Posts in Alexander & Habit
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.

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.”

 

That's Right: Nothing is the Solution to "Text Neck."

Recently my Facebook feed has blown up with articles and news segments about the dangers of “text neck.” It turns out that spending hours a day hunched over your smartphone texting is a bad idea and leads to all sorts of neck and upper back issues. Who knew? The news stories have given some good counsel—like limiting the amount of time you spend on your phone and moving your body in ways that are different than hunching over a phone. But as I’ve read the advice about preventing “text neck,” I keep wondering, do we give ourselves any choice in the matter?

I was reminded of a student who came to me for Alexander Technique lessons several years ago, just before the smartphone revolution. He was a doctor complaining of neck pain. He tried to set up regular lessons, but like many doctors, his schedule was not entirely his own. Even when we managed consistent lessons, he was always on call. With most of my students, I ask that they leave their phones off so that we can work without interruption. But he had to leave his pager on, just in case he had to respond to an emergency at the hospital.

I have to admit, he was a challenging student. At the start of each lesson, he would fill me in with a detailed report on his neck symptoms at work. He monitored himself ceaselessly to see if there was any improvement. He was obsessed with finding the “correct way to move” and gave himself detailed instructions using his voluminous knowledge of human anatomy. He would inform me, “I need to tone up through the erector spinae group, widen through the trapezius and release into the quads.” I suggested that he not micro-manage his movements, and told him the parable of the centipede who tried to control all one hundred legs consciously and ceased to be able to walk at all.  I tried to convince him that the first step was to leave himself alone. He needed to practice “non-doing:” it would give him a chance to observe himself and see if he could discover if his movement habits contributed to his neck problem.

One lesson I finally succeeded in getting him to stand quietly, leaving himself alone. I had just placed my hand where his head meets his neck and was helping him experience a “free neck”—moving his head gently back and forth in the “no” direction—when his pager went off. At the sound of the buzzing, his neck tensed dramatically, the back of his head pulled back, and his shoulders went up around his ears.

He duly checked his pager—it was not an emergency. We looked at each other. “I think we know why you have some neck tension,” I said.

‘Push notifications’ inform us not only of texts or phone calls, they alert us to e-mail, Facebook status updates, tweets, breaking news, traffic reports, weather alerts, and the latest available level on Angry Birds Star Wars II. Our response becomes habitual. The alert sounds and we jump into action. If that habit includes pushing our head forward 30 degrees, we may not even notice our necks tense to carry the 40 lbs of functional weight. That’s the thing about habits: they are unconscious and automatic.

The head is a heavy object. The average head weighs about 10 pounds. When your neck is free and the head is poised on a lengthening spine, it has a functional weight of 10 pounds. But for every degree the head is held forward—whether towards a cell phone, a computer, a book, a music stand, or a musical instrument—its functional weight increases dramatically. As this study by Kenneth K. Hansraj found, a 10 pound head held 30 degrees forward has a functional weight of 40 pounds.

So what we do with our heads has an enormous impact on the health of our necks, shoulders and backs. With my doctor student, the anxiety around the insistent and unbidden summons of his pager caused a spasm of tension in his neck, jerking his head back into his spine. The action was particularly dramatic in his Alexander lesson because it happened right after I had helped him find length in the neck and freedom at the head-neck joints. In his everyday life, though, he rarely freed his neck and it became increasingly tense and painful throughout the week.

Smartphones and doctors' pagers are similar in one important respect: they are stimulus response-machines. And smart phones are even more stimulating: "push notifications” inform us not only of texts or phone calls, they alert us to e-mail, Facebook status updates, tweets, breaking news, traffic reports, weather alerts, and the latest available level on Angry Birds Star Wars II. Our response becomes habitual. The alert sounds and we jump into action. If that habit includes pushing our head forward 30 degrees, we may not even notice our necks tense to carry the 40 lbs of functional weight. That’s the thing about habits: they are unconscious and automatic.

But there’s a key difference between doctors' pagers and our smartphones. Doctors are required to have a pager and may even, like my former student, resent its constant thrall. But if you’re anything like me, you love your smartphone. In fact, you could say that the stimulus from within—”I wonder what my friends think of that cat photo I just posted on Facebook,” for example—is as strong as the push notification from without.

Understanding the power of habit is as important in preventing “text neck” as limiting our time on our phones—maybe more so, since so many of us enjoy the time we spend on our phones and don't have any intention of reducing it down. With my doctor student, we practiced a different response to his pager: when it sounded, he would remind himself to pause, take his time in responding, free his neck. We can do the same thing with our phones. The next time in pings, we can give our necks a break. We can take a moment, however fleeting, and do nothing.



 

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.


 

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 4: When Violins Attack: Confronting Habit in my First Alexander Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was no jerk back. I stayed poised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odin's early education was truly top-notch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cat is cued and ready to go.

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

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

It’s important to know what the cue is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everything went to hell.

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