Posts in Alexander & Awareness
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.

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.