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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher.

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, specialised activities, pain relief and managment.

Fix the problem or practice the solution.

Jeremy Woolhouse

There is a wonderful book by Pedro DeAlcantara called Indirect Procedures.  The title epitomises both the main challenge students have with Alexander Technique, and the profound solution it proposes.  I present here an example of a problem, and the unexpected principles which lead to its resolution.

 
Management of tight shoulder whilst playing piano
 

Recognising the problem

My shoulders are tight.  I could say, perhaps more accurately and more constructively, that ‘I am tightening my shoulders’.  I have a situation which is unpleasant, and which is negatively affecting my work.  I’m using tight shoulders here as an example, but the same process would apply to “I slump”, “my back is tight” an so on.

The quick fix

In reaction to the tightness, I drop my shoulders.  I do so to ‘fix’ the problem of tightness.  I have an immediate sense of relief as the tension drops away, and I feel satisfied that I have improved the situation.  I am master of my body and I can now forget about my shoulders and think about my work.

Unfortunately, I have inadvertently created a situation which is even more insidious than the tight shoulders I began with.  My now floppy shoulders are causing my hands to make sloppy gestures, and they begin to tighten in order to find the support deprived of them by my turning off of shoulder musculature.  This hand tension slowly causes my arm to tighten and my shoulders creep back up.  Furthermore, because the shoulders have common musculature with my neck, head and whole spine, they have become a liability and are effectively pulling my whole stature downwards.  In order to compensate, my back tightens and my jaw stiffens. 

Since my ‘solution’ gave me instant gratification, whenever I notice the tightness in my shoulders, I immediately react by dropping them.  To do anything else is quite unfeasible, in spite of the fact that the resulting condition failed to create a balance of tone suited to my work. 

Any direct attempt to ‘fix’ the shoulder issue is bound to result in similar dissatisfaction.  I may achieve some temporary relief, but unless I address certain other aspects of co-ordination, the result will be unsustainable.

The problem is in the fixing of the problem.

FM Alexander prescribes precisely the solution.  In the first place, his process requires that I decide not to do my habitual response.  It does not propose that I need to keep my shoulders tight, but that I need to refrain from dropping them as I always have done.  If I neglect this act of inhibition (choosing ‘not to do’), I cannot expect a result different to what I’ve had in the past.

This is perhaps the most challenging step.  It feels to me, that I am not ‘fixing’ my problem.  The sensation of gratification is being denied!  Furthermore, there is a comfort in familiarity.  The sensation associated with my habitual response is one my shoulders know.  It is ‘what I do’.  There is a discomfort in refraining from that as it throws one into unknown sensations.  Much fear is based on facing the unknown.

If I can overcome the unfamiliar sensations and use reasoning instead of feeling, I can go on to the next step.  This stage also presets a challenge as it requires me to pay attention to something other than my shoulders.  At the moment of feeling tightness, that isn’t what I want to do!  It is, however, what I need to do to resolve the disconnection of shoulder to torso which I’ve already created, and which I would exacerbate if I were to persist in focusing exclusively on the shoulder.

The solution is the practice

Alexander Technique proposes that use of the arm - or of any part - is most effective when the whole self comes into coordination.  The indirect procedure called upon brings the entire being into a functional balance - including the shoulders - and negates any direct action.  When the shoulders are integrated into the torso, the head supported by the spine and the intention of the performer clear, then there is no context for the shoulders to tighten more than what is required for the task.

New priorities

First of all, I need a positive origination of head in relation to body.  I describe this as one which is expansive, rather than compressive.  It has been proven that the poise of the head influences the functioning of the rest of the body, and by intending for buoyancy of head on spine, I am unlocking the potential expansion of the whole body.

The whole includes more than the body

By inviting freedom in the whole body, I allow the coordinative centres to take care of the amounts of tone required for functional balance.  That requisite tone is dependent on the task I’m undertaking and by my perception of the demands of the task.  Thus to have clear conception and intention gives the body information on how to coordinate.  This is in accord with a principle of inseparability between thinking to acting - or as it is more commonly phrased, ‘unity of body and mind’.

In order to fulfil the requirements of each step of the process above, there is a requirement of tone in the shoulder.  It is incongruent to have a tight shoulder whilst the neck is free and the head positively buoyant.  When one forms the intention for this, along with the intention for the whole body to coordinate, one is placing a demand for the shoulder to find appropriate tone.  It feels that the shoulders resolve themselves!  

The difference to my ‘instinctive’ response, is that there is now a whole body engaged in supporting the shoulder and a context for what tone is appropriate.  The shoulder cannot retain its immobilised state and instead brings itself into sync with the whole, and aligns itself to the task at hand.

There is a possibility that the process may not resolve the issue.  In that case, one will have brought about the most favourable conditions to then go on and resolve the issue, or at very worst, have improved the overall condition with no other benefit.  But that in itself is still an improvement!

The indirect nature of Alexander Technique is one reason it is difficult to engage in and also one reason it is so very profound.  The process described above is somewhat abridged, but it demonstrates how an indirect procedure presents a sustainable solution to a specific discomfort.  I hope that readers can make the connection to a familiar habit which they could subject to this indirect solution.

 

You can investigate Pedro DeAlcantara’s work at pedrodealcantara.com

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