Posts tagged Performance
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.

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.

 

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. 

 

 

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.”

 

Chair Follies & Sondheim's Follies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These were the markers of occupation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Knee Brain: Connecting Mind & Movement with an 8 year-old

I was a little surprised when Elaine asked me to teach violin to her 8 year-old daughter, Emily. Elaine and I played in a local orchestra together, and while I had just certified as an Alexander Technique teacher and was looking for students, I didn’t think I was truly qualified to teach the violin to an 8 year-old. I had taught the violin before, mostly to college students as part of my assistantship at the University of Illinois. But teaching elementary age children is a skill unto itself. What sequence of pieces would I use? Wheren’t there games that I should learn? Shouldn’t I get Suzuki-certified first? But Elaine reassured me. She could advise me on pieces to assign—she was an experienced teacher, herself. She just thought that her daughter would be more motivated to practice if she wasn’t taking lessons with her mother.

When Emily came for her first lesson, I couldn’t help but notice that she had developed a common habit when standing and holding the violin. Her chin rest was a little low for her, so she jutted her chin forward towards the instrument. She pushed her upper back back and hips forward. She locked her knees back and stood with her feet wide apart. Her pattern was actually pretty similar to my old habit at the violin, though I hadn’t constantly locked my knees.

I couldn’t do anything about her chin rest—there weren’t as many chin rest options then as there are now. I did want to address her habit in standing, but I wasn’t sure how best to proceed. My Alexander training had prepared me to work with adults. I wasn’t sure how to translate it for an 8 year-old. I didn’t think that having an 8 year-old learn Alexander’s directions—“let the neck be free, head to release forward and up, back to lengthen and widen”—was quite developmentally appropriate. After all, when she stood without holding the violin, her neck was already free and her back was lengthening and widening. We just needed to find a way for her to hold the violin without interfering with her poise. Not sure what to do, I reminded myself that Emily had come for violin lessons, not Alexander lessons. So, I concentrated on getting into a rhythm around her violin study.

Emily had started on the violin with her mother and her technique was solid. Her bow hand and arm looked good. Her left hand had a nice shape to it. So I concentrated on working with her on music. When she would launch into a piece, however, her technique would deteriorated rapidly. Her bow hand would turn into what I called the “claw of death.” Her left wrist would push up to the violin neck and fingers smush down on the fingerboard. It was not a pretty picture.

I started to appreciate something said to me by Robin Kearton, another Alexander Technique teacher and violinist in Champaign-Urbana. Over the years, Robin has taught string playing to vast numbers of elementary age children. “The whole challenge of teaching children,” she told me, “Is getting them to inhibit.”

Inhibition is central to the Alexander Technique. It means, simply enough, to stop and think. Inhibition is a crucial skill in habit change: by not responding habitually, you make space for a new experience. I wanted to help Emily inhibit, but I didn’t want to make her stiff or self-conscious. So we played “preparation games.” Emily would sing through the piece beforehand. She would mime the bowing in the air. She would tell me the left hand fingering she would use. And once the piece was clear in her mind, she would play through it, often beautifully. We started joking about engaging her “bow brain” and her “violin brain” before she played.

But her stance at the instrument hadn’t improved. I was stymied by her low chin rest. In the Alexander Technique, we usually start with the freedom of the neck when helping students find their poise. But I couldn’t really help Emily “free her neck” until her chin rest fit her better. So one lesson I decided to start at the opposite end and help her unlock her knees.

When I was at Oberlin and locked my knees performing in studio class, my teacher would sometimes yell, “bend your knees!” from the back of the auditorium. As I’ve learned since, “bend your knees”—like “sit up straight”—isn’t the best advice.

Based on an image in Jennifer Johnson's essential, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body." 

Based on an image in Jennifer Johnson's essential, "What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body." 

Locking the knees when standing is bad, but bending the knees isn’t any better. It might even be worse: while I can’t claim statistical significance, most all of my students with chronic knee problems have stood with habitually bent knees. Bending the knees constantly when standing can put body weight into the knee cap and patellar ligament, which isn’t made to bear weight constantly. Luckily, there’s a third option: gently unlocked. The thigh bone is supported on top of the tibia, dynamically balanced and ready to move.

In her lesson, Emily and I played a simple knee game. We would bend our knees. We would lock our knees. Then we would find “gently unlocked” in between. Surprisingly, when Emily unlocked her knees, her hips automatically stopped pushing forward and came underneath her. Her back lengthened up and stopped pushing back at the upper spine. While she still had the tendency to push her head forward towards her low chin rest, overall, her stance was dramatically improved.

To her “bow brain” and “violin brain” we added her “knee brain.” She would remember to let her knees remain unlocked as she sang through the music, mimed the bowing and spoke the fingering. When she would play through the piece, not only was her playing better, she started moving more naturally—easily, in sympathy with the music.

Just as with Kyra’s five year-old cello student, I was fortunate that Emily was so young and flexible. With older students, unlocking the knees is still important, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to an automatic improvement across the body. For Emily, unlocking her knees was a master key. But more than that, my experience with her taught me that the real challenge with children is not teaching them the correct posture, but helping them remember their innate poise. Poise is so much more than a position in space: it is presence of mind.


 

You Don't Have to Say, "Sit Up Straight!"

On Wednesdays, Kyra teaches the cello to an adorable five year-old, "E." In her lesson yesterday, E was sitting slumped on her little green stool, hanging backward off her cello. Instead of telling her to “sit up straight,” Kyra asked E to touch her cello bridge with her left hand.

When E reached for her bridge, her back lengthened and she sat up. Funnily enough, she didn’t really notice the change. She just sat poised and alert for the rest of her lesson.

It was a small moment, but a great example of helping a child find poise at their instrument without nagging about posture.

Poise is important at any instrument. From a place of equilibrium you can move in any direction. Cellos are large instruments, even those made for five year olds, and it’s tempting for children to practice hanging off of them backwards or draping themselves over the front. It’s not surprising that teachers and parents want to discourage them from developing these habits. So why is telling children to “sit up straight” not the best idea?

It can be hard to tell the difference between poise and rigidity. Children told to “sit up straight” often hyperextend their lower backs. Over-tensing the back may look better than slouching, at least from a distance, but it is just as bad for the health of the back in the long run.

Also, “sit up straight” puts the focus on appearance rather than the experience of playing and risks making children self-conscious. True poise is inherently enjoyable, not because it looks good, but because it makes things easier.

And when you tell a child to “sit up straight,” you unwittingly create two acts: 1) sitting up straight and 2) playing the instrument. True ease comes when the whole body is in service to the task at hand. Playing becomes one act, supported by the whole body.

When Kyra asked E to touch her cello bridge, E reached with her hand and her body automatically supported the action. The same can be true of the more specialized movements of playing the cello.

Coming up with alternatives to "sit up straight" requires creativity and experimentation, especially since children change so much as they age. After Kyra told me about E’s lesson, she laughed, saying that in reality, E could have easily stayed slumped and still reached the bridge with her hand. But she lucked out—maybe because E is still so young and her body is responsive and ready to move. Kyra figures that the same instruction might not work next week, but by then, she’ll think of something else!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My First Alexander Lessons: a Six-Part Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 6: Remembering Carolin which I discover the secret to a big sound on the violin, decide to train as an Alexander teacher, and honor Carol’s memory.

Part 5: Of Chin Rests & Chickens: Progress in my First Alexander Lessons

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

After I had been studying the Alexander Technique with Carol McCullough for about four months, we decided that if I was going to have any success in applying the Technique to the violin, I would have to increase the height of my violin chin rest. By some miracle, I lived around the corner from Cliff Johnson, who in his retirement from the Minnesota Orchestra had taken to carving custom chin rests.

Cliff's workshop was charmingly low tech. He used a simple plastic contour gauge to copy the shape of your preferred chin rest. He could make the chin rest any height you needed, carving it out of a single block of cherry wood. He would wait to stain it until you were happy with the shape against your jaw, making modifications as needed. He told me about one violinist who struggled to communicate the shape of the chin rest that he wanted, finally cradling his jaw gently with his hand and declaring, “I just want it to feel like this!” After measuring my neck, we settled on a chin rest height of 2 inches—double the height of my current rest—and used the contour of a Morawetz chin rest, I believe, for the top. When he finished the chin rest a week or two later, it bore a small stamp on the underside. It was his 213th chin rest.

At my next Alexander lesson, I came charging in with big plans. I wanted to really Alexanderize my daily violin practice, work with Carol to incorporate "whole body awareness" into my warm-up and scales. I was hot to trot.

Carol listened in bemused silence and then said, “Okay, go ahead and raise your violin.” As I brought the violin up to my shoulder, I pushed my head down towards the instrument, tensing my neck, and may have even clocked my jaw with the impossibly high chin rest. Carol looked at me. “How about we start with that?” she said.

And so began my maddening encounter with what I came to call the dread chicken move.

I wrote yesterday that I had discovered a whole body pattern that was triggered by raising the violin: I pushed my head forward and and rounded my shoulders, while pushing my upper back back as the hips pushed forward. My old chin rest had been too low for my long neck, so it had reinforced this pattern every time I held the violin.

But my new chin rest was made to fit me. It was 2 inches high, for Pete’s sake! Yet the habit remained.

Unlearning the dread chicken move took over my daily practice. Each day I would stand in front of the mirror. I would decide that this time, this time, I would not chicken my head towards the violin when I raised it. And then I would promptly chicken my head towards the violin.

Over and over I practiced. And each time I was defeated by the chicken move. A week in I remember going for a rage walk around Lake of the Isles. I was nearly 24! I had gone to a top conservatory! Why was I learning how to hold the violin as if for the very first time? What had my teachers been thinking? Couldn’t they see that I was tall? Wasn’t the length of my neck a fairly obviously factor in holding the violin? I think I may have even shook my fist at the heavens.

In spite of my self-pity, I kept at it. And it was during this time that I started to really understand Alexander’s principle of non-doing. In my lessons, Carol would remind me: all you have to do is nothing. Don’t worry about doing the correct thing. Not doing your habit is enough.

This was helpful. I had been holding my head in place to keep it from pushing towards the violin. Stiffening was not making things any easier. I had to keep it simple. I would stand in front of the mirror and remind myself: all you have to do is not chicken towards the violin.

I had assumed that through lessons with Carol I would be finding the right way to stand. I started to realize that this was the opposite of the case. My habit had been the one incorrect position. It had made other movement impossible. As I unlearned this pattern, I started to experiment with other possibilities. I had replaced habit with adaptability.

I got better at it. The third week was a turning point. By the end of the week, the chicken move no longer had total power over me.

I was surprised by the feeling of ease and adaptability as I held the instrument. With my head poised on top of my spine, my shoulders didn’t round forward as much. It was easier to find the balance of my hips underneath me and not push them forward. I was less likely to lock my knees and felt more connected to the ground.

I had assumed that through lessons with Carol I would be finding the right way to stand. I started to realize that this was the opposite of the case. My habit had been the one incorrect position. It had made other movement impossible. As I unlearned this pattern, I started to experiment with other possibilities. I had replaced habit with adaptability.

My symptoms of discomfort started to go away. My shoulders and wrists weren’t as tight. The improvements were so gradual that it was only after a few months that I started to realized that my old fears of injury were dissipating.

It’s funny, in my current Alexander teaching practice, I often help violinists and violists with their chin rest set up. I will describe my habit at the instrument and how for the three weeks I struggled to raise my violin without chickening my head towards the instrument. Their eyes will often widen in horror, as if their thinking: three weeks! You mean I won’t be comfortable for three weeks?!?

I’ve now been playing the violin for thirty years. In the grand scheme of things, those three weeks were remarkably short. I remember the frustration. But I also remember the excitement. It was the beginning of the beginning. It set me up for life.

Next: Remembering Carolin which I discover the secret to a big sound on the violin, decide to train as an Alexander teacher, and honor Carol’s memory.

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

Odin's early education was truly top-notch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cat is cued and ready to go.

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

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

It’s important to know what the cue is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everything went to hell.

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

Part 2: Off the Map: My First Alexander Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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