Posts in Alexander & Music
Repetition without Repetition

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

 

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

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

Violinist Simon Fischer writes in Practice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Finding the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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.

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.”

 

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.


 

Distractible, Tired & Slouching: The Wondrous Effects of Sitting All Day at School

I’ve been writing this week about how music teachers can help their students find poise without resorting to nagging them about their posture. Music teachers often bring a great deal of ingenuity to teaching technique and musicianship, but then resort to simple exhortations like “sit up straight” or “stand tall” when teaching poise. From my work as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve learned that poise is a subject just as worthy of creative study as, say, vibrato in string technique.

As much as I enjoy giving this advice, it's a little unfair. After all, music teachers don’t teach in a vacuum. If their students show up distractible, tired and slouching to their lessons, it’s not the fault of their music teacher. Their students could just be sitting all day in school.

Two recent posts brought home to me the extent of the challenge. The first was a piece in the Washington Post by Angela Hanson, a pediatric occupational therapist. She wrote about her work with children with attentional issues in school. She argues that children require a minimum of outdoor play—unencumbered movement—in order to develop attentional control.

She describes working with a 6 year-old boy who was struggling to connect with his peers and pay attention in school. He attended her TimberNook camp over the summer, which gives children a week of immersion in the woods.

In the beginning of the week, he consistently pursued total control over his play experiences with peers. He was also very anxious about trying new things, had trouble playing independently, and had multiple sensory issues.

Amazingly, by the end of the week, he started to let go of this need to control all social situations. He also started tolerating and asking to go barefoot, made new friends, and became less anxious with new experiences. The changes were really quite remarkable. All he needed was time and practice to play with peers in the woods—in order to foster his emotional, physical, and social development.

When Hanson met with the boy’s teachers at the start of the fall, she told them that he needed an hour of recess a day at minimum. The teachers were sympathetic, but they told her that the maximum they could do was 15 minutes a day. Curricular demands—especially preparing for standardized tests—made that amount of recess time impossible. For a 6 year-old.

The second piece was published on Grant Wiggins’ blog. An anonymous teacher wrote about her experience shadowing two students at her high school—first a 10th grade student and then a 12th grade student. This was her first takeaway after two days of being a student at her high school:

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day... In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

Of course, we know that students sit all day and that sitting is tiring, but after years of standing in front of a class—lecturing, able to move around—this teacher had forgotten. And lest we put all the blame on American public schools, this teacher taught at a private school overseas.

In case these two pieces don’t depress you enough, what does sitting all day do to the back? The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to the coordination of the back as much as anything. Sitting weakens the back. The c-curve slump that chairs and desks encourage becomes locked into place, as connective tissue hardens to support the collapsed posture. Many students appear to grow into their chairs: you can still see the shape of the chair in their back when they stand up. After years of sitting, they can’t “sit up straight,” even if saying “sit up straight” was good advice. Their backs are no longer responsive to the command.

Yesterday, I wrote about Kyra teaching a cello lesson to a five year-old. She found a creative way to help her student find poise without saying, “sit up straight!” As I wrote at the end of the post, one of the reasons that her strategy worked was that she was teaching a very young child, who still retained a lot of mobility. She might not have had the same luck teaching an older student. In my Alexander practice, I find that it takes several lessons before teenage and college students—as young as they are—start to rediscover the coordination of their backs.

The regimented sedentariness of many schools is a huge problem. It impacts student learning, creativity and health. Because of this, Alexander Technique and music teachers are natural allies. They can team up to bring more rhyme and reason—not to mention movement and poise—to how we teach our children, both in school and out.

 

 

 

 

 

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 6: Remembering Carol

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

For the last week I’ve been writing about my earliest experiences studying the Alexander Technique with Carol McCullough. Yesterday, I wrote about my most frustrating period, when I confronted my most persistent habits around holding the violin. The work was in a sense tediously remedial—after all, I’d last thought about how I held the violin when I was nine! I might not have persisted if Carol hadn’t lit a beacon for me.

It was at the end of a lesson in my first couple months of studying with her. I was standing and holding the instrument. Carol had asked me to leave my head off the chin rest, just to balance the violin between my collar bone and left hand. Then she asked me to bow an open string. She stood behind me and with her hands made a few deft adjustments to how I was standing. At the time, I had no idea what she had done. All I knew was that the most resonant, rich sound emerged from my violin.

...she asked me to simply bow an open string. She stood behind me and with her hands made a few deft adjustments to how I was standing. At the time, I had no idea what she had done. All I knew was that the most resonant, rich sound emerged from my violin.

I was stunned. I had worked in my violin lessons at Oberlin for years to produce a big sound. This seemed just as big, but with half the effort.

The experience kept me motivated. Throughout the frustration of changing my habits around holding the violin, I was determined that I would eventually be able to find that sound on my own.

I studied with Carol for almost a year-and-a-half. Carol was happy to lend me any book off her her shelf, and I devoured anything written about the Technique. Carol had trained as a teacher with Joan and Alex Murray, and she introduced me to the Dart Procedures—developed by the Murray’s in collaboration with the neuroanatomist, Raymond Dart—that explored connections between developmental movement patterns and the Alexander Technique.

Over time I came to know her family: her husband, Brian—also an Alexander teacher and musician (he’s a trombonist)—and her kids, Ben (5) and Gwen (2). Gwen was often an unwitting teaching aid. It’s a common idea in the Alexander Technique that our coordination is innate and we lose our inherent poise as we age. It’s one thing to be told that children are a model of good use, but another thing to see it in action. At the end of one lessons, Carol demonstrated the counter-balance of the head and hips as Gwen perched, alert and interested in her arms. Carol gently tipped Gwen forward and then brought her back to neutral: her head maintaining its alert balance the entire time. It reinforced her main point: you don’t have to add anything to your coordination. If you unlearn your habits, there is an innate organization you can rely on.

Gwen could clarify instructions that were quite subtle. For example, Carol would sometimes use the direction “up and away from the hands” to describe the contact of your hands with an object. One day Gwen toddled into her teaching room while I was sitting in the chair and placed a hand on my knee. The contact was solid and yet gentle. “That’s up and away from the hands,” Carol said.

Our work at the violin deepened. She introduced me to the string pedagogy of Paul Rolland. She had written her DMA dissertation connecting principles of the Alexander Technique and Rolland’s major work, The Teaching of Action in String Playing. You can read excerpts of it here.

She helped me understand how she had helped me produce that resonant sound from my violin. As any string player knows, we increase volume by increasing bow speed and pressure across the string. I spent a lot of time in my lessons at Oberlin using “arm weight” to produce a big core sound, the kind of sound that could be heard over an orchestra when playing one of the great violin concertos.

Carol pointed out that the pressure of the bow down on the string has to be matched by an upthrust from the violin. Otherwise the pressure of the bow will tend to push the violin down towards the floor, away from the weight of the bow. The downward pressure of the bow needs to be met by a supporting thrust up from the instrument. But how to produce that support up?

Carol showed how my habit of holding the violin had undermined this support. I would push my hips forward, hollowing out my lower back and taking support away from the violin—like slipping on a banana peel in slow motion. In lessons, she would show me over and over how if I didn’t go into my habit, if I had my back back and hips underneath me, then a line of support ran from the ground, through my hips and back, to the collar-bone, supporting the violin. The sound that emerged was resonant and rich, and required less weight from my arm.

During this entire time, I continued to study violin privately with Jorja Fleezanis. Anyone who has worked with Jorja knows that she performs and teaches from a place of intense musical expression. She was constantly pushing me to reach deeper, find more authentic expression in the music I was preparing with her. It was both inspiring and at times overwhelming. In these moments, Carol provided an ideal counterweight. Jorja would insist on the most transcendent musical end, and Carol would help me find the means to reach it without tying myself in knots. I’ve sometimes thought that this is the ideal teaching combination for an aspiring performing artist—a music teacher who holds out expectations of complete expressive commitment and an Alexander teacher to help find the sustainable means.

In lessons, she would show me over and over how if I didn’t go into my habit, if I had my back back and hips underneath me, then a line of support ran from the ground, through my hips and back, to the collar-bone, supporting the violin. The sound that emerged was resonant and rich, and required less weight from my arm.

As I reached the end of my second year in Minneapolis, I started to think about going back to school. Carol encouraged me to consider training as an Alexander teacher. She recommended that I visit Joan and Alex Murray’s training course in Champaign-Urbana. I could train as a teacher and get my masters in the School of Music at the University of Illinois. My visit to Urbana was odd. I visited the Murray’s course on a Friday, when half the class was assisting in Rebecca Nettl-Fiol’s Alexander for Dance class. I couldn’t quite gauge the feeling in the room. I had a private lesson with Joan and enjoyed it—and then gave a surprisingly calm and collected audition at the University—but didn’t really make a connection between the two. I came back to Minneapolis and expressed my doubts to Carol. I wasn’t really sure whether this was for me. She shared how positive her experience was and then grew as emphatic as I’d ever seen her: “This is something you have to do. You have to train. You have to train!”

I trusted her. I was accepted at the University and the Murray’s welcomed me with open arms. I moved to Urbana.

A few months into my first fall in Urbana, we learned that Carol had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had been having difficulties with her balance and was sometimes having trouble finding her words. She went to her doctor, and very shortly after the tumor was discovered, went into surgery to have it removed.

It was hard to stay current on her progress from Urbana. I was so absorbed in my new life. She had been right: I was loving my training. It felt like such a privilege to be working with the Murrays.

Carol and Brian came to visit the training course sometime that year. We went out for lunch. She joked about being a “fat head”—apparently fat from elsewhere in the body is used to cover the scalp where a tumor has been removed. She and Brian spoke about their mixed feelings about her medical treatment. Her surgery had been very successful—her symptoms had been almost instantly alleviated. But the radiation threatened to affect her motor coordination, and she was concerned about how it would affect her ability play the viola and teach down the road.

It was the last time that I would see her. I’m ashamed now by how little I remember of her last year. I remember her getting better, and then things getting much worse. She passed away in September, 2003, a few months after I had certified as an Alexander teacher. She was 46. Brian asked me to return to Minneapolis to speak at her memorial service.

I think about Carol often. She had an enormous influence over my life as a violinist. And she was a model for the kind of Alexander Technique teacher I want to be: engaged and persistent and curious. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to be her colleague. And I often think of that moment in her teaching room in the first few months of lessons, when she showed me how to unlock that resonant sound from my instrument: the two of us standing there, the instrument, the room, all of us, ringing.

 

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.

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.

Part 1: A Problem with Pain: Why I started studying the Alexander Technique

Jorja Fleezanis, from a photo by Greg Helgeson.

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

I had just graduated from Oberlin and pain was on my mind. I wasn’t injured, but I figured it was just a matter of time.

I’d watched many of my peers take time off from playing because of injury, usually tendonitis. One friend imploded in spectacular fashion. She was having hand problems, yet still practiced 7 to 9 hours a day. Her doctor father sent her prescription codeine so she could practice through the pain. The day came when she couldn’t play any more and she realized she would have to rehabilitate her hands. She did start to recover, but at a certain point she felt she’d lost too much time, and gave up her aspirations to perform.

I took it as a cautionary tale. If I felt a twinge in the practice room, I would go home for the day. I was supposed to be practicing 4 to 6 hours a day, but if I felt discomfort after 45 minutes, I would pack it in.

As a result, I was never injured, but discomfort was pretty constant—and often mysterious. Before my junior recital, I had some spasms in the muscles beneath my shoulder blades. What was that all about? One winter term I took a contact improv class (because: Oberlin) and at the start of class we would stretch for an hour. As I stretched, I would feel the tightness in my wrists slowly unfurl. After class I would go practice for a few hours and the next morning the tightness in my wrists would be back.

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

That fall I moved to Minneapolis to study with Jorja Fleezanis, then concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. A question dominated my mind: how can I practice enough to be a professional musician and not get injured?

I may not have had a pain problem, but I definitely had a problem with pain. If I hurt, I didn’t know why I hurt, or what I could do about it. A life in music seemed to mean accepting a life with a certain amount of pain.

The question became even more urgent when I started watching the Minnesota Orchestra play. Jorja was generous with tickets to see the orchestra. I had seen orchestras perform before, but I had never seen an orchestra perform every week. I was staggered by the amount of rep they tore through, not only a new program each week, but a new and challenging program every week. It was physically and mentally demanding beyond anything I had experienced as a student.

Jorja was always taking her students out for dinner after concerts. One night, I finally asked: how are you not in pain? How do you avoid injury? Do you stretch? Yoga? Massage? What?

She said that she had studied the Alexander Technique for six years and that she had learned to sit and to move in ways that didn’t wear on her body. I have a memory of her standing in the restaurant and putting her hands on her hips and talking about finding the connection from the back to the hips to the chair when she played.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of a trusted teacher. I’ve sometimes thought that if Jorja had said she avoided injury by bungee jumping I would have grabbed a cord and leapt off the nearest bridge. That winter, when I came back to Minneapolis after the holiday break, I decided to find a teacher. I was fortunate to find Carol McCullough. I remember our first conversation. “I’m a violist,” she told me. “There’s a lot I can show you.”

This isn’t the time to go into all the insights I gained from my first lessons with Carol. But I often reflect about my early beliefs on being a musician and the inevitability of injury. I think many musicians share the kind of pain problem I had as a conservatory student: they defer a true commitment to the work it takes to be a performer out of fear of injury. Through those first Alexander lessons, I was able to put that fear to rest. Carol showed me a way of working that both reduced the risk of injury and renewed my joy in playing. It’s a way of working that is available to anyone.

Next: Off the Map, in which I discover I have no idea where I am in a very fundamental way.