Trainee’s Column: the Left Hand and the Alexander Technique

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By Nicole Rafferty, third-year trainee.

While studying Alexander for the last few years and in the new Alexander training course in Denver, I’ve taken much of what I’ve learned into improving my violin technique. This blog will focus on how I’ve incorporated the technique into analyzing and improving my left hand technique.

When I first started taking Alexander Technique lessons I, like most violinists, suffered from excessive tension in my left hand resulting in a pinky finger that remained clenched back in towards the palm of my hand when not in use and a slow and uneven reaction time across the fingers especially in fast passages. As would be expected, these issues severely hindered my playing, making it difficult to advance my overall playing ability. As I started going through the Alexander Technique process I became aware that my left hand issues were actually a result of a misuse of my primary control.

If you’re not new to Alexander Technique, I probably haven’t said anything that would surprise you. The Alexander Technique is all about understanding the primary control (the relationship between the head, neck and back) and how it benefits the whole system and as I started my journey with the technique I would spend most of my time trying to understand the primary control. However, as I became more and more able to direct my primary control and appreciate the other things that were going on in my body, such as locked knees or a tensed hand, my Alexander teacher and I began looking at my left hand specifically.

What we noticed were the tension issues I mentioned at the beginning. In order to start dealing with these issues we decided to work on unwinding my left hand by creating a series of activities away from the violin in which I could start moving my hand and fingers in different ways, while incorporating my Alexander “directions” (using my brain to give suggestions to my coordination). We did this because a lot of my tension issues resulted in a lack of control.

In one of the first activities I would sit down and start directing (giving directions from the brain) as I normally would when I sat down. I would then turn my hands over with as much directions as I could and either rest them on my lap or on a table with my fingers together. I would then start directing through each of my fingers. For me, one of the best ways to do this was by imagining the bones in my hand expanding in either direction and expanding out through my fingertips. While I’m doing this I would go back to thinking my primary directions (for my neck, head and back). After doing this for a while I would then move on to trying to move the fingers in certain patterns while still directing my overall coordination. For instance, I would move my finger in to a “spock” finger pattern, with the pointer finger and middle finger together and the ring finger and the pinky finger together and a space in between my middle finger and my ring finger. To my surprise, for quite some time this was extremely difficult for me to do without tension or twitching.

After that series of exercises we worked on moving my fingers from the base knuckle (where the fingers join the palm of the hand) with the other joints remaining straight. We did this because I was actually unable to consciously move my fingers from that joint. Believe it or not, this is a detriment to violinists because being able to access the movement in the base knuckle allows us to have greater control of the hand and keep the palm nice and open to allow the fastest and most easeful movement of the fingers. Like with the first activity we did this activity sitting while continually going back to my primary control directions. We also did this standing and with hands on the back of the chair, because if you haven’t guessed already that particular motion of the fingers (being straight while moving at the knuckles) is exactly what we do when we put hands on the back of the chair.

After several months of working with those exercises away from the violin and gaining a great deal of muscular control, I took this exploration further outside of my lessons. I began starting to work on my left hand with the violin. One of the first problems I tried to tackle was the clenching of my pinky finger when I was playing. In order to do this, I had to learn to direct my primary control while holding my violin, then while putting left arm up, and finally while putting my fingers down. When I came to this last step I had to pay special attention to my pinky finger by imagining electrical impulses (or sending directions) from the base of my elbow all the way up my arm and through my pinky finger and out the tip. I began to notice that not only my pinky finger but the others as well were shortening and pulling back toward my hand instead of lengthening toward the strings when I wanted to use them, so I took it a step further by thinking the direction for my pinky finger and resting it on the D string very gently while playing an open A, a first finger B, a second finger C, and a third finger D on the A string. At first this was extremely difficult, but the more I did it and the better I paid attention to my directions while doing it the less tense my hand became and the more capable I felt moving my fingers in an organized fashion with little tension.

What I feel is important to say at this point is that all these specific movements came secondary to working with my primary control and the principles of inhibition and direction. As my awareness and understanding of these aspects of the technique got better the movements got better.

photo of Nicole’s left hand, used by permission

Learning through Journaling: a Celebration

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A beautiful thing about teaching is the opportunity to witness someone’s discoveries. It is a rare privilege. When people share their process with me through their journal, I am often inspired and humbled. My private pupil Briay made my day when I saw she had written a haiku about her weekend, and I was even more ecstatic when she gave permission for me to include it in a blog!

I am very touched by retyping Briay’s poem. The sense of wonder and gratitude she conveys at the discovery that things can change just by noticing and “urging”, and “letting”. I don’t have to hold my body up…my body holds me up.

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I am touched by the power and depth of Alexander’s work as it inspires a poem like this after only a handful of lessons. And to think Briay may never have written that beautiful poem without my journaling requirement for the University course of lessons she is enrolled in. I learn a lot about my students when I require journaling…it seems to stimulate a reflective, questioning attitude in exploring how they move through life. I privately celebrate this attitude when I observe it in my students, but thanks to this blog…journaling myself…I have the chance to make my celebration public. Thank you, Briay, for letting us all in on your reflections on the Alexander Technique!!

And here is her poem again, just in case you were not able to read it in the image above:

A Haiku for my Work Weekend

I worked like a dog/ It wasn’t so taxing though/ I sat at a desk…

I smiled at them/ And I printed their tickets/ Silent films they saw…

I sat at a desk/ My shoulders were very tight/ I urged them, “Expand.”

My shoulders released/ And with them my neck was free/ Freedom I did feel

I sat at a desk/ Without the tension before/ “heart”! My dear body!

My happy body/ You work harder than you should/ Thank you for letting

Thank you! My body!/ You can be so efficient/ When you hold me up!

Haiku by Briay Conditt

Blog by Heidi Leathwood

Image with permission from Briay Conditt

 

 

When Mo-Mo, Who Eats Everything, Has Eaten the “Up”

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Yesterday, my student Jan told me that sometimes if she and her partner feel awful in the morning, they joke that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. I should explain that Mo-Mo is their cat who is on a diet, and because he is getting more fit, he is able to leap everywhere and eat everything.

In thinking about Mo-Mo and the up, I am reflecting on lessons that I have learned and relearned hundreds of times over the past 26 years. One lesson is that just because I can’t feel the up doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The other is that when I feel awful and am desperate for relief, I am likely to end-gain like mad in an effort try to get out of whatever it is that I presume is causing my discomfort.

Here are a few ideas for when it seems that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. Consider the possibility that your directions are going just fine, but something has happened, which will cause you to feel awful no matter what. Maybe you are sick or getting sick. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe you have allergies or there is some environmental factor that is affecting your system. Maybe you have pulled a muscle or injured yourself in some way. When I was in Alexander school long ago in Los Angeles, I recall noticing that often on a day I felt really terrible, someone would compliment me on how well I was doing.

More about feeling the up: as we have more and more Alexander lessons, our sensory perception gets more and more accurate. The improvement of our sensory perception is both wonderful and horrible. It is wonderful, because it is very helpful to be able to listen to our kinesthetic sense when it tells us we are going wrong. It is horrible because it can lead to a presumption that “up” always feels the same and if we don’t have a certain feeling, we must not be going up. It is horrible because it can lead us to seek that feeling (seeking the feeling is what we in the Alexander Technique call “feeling it out”). It is horrible because we can forget that even though our kinesthetic sense is better, it is not totally to be trusted. When we use our kinesthetic sense to try to “get the up”, we get into trouble instead.

Trying to get a certain feeling is end-gaining. “End-gaining” is a phrase that means going directly for your end (feeling better, doing it right) without regard for the best way of getting there.

The best way to lengthen and widen is not to try to lengthen and widen, not to try to feel lengthening and widening, but to do nothing. As we do nothing, we may give ourselves a mental direction for lengthening and widening. A direction is an intention but not a doing. Unfortunately (and this is the second lesson I spoke about above), when we feel really awful, we get desperate for relief, and even the merest idea of lengthening and widening or up can cause us to overdo the directions. In other words, we subtly or not so subtly TRY to lengthen and widen. Without realizing it, we cross over the line and start doing something to try to get the feeling of up, lengthening and widening. This is likely to cause us to feel worse and then to try even harder.

In these cases, what works for me is to take the words “lengthening”, “widening”, and “up” out of my vocabulary. I tell myself, “I accept that I feel awful right now. I am not going to try to fix it. I am not going to ‘direct’. I am just going to do less. If I do less, at least I won’t add to this mess. I am going to be patient with myself.”

Up is always there, but sometimes it needs uncovering. How does it get uncovered? By stopping. By doing less. By letting go of trying to get the feeling. And trusting that if you have stopped the desperate trying, and are doing less, you are making an improvement, even if you can’t feel it.

So the next time you wonder if Mo-Mo has eaten the up, try this approach and let me know how it goes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo courtesy of Jan and Mo-Mo