Archive for February, 2008

How would a person recognize for their own benefit a larger important change or fulfilment that may be taking place moment-by-moment? This skill seems to be related to the ability to select important points that is most commonly used in today’s culture as the ability to tell an interesting story. For instance, a movie will be made up of important scenes that drive the storytelling forward.

How would a person gain the skill of correcting for time of arrival for the important pieces of the puzzle that could be creating personal meanings? It’s curious how some people feel they must tell each and every detail of their experience exactly as it happened, while others seem to possess the ability to select for important points that stand out and make personal meaning universal, artistic and fascinating.

I’m interested in how and why this can happen. It’s probably in the brain, the way we’re wired or trained. Certainly the ability could be practiced and/or learned, as I have come to learn it myself. I used to be a blow-by-blow storyteller, and now I’m not – ah, so much. At least I think I’m not as long-winded as I used to be.

It seems to me that the moment-to-moment ability to recognize change isn’t very precise. People need more practice at self observation. In some people, their sensory ability only feels differences that are significant – and notable as determined by the person experiencing it. In others, the original sequence is paramount, and they seemingly can’t do it any other way.

Significance that is gradual, (change that happens over time) doesn’t seem to register very well on the sensory system. Alexander teachers prefer gradual progress because it tends to sneak underneath habits without making their routines trigger. Meaning or specialness seems to be determined by the relative sensitivity of the person experiencing it; also a factor seems to be how “jaded” a person has become to sensory information. So, in learning Alexander Technique, a student is asked to endure that which is boring, when the personal significance for the student is really adding up to something that is exciting!

F.M. Alexander used to call this phenomena of “jadedness” Debauchery – which to him described how the usage of a habit encourages a dulling and eventual shut down of sensory discriminatory ability. This word is now an old word that has fallen out of modern usage. It was used to describe someone who has lost all joy of life and has descended into bitterness, sarcasm and possibly, addiction. Modern researchers today term the same principle in the field of behaviorism “sensory adaptation.” Besides “jaded,” young people use terms such as “burn-out” to describe a similar state.

Perhaps the level of unreliability depends on how many habits someone has trained themselves to deal with that are suffering from burn-out. Opposing habitual directives seem to flood or shut down the whole sensory system. Of course, the more habitual and automatic the programs in place that have been trained over time, the less new sensory information is actually available to be sensed. This is why things become so boring and depressing. If frogs can die without noticing it’s just getting a little bit hotter in the eventually boiling pot – why should humans be that much different?

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This article was written in response to a question posed on the Alexander Technique Email Discussion Group. Although the question is about piano playing, the issue it raises applies to just about any activity. In this answer, there are some useful suggestions for any student of the Alexander Technique who is working on their own.

I had a series of lessons on Alexander Technique some time ago. Lately I have consider progressing with Alexander and taking out my old books. I’m a piano student and I have noticed that as I play I raise my shoulders a lot or keep them raised all the time. This of course creates tension and eventually pain in the arm. In an effort of becoming aware of this, I realized that I do this all the time. I raise my shoulder when typing, when writing, when speaking at the phone, when eating, when walking, when walking, when reading. What does should raising mean in relation to the primary control and the head-neck unit? How does it is solved? Thanks, Davide

I’m going to offer some (hopefully useful) perspectives about some of the philosophical challenges present in stopping, avoiding or using substitution strategies in your unique situation of having noticed an all-pervasive mannerism.

First, it’s really a great observation that you did notice something so global about your manner of moving entirely on your own. The first thing to do is to realize how much of an achievement that is in itself!

It can be daunting to realize the extent that a habit such as this has crept into your life. Be encouraged that you can change it! Of course, this will definitely take some time. If it were possible to completely stop this habit now, it would take about three weeks before it would “go away.” Unfortunately, this isn’t possible without constant attention and someone or something to offer constant feedback. People seem to have a certain tolerance for experimentation that will be worthwhile to extend. I’m sure you are familiar with this challenge concerning the process of learning new tunes and piano techniques in relation to playing what you have already learned.

Since you have a habit that has crept in everywhere and has become a mannerism, what you may usefully do now is to note slight improvements that may be celebrated right away. Strangely enough, celebrating small successes as if you were a two year old, (such as “how many moments or minutes can I go without intentionally raising my shoulder?”) makes for faster progress than groaning in anguish every time you notice the targeted objectionable shrug. (Most handy for this is a sense of humor.) It’s all too tempting to demonize a habit!

Remember there are many ways for shoulders to be raised – and what we’re after (at least, by using A.T.) is to “free up” the ability of your shoulder to be raised in every way appropriate to a specific situation. You would want to avoid, sidestep or stop the raising of your shoulder in a PARTICULAR, HABITUAL way instead of moving your shoulders uniquely in response to any changing situation.

In fact, in a way it’s useful that you have a predictable, repeating habit. This is very handy because you will want to repeat it in order to make some observations about so you can use it as a starting point. In experimenting, scientists always establish a “control,” meaning, a ground zero. You might want to even write down and date observations to give you a chance to note how much you have changed as you proceed. Perhaps make a video of yourself in action for a starting point comparison?

Asking some questions with observations concerning relative location would be useful. This would be so you may answer with your observations such questions as: How far are you already going with this shoulder-raising? You might want to establish additional criteria of “how far” by measuring distance in relationship to some observable condition.

For instance, how far in relation to your nose as you turn your head to the side? How far would your elbow move if you raise your shoulder in relationship to your leg while sitting down? How are the wrinkles in the neckline of your clothes affected by a particular frozen shrug? Perhaps choosing time-sensitive effects that you could describe would also be useful. …As in how long does it take until your piano playing seems limited and how is this affected by possible experiments aimed toward improvement?

The more of these answers and questions you have to orient yourself, the more useful your evaluations and comparisons will be for you as you make changes designed toward improvement.

You seem to have already answered the question of “Do I need to raise my shoulders?” Obviously not, but maybe that’s an assumption that would be worth asking on a routine basis, even if you cannot answer the question now. Because for some good reason you put the habit in place long ago. As an Alexander teacher, I don’t believe people train routines for themselves without a reason. (It’s just that the need to repeat them can be short-sighted when they can’t be turned off…as in the Disney Sourcerer’s Apprentice cartoon.) It would be handy to know when that happened for you personally. So you could make a different choice at the source, that would be a short-cut bonus answer to your quandry that would pay off big to be able to trace.

Alexander teachers find that timing is an important relationship helps clarity of observation. The questions including “when” are a very useful ones – When do I raise my shoulders? Can I pay attention and observe myself about to raise my shoulder in response to what stimulus? When do I bring my shoulders down? When do I notice my shoulders are up? Can I notice that I have already raised my shoulders sooner?…and so on.

There is a secret in using whatever you have remembered learning in A.T. to improve things for you, and the secret is this: As you observe and describe yourself before you have changed anything about yourself by experimenting with A.T. – you will find your habit. Observing and describing yourself AFTER you have moved or experimented with a new direction using A.T. head/neck relationship or any other experiment – you may find out something new. Simple as that.

Let’s say your original goal is to improve your stamina as you play the piano. You have correctly assumed that a starting point concerning timing would be handy to establish. When does this habit start? When you raise your arm? When you walk over to the piano seat? When you think about playing the piano?

The tricky part about changing habits is often that a gradually escalating standard for success may put the bar higher each time, keeping up with your ability to improve. You seem to have discovered this paradoxical stumbling block. To stop this sneaky perfectionist tendency which can discourage, it’s important to establish and seek what exactly constitutes progress. For this you need observations – VERY specific observations about the nature of the “shoulder-raising.”

Contrary to what you have observed – (since raising your shoulder can be done more or less of a vengeance!) it is possible to work with an intention to lessen the intensity of raising your shoulder less (rather than more) at the piano by working it into your practice time – perhaps each time you put your hands on the keyboard or each time you move your hands to a new location on the keyboard. You could parse for frequency – how often you have the urge to raise your shoulder? Location is also a useful parse: How far you seem to want to raise your shoulders? Then you’d reward yourself for raising with less height and also, sensing yourself doing the raising of your shoulders less often. (Because if it’s the sort of habit you describe, the doing of it is buried within the rest of your piano-playing routines.)

Since you have observed that this shoulder-raising starts during walking and many other common activities, nipping the urge to shoulder-raise in the bud by experimenting with it as you begin to walk or use the phone, etc. would be a useful long-term strategy. Since you’re having a problem with this issue, you won’t know where your shoulders should be. So don’t “put them” somewhere, where you imagine they “should” go. It’s most constructive to just stop interfering with them so much – so often – so far. You’ll know you did that by allowing your shoulders to “feel a little weird” (but easier) by “un-sticking” them and letting them go where they want to go, without settling your shoulders in a certain location.

What I’ve outlined here are merely procedural tips that anyone may use that follow along the lines of some of the principles of Alexander Technique. Hope they’re useful to you and that you can come back to using them often.

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It should be possible to recognize a habit – specifically enough to be able to undo it, stop it or substitute a better response. Why is this so challenging?

Within the intention of making a habit useful is the design for habits to become innate by disappearing. Then the next habit can be chained on, to build really complex skills. It’s hard to change what you can’t sense.

Also, the only tools we have for noticing a buried habit on our own is the desire to improve a skill and the ability to notice and ask questions constructively. Questions tip some people into a state of indecision and self-doubt. This is not a very comfortable thing to be doing for many adults, who are used to knowing a little. Spotting hidden assumptions in what is missing is a sophisticated and somewhat rare thinking skill.

Often the results of experimenting are unfamiliar and elusive to notice. We must use the feedback of our own sensory abilities, which may be rusty from disuse or absent from being over-stimulated. We don’t have many constructive examples of wisely and effectively interpreting results.

If things are going OK, what reason is there to mess with trying to improve something that’s not completely broken? People want comfort, and learning is challenging, (even though it’s exciting,) most people want what is predictable – and habits certainly are predictable. People aren’t used to noting gradual progress. In fact, instant and convenient results are preferred. People have to be sold on the value of patience and a desire for lasting results. It’s discouraging when success is not complete and immediate. Most people don’t really know why or how things work when it comes to the way they move. Most people would rather have something that sort of works than nothing at all and once you open the door on new perceptions, you can’t easily close it again. Some are a little superstitious that examining or analyzing will tear apart the wholeness of an ability, like a millipede who began to think about their legs and tripped over themselves. The kinesthetic sense is not even in the list of the five senses!

All these concerns are very good reasons why people find it tricky to change their own habits of movement. Habits are in a sense, addicting. There is a seductive cost to using habits: routines dull the need for noticing subtle distinctions. By using a habitual response, the skill of noticing the feedback of the senses becomes unnecessary and, like any unpracticed skill, it gets rusty.

I’ve practiced this skill quite a bit because I teach Alexander Technique. I have some experience in how to deal with these problems that I’d like to share with you.

A particular strategy that seems to be an effective and fundamental solution for me and my students has been to look for the original decision or thinking strategy behind designing a habit. This approach has the potential to globally change at once the many (physical) features that make up the habitual response. As the original justification or source of the need why the habit was trained is uncovered, you may practice substituting, eliminating or updating specific features. It works best if you practice on trivial points to groom the skills for the important features. This helps you to determine what would really improve things for you, and to dare to do it when the rubber meets the road. A.T. is so useful and unique because it can be used during performance. Using A.T. will steer you somewhere new and creative, allowing you to use your potential on the fly.

Once there, you may change more of the whole response pattern in one fell swoop by making a fresh decision to address the pivotal goal in ways that answer your now more sophisticated concerns and priorities. You now have a new ability to groom, sharpen and shape a “pretty good for Rock’n’Roll” skill. Or perhaps it’s called how to install and train a flexible habit that can be easily updated. Maybe you can now get free of a pervasive, insistent response pattern that always steers you off your best game.

Until you can remember or relearn exactly what that decision was, (and timing is often a factor,) it’s much more complicated to undo and change the many sophisticated and complex responses tied to your buried habitual response – because the habit just “goes off” like a good dog should obey.Changing this or that feature of how to move, as taught by Alexander Technique, seems most useful to bring yourself to face the moment of the original decision or justification for the habit’s existence. Subversively undoing the whole pattern without firing off the habit is what an Alexander teacher can provide their students. Once free of the habit, even only temporarily free, it’s possible to actually sense the moment of exactly what you are doing as you go back into the habit – when before it was all-pervasive and impossible to sense. It’s at this moment when you may kinesthetically or situationally remember what encouraged you to put the habit in place and know part of what happened that you have forgotten.Making sense of what you are facing and being able to interpret the results takes some serious, strategic thinking and trial!

Other ways that I have been able to do this by myself has been to note and watch for the stimulus that encourages me to use the trained response. While paying attention, it paid off to notice the habitual program going off, all the while suspecting if there really is a need for it to be done in this way. My objective is to spot the maybe mystery original decision at the beginning right before the habit engaged. If that happened, the decision was made in the distant past will be obvious; a more elegant solution might be obvious also. I’m then free to try it! I can always get the old response back if it doesn’t work. If I figure that I still need to use the old faithful habit, moving out of the habit after the (supposed) need for it is past is also important to remember.

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I’m happy to announce a new Alexander Technique class through through www.waimeaeducation.com that will be starting soon. It’s starting near the end of this month on Monday evening February 25th at 6pm and continuing on Thurs evening at the same time for three weeks – six classes. These classes are a real deal if you have never studied Alexander Technique before for reasons of the cost of private lessons which cost from $65 – $100 each; these introductory classes are only $10. each! Because Alexander Technique takes some time to learn, required attendance is for at least three weeks of class, (six classes.) So for less of the cost of one private lesson, you can get six classes in Alexander Technique! What a deal!

The location is in Kamuela, Hawaii, (in a town with two names because the “real” name of Waimea gets confused with a Waimea on the island of Oahu.) The Waimea Education building is across Mamalahoa Hwy. from the Parker Ranch Square main entrance.

This class is specially designed for seniors and their possible needs and pacing. If you have any questions about the classes, please feel free to ask your questions in the comments section. I’ll come up with some answers and we can put them together…just like last time.

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