Six Quotes About Learning (And Unlearning) That Inform My Teaching And Practice

Everything that I write on this blog, whether it’s about practicing more efficiently, improvising with greater skill and expression, or about how to avoid injury and strain, is based largely upon the ideas of a person who didn’t even play music.

Yet his ideas continue to serve me well, both in helping me to help my students, and in helping me explore more deeply my own process of growth and development as a musician.

The person I’m referring to is F.M. Alexander, known as the founder of the Alexander Technique.

In solving his own problems with using his voice (he was a stage actor), Alexander discovered several fundamental principles about how thought and movement are inextricably linked (in any and every human activity). And though he wasn’t a musician, his ideas are highly applicable (and highly usefu!) for any musician.

As a certified Alexander Technique teacher, I can say with great certainty that his ideas not only helped me to solve my own serious problems as a musician, but also, continue to influence how I approach teaching and practicing music.

So I thought I’d offer up six fairly well-known quotes  (well-known in the Alexander Technique world, that is) attributed to Alexander that exemplify some of the most essential ideas that I keep in mind as I do my work. Here they are, with a few brief elaborations beneath each one:

1. “You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.”

There is an inextricable relationship between what you think and how you move (how your muscles react). The extra strain and effort you put into playing your instrument is a direct result of how you choose and organize your thoughts as you play your instrument. Improve your thinking, and you’ll improve your playing.

2. “Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.

The most powerful force (for better or worse) in playing your instrument is habit. Most pedagogical problems (especially for advanced musicians) end up calling for the subtraction of counterproductive habits. The only way this can happen is to come to the stimulus (the thought) of doing a particular activity (for example, singing  or playing a high note), and reacting differently. Most of this “reacting differently”, in the Alexander Technique, involves keeping ineffient movement/thought responses in check as you proceed in playing your instrument.

3. “Everybody wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks that keep many musicians from  improving, is an almost religious reverence for the advice of a so-called expert, no matter how flawed the logic is in this expert’s advice. Unless you understand the measurable cause and effect relationship involved in any pedagogical principle, you can’t make an accurate assessment as to the  efficacy of the principle. Therefore, it’s a good idea to study and understand both the acoustical science of playing your instrument, AND, your anatomical and physiological makeup (and how these things work together). The better your understanding, the clearer you are about why things work the way they do.

4. “When people are wrong, the thing that is right is bound to be wrong to them.”

Alexander wrote about a faulty sensory appreciation, meaning that, because of habit, the wrong thing (e.g., excess tension, imbalance, etc.) often feels right (i.e., “familiar”) to the person with the habit. In fact, some musicians don’t even feel like they can play their best unless they “feel” all this excess tension and misdirected energy. For this reason it’s not such a good idea to be guided exclusively by what something feels like if you want to improve your playing. To experience change (to experience something new and more efficient) you must be willing to accept that you might  feel wrong (at first, anyhow). 

5. “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.”

Much of my work as an Alexander Technique teacher is getting my students to stop doing the thing (their habit) that is interfering with their beautiful and efficient playing (the right thing). Rather than adding more “doing”, we’re primarily aiming at undoing (unlearning) these old habits. The results are consistently remarkable.

6. “The experience you want is in the process of getting it. If you have something, give it up. Getting it, not having it, is what you want.”

It’s not unusual during a lesson that a student has a wonderful new experience  of lightness and ease, and then wants to “hold on” to the experience, almost trying to “memorize” the feeling. This often leads to just another type of stiffness,  rigidity, and counterproductive expectations. I remind my students that rather than chasing the feeling, it’s more helpful to follow the process of thinking that led to the better result  (because ultimately, it was this change in thinking that produced the result). Our work is about examining and cultivating this new thinking. Pay attention to the quality of process, and the end result will take care of itself (as stated in number 5, above).

I hope I’ve given you some things to consider as you strive for improvement. The longer I stay with Alexander’s principles, the more amazed I become at what is possible. Just by changing my thinking.

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