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.
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!