“It is not the degree of ‘willing’ or ‘trying,’ but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the ‘willing’ or ‘trying’ effective.”
As professional musicians, we have a deeply trained muscle memory system, a network of learned movements which allows us to study and perform a huge number of works in any situation, often in a short space of time. This system is a blessing when it is reliable and accurate and a burden when it does not serve us well.
Confronted by unwanted tension or a repetitive stress injury such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, some of us, as F.M. Alexander did, may ask: what is my part in this? How have I brought about this condition?
And it is then that one may begin to confront one’s habits, the extent of which lies mostly hidden. Like an iceberg, the obvious manifestation of a habit belies its deep web of connections in the central nervous system. To come up against the depth and force of our habits can be deeply unsettling. We think we can change anything we want if we put enough effort into it. An Alexander lesson can show us in a few minutes just what a delusion this is. A habitual movement gets started deep in the brain…one thought sets off the nervous system in a subtle chain reaction. Before we move, we prepare to move, and it is the latter that lies below our consciousness. Alexander’s genius was to recognise this connection between preparation and movement, long before neuroscience established it as fact. He called it subconscious misdirection, and it always involves a misuse of the head-neck-back relationship, a contraction of the spine and an impairment of the breath. The energy in preparation for movement is improperly directed and this misdirection is deeply embedded in the nervous system.
When a musician comes to me asking for help in changing a habit, I usually explain two simple things. A habit is part of his or her larger activity of living, not just of playing an instrument or singing. Alexander defined this concept as ‘Use affects Functioning’. In other words, the way we use ourselves and move about in daily life affects our specific functioning as musicians.
Secondly, there is no direct route to change. External change arises indirectly out of a different set of internal conditions. At the beginning, musicians register these words, no doubt, but their full implications are only revealed slowly as lessons progress. What does it mean to let go of comfortable, familiar habits of thinking and doing and to allow something new to take place?
As part of the next five installments on undoing habits, I will outline the process of retraining musicians which begins with work in the Alexander Technique away from playing or singing. To unlearn a harmful habit, we have to start at the preparation phase, at root level. Yes, it takes great patience, it involves many sideways and sometimes even backwards steps, but the process is hugely illuminating and rewarding, and revealing of the deepest aspects of ourselves. I hope this account will stimulate some revelations of your own.