Trainee’s Column: Observation-Where True Change Begins

ImageBy Michelle Brake, 3rd year trainee

Observation was the first step F.M. Alexander made in his journey of learning about his habits and the way he used himself. How can this be the first step, yet the one I most often forget? I remember the first time that it really made sense to me. I was at the University of Denver, in my first years of Alexander lessons when I read something about accepting how you are in the present moment, with no judgement and not wanting to change or fix whatever it is you “think” or “feel” is wrong. This concept was a revelation to me. There were so many things I wanted to change about myself, and the idea of observing those things was very foreign to me. I realized that before I could change those habits, I had to find out if I was really doing what I thought I was doing. Oftentimes, the discovery or observation was not what I expected. I then started observing the circumstances around my habits. What caused me to go deeper into or come up out of them?

The enlightening thing is that when I observed these habits in a scientific and unattached way, they began to change on their own. On the flip side, when I let my emotions, desires and end-gaining take control, there was no room for discovering the true habit, much less allow it to change naturally. I had been letting myself presume what was going on, and in my desperate desire to change, would adjust myself into a worse condition. In her book, Voice and the Alexander Technique, Jane Heinrich explains the principle of non-doing as, “to be able to stop, not to do whatever the habitual response is – before more than superficial change can take place.” After this discovery of what non-doing means, many changes took place when working on myself as well as how I accepted or approached my Alexander lessons. I was able to let my teacher work without getting in her or my own way.

Fast-forward to present time. As a third year teacher trainee almost ready to graduate, I am still rediscovering what inhibition truly means, as my end-gaining always creeps in unawares. Pamela Blanc came as a guest teacher into my training course and focused on this principle of observation/awareness with no preconceived ideas. I have been recovering from a shoulder injury, and find the pain is an incredible motivator to end-gain. Pamela’s reminder of simple, unbiased observation of oneself is helping me to notice habits that cause me even more pain. Gradually those habits are getting less, and I’m seeing improvement much faster than before.

Not only has observation helped my own ailments, but also has helped me in becoming a better teacher. It has taken off some the pressure I put on myself to give a “good” lesson or to “help” my practice students. In the first lesson I taught after this rediscovery, I essentially just talked about the same process that I was going through. Things my student had been struggling with all of sudden became clearer. He was able to make some changes even without me putting hands-on. I don’t know who was more excited, him or me! A phrase that various teachers have said to me is, “The Work works.” That is just what happened. Those moments of quietness, of non-doing, of inhibition make all the difference, and they make me so grateful to be learning and teaching the Technique. I look forward to making more rediscoveries with all the other principles. However, observation/awareness is my favorite, for now.

Photo used with permission, courtesy of Michelle Brake

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


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

Lost in Translation: misunderstanding and faulty sensory perception

IMG_2295It is no wonder there is so much misunderstanding in the world. A simple word can mean completely different things to different people. When I was 20-something, my favorite book was Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Over the years I often think of the powerful chapter in which Kundera takes a number of seemingly innocuous words, and defines them according to each character’s perspective. Words take on meanings that depend upon associations from our experience. For instance the word “light” can be positive for one person, negative for the next.

Have you ever said something to someone, and then they think for a minute, and say, “Oh, you mean ….”, and they translate what you have said into their own personal language? If you have had this experience, I would be willing to bet that the person you are communicating with often says something related but quite different from what you intended to convey, and often says exactly the opposite of what you meant.

I believe this happens all the time in human interaction: you say something to me, I think about what it means, rephrase it in my head, and then remember my own words, not yours. It becomes a type of faulty sensory perception, where I actually remember hearing you say the words I think you said, but really it was my own translation of what you said that I hear ringing in my ears.

As a teacher/friend/mother/spouse, if I keep this in mind, I can be slower to react in these types of situations…”Maybe I did say that, but let’s talk about it again, because I am not sure that is what I meant.” Or, “Oh, you didn’t say that? I must be remembering what I thought you meant, and not what you actually said. Can we talk about it again?”

The same thing happens when we read about something. We interpret it, and then when we tell someone else about it, we learn we may actually have gotten it wrong. Upon many occasions, my students have related to me something they have read in an Alexander book, but when we look it up, we learn that the words and the meaning were quite different from what they thought it said.

As a teacher, I sometimes learn (and surely often never find out) that students have misheard me or don’t remember hearing me say something. When I find out about it, my habit is to feel defensive, or upset that I hadn’t successfully conveyed the information I intended to. I need to keep in mind the bigger picture, and use this opportunity for learning, both for me and for my student. “Let’s talk about it again.”

photo of “American Pancakes” by Heidi Leathwood, taken in a Madrid Starbucks

blog by Heidi Leathwood