Learning To Trust Unlearning

Seven months ago my daughter Julia was born. One of the deepest joys in my life is watching her grow and develop. Of course that’s no surprise for anybody who has reared children. But what has surprised me is how much I’ve learned about movement and balance from observing her as she develops. And today that got me to thinking about why this is good news for musicians.

Skills, such as balancing her head on her spine, sitting up, turning herself over, coordinating her hands with her eyes, crawling…even the coordination of her breathing, are all being learned by trial and error. She tries certain things that don’t work, and she stops trying them. She tries other things that do work and she adds them to her movement and posture repertoire.

All of this seems to happen practically below the level of conscious thought. And as her skills improve, she moves with greater ease, efficiency, control and fluency. Her natural coordination emerges.

There is no other option: For her to function best in relation to gravity, she has to learn to move with respect to her structure. This “ideal” movement is what she has to default to. F. M. Alexander would call it a good use of her “primary control.”

It’s this natural coordination that she’ll bring into all her activities. That is until she gets older and starts (like most people do) to develop habits of mal-coordination that interfere with the beautiful natural coordination that she is learning now.

That’s not as bad as it seems. You see, if she does begin to lose this natural poise, all she (or you or anyone else) has to do is to unlearn her habits. Then her natural coordination will emerge, revealing itself to her as an old, reliable friend.

And so it is with playing music. To play any instrument, you have to call upon the repertoire of movements you’ve learned as a small child: negotiating your body’s relationship to gravity, coordinating your lips and tongue (if you sing or play a wind instrument), coordinating your eyes to your hands, flexing and extending limbs and fingers in coordination to create the movement necessary to play. And of course, breathing.

In a sense, you’d already developed all the necessary skills to play your instrument long before you even touched it for the first time. Those skills still lie there latent inside you.

When you watch somebody who you would consider to be a “natural” musician perform, that’s what you’re very often seeing.

Sure, as you learn to play music, you’re refining and integrating these skills even more. But the basic motor skills are already there. You learned them a long time ago.

Often when a musician with pain and/or performance problems comes to me for Alexander Technique lessons, my job is to help her or him rediscover this natural coordination. This (at the risk of repeating myself) involves unlearning.

Unlearning is a different process than learning. (It’s actually a different neurobiological process entirely.) Ask any musician which is more difficult when it comes to studying music: to learn something new, or to un-learn something old. Practically without hesitation she or he will say unlearning is more difficult. It takes more time. It takes more vigilance. It takes more persistence, etc.

Yet these same musicians are often reluctant to really trust this principle and follow it as far as it could actually help them. They’re often looking for some new form of doing.  Some new, yet undiscovered manner of muscular effort to lead them towards growth.

As a musician, you might be looking for some special thing you need to do, perhaps that you’d never done before in you’re life, in order to improve how you play. And maybe that really is what you need.

But if you can keep coming back to the idea that playing your instrument involves nothing more than the coordinated effort of all the motor skills that you’ve already mastered (that’s right, mastered!) when you were younger, it can simplify things tremendously. (Not to mention how it can change your outlook in a positive way.)

You can learn to trust that, as you unlearn some of the not so helpful habits you’ve acquired,  your playing will improve significantly. Your natural coordination will emerge. Combine that with artistic maturity and clear intention, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a great performer.

This morning as I was teaching I witnessed this yet again. As I was working with a new student on his singing, I simply helped him to stop interfering with his natural ability to use his voice. As I let him experience what it was like to sing without his habitual mal-coordinated efforts, his singing instantly improved. In a big way.

It was easy for both of us to hear the difference. More resonance, clearer intonation, beautiful color. This required no new vocal techniques, now new way to “imagine the sound”, no new form of effort, no new doing of any kind. Just undoing. And beautiful music emerged. He realized his path to improvement: Unlearn the habits, so the dormant, good coordination can be set free.

So if you wish to improve your technique, your sound, your time, your precision…learn to trust the process of unlearning and see what surprises await you.



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