander Technique Center Urbana where I trained as an Alexander teacher) would tell me that when we met, my lumbar spine was almost kyphotic (that is, the normal curve of the lower back had been reversed).

First in my Alexander Technique lessons with Carol McCullough and later during my training with the Murrays, I re-learned my basic coordination. In the process, my lower back strengthened and my shoulders broadened. I developed greater comfort in a wider range of positions. I still remember the excitement when I developed enough mobility in my hips and knees and length in my back to squat with my heels on the ground. And the lower back pain went away. I’m more comfortable in my body now as I approach forty than I was at twenty-two, about to graduate from college.

The process wasn’t magic. I relearned how to move and gradually reversed a condition brought about by neglect. And my renewed coordination requires maintenance. But since I make my living from teaching the Alexander Technique and performing on the violin, I'm not tied to a chair the way I was in school. That said, certain situations are more challenging than others.  As I learned the hard way, when I’m performing eight shows a week as a violinist in a pit orchestra, I need to make sure that my setup (my chair, my stand, my violin chin rest, etc) makes healthy coordination possible.  

The evidence from evolutionary biology does suggest that humans have a risk for back pain. But Bruce Latimer and others overstate their case when they blame evolution for back pain and call the spine an “engineering nightmare.” A risk of pain doesn’t mean that we are destined for pain. If we let it, our modern school and work environments will leave our backs uncoordinated and weak. But we don’t have to become victims of sitting all day. With practice, we sedentary moderns can relearn how to move so that we not only avoid pain, but experience real joy in movement. After all, something else evolved along with our dodgy backs—our minds.

Daniel Lieberman discusses back pain as a mismatch disease in the chapter 12, "The Hidden Dangers of Novelty and Comfort" in The Story of the Human Body. The PBS series Your Inner Fish was originally a book, also by Neil Shubin. The most significant study of the Alexander Technique and back pain was published in the British Medical Journal in 2008 and has been summarized here.
 

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.

Transformers: What Changes when Our Words Change?
"Bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head..." Original decoration by Ernest H Shepard from A.A. Milne's   Winnie-the-Pooh .

"Bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head..." Original decoration by Ernest H Shepard from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

My sister has been having a series of refresher Alexander lessons with me and after the holidays, she told me this story. For Christmas, her four year-old son, Griffin, was given a Transformer. I grew up with Transformers, but if you don’t know, they’re a line of toys that change from a robot to, say, an airplane and back again. I didn’t realize that they made Transformers for four year-olds, but apparently they do. Even so, the first time Griffin tried to transform his Transformer, he got stuck, tried to force a part, and then broke it. This was quite traumatic and after my sister consoled him (and his dad fixed it), she said to him, “Okay, next time, when you feel yourself trying to force it, just pause, and we can help you work it out.” As soon as she said this, she later told me, a light bulb went on in her head and she thought, “Wait a second, that’s what we’ve been working on in my Alexander lessons!”

It is often the case that the stories that help clarify the Alexander Technique are either about four year-olds or for four year-olds. This is probably because four year-olds are wrestling with impulse control for the first time and when we’re trying to change our habits in an Alexander Technique lesson, we, too, need to wield some control over our impulses. Our habits of mind and movement usually just have their way with us and it’s only by pausing and taking some time that we have any hope of experiencing positive change.

I’ve been dwelling recently about the language we use to explain the Alexander Technique. Stories about children and children’s stories are very helpful in teaching, but I also feel a contrary impulse, which is to communicate the significance of the work. To that end, a more technical language might have more impact, at least to a certain audience. “Stopping and thinking to change our habits” doesn’t sound nearly as rigorous as “Practicing executive attention to facilitate change in automatic postural coordination.”

I think this desire to communicate the importance of the Alexander Technique has been there since the beginning.

Stories about children and children’s stories are very helpful in teaching, but I also feel a contrary impulse, which is to communicate the significance of the work. And to that end, a more technical language might have more impact, at least to a certain audience. ‘Stopping and thinking to change our habits’ doesn’t sound nearly as rigorous as ‘Practicing executive attention to facilitate change in automatic postural coordination.’

For example, when my sister counseled Griffin to “pause,” she was asking him to practice what Alexander teachers call “inhibition.” F.M. Alexander first began using the term shortly after he had moved to London from his native Australia in 1904. Before then Alexander had been primarily known as an actor and a teacher of elocution and the Delsarte Method of dramatic expression. His work gradually came to the attention of a series of medical doctors, first in Sydney, then in London, who would send their patients for lessons with Alexander. It was after meeting Dr Robert H Scanes Spicer in London that Alexander began using a more technical language to describe his work, such as “antagonistic action,” “mechanical advantage,” “kinaesthesia,” and “inhibition.”

Alexander’s use of the term inhibition has something in common with the great American psychologist, William James (see the chapter on Will in his Principles of Psychology). Yet it's Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic conception of inhibition that has gained ascendency in our culture. Even though Freud has been out of fashion for the last several decades, many people still associate the idea of inhibition with lack of spontaneity, repressed emotion, and sexual dysfunction, none of which are in any way goals of studying the Alexander Technique.

Alexander may have been uniquely unlucky with the term inhibition. It is both one of the most important concepts in the Alexander Technique and perhaps the most easily misunderstood—and not just in the Freudian sense.

When I was first starting out as a teacher over a decade ago, I loved using the more technical terms. Since I didn’t really know what I was doing, I hoped that my erudite language would impress my students. I had one student who became particularly enamored with the idea of inhibition, which he misconstrued to be a general state of disassociation. And while I was trying to work with him on staying aware and light in his body, he would just check out, growing more and more disconnected, and heavier and heavier in his body.

It’s likely, of course, that if I had had more practical skill as a teacher I could have avoided the problem. But I sometimes wonder how much my language encouraged the misunderstanding. It’s easy to think that to inhibit means to repress or disassociate. It’s harder to misunderstand more colloquial phrases, like “take time,” “leave yourself alone,” or simply, “pause.”

This doesn’t mean that I think we should ignore more technical language. I recently spent time working through a new study about the Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s Disease. One of the things I appreciate about scientific writing is the attempt to speak very precisely. Since I’m a teacher and not a trained scientist, a lot of the writing can be above my head, but when I am successful in making sense of it, I find it clarifies my thinking. And it helps me connect the act of teaching with the research enterprise of understanding how we think and move.

It may very well be that as the sciences progress, we will develop a shared language that is both precise and accessible. Until then, I will continue to collect children’s stories, since they can be so helpful in keeping my students from wandering down the wrong path. Like this, the very beginning of Winnie the Pooh:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

 

This post was revised and expanded on Sunday, Feb 22. To learn more about Alexander's early history, refer to Alexander's Articles & Lectures, edited by Jean Fischer, and Michael Bloch's biography, F.M.: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Founder of the Alexander Technique. I also gained insight into Alexander's development from the manuscript of a forthcoming book by Alexander Murray. Many thanks and credit to the Alexander Technique teacher—I wish I could remember her name—who first mentioned the Alexander Technique connection to Winnie the Pooh.

Soft Focus

For several summers in a row during college and just after, I was a student at the International Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas. During my time at Round Top, several of the faculty sat in with the student orchestra, including the concertmaster. Her standards were high and she was unabashed in insisting on them. For example, she would turn around in soft passages to make sure all the violins were in exactly the same part of the bow and yell, “AT THE POINT” at any stragglers. Playing in her section was somewhat traumatizing but also rewarding—by the end of the summer we sounded great, and we knew that her ferocity was one reason why.

The violin sections rotated seating, and for one concert cycle I found myself sitting next to her. There was a private drama to sharing a stand with her. She would whisper heated instructions to me during rehearsals: Count! Don’t rush! I remember one moment in particular. We were in the midst of a passage—the whole orchestra playing around us—and she hissed at me, “Who are we playing with?” I was confused. Who are we playing with? The Round Top Festival Orchestra? I didn’t say anything. “Who are we playing we?” she asked again. We were still playing. I looked blankly at her. “WHO ARE WE PLAYING WITH?” I found it difficult to play and talk at the same time. So I just shook my head. “THE BASSOONS!” She was definitely no longer whispering. “WE’RE PLAYING WITH THE %$*& BASSONS!” And I suddenly realized that for this entire time, we—the violins—and the bassoons had been playing the same melody together and I was too busy playing my own part to notice.

Playing a musical instrument in an ensemble requires intense focus on the task of playing that instrument. But if we focus so much on our own part that we become oblivious to the musicians around us, then we will no longer be much service to our section, the orchestra, or the music.

This is not just true for musicians. Before scrolling down further, I want you to watch the video embedded below this paragraph. It’s very short. In it you will see two teams of three players each, passing basketballs. One team is wearing white shirts. One team is wearing black shirts. When you watch the video, count the number of passes made by the white-shirted team. This is very important. You must count the number of passes made between members of the white-shirted team. The future of the Republic hangs in the balance.

Did you notice anything unusual? Many thousands of people have watched the video and about half of them don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Daniel Kahneman writes about this experiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention… The most remarkable observation of the study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there—they cannot imagine missing such a striking event.

My teacher at Oberlin, Greg Fulkerson, used the terms hard focus vs soft focus. With hard focus, we’re so oriented to the task in front of us that we’re not in the room. With soft focus, we are able to both attend to our part and be aware of what is going around us at the same time.

Since our attention is inherently limited, you can use soft focus to know whether or not you’re prepared for rehearsal. If you can play your part, but it requires so much concentration that you became oblivious to your surroundings, then you need to practice it more. One way to practice soft focus on your own is to use your body as a focus of attention. If you can play through your part while attending to your whole self—from the dynamic balance of your head on your spine all the way down to the contact of your feet on the floor—then you are probably fluent enough on the part to use soft focus in rehearsal with others.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some composers write music of such intense difficulty that it overwhelms your ability to broaden your attention—you just hang on for dear life, switching your attention as the next crisis demands. But in most music, it is possible to be prepared. Being able to choose where you place your attention is one of the most important ways you can contribute as a musician. It puts you in the room, not only with the music and your peers, but ultimately your audience.

 

Repetition without Repetition

Odin demonstrates the use of the metronome as a sleep aid.

 

I remember when my high school violin teacher first showed me how to work up a passage gradually using a metronome. I thought it was a bit magical. You started slowly and just by moving the metronome up one click at a time, you could get a passage up to tempo!

When I got to Oberlin, I was surprised to find that my violin professor wasn’t quite so keen on working up with a metronome. He thought it was a useful tool, sure, but he had some questions first: was I playing in tune with every repetition? How was my sound? Was it warm and round or harsh and scratchy? Was I thinking of the phrase? It hadn’t really occurred to me to be that careful. I just assumed that as I got more facile in the passage that my intonation and sound would improve as well.

Violinist Simon Fischer writes in Practice:

Because repetition practice is effective it can also be the most dangerous. You have to be very aware of what you want and what to avoid—and listen very carefully—to avoid strengthening mistakes.

Repetition is also a great way to get injured—sometimes in surprising ways. I got a glimmer of this danger one day in college when I had been drilling a passage with the metronome for about 45 minutes. For some reason that day, I had decided to stand with my weight pushed into my left hip and down my left leg. This wasn’t a normal way of standing for me, but it had a sort of jaunty insouciance that I liked when I saw myself in the mirror. When after 45 minutes of practicing I decided to take a break, I straightened up and felt a shooting pain in my left hip. I packed up, grimacing, hobbled out of the practice room and limped off to class. It took the rest of the afternoon for the discomfort in my hip to ease.

Awareness is essential in repetitive practice. As a young player, I usually focused my attention on what I intended to practice, not on everything that was actually happening at the same time. Whatever we repeat, we are potentially learning. When I began taking Alexander Technique lessons, I started to include a larger awareness of my body when I practiced. I realized that if I tensed my neck or rounded my shoulders while practicing, I was drilling these harmful habits just as much as the notes I was supposed to be learning.

So how to we get the benefits of repetition without succumbing to the dangers? Recently I came upon an intriguing approach advocated by Christine Carter, a clarinetist and researcher at Manhattan School of Music. She points out that one of the reasons that it’s so hard to stay aware and attentive during repetitive practice is, well, it’s dull.

We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults… The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged.

Carter recommends that we replace “blocked practice”—where we practice all the repetitions at once—with “random practice”—where the repetitions are sprinkled throughout the practice session.

For example, say want to practice three passages—A, B, and C—15 times each. A blocked practice schedule would look like this:

  1. A, 15 times
  2. B, 15 times    
  3. C, 15 times

In contrast, a random practice schedule would look like this:

  1. ABC
  2. BCA
  3. CAB
  4. BAC
  5. ACB
  6. CBA
  7. etc.

Each passage still gets practiced 15 times, but by alternating among passages, we make it easier to stay alert and attentive.

Different practice methods are better at different stages of learning. In Practice, Simon Fischer suggests that highly repetitive practice is most effective towards the end of the process of learning a piece. In the beginning, it’s tempting to repeat a passage we can't play over and over again. But more exploratory practice methods—designed to understand the choreography of the passage from different angles—are better at such an early stage. Only when you can play a piece well at a conscious level—really know the story you want to tell—do you risk “grooving” the piece into your system through repetition. 

 

 

Finding the Story

I was just out of grad school and still living in Urbana, finishing up my Alexander Technique training. I was playing in the violin section of the Peoria Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma was the featured guest for the symphony’s end-of-season gala. He came in for the dress rehearsal on the same day as the concert. I assumed that he would disappear after the rehearsal like some of the other soloists that had played in Peoria. But he was incredibly generous with his time. After rehearsal he stuck around backstage, shaking hands with the musicians and signing CDs. Before the concert, he hung out backstage, shaking hands with musicians and signing CDs. And after the concert, he hung out backstage, shaking hands with the musicians and signing CDs.

I didn’t have anything for him to sign but I did have a question. A few years before, the New Yorker had published an article by Malcolm Gladwell about “The Physical Genius,” which profiled masters of skill: the neurosurgeon, Charlie Wilson, hockey great Wayne Gretsky and Yo-Yo Ma. One quote in particular had really stuck out at me: “Ma says he spends ninety per cent of his time ‘looking at the score, figuring it out—who's saying this, who wrote this and why,’...and only ten per cent on the instrument itself.” I was a bit flabbergasted by this idea. So I got in line and when I got up to him, I mentioned the article and then said, “Do you really only spend a 10th of your time on your instrument?”

And he got super excited. I don’t have an exact quote, but the gist of what he said is this: You have to figure out what the story is before you go to your instrument. So you study the score. And you try to figure out the story. And once you have an idea, you go to the instrument and try out the story. And then you decide, no, that’s not quite it. And you go back to the score to figure out the story. Then you come back to the instrument and try out the story. But no, that’s not quite it. And then you go back to the score until the story is clear to you. And then you tell that story at your instrument. But you have to find the story to tell the story! If I remember correctly, he may have started waving his arms and gesticulating enthusiastically.

When I was coming up, I was often told by teachers that if I wanted to make it as a musician I had to put in 6 to 8 hours a day on the violin. It never occurred to me that I could get as much accomplished—let alone more—if I dedicated most of those hours to score study and mental practice.

If you have never mentally practiced before, it can be hard to know where to start. Choose a short passage: maybe four measures. Completely imagine what you want it to sound like: dynamics, tone quality, phrasing. Imagine the physical sensations of playing. If you’re a string player, imagine the fingering and bowing patterns, the contact of the bow hair on the string, the bow’s speed and contact point. If you’re not a string player imagine the sensations that come with your instrument or voice. To this long list, add your whole body. Feel your feet against the floor and the delicate balance of your legs. Include your breath, the subtle movements of your torso, and the balance of your head on top of your spine. You don’t have to tell your body to do anything, just expand your awareness to include your whole body. Then play the passage.

When I was coming up, I was often told by teachers that if I wanted to make it as a musician I had to put in 6 to 8 hours a day on the violin. It never occurred to me that I could get as much accomplished—let alone more—if I dedicated most of those hours to score study and mental practice.

One advantage of mental practice is a sense of fluency in your body. The Alexander Technique teacher Walter Carrington once said, “People imagine that their bodies are disobedient and unreliable in carrying out their wishes, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Our bodies get terribly confused because of the conflicting demands that we make of them all the time in our muddled, confused, contradictory wishes.” This is especially true in practicing. When a piece of music is hard, it is hard because a lot of things are going on at once. If you notice your body getting tense or tight, start with your mind. Is your intention clear? Or are you sending muddled, confused, even contradictory directions?

In that old Malcolm Gladwell article, Yo-Yo Ma says that he remembers riding on the bus when he was seven and solving a difficult musical passage by imagining himself playing it on his cello. That’s so precocious that I kind of hate him. But it’s also inspiring. There’s so much that can be accomplished if we just use our brains.


 

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!

Pas de Clarinette: Histories of Movement

When I was a new Alexander teacher, I worked with a clarinetist who was in her mid-twenties. Since I knew she was a musician, I was on the look out for habits that I associated with wind playing. Maybe her head would go forward towards her mouthpiece or—since her clarinet’s weight would be carried by her right hand—there would be an imbalance in the shoulders. But the first thing I noticed was that her feet were very turned out. She tended to pitch her hips forward and hyperextend her back. Because her hips were tilted, she sort of leaned into her belly, even though she was quite diminutive and didn’t have much of a belly. I was a little bit puzzled, so I asked her, “Have you ever studied ballet?” And she replied, “Oh yes, for about six years when I was a kid.” Even though she hadn’t studied ballet for well over a decade, she still stood in first position.

One of the first things I now ask new students is to to share their history of movement. The habits that we look at in Alexander Technique lessons are not the obvious habits—like our eating, smoking or drinking habits. They’re our habits that are so close to us that we take them for granted. One way to uncover these habits is to take stock of our history of movement: reflect on what we have done with enough regularity over the years—especially in our childhood—that the habits we formed then are still around now.

Musicians can be particularly interesting examples of layered movement histories. I once worked with a cellist in a workshop. He was clearly a skilled and knowledgeable player, but he seemed to be playing in spite of his torso, which was quite rigid. He held his breath while he played—which wasn’t particularly unusual since so many string players hold their breath—but when he did breathe, he would gasp in the air with great force. Because it was a workshop, I didn’t have time to take a complete movement history before we started. So we worked on what was in front of us—getting him to notice his breath and let it move freely while allowing his torso to move sympathetically with his arms as he played.

It was when I talked to him later that I learned that he had been a competitive swimmer through much of high school and college. His specialty had been the sprint events and, as he told me, in a race every unnecessary breath slows you down. So his overarching goal when he swam was to get to the other end of the pool with as few breaths as possible. He hadn’t swam competitively in many years, but his breathing habit in the pool had carried over into his cello playing. His rigid torso suddenly made sense: he was playing the cello as if he was swimming a race, only breathing in the rare moments when he came up for air.

One of the interesting things to me about these two examples is that both dance and swimming have positive associations in our culture. We speak of the grace of the dancer. Swimming is often held up as an ideal form of exercise. And while dance and swimming can be beneficial in many ways, they can also lead to habits that are far from healthy. No one is immune from the power of habit. After all, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

In many styles of dance, especially ballet, dancers may wittingly or unwittingly cultivate a hyper-extended back, an anteriorly-rotated pelvis, and turned out legs. If a dancer has these habits and becomes a wind player, they will have a harder time finding the release in the lower torso necessary for a full recovery of breath.

Competitive swimming is all about speed in the water. I can't speak to whether it’s a good idea to hold ones breath during a meet or not. But if competitive swimmers have to hold their breath, they should take care not to bring that habit into their other activities.

Much of Alexander work is about unlearning: taking away the habits that interfere with the task at hand, whether it’s performing on a musical instrument or something else entirely. There’s a parable that Alexander teachers like to share. A young artist goes to a master sculptor and asks him, “Master, how do I sculpt an elephant?” And the master replies, “Take away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

 

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.


Archer's Bow and Shortened Hamstrings: More Markers of Occupation

Yesterday I wrote about the markers of occupation, the way our activities can shape our bodies over time. My friend Todd sent me a dramatic example from the military history of the middle ages: a lifetime of drawing the longbow was visible in the long dead bodies of archers.

We can actually identify a longbowman’s skeleton by the damage they have done to their bones; otherwise rare defects show up along the shoulder blades, wrists, and elbows. The act of drawing back hundreds of pounds of force every day, hundreds of times per day, strained ligaments and bones to such an extent that some skeletons even started growing extra bone to compensate. Their devotion to their skill permanently changed their bodies enough that we can still identify them hundreds of years later.

Our modern markers of occupation are quite different from the English archers. We are much more likely to be changed by the extreme sedentariness of our modern work environments.

The solution, of course, is to move more, and so people exercise. As important as exercise is, there’s new research that suggests that sitting all day is so detrimental to our health that all the exercise in the world isn’t enough to undo the damage—if we continue to sit all day.

This point was reinforced by a recent piece by Brook Thomas on stretching. Sitting all day shortens the hamstrings and so people try to stretch them to increase their length. Why does this often have so little effect? Thomas argues that it’s not just that the physical substrate of the muscle needs to be stretched. The nervous system needs to reset its expectations about what is possible:

While working on the Liberated Body Short Hamstrings Guide, I kept coming back to the issue of how the hamstrings function, in some chronically short-hamstringed people, as an emergency brake. This kind of compensatory pattern happens for plenty of reasons, but top among them might be under active deep core musculature, too rigid core musculature (yes, underactive and too rigid can come together), weakened adductors, and more. If these or other key stability structures can’t fully do their job, the hamstrings are at the ready. They sub in for a lack of support elsewhere by battening down the hatches...

If your car were parked on the edge of a cliff and was held there only by its emergency brake, would you release it? Not if you are sane. This is the same decision your nervous system is making when you attempt a forward fold and are stopped prematurely.

To bring about a change in the structure of the musculature, both mind and muscle have to be taken into account. The best way to do this? Change what we do each day.

The way to approach rehabilitating [short hamstrings] would be to move with more normal hamstrings length more frequently. For example: to use a standing desk for all or part of the day, to sit on the floor with our legs outstretched in front of us (if we can accomplish that without rounding our backs, another symptom of short hamstrings), wearing neutral-heeled shoes, and to walk and to take frequent movement breaks, among other things.

The road to rehabilitation would not look like stretching the bejeezus out of your hamstrings at their absolute maximum end range for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty and ninety seconds per day.

We have to stop dividing our lives between sedentary work and vigorous exercise. Alexander lessons can certainly help us unlearn the unfortunate habits that our work lives encourage. But work also needs to become more dynamic. Most tasks do not actually require us to sit for 8 hours a day. The same problems can be solved and the same projects completed using a variety of positions and actions. Ultimately, if the work environment changes, it will be easier for employees to take responsibility for their own health.

This is starting to happen, but it can be frustratingly slow. My sister recently injured her knees in a fall. After getting reassurance from her doctor that nothing was torn or broken (she received a diagonsis of patellofemoral pain syndrome), we talked about how she could modify her activities to help her heal. We had two priorities: cultivate length in the back to take weight out of her knees, and prevent the kind of distorted, compensatory patterns that creep in to the rest of the body after a knee injury.

She found sitting and standing still to be the hardest activities to maintain. So we talked about her options at work. Could she get up and walk around? To a limited extent, yes. If she perched on a stool with her feet on the floor, her knees would be at a wider angle than when sitting. This might provide some relief. Was there a high desk and stool that she could use to experiment and see? No, that wasn’t possible. Could she find a place to lie on her back for 10 minutes or so every couple of hours? It would help prevent compensatory patterns. No, there was no place that she could lie down.

We both were a little frustrated. My sister’s workplace is very intellectually stimulating, but it’s very physically restrictive. This is the norm in many work environments, not the exception.  At some point, our office places will have to change. The archers of the middle ages had no choice about practicing with the longbow—it was demanded by the king. But we don’t owe such fealty to our employers. We owe our work work. We don’t owe work our health.


 

 

 

 

 

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.