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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

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, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

Thinking Hard vs. Thinking Easy

Jeremy Woolhouse

For most of us, concentration is associated with tightening.  When we see someone working and tightening - especially in the face - we may perceive this as concentration.  It has been proposed that every thought leads to muscular action, but there is no prerequisite for this to manifest in a way which contradicts ease.

Concentration can be easy

Physical expression of thought

From a very young age, we learn to physically express the activity of thinking.  If the recipient of a question has no response, we presume that the question has not been heard, or understood.  Children learn to say ‘um’ to show they have heard, but are still figuring out a response.  Around this time, children also learn to adopt ‘thinking’ postures and facial expressions.

This is a quite functional part of normal communication.  If the expression becomes exaggerated, or includes some interference with natural coordination, problems may arise.  Tightness may even be encouraged by parents and teachers congratulating the child on so obviously ‘trying hard’.

Trying to think

If the physical pattern becomes habituated and associated with thinking, then every attempt ‘to think’, will elicit this response.  With some adult analysis, we can recognise that we are always thinking.  Most of the time this is quite effortless.  When we experience effort, we are feeling something additional to what is actually required for thinking.

Tightness is not required

From the perspective of one who has a ‘thinking’ habit, the associated tightness feels like it isprerequisite to thinking.  It may get recruited contextually - for example when doing ‘work’ or when playing music.  If ever one feels like tightening is required to think about a task, a reconsideration is needed.

The trouble is, when we are in this state, the very idea of ‘concentrating’ without associated muscular effort seems impossible.  Alexander Technique asks of us to refrain from doing all the things we presume are prerequisite, then go on and do the act anyway.  It’s rather handy at this stage to have a teacher guide you into the activity to convince you thorough a new experience that it is possible.  This is how teachers come to use their hands in teaching.

If we’ve stopped trying to concentrate, thinking continues, but we drop all the special things which get added for concentration.

Concentrate on your work

Concentration is invariably attached to an activity.  We ‘concentrate’ to come up with some idea, or get something done.  When we concentrate, we are aiming to engage with some thought topics and not others.  We want to be thinking about our work, and not about the weekend or whatever other thoughts intrude.

Muscular effort cannot exclude interfering thoughts.  Since it creates sensations, either immediately or over time, it actually serves to generate more distraction and reduce capacity to apply oneself to the task at hand.

Since we are always receiving sensory information from internal and external environment, to try stopping this incoming information is also wasted effort. It detracts from our potential to wholeheartedly be involved.

Comprehensive thought - the whole self thinks

When we do have these moments of immersion in our work, it is comprehensive.  Our whole self and environment comes to bear on the task.  Musicians may be able to relate to being in ‘the zone’ where the division between self, environment and instrument all dissolve and there is just music.

This gives us insight into a practical solution.  We want to include everything in our awareness as we attend to the task at hand.  If we prioritise some topics, and orient our thought in this direction, this overcomes the potential for mind wandering.

The clearer we are about the context of our universal awareness, the easier this is.  If we have a clear intention about our coordination, then we give our bodies the information on how to be involved in the activity.  Alexander Technique is expert training precisely this.

Clear focus

Concentration in this light may be described as focus.  We understand so much more from a photograph where we can see a person in an environment, than one where the setting has been deleted.  We can still say it is a photo of a person, and the viewer’s attention on the subject is un-compromised by the background.  The camera’s lens has one focal point, but doesn’t try to eliminate the surroundings.

In Alexander Technique, we consider ‘concentration’ to be something inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Alexander Technique demonstrate that a clear intention for coordination is not a hinderance to focus.  The thinking The Technique trains positively creates a condition which co-ordination facilitates both clear attention to the task at hand, and easeful execution.

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