Sound Direction Blog

Dealing with discomfort and change

At the time of writing, we are almost two months into the active fight against the coronavirus in Indiana. We have been asked to change so many features of our daily lives – social distancing at home while working or schooling, taking extra precautions to limit our exposure when shopping for groceries, cancellations of concerts, parties, weddings, lessons, conferences, dates or playdates – you name it. We are collectively struggling with isolation and anxiety. It seems redundant and obvious to say that the entire world is dealing with immense change and tragedy right now. No matter who you are, your daily life has been impacted by the spread of the coronavirus, and the efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.

Stress, Grief, TensionHow do you find yourself dealing with change? With the discomfort of this time? With the shift in daily rhythms, or the grief around loss of work, performances, opportunities, or just being able to be with friends and loved ones? What do you notice in your body as you consider this?

 

I won’t pretend that this change – sheltering at home, teaching all of my wonderful in-person work online, not seeing loved ones in person – hasn’t been hard for me. I have been at times exhausted, deeply afraid, angry, resistant, lonely and numb; sometimes multiples of these at once! I am grateful to be able to continue most of my work online in some fashion (more about that in a minute!) But the learning curve – my goodness, it has been steep! I had to learn SO MUCH in such a short period of time. Add to that the constantly changing information about the spread of the virus, and what we should be doing about it. I felt up to my ears in learning, like the classic Far Side cartoon, I was ready to be excused: my brain was full.

What I needed was time. But the world seemed to be telling me that I didn’t have time.

In retrospect, this was both true and false. There was the necessary urgency of learning how to schedule and teach my Alexander Technique and private voice lessons online, to plan for choral “rehearsals” using videoconferencing software, to determine how to adjust my syllabus for my university Alexander Technique class for the “new normal.” There was a need to change, now, for the sake of public and personal health.

At the same time, I also needed to take time for myself – my Whole Self – before I was truly able to be present and offer my attention to another person, especially over a challenging connection like video conferencing. I had to make an opportunity to be quiet enough in myself so that I could be able to observe, rather than to react.

As I’ve been thinking about what my work can offer in this particular moment, I was reminded of a quote from the textbook I use in my university AT course for musicians, Indirect Procedures by Pedro de Alcantara. He writes:

“Working on yourself means to face a situation and react constructively to it. It means to deal with discomfort if the discomfort is inevitable, as it often is when you pass from the known to the unknown. It also means to discover, explore, and conquer new ideas and techniques, and to connect to your innermost energies, moment by moment.”

This is why I practice and teach Alexander Technique. It is the best work I know to adapt to and respond to ever-changing life — even the really, really big changes. Yes, I have had some moments over this past six weeks where I really didn’t want to adapt, but I have done my best to use the powerful embodied mindfulness offered by Alexander work to try to respond constructively even to my resistance.

While I was trained primarily to teach the Alexander Technique in person, hands-on, I have been delighted to find that there are effective and powerful ways to teach and learn this work online. Drawing on my 10+ years of Alexander teaching experience, hands-off work done with groups, and learning from other Alexander teachers who work online, I’ve been offering online Alexander Technique lessons to both continuing and new students. There are major benefits, including:

  • You learn very directly how your thinking and kinesthetic awareness changes everything!
  • You as the student become responsible – in the very best way – for your own ease. You can’t rely on the teacher’s hands to take you there.
  • Your results are yours alone, not dependent on the hands of the teacher. You know exactly what you did or didn’t do to get from point A to point B!
  • You start to learn concretely how your habits of movement and thought contribute to your Use.
  • Great opportunities for application to real-life situations: playing an instrument, singing, working at a desk.
  • No commute! Take lessons from the comfort of your own home.

Teaching Alexander Technique Online!

Do I plan to return to in-person teaching when it becomes safe? You bet. However, given the current state of the pandemic in Indiana, I don’t anticipate close person-to-person contact being considered safe in the near future, even with the government timelines for re-opening. I will continue to evaluate the situation as it progresses and by being on my mailing list, you will be among the first to know when I begin in-person lessons again.

In the meantime, we still have work to do. Because our responses are Whole Self responses – that is, body and mind – we must include the body and mind in our self-work. The Alexander Technique is truly the best work I know to remind yourself that body and mind are unified, and you can change your whole life – bringing ease and calm to every situation – by changing how you use your Whole Self.

From Party to Practice

It’s January 2. The holidays are pretty much over. Whether you took two weeks of vacation, like several folks I know, or just had a few days here or there; whether you or your kids are on school break for a few more days, or whether you’re already back at it, this time of year often feels like resurfacing from the holidays.

Maybe you enjoyed yourself. Maybe you popped a cork on a sparkling beverage on New Year’s Eve, celebrating the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

Maybe it was difficult, or overwhelming, and you need a break from your holiday break.

Depending on your experience, the end of the holiday season might mean that you appreciate the return to normalcy, to routine. Or it might be a grudging acceptance of getting up and going to work every morning.

In my university class, I ask my students to journal on the following question: “Where in your life do you experience freedom, creativity, strength, and connection?” Because it is a class for performing musicians, we then explore whether they experience these qualities in performance. If yes, I ask them to consider what about the situation offers them the opportunity to access those qualities, and if no, what about the situation is an obstacle to that experience?

So how about you: did you experience freedom, creativity, strength, or connection over the holidays? If yes, what about the situation(s) you found yourself in offered that opportunity? If no, what about the situation(s) were a barrier from it?

Consider whether you partied, or spent your time in quiet; traveled, or didn’t; whether you visited or were visited by friends or family, or not; whether you took time off work, and how you spent that time; what your mood was through the various days of this period as compared to your ‘regular’ life, or the mood of the situations you were in: were they more festive and fun, and did you appreciate that, or not? 

Notice what you notice in your body, thoughts, and emotions as you think about these times. Were you more at ease in your Whole Self when on holiday break? Less at ease? What were the factors that contributed to or prevented that ease?

[Whatever your answers, they’re good. They’re yours. There is no right answer, just curiosity and observation!]

One thing that I keep learning as I grow older, and as I employ the practical mindfulness of the Alexander Technique in my daily life, is that it’s all one life, one you. You are you while on vacation. You are you at work.

Whether you experienced this over the holidays, or at some other point in your life, looking for your “party” can be an instructive question: Where have you found freedom, celebration, and joy?

It’s January 2, and the parties might be over, but the freedom you may have experienced doesn’t have to be finished.

What if you could experience the qualities of freedom, celebration, and joy in daily life?

Can you take the “party” and make it part of your daily practice? 

Ask yourself: What aspects of your work and daily life support freedom and ease? Which create an obstacle against it? Are those things you can change?

One thing we can absolutely change is our preconceived ideas.

For example, on New Year’s Day, I was texting with a friend who took the last two weeks off of work. They were anticipating a return to their managerial role, with an accumulation of hundreds of emails from every day that they were away, and lots to catch up on. I said: “I hope your day back to work tomorrow isn’t too overwhelming.” Their (mostly joking) response: “I’m sure it will be.😊

What if we went into the new day – and the new year – with an expectation that we would experience freedom and ease more often? That the opportunity to access these qualities was available in nearly every situation?

You have the choice to look for freedom, creativity, strength, and connection anywhere, any time. When you’re laughing with friends, or sick at home. When you’re feeling stress at work or when you’re doing something you enjoy.

To support that choice, you need a regular practice. The practice might simply be to notice when you have a preconceived idea that things will be difficult, and to observe how your Whole Self – mind, body, spirit – responds.

Because our Whole Self is just that – whole, unified, inseparable – you’ll also want a practice that helps you address underlying patterns of tension and strain that might keep you from experiencing freedom in daily living. When you beneficially change how you sit, how you move, and how you respond to the stimuli of life, you create the opportunity to experience more freedom, more strength, and more creativity in every situation. The Alexander Technique offers exactly that opportunity for change, growth, and practice. It may look like you’re just learning how to sit and stand, but what you’re learning is how to choose freedom, every single moment.

When the party is over, you don’t have to stop celebrating your life.

You can make the best aspects of the party – your choices towards freedom, strength, creativity, and connection – your daily practice.

Taking Time in Daily Life

When I work with musicians, actors, athletes, or other professionals whose use of their bodies is integral to their performance, people very often want to jump to the applications of the Alexander Technique – how does this work at the piano or violin? How does this work when speaking my lines, when singing?

For a long term change in habits, though, jumping to the end product is not the best place to start. I usually encourage a number of “just Alexander” lessons before we start to bring in the complexity of musical performance, acting, or any other activity. Why?

There are many reasons, and the most central is this: it’s much harder to change your habits in an activity you deeply care about (and have spent many hours practicing) than it is in something that matters less. Because of the way habits work, the more you “practice” a habit, the stronger it gets. If you are a professional violinist, you’ve likely practiced your instrument for many more hours than you have practiced the way you get carrots out of the refrigerator. You probably have more attachment to the outcome of playing your instrument than you do about the way you reach for carrots in the veggie drawer of your refrigerator! Here’s the good news: the way you use yourself in any one activity influences the way you use yourself in every other activity.

I think of our activities on a spectrum of “low stakes” to “high stakes.” Examples of low stakes activities include washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, walking, feeding your pet, or folding laundry. Low stakes activities are such because the quality of the outcome typically isn’t that important. If you spill a little pet food on the floor, it doesn’t matter – you can pick it up. If your towels are not folded just so before you put them in the cabinet, it doesn’t really matter! Life moves on. High stakes activities, on the other hand, typically have great importance attached to their outcome. Examples might be a public performance (recital, play, opera) or an audition. For those on the professional performer path, even lessons, coachings, and rehearsals are high stakes. It really does matter how you sound and how you perform – if you sing poorly at an audition, you are unlikely to get the job. If you play consistently out of tune in rehearsal, you’re likely to be fired.

The intensity of the stakes of an activity has a direct relationship to how easy or difficult it is to change your habits. Most likely, you have developed habits to help you win auditions, perform well in coachings, and “wow” the audience in concert. At the same time, some of those habits may be causing you pain or strain. They may be impairing your technical growth, or at the very least, limiting your potential and keeping you from seeing new creative opportunities. To change our own habits in a permanent, meaningful way, we have to change our thought processes. Often, that change requires a risk – it means daring to be wrong, because that openness to failure allows you to experiment, to try new ways of using your whole self that may or may not work. Is it easier to dare to be wrong while folding the laundry or while auditioning for a major opera company? If you’re anything like me, definitely the laundry! It also requires taking time, being willing to not just “get the job done quickly,” but to be attentive to the steps of the process. You may not be able to take the time in every rehearsal to stop and put your instrument down when you notice the power of a habit, but I bet you CAN take an extra 10 seconds to notice how you reach for a mug in the cabinet, or the way you wash a dish.

Mindful Attention to Daily Movements Alexander Technique

Again: the way you do anything is the way you do everything. More clearly – the way you use your Whole Self (body+mind) when folding the laundry can be the same way you use your Whole Self in singing, acting, dancing, or anything else. The ease with which you pour pet food into the dish may become the ease with which you sing a challenging phrase of music.

If you’re serious about change, practice change in low-stakes activities BEFORE trying it in those with higher stakes. Trying for change too quickly in the higher stakes, more complex activities may cause you to tighten in response to the changes, or to believe the changes don’t work. Give yourself time. Try them in daily life first.

Every semester, I give my university students an assignment to explore applications of the Alexander Technique in low-stakes activities of daily life, even though our course is centered around the work of music-making. Here are some of the insightful things they’ve noticed:

“I was in no rush and completely calm during this process. Then when I was done, I was very satisfied; I never thought I would be so proud for making the bed…now more than ever I understand what you were saying about the benefits of not trying to complete an activity as quickly as possible. Taking your time is less stressful and ultimately more satisfying in the long run and it’s worth the extra few minutes.” – Alex

“I actually felt the mental benefits were the most potentially game-changing for me, because if I can feel more calm just by slowing down a little bit then I really should make the time to do it more often.” – Aleena

“In total it took me 10 minutes to do the dishes, which is probably 3 minutes longer than it usually does, but wow, how different does these extra three minutes make me feel! I am more relaxed, more mindful, and actually enjoyed this little moment of freedom and surrender into the moment itself.” – Svenja

“In order to direct myself while using the [computer] mouse, I first had to acknowledge that my goal was normally to do it as quickly as possible. Instead of end-gaining and misusing myself to try to get the work done quickly, I told myself “I have time” every time that I start to move my hand…This [process] resulted in a huge benefit of a lot less tension, which then made it easier to hold my bow and play viola for many hours after work, and made sitting in the chair at work more comfortable since my spine was able to lengthen and move more than usual.” – Mallory

As this last example shows, the way you use yourself in daily life has a direct impact on the way you use yourself in music making (or any other higher-stakes activity).  

If you have two basic options for Use – a tense, rigid, anxious Self or a free, relaxed, open Self – which do you think puts you in the space to make change? Freedom of course! We allow the possibility of change when we start with a free, relaxed, open approach to living, where we aren’t too attached to the quality of the outcome. If you are able to do that right away while playing your instrument, auditioning, and performing, more power to you! That is where we all want to be as we progress. But I know I find the little moments of my life to be more instructive – folding at the hips to get carrots from the veggie drawer in my fridge, releasing the whole arm to extend the fingers toward my tea mug in the cabinet, balancing on the chair here at my desk to type this post, sending the hands apart from one another with an open back when folding towels. If I learn from them, and I use myself well in daily life, that use of my self will be there when I sing, play piano, or conduct. My mind and body are more at peace, and more able to adapt to the demands of whatever task or music is in front of me. I have already practiced the skills I need to deal with the high-stakes activities in the comfortable laboratory of my lower-stakes tasks. Your whole life gets to become a place in which to learn, observe, and release the habits that don’t serve you – which lets you access creativity and power any time you choose. 

I would love to hear from you about the daily-life activities you choose to pay attention to your Whole Self, and what you discover! 

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando – It is solved by walking.

As the story goes, the Greek philosopher Zeno concluded, using logic, that motion was an illusion (one of Zeno’s Paradoxes). When Diogenes the Cynic heard this he reportedly responded without speaking, simply standing up and walking away to show that motion did, in fact, exist. The Latin phrase solvitur ambulando, translated as “it is solved by walking” and attributed to St. Augustine, has come to refer to a problem that can be solved by a practical demonstration.

I’m intrigued by this phrase for two reasons.

First, the above definition (a problem that can be solved by a practical demonstration) reminds me to stay grounded in the practical applications of theory and philosophy. I love big ideas and huge questions, but often, what my life needs is the practical outcome of those big ideas and questions. F.M. Alexander was by all accounts a person who put practice first, and only afterwards, worked out the theory. The method he originated, which became known as the Alexander Technique, is a fundamentally practical work that addresses practical issues with practical solutions: Can we choose our responses to the stimuli of living? Yes – by creating a little space between any stimulus and our response. How can we be poised and balanced in our whole selves – body + mind – to be free of habit and preconceived ideas, and be present and open to the possibilities in around us? The answers to these questions are not purely philosophical, but practical. The solution is in how I sit, how I type, how I breathe, how I rest, how I walk.

Person walking in the sand near the ocean, with cliffs in the background. The Alexander Technique helps us learn to move with freedom in any activity.

This brings me to the surface meaning of the phrase: “It is solved by walking.” I know that I feel my best on the days I teach Alexander Technique, because I really pay attention to how I use my whole self. I’m both deliberate and free in my movements and in my thinking. I have to be, if I want to be effective in my teaching! A good saunter in the woods (or, when possible, near water) makes things better, no matter how I’m feeling. (A day when I get to teach the Technique AND go for a walk is the best!) I also love going to a yoga class, or doing yoga on my own at home if I’m feeling short on time. You don’t have to be in a special setting, either – just a lap around your neighborhood, or even your office building, can do the trick! I vividly remember taking a walk one afternoon during my Alexander Technique teacher training, when I felt absolutely at one and integrated in my movement. It was pure bliss, just to walk down a sidewalk past some university buildings, letting myself flow through coordinated, buoyant walking, without analysis or judgment.

But sometimes, I forget how good it can feel to simply move, with ease and with love for myself in however I am in my movement that day. I can let myself sink into over-thinking or ruminating on a problem, get stuck on social media or doing work on the computer when a good walk would probably move me through whatever the matter is. Remember, body and mind are a unity – they’re the same thing. How you move your body IS how you move your mind. Don’t get “stuck” in your thoughts by being “stuck” in your movements.

In what ways do you like to move? Do you like slow walks, fast hikes, cycling, silly dancing in your kitchen, running, hula hooping, yoga, lifting weights, raking leaves, sweeping a floor, folding laundry? You don’t have to walk, or do yoga, but moving in whatever ways your body likes to move, with ease and self-love, can work wonders.


You can try this experiment if you like:

Stand or sit in a free, buoyant, ease stance.

Notice the air on the surface of you – all the air that touches your skin or clothing. Don’t forget under your feet, above your head, between your arms and torso, in front of you, behind you…

Now imagine that sense of air one inch out from your skin. Then two inches out. Then four. Then twelve.

What do you notice?

Now keep that sense of air/space and begin moving. You can walk, sway your hips, bend your knees, swing your arms, whatever you like.

Now ‘drop’ the sense of air/space. Forget the space around you. How does your movement change?

When you like, bring the air/space back, either all at once, or building out from the surface of your skin. Stop moving externally if you need to, to keep things easy, but notice that just breathing, or standing, or sitting contains dynamic movement. Continue playing with decreasing and increasing the sense of space around you as you choose to move.

What do you notice? How playful can you let it be?


I’d love to hear what you observe in yourself and in your moving when you try this experiment!

The Process

In January, I scored a really great notebook and a pack of my favorite pens on clearance. My nine-year-old son, while happily composing stories in his new notebook with new pencils, asked, “What are you going to do with that notebook, mom?” I thought and replied, “Well, I have stories and books that I want to write, too. I think I might start writing them in this notebook.” After looking at me for a moment, he wisely asked, “Well, why don’t you do it now?”

I thought about the reasons for my delay in starting the book, which has been percolating for more than two years. I already blog, so I have some material ready to go, I’ve already drafted an outline. What’s the problem? Why can’t I keep going?

I think one reason is my discomfort with being in the process.

You see, I like to start new things. It’s exciting, full of promise and potential. Finishing things feels good, too.

Oh, but all that space in the middle…that’s the hard part. I’d rather just get it done.

I see this tendency in so many areas of my life. The process is challenging because you don’t know where you’re heading. You don’t know if the tack you’re taking – whether that’s how you practice, how you write a book, how your career unfolds – is going to work, in the end.

F.M. Alexander called this tendency to rush through or ignore the process “end-gaining.” For me, understanding end-gaining has been one of the most illuminating parts of the Alexander Technique. We end-gain for lots of reasons: we’re busy, we think we don’t have time, or maybe we’re really excited about the potential of the finished “product.” Sometimes we’re so reliant on (or unaware of) our habits that we don’t see other options.

But I think, for me, it’s sometimes because the process is a messy place. It’s neither here nor there. It’s usually unfamiliar and to be honest, it just might not turn out the way I hope.

Often, we think we know what the “goal” is – in work, in life, in cooking dinner, in making music. We want to know the answers and get the final results without taking the time to quietly and mindfully pay attention to a situation, a relationship, or a phrase of a song. We get ahead of ourselves. This is end-gaining.

After my 15+ years of engagement with this work, I really think end-gaining is at the root of so many of our problems. We want to get out of the chair now, we want the project to be completed now, we anticipate and rush toward the high note now, we want to know now what role a person we meet will play in our life, we want the kitchen to be clean now… you get the idea. And often, we don’t even enter the process – or we do so in a hurried, inattentive way – because we don’t think it’s as important as the goal, the “end.”

But the process is the only place where work, exploration, and enjoyment can take place.

Sometimes we miss the process altogether because we’re busy and distracted, and we aren’t aware of the opportunities right in front of us. Case in point: last week, I arrived to my studio in a typical morning rush, with barely a couple of minutes to spare before my first lesson. Then I saw a text from that student, informing me of an emergency and their need to cancel. My initial thought was self-critical – if I’d given myself enough time to check my messages before leaving, I could have stayed at home and worked on this post on my computer, at my table, with tea. I briefly considered driving home, and then back for my lesson an hour later, but this felt like a waste of time. Then I thought of the the ways I could use this time, and the resources I had available – the smartphone in my bag, my binder with music for my afternoon rehearsals, and the stack of looseleaf paper I keep in it. I’d been complaining that I didn’t have time to adequately prepare for those rehearsals, or to write this blog. I considered the sunny window in my studio, and the little table in the corner. It occurred to me how lovely it would be to sit at that sunny table, with my paper and pen, and my thoughts, and my music, and see what the process brought.

You see, that “I don’t have time” thought kept me out of the process. I was rushing, hurrying from one appointment or task to the next, not realizing that I really do have moments of space in my life to do what I need.

So I sat with my paper and pen, and I wrote most of what you’re reading now. I stayed in the process, noticing what was in front of me, and my choices. It changed my entire day from one of stress and hurry to one of ease and energy, despite a very full schedule. 

I am inspired this week by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who were recently in residence at the University of Indianapolis, creating a sand mandala for world peace over five days. They meticulously released fine streams of colored sand onto a board, painting a beautiful, detailed design. After five days, when the mandala is completed, they ceremonially brush the sand away. The “end” – the product – isn’t the point, or at least it’s not something to cling to. It’s their attention and presence in the process that matters.

All products or ends – a sand mandala, a performance of a piece of music, a meal, a state of mind or body, a relationship – are impermanent. The way to work with, celebrate and enjoy them is to be in the process.

The process can feel uncomfortably uncertain, and there’s always the potential that you won’t end up with the result you initially desired. In my experience, though, the result is usually even better than you imagined.

This process, called in Alexander’s terms “the means-whereby,” is the root of our work in the Alexander Technique. It’s why we aren’t looking for a “right posture” in lessons, and why we encourage curiosity and attention rather than aiming for a correct form. The outer form will take care of itself if we stay in the process. The beautiful choral blend will happen if we stay in the process. The outcomes that we need will come to be, if we can just stay in the process.

PS – Do I teach Alexander Technique because process-oriented thinking comes naturally to me? Quite the opposite! I’m a huge end-gainer. I want to be where I think I should be NOW, in life, in my career, in music, in everything. I do this work because I have found that the Alexander Technique is the best way for me to be physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally present. It’s self-care for my entire self. It causes me to enter into the process, which is the only place I can live the life I want to live, and do the work I want to do.

Have you had an interesting or illuminating experience with being in the process? Have you experienced first-hand how end-gaining keeps you from being at your best? I’d love to hear from you about it!

With Ease

Have you ever tried something new, and decided “I’m going to work hard to get this right?” Think back to that time – maybe it was a new exercise regimen, or learning to play an instrument. How did “working hard to get this right” go for you? For many people that kind of approach to a new experience – or even a familiar one – leads to tension and stress. Tension and stress can sometimes lead to mental and physical pain; over time, even injury.

When I work with a new student or teach an Alexander Technique workshop, I often ask people to conduct a little experiment about Effort and Ease (my thanks to Imogen Ragone and Meade Andrews for the idea). If you like, try repeating the following phrase three times to yourself. You can say it silently, in your thinking, or you can say it out loud. You might notice what happens in your body as you think this experiment:

I have to do it right, and I have to do it fast.  (3x)

Did you notice anything? Often, the people I work with experience an increase of strain or tension in the neck and shoulders, their breathing may become more shallow, and many report an increased heart rate – just from thinking.

Now here’s the opposite experiment. Again, try repeating the following to yourself, and notice what you notice in your body.

I don’t have to be right, and I have the time I need. (3x)

Did you notice anything? Many individuals report a release of tension in the body, a calming of the breath, and a slowing of heart rate. People also sometimes express a feeling of disbelief  (“There’s no possible way that I don’t have to be right, and I really have to do this fast!”) Notice if that disbelief was part of your response in this thought experiment. If it is, you can try an alternate wording: I’m at ease in myself, and I have the time I need.

I shared a draft of this article with a colleague, and she responded with a story of her own that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. With her permission, I share it with you:

This morning was rough in our house. We were rushing around. My son wasn’t getting ready, and when we walked out the door I knew I barely had enough time to get him to school on time. Then he opened the car door and said, “Where’s my booster seat?” It was in the OTHER car…the one his dad and sister had just driven off in about 5 minutes before. So, I called and told them to turn around. By the time they got back to the house and we got the booster seat in my car, we both knew he would be late, so I turned on some fun music and we drove with ease. Getting there on time didn’t matter anymore, because we accepted that he would be late. We pulled into the school right on time, and when I walked him in the school administrator told him to go on back, that he had just made it. We could have driven to school with anxiety and panic, but we accepted his lateness and instead settled into the ease of the drive and enjoyed the music…and he made it on time after all. I wonder what our mornings would look like if we always practiced “ease”?

I’ve had many, many moments (especially mornings!) like this one, where I was in a rush, and I haven’t always chosen ease even though I know what an amazing impact that ease has on my day. When I choose ease, I feel better in my body, in my thinking, and my mood…I’m also kinder and more present to the people around me.

Ease doesn’t necessarily mean relaxation. You can have ease in running a race, or lifting something heavy. (I just moved! LOTS of boxes. I can vouch for the Alexander Technique’s ability to help me lift boxes and furniture with less strain and effort!)

An Appointment with Ease

For me, Ease means using just the energy I need for an activity, in a way that preserves my poise and peace of mind. Ease in thinking could be synonymous with curiosity or fascination. Rather than “I have to get this right,” I try to approach a new activity without any particular end in mind.

The next time you try something new – or the next time you do something routine, like opening a door or turning on the light – remind yourself that you have time. 

It’s not always simple to remember to choose Ease, but little moments to pause can make a world of difference. Try adding some “appointments” with Ease throughout your day in the coming year. (You can even literally add them to your calendar!) When you approach the new or the familiar with an attitude of ease – instead of strain – what freedom might you discover? 

What IS Posture Anyway?

We all know that ‘good posture’ is important. It helps us move through the world with confidence. It helps us have presence in performance or public speaking. It’s the foundation of singing. We feel and look better with it.

But if you ask people what good posture is, you’re likely to hear something like the following:

“Well, I know I should use it, but I don’t.”

“Standing as straight as possible like my head is being pulled up to the ceiling with a string.”

“When I was a kid, I was told to pull my shoulders back and lift my chest. But my back hurts after I do this for a while.”

If you ask a group of people to show you “good posture,” and then you are attentive to what each person is doing, you’re likely to notice that everyone has a different idea, and that often, our conception of posture involves a lot of effort and pulling. (If you’re a choral conductor or music educator, be extra attentive to the words you use to talk to your choirs and students about posture over the next few weeks. See what you notice!)

When I was a young singer, I was told I had “great posture,” but that posture didn’t help me sing with ease. I might have looked like I had poise and balance, but the way I was standing was actively getting in the way of free singing.

WHY?

Because what’s we’re often looking for in “posture” is a correct outer form, but what gives us ease and balance is our inner coordination. It’s not about what we look like, but about how all of us works together.

I teach a course at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music called “Postural Alignment for the Musician.” While I didn’t pick the title, it has been great to work with these concepts because EVERYONE has an idea about what posture is and isn’t.

What is Posture? What is Alignment? Alexander Technique gives us some clues.

On the first day of class we start by sharing thoughts about what “posture” and “alignment” mean to each of the students. They have great ideas! Then I offer one of my favorite definitions of posture:

“Your posture is the ongoing perceptual process by which you orient yourself to gravity and to your relationship with the people, objects, and events in your world.”

  • Mary Bond, The New Rules of Posture, p. 12

Here are some reasons I love this definition.

  1. Posture involves PERCEPTION. It’s not about a fixed, correct position, but about our response to the world around us.
  2. It’s about our orientation to GRAVITY. Our bipedal stance requires both the downward force of gravity and the upward energizing force of our deep postural muscles.
  3. Posture is DYNAMIC, and is influenced by our thoughts (about those people, objects, and events), our goals, and our habits.

We also do a fun brainstorming activity where we compare and contrast two models of posture:

This guy (a posable wooden art model):

Wooden Art Model of a Human

and this, a “Skwish” baby toy (which is also a tensegrity model):Tensegrity Model of Posture

I ask the students to brainstorm ideas in favor of each as a model of posture, and against each as a model of posture. They usually create a list like this:

In favor of the art model: 

  1. It looks more like a human 
  2. It has movable parts 

Against the art model:

  1. It’s rigid
  2. Its joints aren’t really like our joints
  3. If you drop it, it doesn’t bounce

In favor of the tensegrity model:

  1. When you move one part, all the other parts are affected
  2. When you drop it, it bounces. When you squish it, it pops back up.
  3. You could imagine the dowels as our bones, and the elastic as our muscles and connective tissue (see definition of tensegrity here)
  4. In short, it’s springy, dynamic, and resilient

Against the tensegrity model:

  1. It doesn’t really look like a person:

When you look at these lists, what you realize is that the only benefit of the art model is that it fits the outer form of what we think a person’s posture should be. It shows us the “what.” But it doesn’t address how we should get there.

Alexander Technique teachers typically don’t talk about posture for this very reason. We’re not interested in a correct outer form, but in the way that a person organizes themselves. F.M. Alexander called this Use. Your Use is your own, individual way of being in your body, in your thinking, and in your responses to the world around you.

My colleague Hilary King states it nicely in her Alexander Technique glossary:

Use refers to the habitual and characteristic manner in which a person moves and uses their body, all the time, whatever they are doing. Our use is influenced by our thinking and by our emotions and to bring about changes in our use, we need to allow changes to take place in our thinking and in our reactions to things.

“The way we use ourselves affects the functioning of the whole body, our whole psychophysical being. As F M Alexander put it:

‘Talk about a man’s individuality and character: it’s the way he uses himself’ 

So the next time you’re giving someone instruction in how to stand or sit for singing, playing piano, or anything else, remember not to go for a correct outer form. Give them guides for a kind of balance and ease that begins on the inside, rather than things to “do” with different sets of muscles.

Here are some phrases that help me. These are all based in solid biomechanics, and draw on the Alexander Technique in that they start with our thinking and our goals, not a plan for a “correct position.”

“I don’t have to be right.”

“My feet (and if sitting, my sitting bones) are supported by the earth/the surface I’m resting on, and I’m allowing myself to be supported.”

“I let my hip sockets release in the front, my knees release in the back, and allow my back to widen”

“I let my head rest to balance freely on top of my spine (way up between the ears)”

“I let my shoulders release to either side from the center of the chest”

One of my favorite aphorisms from F.M. Alexander is:

“There is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction.”

If you’re a teacher, play with these ideas in your next lesson or rehearsal, and see what you and your students discover! I’d love to hear from you!

Constructive Rest – Peace in the Midst of Busy

It’s mid-April. For those of in the academic and music performance cycles, that means BUSY. With concerts, finals, and an increasing number of commitments, it’s easy to feel like there just isn’t any downtime. I try to build periods of rest into my life, but some days, all I can get is ten minutes. What can I do with ten minutes that could possibly have an impact on my overall stress and fatigue?

One of the key concepts of the Alexander Technique is “inhibition,” a word that in this context really just means to stop, to prevent ourselves from making an action, taking the time to think. It’s the small space that gives one the opportunity to choose: do I follow my habitual way of doing things, or do I make a new choice? In that choice, to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, is our freedom – freedom from busy-ness, overwhelm, strain, stress. If my habit is to “push through” these busy times, making the choice to stop and literally lie down is a powerful antidote!

Constructive Rest is a body-mind practice that gives you time to pause in your busy day, and allows the whole body a chance to release, letting gravity help with the lengthening of the spine and widening of the back. It’s a chance for a “reset.” It’s the next best thing you can do to having an Alexander Technique lesson, and supports the process of change between lessons. Constructive rest is also a great way to begin vocal warm-ups! We do constructive rest in nearly every class in the course I teach for musicians at IU Jacobs School of Music. While it’s “just laying on the floor,” the students say it is one of their favorite parts of the class!

Alexander Technique Constructive Rest, Semi-Supine, or a "lie down"

Constructive rest is one of my places of refuge in the midst of a busy life. After a long car trip, or in the early afternoon while my tea is steeping, I find constructive rest to be amazingly rejuvenating! five to ten minutes on the floor does wonders to alleviate fatigue in body and mind.

To practice constructive rest, also known as Semi-Supine or “having a lie-down,” find yourself a firm but comfortable surface. That can be a carpeted floor, a yoga mat, or a fleece blanket. You need the firmness for support, so avoid beds or other things that sink under your weight. You’ll also want a paperback book to rest your head on. The book thickness that is comfortable for you will be individual: something high enough so that your head is going “forward and up” in relation to your torso, and so the occipital (head-neck) joint is not compressed, but you don’t want the book so thick that you feel tightness under the chin. Many people start with something around one inch thick, and then experiment by raising or lowering the height until they find something that works. Place your feet on the floor, about hip-width apart, with your knees pointed toward the ceiling.

Remain in this semi-supine position for  as long as is comfortable, five to fifteen minutes. It’s a great place to think, or to simply be, though it’s not a nap! Allow your eyes to be gently open, gazing at the ceiling. (If you’re so tired that you fall asleep, just take a nap instead!)

Practicing awareness as you rest, you will gain even more benefit. Here are some things to think and notice:

1. Allow the neck to be free, letting your head rest on the book. Notice the places where you make contact with the floor: shoulder blades, upper arms, elbows, ribs, pelvis, soles of feet. Allow each of those places to rest, and you’ll notice that your back begins to lengthen of its own accord. Let gravity be your friend!

2. Allow the knees to release toward the ceiling, as the top of each femur (thigh bone) rests in the hip socket, and each foot rests on the floor. Feel the muscles in the low back release as you think of the hip joints resting toward the back of the pelvis.

3. Resting your hands on your low ribs, at your sides, or at the top of the hips, notice the width across the shoulder girdle, from side to side across the collar bones in front, and across the shoulder blades in back. Notice the movement of breath as you rest, allowing the ribs and abdominal muscles to move.

4. You might also notice any thoughts or emotions that are in your attention. Notice them; let them shift or change. Are they connected to something you’re observing in your body?

5. Return to noticing each area and the whole, allowing your self to release into length, width, and ease.

Practicing constructive rest on a regular basis can have huge benefits: more peace of mind, more ease in your body, less pain and strain, less fatigue… Try it for several days in a row, and see what you discover!

 

 

 

 

You Are Your Instrument: The Power of the Breath, part 2

In last month’s blog, I explored the idea of noticing your non-doing breath. Not long after I sent it out, one reader wrote to ask: “Can you give us tips on how to incorporate breathing techniques into daily life?”

Absolutely!

First, let’s finish talking about the “Whispered Ah.” if you haven’t recently practiced paying calm attention to your breath, allowing the air to go out, to pause, and then allowing the air to return into your lungs, take a read through the second half my post “The Power of the Breath, Part 1” and see what you notice.

A couple of important notes before we begin:

  • Practicing breath in this way ALWAYS begins with an exhale. Many people find it hard to first let air out of the lungs without taking a preparatory breath in. Pay close attention to how you start, pausing in your thinking to calm the habit of breathing in before you breathe out. It may seem counterintuitive, but unless we have had the “wind knocked out of us,” we always have a little air in our lungs.
  • Your whole-self coordination is always the foundation of breathing. Give yourself time and space, thinking of allowing your neck to be easy, your back to release into length and width.

On board? Okay, here we go! I suggest you read through the process once or twice, breathing neutrally, before trying it.

  1. Allow whatever breath is already in your lungs to go out on an exhale, no matter how much or little, even if it’s only a teaspoon of air. You don’t need to breathe in first!
  2. Close your lips and pause. Don’t “take” a breath. Wait until the air “wants” to come in (your nervous system will take care of this, don’t worry!)
  3. Allow the air to return through your nose.
  4. Think of something genuinely funny so that you smile inside your mouth and a twinkle comes to your eyes. (If you can’t think of anything funny, find a 2nd grader and ask them to tell you a joke – those groan-inducing elementary school jokes or perfect. Here’s a favorite: Q: What did the snail take with her on vacation? A: Her sluggage. Get it? Slug-gage?)
  5. Allow the jaw to release from its joint just in front of the ear, and let the tongue rest freely forward so that the tip of the tongue rests behind the lower front teeth.
  6. Then allow your air to release out of your mouth. It will sound like a whispered “Ah.”
  7. Pause, and repeat from step 2.

 

Fun facts about coordination that help with whispered Ah and breathing in general:

  • As you exhale, your spine gently lengthens. As you inhale, your spine gently gathers. You do not need to “do” this lengthening and gathering. It will happen if you allow it.
  • You Have Time. You don’t need to rush. But you also don’t need to breathe slowly, or at any particular speed. Don’t make the mistake of trying to “lengthen your breath.” Your speed of breath may change, but that’s not the point. Breathing freely can happen almost instantaneously when we don’t interfere.
  • Free breathing doesn’t “look” like anything. It looks (and probably feels) like you sitting, standing, or lying down in a calmly springy way. You don’t pull or push on your chest, your head, your shoulders, your abdominal muscles, or anywhere else. I just did a search for stock photo images of “breath,” and in every single photo, the people were pulling their heads back, or scrunching their shoulders, or doing yoga poses. I couldn’t find a person breathing while using their head neck and back well. Why? I suppose that while it feels incredibly powerful and liberating, free breath isn’t very exciting to watch. Notice if you try to “do” something with or manipulate your breath based on an idea you have about what “good breathing” looks or feels like.

Here’s an image I chose to show what free breathing looks and feels like to me. I took this on a walk near the Winter Solstice in 2015:

 

 

Or maybe these, two pictures of the same winter grasses at sunset, with different exposures. Perhaps these are the breathing phases “exhale” and “inhale” respectively:

Sunset as Exhale. Ease in breathing with the Alexander Technique. Sunset as Inhale. Ease in breathing with the Alexander Technique.

I like to do Whispered Ahs in groups of three. I find that gives me the space to work on my self without pushing, and it doesn’t take too long. After you practice it, you can do Whispered Ah anywhere you are: while walking, while waiting in line at the grocery store, while dealing with a stressful situation at work or home. Here are a few of those ideas for daily life:

  • Spoken Presentations and Vocal Performances. Before you begin to speak or sing, Breathe Out. Exhale first. Pause. Allow the air to return. Use a series of whispered Ahs if you like. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it, and more than likely no one will even notice.
  • Instrumental Performances. Breathing is just as important for instrumentalists, even if you don’t make sound directly with your air. Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return. Then draw your bow on the strings, press the keys on the piano, etc.
  • When you’re stressed. Feeling mental and/or physical tension? Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return.
  • Parenting. See “when you’re stressed.” Before reacting, Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return. I’m still working on this one (and my child just turned 8…)
  • While Waiting. In line at the store, on hold on the phone, while your tea is steeping… Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return.
  • If you’re feeling resistant or sluggish. Try three whispered Ahs instead of “forcing yourself” to go on with an activity you don’t feel like doing. Does your state of being change?
  • Pick an activity. Choose any daily activity – sitting down at the computer, cutting veggies, folding laundry, reading, walking, playing music, exercising. Each time you do it notice if you hold your breath while doing these things. If you are: Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return.
  • Answering the phone/Making a phone call. You have time to exhale before answering a phone call. It may feel strange at first, but the extra time will benefit you (and likely the person you’re going to talk to!) Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return. Then say “Hello.”
  • Conversations. Similar to above. Wait before answering. This similar to “practicing the pause.” You have time. Breathe Out. Pause. Allow the air to return.

Your breath – and the way you choose to use your breath – has immense power. You can access that power any time, any where.

If you explore some of the breathing ideas in this post, I’d love to hear from you about your experience!

May you have peace in each breath. 

You Are Your Instrument: The Power of the Breath, part 1

Earlier this month, I had the joy of partnering in an event at the Spirit and Place Festival, a unique, 10-day long event in Indianapolis exploring the intersection of the arts, humanities, and religion. This year’s theme was “Power.” An ensemble from Indianapolis Women’s Chorus (the chorus I direct) partnered with Shiela Dimof from Santosha Yoga on an event called “Embodied Power: Breath, Voice, Yoga.” It was a yoga class with live choral music, or alternatively, a choral concert where you could also do yoga. It was really rewarding for us as the singers, and I hope the yoga participants had a great time as well!

Here’s an excerpt adapted from our application:

“Breath has power – the power to create life, and to sustain it. It powers speech, allowing us to build bridges of communication. It powers song, that we may express joy and sorrow, love and wonder. Breath powers both shouts of protest and lullabies. By connecting with our breath, we access a deep source of personal power within, which brings us into the present moment and centers us in our selves, allowing us to engage with life from a place of strength and use our breath – our voice, our selves – to power change in our world.”

Powered by the Breath. Alexander Technique for Choral Musicians.

“Embodied Power” ensemble from the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus at the Spirit and Place Festival, singing live for a yoga class!

Singers know that breath has power – in many ways, it IS the thing that powers singing. I often call breath the “engine” of the voice. But breath powers the rest of us, too, and tapping into the centering power of the breath and – importantly – the free use of our breath can have a major impact on general wellbeing.

It goes without saying that breathing is essential to life. Anatomically, your breath is at your center. The primary muscles that move the breath – your diaphragm, deep in the center of your torso, and the intercostal muscles between the ribs – are intimately connected with all the skeletal, muscular, and fascial systems of the body. (You can learn more about how your body moves in breathing from this awesome video by Alexander Technique teacher and Art of Breathing founder Jessica Wolf.)

Neurologically, breath is a deep-brain, semi-voluntary function. You can choose when to breathe, but you can’t choose NOT to breathe. Breathing is one of the first things we do in life, and we do it all the time – even when we’re sleeping.

Problems with breathing tend to start for two reasons. The first is that sometimes, we want to control our breath (perhaps to sing or play a long phrase, a high note, a low note, even to swim). We often think we need to “take a big breath” or use muscular effort in order to do those things. Guess what? You don’t! (read below to explore the idea of the non-doing breath a little more).

The second is poor coordination: when the Use of your Self (your coordination, your “posture”) is out of whack, that malfunction will show up in your breathing. In fact, when F.M. Alexander first began teaching others his methods of psycho-physical re-education, he was called “The Breathing Man.”

Using Alexander Technique to free the breath for great singing!

When I work with individual singers, choirs, and instrumentalists of all types, I often teach a practice from the Alexander Technique called “Whispered Ah.” This simple practice, which can be done anywhere, anytime, can help a person free the breath, coordinate one’s whole Self in breathing, and – because body and mind are not separate – bring a sense of calm centeredness to daily life. In addition to finding Whispered Ah to be incredibly helpful as part of my vocal warm-up process and as a teaching tool to get things moving for the voice, I personally use Whispered Ah when I’m under stress, when I feel mentally sluggish, or when I’m resistant to whatever it is I have to do.

Here’s a little taste of Whispered Ah. I’m going to offer it in two parts, so for now, let’s just see what happens when you notice your breath in a non-judgmental, non-doing way.

  1. Sit, stand, or lie down in a supported, springy, balanced, easy way. Constructive Rest is a great place to observe the breath!
  2. If you’re not already breathing through your nose, close your lips and notice the air moving in and out of your nostrils. See if you can observe it without changing it – don’t try to make the breath deeper, longer, calmer, slower, or anything else. Just observe.
  3. As you notice your breath, allow one of your exhales to lengthen. Again, not to push, stretch, or generally “do” anything, just let the exhalation get longer. Notice what this is like: choosing to use your breath without pushing. If you start to use more effort, stop, and return to a neutral breath.
  4. Notice that there is a slight pause at the end of the exhale, and at the end of the inhale. 
  5. At the end of one of these lengthened exhalations, stop. Wait in that “pause” place without holding, but without taking air in. Renew your springy, easy, supported stance or seated position. When the air wants to come in (don’t worry, it will!) allow the air to return. Practice this waiting and allowing a few times.

Give yourself the time to notice your breath, and see what effect it has on your state of being. We’ll return soon to the actual “Ah” part of Whispered Ah, but you may have noticed a change in your mood, quality of breath, and physical tension even in simply paying attention to your breath in a non-doing way.

We’re heading into the winter holidays here in the US, which can be a stressful time for many (including choral musicians). Whispered Ah is a helpful tool to bring yourself back to center, so that you can enjoy life from a place of calm and ease. Try it! I’d love to hear what you discover.  

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