Posts in Alexander & Teaching
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.

Alexander & Cooking: Is Only the Exhaustive Truly Interesting?

It was winter term my third year at Oberlin when the cooking thing really took off. There were 8 of us that January who decided to forego the dorm meal plan and cook in a commandeered second floor kitchen of South dorm. We stored all of our cooking gear in a giant red suitcase that I’d inherited from my grandmother, dragging it clanging down the dorm’s psychedelic hallway carpeting each afternoon around 5:00. I’d grown up helping my parents cook, but that winter term was the first time that I’d got so involved in all aspects of cooking. An inherited copy of the San Francisco Junior League Cookbook proved especially popular: the shrimp in tomato sauce with basil and feta served over angel hair pasta; lasagna noodles cooked, spread with pesto, rolled up into pinwheels and baked. There were some misfires: we improvised the seasoning of a vegetable soup, tossing in a teaspoon or two of every spice we owned until the broth tasted like soap.

When I graduated and moved to Minneapolis I was on my own for the first time. It took me a couple months before I learned to scale down the recipes and not cook for a crowd. That Christmas my mom got me the new edition of The Joy of Cooking, my first real cookbook, and I followed family members around all vacation, reading to them about the differences between black, oolong, and green teas, and how the English say aubergine, not eggplant. Back in Minneapolis after the holiday, I made up for the loneliness of cooking solo with the ambition of trying something new—at least there was less embarrassment when you screwed up. I overcooked my first roast chicken. Burned rice to the bottom of the pan. Dried out a cake. Broke mayonnaise.

This was also when I first started studying the Alexander Technique and I think there were overlapping drives between my interest in studying Alexander and my cooking obsession: the pleasure of eating well and feeling good after an Alexander lesson; wanting to refine my palette and deepen my self-perception; the desire to really understand—whether it was how food came together or how I moved. These proclivities were reinforced by my violin teacher, Jorja Fleezanis, and her husband, Michael Steinberg. They constantly involved us students in their meals, whether casual dinners or holiday festivities. I tried to match their example, making dishes that I hoped would impress. I may have made my first pie—the first time without my mom, at least—in advance of having Thanksgiving at their house. At some point that year, Michael turned to me and in his droll lilt said, “Thomas Mann once wrote, ‘Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.'” Well, if all else fails, I remember thinking, at least Thomas Mann understands me.

When I left Minnesota for grad school and to train as an Alexander teacher in Urbana, my closest friendships were forged through food and cooking. It was also when I became aware of the wave of cooking educators: Alton Brown and Good Eats, Christopher Kimball and Cooks Illustrated, Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. The point wasn’t just to follow a recipe: it was to understand the techniques and science behind it. At some point during my Alexander training I was browsing through the cooking section of a favorite bookstore and came across this quote in The Way to Cook by Julia Child, the patron saint of all cooking gurus:

Wherever possible [in this book], I have put things together by method—veal chops are with pork chops because they cook the same way. Chicken stew in red wine is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew—if you can do one, you can do the others because they are assembled, simmered, and sauced the same way. It makes sense to me, also, that all braised meats be grouped together so that their similarities are clearly evident...The technique is what’s important here, and when you realize a stew is a stew is a stew, and a roast is a roast whether it be beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.

It was worth practicing a recipe to understand the technique behind it. When you understood the technique, you could cook any recipe that used that technique. You might even be able to write a recipe of your own!

At the time, we were reading Alexander’s fourth book, and I was struck by the similarity between Julia Child’s words and his “working to principle.”

Learning to “do” by this procedure is not learning to “do” exercises in a trial-and-error plan, but learning to work to a principle, not only in using the self but in the application of the technique outside the self. A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to “do an exercise” will most assuredly have to go on learning to “do exercises” ad infinitum.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.

What excited me most about this connection was a shift in attention. The time spent cooking was the same, but my mind was heightened to the connections between this dish and another. A simple breakfast of scrambled eggs taught me the process that also thickened the custard in my ice cream dessert. From kneading bread dough I learned how gluten forms, and why I should use a lighter touch with pie dough so that the crust was flaky, not tough. My Alexander insights were more complex. I was making connections between how I moved and how I learned through many disciplines: performing as a violinist and my novice attempts at teaching Alexander, swimming and biking, even the tilt of my head and swing of my arm when wielding a knife in my kitchen.

There’s a zeal to making connections and among my favorite cookbook authors, an edge of contempt for the mere follower of recipes. In his tome on baking, I’m Just Here for More Food, Alton Brown organizes his recipes by mixing method. Each method is described only once, at the beginning of the chapter—“which you will commit to memory,” he declares in the introduction.

Lots of recipe books basically repeat the same instructions over and over. They do this because it’s traditional and because they assume that you are not learning anything. I’m going to assume that you will.

Whether you thrill at this exhortation (as I do) or find it off-putting is largely a matter of intention. If your goal is to become the best possible cook, it can be incredibly exciting to be working in this way. If your goal is simply to put dinner on the table, it's a bit too much.

When I’m at home visiting my family, the discussions around what’s-for-dinner begin with, “Let’s keep it simple!” This is a preventive measure aimed at my historic tendency to deliver over-elaborate dinners three hours late when everyone is too limp with hunger to appreciate it. I have gradually acquired the pleasure of simple dinners, made with whatever’s in the fridge.

A similar shift has occurred in my Alexander teaching practice. When I finally certified as a teacher 11 years ago, I had been studying the Alexander Technique intensively for 4 ½ years. I could not identify with students who came to me who were only interested in 10 lessons, much less 6. While I still thrill at the students who become enthusiasts—studying three times a week for the first three months and then once a week for several years—I am just as engaged by students who are more tentative. Every bit of learning has value. Not only the exhaustive is interesting.


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.


A teaching chair, a sleeping cat.

Welcome and come on in!

This is my Alexander Technique studio. If you’re curious about Alexander work, you can learn a lot from what’s in a teacher’s space. Here are five things in my teaching space and how they are used in an Alexander lesson.

  1. Chair: In a traditional Alexander lesson, we begin with chair work. We could use any movement to teach the Alexander Technique, but we start with the chair because it’s simple. Amazingly, many of your habits can be found in sitting and standing. By starting with something so familiar, we focus on how you’re thinking and moving at a fundamental level.

  2. Table: Alexander lessons include a table turn. We use a massage table, but an Alexander Technique table turn is nothing like a massage. You rest quietly on your back, while the teacher encourages release of the back musculature into length. For many of us, resting our minds comes at the expense of our bodies—for example, collapsing on the couch to watch television after work. A table turn models a different way to rest, one that leaves you feeling open and refreshed, not compressed and stiff.

  3. Piano: The piano represents the “activity work” part of a lesson: the thing that you do everyday, usually the focus of your career or a passionate hobby. If you’re a pianist, it’s practicing the piano. If you’re a writer, it might be working at your laptop. Maybe it has nothing to do with an instrument or object. If you’re a runner, you might want help with your running. If chair work looks at your general coordination, activity work looks at how your general coordination can serve you better in the work that matters to you the most. Often activity work is the most ground-breaking part of your lesson. When you realize the force of your habit in the activities that you do every day, you are well on your way to change.

  4. Mirror: A mirror clarifies what’s really going on. One of the most challenging things about changing a habit is that our habits feel normal and the better way too often feels weird. For example, the other day I was helping a student find an easier way of standing. She usually stands with her knees locked, her hips pushed forward and her upper back pushed back. After I adjusted her stance, she felt like she was doing the opposite: pushing her butt back and leaning forward. But when she looked in the mirror, she saw that she was standing up straight. The mirror helped her compare what she thought she was doing with what she was actually doing,

  5. iPhone (on top of the bookcase—not visible): The video and slow-mo features on my iPhone, along with the Coach’s Eye app, are helpful to my students when they’re moving at speed. For example, one student was trying to work out if his skateboarding was the cause of knee pain.  We went outside and videotaped him on his board, and saw that he bent his knees in towards each other with each impact, straining the area of his knees that hurt. Seeing the action helped him sense the action in real time and helped him start to address an old habit,

Arlo, doing what he does best.

These are some of the objects in my teaching space, and how they’re used in an Alexander…what’s number 6? Oh, that’s Arlo. He likes to sleep in my violin case. Cats often make excellent teaching assistants. They excel at modeling the importance of rest and rejuvenation.