Sound Direction Blog

You Are Your Instrument, pt. 1 – My Singing Journey

When people find out that I am a singer, voice teacher, choral conductor, and Alexander Technique teacher, it sometimes isn’t immediately clear how all of it connects. Some musicians who have heard of Alexander Technique see plainly how the work can help instrumentalists avoid repetitive motion injuries and play without strain, but as players of “the invisible instrument,” it might be less obvious how singers benefit.

So how can the Alexander Technique help singers?

First, let’s be clear on three things:

  1. You – all of you, your muscles, bones, thoughts, emotions – are an indivisible unity that we might call the “Self.”
  2. Singers: your Self IS your instrument (yes, all of you – not just your larynx, mouth, and breath, but your legs, back, toes, shoulder blades AND your thoughts, expectations, and judgments.)
  3. The Alexander Technique is uniquely qualified to help you learn to mindfully coordinate your whole Self, unlearning harmful habits and finding ease and freedom in whatever activities you do.

So it follows: Anything that helps you use your whole Self better – both mind and body – will help you sing better, and will give you skills to care for your voice and your self in even the most challenging vocal situations.

What does this look like?

Here’s my story.


I’ve been singing since I was a young child, though I started first with piano as my primary instrument, beginning to focus on voice in high school. I sang fairly freely, getting roles in the school musical, scoring well at competitions, and getting into the college I wanted to attend as a voice performance and music education double-major. I had this nagging problem of jaw tension, but at that point in my career, it wasn’t holding me back.

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2002, in a performance of Barber’s opera, “A Hand of Bridge.”

In college I continued to do well. Between my junior and senior year, though, things began to shift. I reached a technical plateau in singing that my old, un-mindful coordination and tension couldn’t help me get past. Because I wasn’t singing as well as some of my peers, I chose to distinguish myself by singing “hard” music, and using a whole lot of strain to produce my sound. I loved intellectually challenging music (still do!) especially music written in the 20th century, and I had no patience for what I considered “simple” music. (Truth is, those “simple” pieces were too difficult for me to sing well and freely, so I avoided them whenever possible because they exposed my technical flaws.)

In spite of solid technical instruction from an experienced and creative teacher, I was making my own problems worse, not better, by efforting my way through singing. I overcame difficulties in all the other areas of my life by “working hard,” and my habit was to do the same with singing. My vocal production was tense, my sound was often heavy and inconsistent. No matter how adventurous and avant garde my programming was, or how unusual my audition pieces were, during my last year in college, I didn’t make the choir I had planned to sing in, and then I didn’t get into the graduate schools I had hoped to attend.

What to do?

I did end up getting my master of music in voice performance, but these experiences of failure showed me that there were a bunch of things I needed to change. A good bit of that change was in my thinking. I was finally ready to work on my technique and sing the “simple” music I’d avoided. (Spoiler: I really love a lot of this music now. It can be elegant and glorious.) I worked with another teacher who is an excellent vocal technician, and who also sympathized with my desire to sing challenging music, but still made sure I learned to sing well. For the first time in many years, I started to enjoy the act of singing all by itself.

But importantly, another piece started to fall into place: during my undergraduate career, I had been exposed to the Alexander Technique. I was fascinated that the same process that helped me learn to “float” up stairs without strain also helped me sing with more ease. I did some research into Alexander Technique and some other somatic modalities, like the Feldenkrais Method, and found that my learning style really matched the AT. I loved the idea that I could practice it anywhere, any time – while washing dishes, going for a walk, singing, or simply sitting and thinking. So I started taking private Alexander lessons, in conjunction with voice lessons.

Things started to shift.

A few years later, I began training to become a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. My voice improved more over the three years of Alexander Technique teacher training (with no “voice” lessons) than it had in several years of vocal study in school. Why?

In addition to vocal and emotional maturation (I was 15 years older than when I started, after all), this is what I think: I learned how to use my whole Self well. I unlearned my reliance on the tension that had been the base of my technique since I was a teenager. When I learned balanced coordination in my whole Self, my breath was more powerful, my vocal tract was more free. I had a mental library full of the great technique that my undergrad and graduate school voice teachers had given me, and I FINALLY HAD THE COORDINATION TO USE IT. At the end of Alexander Technique teacher training, a fellow trainee (who was also a classical singer) and I did a vocal recital together. It was thrilling to get to use so many pieces of my life-work at one time! I sang well, and enjoyed myself, not getting so bogged down in the struggle. I sang music that was melodically simple and music that was quite complex, but I had learned how to navigate each challenge by coordinating the use of my whole self.

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Side-by-side comparison: It’s subtle, but you can see the change from my junior year of college (left, in the purple gown) to about half-way through my Alexander Technique teacher training seven years later (right, in the black). I’ve always had what appears from the outside to be “good posture,” but the balance in my head-neck-back is more held and compressed “down” in the picture on the left, and more freely “up” in the picture on the right.

While it’s a visually subtle difference, it was a monumental change in my ability to sing freely, using my breath efficiently and powerfully, allowing the whole vocal tract to ring without effort.

Does this story sound familiar? Every singer has a different path, and every road has bumps. But the Alexander Technique, rather than trying to fix a specific bump, gives you the skills to navigate over and around the bumps, or even stop and decide to take a side road.

When your Self – your instrument – is in tune, you’ll be on the road to realizing your potential, and making the freest, most enjoyable, and most artistically gratifying music you can make.

You. Have. Time.

Today is December 21. Perhaps your email inbox has been like mine: every retailer from which I’ve ever purchased anything needed to remind me that there are only a few more days until Christmas, and that I needed to buy something today for it to arrive in time. There is an urgency afoot…not only now, during this holiday gift-buying frenzy, but also in our rapid-response news cycle, our text-message-laden social lives, and even our business dealings that seem to require immediate responses to email.

Maybe you’re someone who says: “I just don’t have enough time!” I know I’ve said this. And I know what happens when I think that way: I feel anxious. My muscles tighten. The importance of whatever I need to do next spirals out of proportion, and I lose perspective and a sense of the big picture.

When we believe that “there isn’t enough time,” we can act rashly, and bring a lot of unnecessary tension and strain into our thinking and our bodies.

Let me tell you three of the most important words I know. Try saying them to yourself:

I Have Time.

What did you notice? Did anything change in your body, in your thinking?

When I tell myself “I have time,” I often feel an abrupt slowing down, a sense that whatever I need to do next is less urgent, though often not less important. I know that approaching my next task with a sense of time and space will allow me to do it with more ease, and do it more completely, effectively, and mindfully.


I have time. Mindfulness through the Alexander Technique.This is one of my two favorite tea mugs. (I drink a lot of tea). I got it at the very first annual conference that I attended of American Society for the Alexander Technique, in 2007, at the end of my first year of teacher training. You can see it’s slightly battered, scarred, stained. I use it almost every day. The message “I have time” is printed on one side. (While not unique to the Alexander Technique, this phrase was used in the teaching of Walter Carrington, an influential 20th century Alexander Technique teacher and trainer of teachers.)

One of the reasons I love this mug is that I can identify with it. Sometimes life seems to get the better of us, and we feel run down, a little battered, especially as the air gets colder and time seems to close in. We feel like we have to rush, or effort our way forward. Reminding myself that “I have time” takes the pressure off, helps me to be more present and more aware of what I really need to be doing. Sometimes that’s continuing with my work, and sometimes that’s taking 60 seconds to just drink my tea.

Often, taking that time requires intentional work. It takes discipline. The scratches on the mug remind me that I’ll come through the work strong and resilient.

Another thing I love about this mug is that it’s huge. It takes almost a full 16 ounces of tea. Not only do I have time, but I have a LOT of it!


Now, I can almost hear the dialogue in your thinking. (I know, because it’s in mine, too.) “That’s all very well to say that I have time, but I have X, Y, Z to get done before 4:00 today, and then I have a deadline tomorrow and we’re leaving town on Friday afternoon…”

But here’s the secret – Taking time doesn’t take very long. It can just be a micro-pause, where you remind yourself that you don’t have to rush. You can just notice the space around you, allowing your Self to gently expand into the air above you, behind you, in front of you, and to either side of you.

I have time. Mindfulness through the Alexander Technique.I have my students at IU practice this in class. We intentionally build micro-pauses into every-day actions, things like opening their instrument cases, moving a music stand, reaching for their school bags, or taking a drink of water or coffee. I made some stickers for them during the 2nd-to-last week of class, as part of their “Alexander Technique Toolbox,” using printer labels, and I asked them to place the stickers somewhere they would see it frequently. One of my students said that this phrase had been revolutionary in the way that they thought about music, and about their career.

So often we think we have to rush into the next thing… but we don’t.

We. Have. Time.

Today is December 21, which is also the Winter Solstice here in the northern hemisphere. It’s an opportunity for us to notice how the natural world rests, taking time during the winter months, preparing for the seasons of rapid growth and renewal that wait just under the snow. The world seems to slow down, and we can slow down with it.

When you recognize that you have time, you have that potential for growth and life-giving action, you can be as quick as you choose but not rushed, you are calmer, and you are more free to enjoy your days, both your work and your play.

Say it with me again: I have time.

If you’re wondering how this idea of taking time fits in with postural coordination, or why freeing my neck has anything to do with my approach to my career, come in for a lesson or schedule a free phone consultation and we’ll chat. I’ll make some space for you to take time, and you’ll recognize that you already have it.

Did you just say to yourself, “That sounds nice, but I don’t have time to come in for an Alexander Technique lesson?”

If you did, remember:

You. Have. Time.

The Confines of Fear – Politics, Media, and the Fear Response

“I’ve been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear.” – Ben Howard

I started writing this post in July. It got put on the back burner, but resurfaced this week for two reasons. One, if you haven’t heard yet, Donald Trump was elected president, in a turn of events that many people I care for see as a direct threat to their lives and freedom. Two, the lecture I had already scheduled for my music students at IU this past Thursday, two days after the presidential election, was about performance anxiety – specifically, the role of our nervous system and its fear response. It’s been a week since the election now – an epoch in the rapid-response, 24-hour “news” cycle, the share and re-share culture of social media.

But I wanted to take my time, because I want to be very clear as I’m talking about fear. If you feel afraid right now, I am not commenting on the validity of your fear. You have a right to feel afraid if you feel threatened. I am not commenting on the validity of the threat, and I am not telling you to “calm down.” I’m not here to foster political and social divides, but to help you be more integrated in your Self, which will give you tools for power, non-judgmental processing of information, non-reaction to stimulus, and freedom of thought and movement.

Here’s something I know from experience: you have a choice whether you want to remain in a state of physiological fear response. You have a choice that starts with how you use your musculature, which will have ramifications through your nervous system, and which may allow you a little more space in your thinking. My personal response since last Wednesday morning has been that I need to grow in my ability to love and be present and compassionate to others, and to take action with a clear head. I can’t do that if I’m locked in fear.

When I started this post in July, there were videos of senseless violence, vigils, protests, funerals, pictures of courage and conflict, and if one chose, one could fill one’s hours watching and sharing these on social media, reading and viewing over and over. This presidential campaign was the most negative campaign in memory, with each side afraid that the other’s candidate would strip them of cherished rights and freedoms (I’m not saying either side was wrong, I’m simply saying that they were afraid). For the last week, media sources have reported an uptick in hate-related crimes against people of color, women, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community. People I care about are afraid for their families and their safety. There are articles pondering whether Trump will follow through on the most hateful of his campaign promises. Again, you can read, share, watch, comment to your heart’s content…or discontent, perhaps. The media cycle during this presidential campaign has become a chain of instant reactions to startling news, which people consume on repeat.

What happens when we’re startled by something? Whether it’s an unexpected loud sound, distressing news, tripping over something on the floor, or even an unwelcome idea, we often respond by tensing the muscles at the base of the skull and raising the shoulders up and in. This is a protective response, initiated at a physiological and neurological level by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is famous as the origin of the Fight – Flight – Freeze – Faint Response. In animals, it’s very clear:

The Startle Pattern. Photo: Peretz Partensky. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

The Startle Pattern. Photo: Peretz Partensky. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Have you ever watched two dogs that were jockeying for status? An angry cat? The head pulls back, the shoulders and neck tense, all in preparation for attack or defense. It’s also the system that gets a creature ready to run from a bear, from a tree about to fall. It’s the “deer-in-headlights” response of freezing in place, seemingly without the ability to move. It’s the “play dead” response used by animals to protect themselves from predators.

The same response is evident in humans. After a lesson a few months ago, a student and I who are on the same page politically were discussing some developments in the US presidential campaigns, which she viewed as troubling. I watched as my student – who had been using herself marvelously with a free neck and easy back just minutes before – contracted her neck and pulled her head back and down, her chin jutting forward. I drew her attention to this, and with my hands gently guided her head and neck back into a balanced coordination.

This is exactly the same response I noticed in my Facebook feed on Wednesday morning. Some were ready to Fight. Some were ready to move to Canada (Flight). Some were simply stunned (Freeze). Some were in such despair that they couldn’t process (Faint). The SNS response is physiological, and again, I want to say that however you responded to these events, your response is okay.  I just don’t want you to be confined by your feelings of fear.

When we are bombarded by startling or distressing news, we are reinforcing this fear response. Say there is a bear. The SNS helps us get ready for a fight, or to run, or to play dead, or stand perfectly still and hope the bear won’t notice. Our SNS response starts in the spinal cord, below the level of cognitive thought. The SNS causes the release of norepinephrin (adrenaline), which raises our heart rate, contracts the bloodvessels in the limbs, contracts the pupils of the eyes, etc., which prepares us for action. Since we know the body and mind are not separate, there are mental components to this SNS response – anxiety, worry, fear. If there is just one bear, and we escape or the bear leaves, we then let the other branch of the autonomic nervous system take over. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the “rest and digest” response, lowering heart rate, releasing blood vessels, dilating the eyes, and redirecting blood flow to our digestive organs. But if there is more than one bear, or if we keep focusing on the bear to the exclusion of all other stimuli, we can be physically and mentally confined in a Fear response.

Your body has this response on its own time, regardless of what the threat is. If you perceive it as a threat, you will likely have an SNS response. If that SNS response is not fully released, we can get stuck. F.M. Alexander wrote in his books nearly a century ago about “unduly excited fear reflexes,” meaning that he saw the people of his day (without television, computers, or twitter) as overstimulated, locked into a head-back, shoulders-up defensive posture. What about us? Are you raising your shoulders, tensing your neck, in defense against what you are reading in the news? Are you tightening your abdominal muscles, or the muscles of your legs, in preparation for flight? You may be doing these things below the level of cognitive thought, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice about it.

Try an experiment. Turn away from your screen. See the wall across the room, or look out a window. Notice where you’re sitting. Allow yourself to meet the chair, or get up for a walk and notice how you’re standing. Check in with your neck – is it free? Tell yourself, “My neck is free.” Say it enough times that you start to listen to yourself. Check in with your hip joints – are they free? Tell yourself, “My hips are free,” enough times that it starts to make a difference. Notice if you’re holding extra tension in your shoulders, arms, hands, legs, or feet. Identify it, don’t judge it, and see if it’s necessary. You have a choice. Do you feel different than you did a moment ago?

Now, go back to your news, or your social media feed. Look at the article, and read its title. Tell yourself, “My neck is free.” Notice if you are being drawn to your computer screen. If you are, come back to your hip joints and abdominal muscles. Are they free? As you read, keep part of your attention available to your Self. Are you using a free neck, free hip joints, free shoulders and arms? If not, you can choose to do so.

I don’t want you to be confined by your fear. I want you to be free to wrestle with it, to understand it, to empower your whole Self to move into the next moment as you choose. Each of us has choice. I can choose to read the article or not. You can choose HOW to use your Self while you read the article or not. This is power, folks. You are letting your Self be free of the physiological fear response, which gives you more choice in what you will do, how you will do it, and it also gives you more clarity of mind. Instead of being reactive, you become responsive. You can choose what stimuli you will respond to, and what your response will be. You haven’t eliminated the threat, and you haven’t judged the threat or your own fear (or anyone else’s), but you have made a choice to control what you can control – your response to it.

Wednesday morning, I had to apply all of the skills I’ve learned through my practice of the Alexander Technique in order to move through and process the news in a way that didn’t pull me down into despair. It was hard work. Choosing your reaction to troubling stimuli is not always easy, but in the long run, it allows you to be more effective in the work you do and more present to those around you.

As individuals who are part of both a nation and of local communities, we can choose to live in fear of one another, or we can choose to use our Selves well so that we are not reacting with a Fight/Flight/Freeze/Faint response to each piece of news, however troubling. Our freedom of movement and thinking will allow us to take action in ways that are life-giving. If you are reeling from this election, regardless of who you voted for, I offer you a space that will be compassionate. We’ll work together to quiet the nervous system response that might keep you in fear. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments – I look forward to hearing from you and hope to see you soon.

Peace.

A Proven Approach to Self Care

The idea of Self-care has been abuzz in the world around me these last several weeks. For those of us attuned to the academic calendar, whether as teachers of university or grade school students, or parents of children in school, the mid-fall rush has gathered. We’re tired. We’re over-extended. We’re doing too much for others, with less time for ourselves.

Self.

That’s a word we use a bit in Alexander Technique circles to refer to the whole person (though the idea of mind-body unity is certainly not unique to our work, nor is the word “self.”) The “Unity of the Self” means that we are not a body and mind, two entities to be treated and trained in two different ways.

Even more than that, it means there isn’t even a mind-body “connection.” They are the same thing – Us!

We are more than the sum of our “parts:” our thoughts, our muscles, our bones, our organs, our emotions, our spirits. Try to separate out any of those things into its own category, and you have problems. Science is continuing to show that our ‘minds’ and our ‘bodies’ are not separate. (For example, here’s a fascinating article about how skeletal proteins in mice have direct correlation to what we usually think of as “mental” health. Our bones effect our brains!)


So what is self-care, when your self is all of you?

Here’s my take:

A quality self-care activity gives you:

  1. time during which you can be mindfully aware of and pay attention to your Self in positive ways
  2. nourishment for your whole Self (remember, body/mind/spirit)
  3. peace for your whole Self (again, body/mind/spirit) – peace is defined as “freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility.”
  4. well-being that extends after the activity is over.

Using these guidelines, what are self-care methods that might work for you?

  • Some people enjoy a run or walk, especially outdoors. This is wonderful, and I do it as often as I can!

Ask yourself: Is your walk/run giving you whole-body-mind peace, as well asWalking with Alexander Technique - Mindful Self Care nourishment (exercise, fresh air, time in nature) and time to pay attention to your Self? Or do you “check out” and just run “with your muscles,” unaware of what you are doing? Does the benefit extend back into the rest of your day?

  • Some people enjoy the occasional massage. (I do too!)

Ask yourself: Are you able to take this peace of body with you into the rest of your life, or do you find that the tension creeps back in as soon as you return to ‘business as usual’?

  • Some people find that connecting with others to share a laugh, or reading something uplifting can help you put your burden down for a little while.

Ask yourself: What if you carried less tension around with you in every activity you do, putting that burden down more and more often, and supporting your Self instead with ease?


Ask anyone who has taken an Alexander Technique lesson, and I think they will agree that a lesson gives you all of these things: Time for calm, non-judgmental attention, nourishment for your Self, and peace of body/mind/spirit that can be accessed by you, on your own, throughout your day regardless of what activities you’re doing. The Alexander Technique is mindfulness embodied.

The American Society for the Alexander Technique explains our work in this way:

“A proven approach to self care, the Alexander Technique teaches how to unlearn habitual patterns that cause unnecessary tension in everything we do. It’s used by people of all ages and abilities to enhance the performance of every activity and relieve the pain and stress caused by everyday misuse of the body.”

In our culture, we tend to push our Selves to the limit, and only when we reach our limits do we “indulge” in Self care. What if you were caring for your Self in an ongoing way, and made opportunities for time, nourishment, and peace throughout your busy days, instead of waiting until you are in “crisis mode”?

In this context, you often hear the analogy of the talk given by flight attendants about aircraft emergencies: put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

When I am under considerable stress – deadlines, family needs, emotional and mental preoccupations – teaching the Alexander Technique is what brings me back to a calm center. In order to be able to teach well, I have learned to put my Self first, and I MUST pay attention to my own Use to have a chance of assisting the person in front of me. I recently had a difficult morning, where I couldn’t “think” myself out of an emotional/physical funk, but teaching four Alexander Technique lessons took me back to a way of being that was poised, free, and light. I still remember what I was stressed about, but it no longer weighed on me. I could move through my days with the grace and ease that is the potential of every person. I am more effective in my work, I am a better parent, and I just feel better in my Self.

The next time you say to yourself, “I really need to do some self-care,” consider trying an Alexander Technique lesson. I’ll even offer you a discount: 25% off your first lesson if you’re a new student. Just mention you read this blog (promo code: SELFCARE) and we’ll make a space for you: for time, nourishment, and peace that you can take back out into your life.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Self Care Promo Code

Permission to Not be Right

Take a minute and think through a typical day. How many times during the day do you feel that you have permission to not be right? By that, I mean you are not expected to: know the answer, build it so it works the first time, even wear socks that match… in general, do you have the freedom to not worry about a set of expectations you feel you’re supposed to meet?

Those expectations come from everywhere. I teach Alexander Technique at a university, and the students are bright, talented, dedicated individuals. But many times in our learning environments, there is a fear of being wrong, of needing to know the “right” answer immediately, and a constant background level of tension and stress that accompanies the living up to these expectations. In order to be “successful,” we think we have to be “the best,” which often leads to becoming afraid of being wrong.

Frequently, when I work with a new Alexander Technique student, they come in with an expectation that there is a “right” way to be in themselves: a “right” way to stand or to sit, a “right” observation to make about what’s happening in their Use. In my work at the university, I give a lot of very short chair turns, and I’ve started reminding my students as a class and as individuals that they have permission, at least for the time they’re in my class, to not be “right.” Many times, a major pattern of holding will drop away simply upon taking in those words.Permission not to be right Alexander Technique

When children are young, they learn through trial and error. There isn’t judgment attached to learning, the way that often happens with older children and adults. It’s possible to continue learning without judging whether our efforts are right or wrong, but sometimes that seems rather counter-cultural.

What is it in your life that you feel you have to be “right” about? Following the “right” career trajectory, with no room for missteps? Living the “right” life-style, espousing the “right” views? What about the seemingly simple question of “right” posture?

You have the power to give yourself this permission to not be right, and if you go to an Alexander Technique teacher, they’ll hopefully remind you! Often, the “right” expectations we place on ourselves keep us from realizing our potential – whether that is the potential of a back without pain, or the potential of singing freely, or the potential of trying a new path in life we didn’t think was open to us.

What would happen if you gave yourself permission to not be right in just one activity or setting? How would it change the way you engage in that activity? Would you enjoy it more?

Try it out and let me know – I look forward to hearing from you. And if you need a reminder, I’m happy to tell you that you have the permission – which you really give yourself – that you don’t have to be right.

You Are Your Instrument – Alexander Technique for Choral Musicians

I’m excited to embark on a new blog series about how the Alexander Technique can help choral musicians – both singers and conductors – rehearse and perform with ease, sing with healthy, free voices, reduce mental and physical strain, and in the end, make sounds that are more versatile and rich than ever!

All choral musicians can benefit from the Alexander Technique

The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus in concert. Photo Credit: Karl Zemlin, zemlinphoto.com.

Here are a few of the topics that I plan to explore:

  • How can the Alexander Technique help singers?
  • Easy, powerful breath energy
  • Using your arms – for both singers and conductors
  • Standing and singing
  • Sitting and singing
  • Creating your ideal choral sound without strain
  • Performance anxiety
  • Ways to incorporate the power of mind-body education into your rehearsal, while exquisitely preparing your music for performance!

Singers, remember: You are your instrument. All of you!

Your thoughts, muscles, bones, emotions, breath, and the way you use them – that’s your instrument. The Alexander Technique is, in my experience, uniquely qualified to help you unlearn the tension that may be keeping you from singing at your best, and to allow you to release into your full potential.

Conductors: You are also your instrument.

Every movement you make, every word you say in rehearsal has a direct effect on the sound your chorus creates. The Alexander Technique can help you learn to integrate your conducting gesture into your whole-body coordination, which gives you both power and precision, and bring more awareness to all of your senses. It also helps you learn to conduct free from pain and strain, allowing you to release into your full potential.

I recently had a couple of conversations on these topics with Robert Rickover, an Alexander Technique teacher and host of the Body Learning podcast. Take a listen to our first conversation, about the Alexander Technique and Choral Conductors, at http://bodylearning.buzzsprout.com/382/409798-how-the-alexander-technique-can-help-choral-conductors, and stay tuned for the next conversation about Alexander Technique and Choral Singers by watching this page or subscribing to the podcast.

Do you wonder how the Alexander Technique can help you or your chorus? Do you have topics you’d like to read about in my blog series? Contact me! I would love to talk with you, and would be happy to create a custom workshop for your ensemble or conducting class.

 

 

The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

– T.S. Eliot, from “Burnt Norton”

The world is turning.

I started writing this post in late June, after the attack at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. I had intended to finish and publish in early July after I returned from a conference, but was rocked again by the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, of police officers in Dallas, and further violence in the US and around the world. From this vantage point, the turmoil appears to be increasing in every sphere you could name: political, social, religious, economic. We sure do have a lot of it here in the US.

It can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel hopeless.

My hope is for lasting change – for personal, political, and cultural revolution.

I’m a bit of a word person, and I find it helpful to look at the origins and roots of important words. The verb “revolve” has a few definitions, but here’s a basic one: to turn in a circle on a central axis.

“Revolution” comes from the same root word – it is the turning.

My hope for our world is in people and organizations that are working for revolution – turning things around – in ways that create peace with justice for those whose voices have been silenced and whose lives have been undervalued for too long.

If our world is turning, what is the axis around which the revolution spins?

As Eliot points out in the poem excerpt above, every turning has a center. (This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years, since I discovered it sitting on the floor of a bookstore with a friend in high school. As a whole, the poem speaks to past and future gathering in the still point of the present moment, but as with any great poetry, the language applies to so many other ideas). At the center of any movement, there is stillness around which everything else revolves. In this stillness is the dance that allows all the movement in the revolution to take place.

The Alexander Technique helps us learn to find our own Still Point - just like the eye of a hurricane.

The Alexander Technique helps us learn to find our own Still Point – like the calm eye of a hurricane.

Nature shows us this clearly. Look at a hurricane from above, or the center of a galaxy. You can see the calm eye of the storm in this photo of Hurricane Daniel from 2006.

Look at a bowl thrown on a potter’s wheel. By centering the clay on the wheel, the spinning creates strength and the potter can build a beautiful thing from the center out.

Alexander Technique helps us learn to find a calm center - like the origin point of a piece of pottery.

A piece of wheel-thrown pottery must start from a calm, still center as the wheel spins and the structure takes form.

 

 

 

If we are mindful that we are not the spinning, we find the center.

A center-point that moves isn’t stable. Think of a bike wheel, or a revolving door… without a stable center, the bike wheel comes off, and the door fails to move. But just as Eliot said, we don’t “call this fixity.” It’s not stiff or immobile. There is a place of still, stable, dancing strength.

Alexander Technique - Still Point Sand Spiral

A spiral made of sand on a slowly-spinning wheel, by starting from the still point in the center.

Try this:

Shut off your social media – or even your internet – for  a minute. Notice how you’re sitting. Don’t try to sit up straight…allow a point of stillness wherever there is tension. Don’t try to quiet your mind…just allow that your thinking could be still, even if it doesn’t feel that way now.

When your body has this quality of stillness, so does your mind. When your mind has this quality of stillness, so does your body.

You could be running a marathon with this stillness, or working at a computer, or calling your elected officials, or marching in a protest. The Alexander Technique gives us tools to learn how to find our still point in every activity, and to move through our lives without being pulled “off center.” It’s mindfulness for your whole self – embodied in all that you do.

This stillness is your place of strength.

From there, you can reach out into the spinning world and do what needs to be done. From there, in the midst of a spinning life, you can see the options you have for what they are, and choose how to proceed. When you leave the center and start to feel “wound up,” return to that place of stillness in yourself by noticing where your body and mind could use less effort, even as you’re simultaneously booking it down the street to a meeting or dealing with an emotionally difficult situation.

Being in the center of the revolution means you are at the place of dancing stillness.

It’s this place that is stable and solid.

From the still point, you can reach into the whirlwind and not be consumed.

Refinishing and Re-education

I recently embarked on a project to reupholster the seats to a couple of my teaching chairs.

What I learned in the process got me thinking about habits, how deeply they sit in our selves, how unnoticed they might be, and how difficult they can be to “get rid” of. I started to look at words like “refinish” (as in wood refinishing) and “reupholster” as they connect to the work of the Alexander Technique: re-education.

You have a few options when deciding how to treat a piece of furniture that you’d like to update. Sometimes you can easily add a layer on top (paint, fabric, etc.); other times, the choice is fairly clear that you’ll have to strip it down to the wood.

IMG_0669This chest was covered in an uneven coating of white paint, and some pink fabric and batting that had seen better days quite a while ago. I saw details – dovetail joints, solid hardwood construction – that told me this piece had potential, down under all the layers. So I took it home, un-stapled the fabric, and got to work with some eco-stripper and a scraper. Then sand paper, then paint thinner, and I was finally ready to apply the finish.

IMG_3837This picture doesn’t do justice to the deep red-brown finish or the wood-working details of its original craft. I enjoy the results and learned a lot in the process.

 

 

 

Sometimes the choice is less obvious.

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I knew that the chair seats had at least two layers of fabric and a thin layer of foam. I could have taken a staple gun and simply added another layer of fabric over the top. Easy, right?

But judging that the lower layer dated from a period when loud velour in black, white, and yellow was fashionable, I thought I’d take the fabric off to see what lay beneath.

 

 

What I found surprised me: not two, but three layers of fabric, each stapled on top of the other in a tight mess, with some foam degrading underneath.

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IMG_3755After removing the top two rounds of staples, I saw that the lowest layer of fabric had lost its structural integrity long before it had been covered. It had been stapled over, and stapled over again. Covering over the fabric was easier than removing all the staples, but that didn’t change the fact that the fabric and foam were falling apart beneath.

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Finally, I found good, solid wood at the base, a sturdy seat. Look at all those staples still left.

Here’s that single chair seat, layer by layer.

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To do a thorough job, Refinishing and Reupholstering often begin with Removing, so that you can work from the base up.

 

 

 

So how do you change a habit?

Do you try to cover it over with something new and more desirable?

Or do you take the time to re-finish what you’re doing?

In Alexander Technique lessons, we first identify patterns of tension (habits) that are causing difficulty. Then come two very important steps: we STOP. Then we practice what AT teachers call inhibition, and what other disciplines might call non-doing. We don’t add something over the top of it, we just stop doing the thing that’s in our way. We un-learn (un-staple?) the harmful habit and follow it up with some direction of what we DO want to see happening in ourselves.

Amazingly, time after time, I see this process result in free and effortless movement.

The example of the chair seat also reminds me why it can be so hard to unlearn a habit. I didn’t count the number of staples in the fabric, but there were likely hundreds. The more we stack habit on top of habit, the deeper and more ingrained they can become. That’s why learning new coordination takes both time and discipline.

You are re-educating your whole self, but I promise you, both the process and the results will be worth it.

Want to try the Alexander Technique? Wondering if it could benefit you? Book a lesson at MJAT.setmore.com, or contact me for more information!

 

 

Practice and Results: Facing a Challenge

Think for a moment about the last time you faced a challenge. It could be minute 37 of spinning class (that was me today!), it could be learning a piece of music with a difficult passage, it could be a stressful situation at work…

Whatever it is, YOU HAVE A CHOICE about how you approach that challenge.

How do you deal with hurdles, roadblocks, or quagmires in your path? Do you push forward, head-strong, determined to bust through the hurdles by sheer effort of will? Do you turn around and ignore the challenge for as long as possible? Or do you pause and then glide effortlessly through the challenge without anxiety?

During the last several weeks of my class at IU, we were looking at end-gaining – that’s Alexander-jargon for being totally focused on results, or the “ends” of an endeavor. When we become results-oriented in our thinking, we forget about the process. We forget to allow free movement, and instead do what we hope isn’t too tense, if we’re even thinking about our Use at all (Use is the how of our movements and state of being). Whatever we’re doing – whether it’s gardening, learning music, biking, or working at a computer – we are constantly practicing, and what we practice gets laid down in neural pathways, eventually becoming a habit if it is done without awareness.

We can choose to practice effort or to practice ease.

I created this chart for my class in April. Assume that you intend to get from point A to point B. Somewhere between A and B is a challenge, represented by the purple line. Your path is indicated by the black line running between A and B.

Effort Indirect Path

The first time you encounter that challenge (insert your own particulars here), you have some choices – do you effort your way straight through, or do you take an indirect path? I say “indirect” because that’s how it can seem – that you’re not headed for your destination at all. For example, in lifting something heavy, do you focus on the goal of lifting that weight at any cost, or do you bring your attention first to the how? Do you use all the muscular effort you think you need, or do you allow your neck to be free and your back to lengthen and widen so that you eventually can find the strength and stability to lift the weight with ease?

If you look at each line, you’ll notice that the effort needed the first time was concentrated around the challenge itself. You’ll also notice that the indirect path was pretty loopy – it took some thinking and attention to figure out how to do this new thing without increasing the effort. In both cases, you still got to point B, no matter how long it took.

Now imagine that you’ve practiced this new thing 25 times. Each time, you may anticipate the challenge, and in the effort-ful path, you may start adding effort earlier, either unconsciously, or because you remember how hard it was and you’re “getting ready.” In the indirect path, you remember that the challenge is coming up, but you choose not to react…and when you get to the challenge, you still take a detour, but it’s less extreme than the first time.

After 100 repetitions of weight-lifting, digging with a shovel, practicing a musical passage, tricky conversation or whatever you have… the patterns may become extreme. In the path of effort, you’re prepared: You know this thing you’re about to do is HARD, so you get ready. You go into the activity using lots of effort, and you use it the whole time. You did it, but it was SO MUCH WORK…or you might be in pain, and not enjoying the activity as much as you used to in the beginning. In the indirect path, you’re also prepared…by not preparing. You’ve practiced effortlessly navigating the challenge so many times that when it arrives, it takes thought, but less effort than ever, and even less time. You have more creativity, awareness and presence in the moment, because you’re not devoting all of your energy to the hard labor of the activity.

Are you convinced? Do you want to use less effort to achieve terrific results?

Start by not focusing on the results at all.

Be in the process.

Practice doing less, even if it “feels wrong” at first. Your brain is calibrated to your habits, and when you start to use your whole-body intelligence, you may be surprised at how little you “feel” the work.

Stop in for an Alexander Technique lesson, where we put this process into practice in every moment. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time! I would also love to hear how this process of indirect thinking works for you.

New Student Special & Referral Bonus

Would someone you know like to try out the Alexander Technique?
I’m offering a new student special for spring!
Three 50 minute lessons for $180 (a 25% savings).

And for you? A REFERRAL BONUS! If you are a current or previous student of my studio, when you refer someone to take a lesson with me, ask them to mention your name when they schedule their first lesson and you will get a credit good for 25% off your next lesson. Win-win!

Spring in your step

 

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