People like to ask “What is the Alexander Technique?” You can think of the Alexander Technique as "prevention through inhibition". This was a term used by Walter Carrington, who took over the primary training course for teachers of the Alexander Technique in London after F.M. Alexander's death in 1955.
So what is inhibition? It means not to "do" something. It means to "stop".
So, "prevention"..."Prevention" of what? Prevention of what we DON'T want. We’re not just talking about “I have a little back pain, so we’re stopping the source of my little back pain”. We’re talking about STOPPING and INHIBITING as a way of thinking and being — not only to apply to our physical movements, but to everything that we "do".
It’s something like this. We have a "wish" (an intention, a goal, etc.). Normally, we have that "wish", and then we carry out the action we think will lead to attaining that "wish" immediately, without stopping or thinking. I have the "wish" to walk over here, and I do it without thinking.
If you go directly into action, habit takes over without your realizing it. What is a habit? A habit is a subconsciously controlled activity. It’s something that we are not aware of.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with habits. They allow us to do things like play instruments.
But sometimes, habits get into our nervous system that are not helpful. When we learn an activity, we may absorb something along with the learning that is not helpful in carrying out that activity. In my own case, I learned to lean back when I raised up the trumpet to play. That’s not helpful.
What Alexander figured out was that if I inhibit, if I stop, before I engage my habit, and, I give myself some "directions" (orders, instructions, etc.), I give myself the opportunity to NOT get side-tracked.
Once the habit has engaged, we're too far along the path to put a stop to it. We’re, most likely, going where it sends us (not necessarily where we intended). NOT engaging (ie, not rehearsing or practising) a habit is the only way we’re going to get around our difficulty and begin to make headway in the direction we intended. NOT engaging a habit by inhibiting takes awareness on our part. And it’s really difficult to be aware of what is, by definition, a subconsciously controlled activity. That’s why we need a teacher. A teacher helps us to see what we can't see on our own.
So, the Alexander Technique is essentially, first and foremost, inhibiting. It’s preventing me from going where I don’t want to go, and allowing me the possibility of going where I do want to go.
Direction (or what is called "directing", orders, instructions, etc.) follow the inhibitory process. Without inhibition, direction isn't effective, because we haven't put a stop to what is already in motion, and we just carry out what we normally would in the way we normally would carry it out (ultimately, unsuccessfully). This is the frustrating part of making change that nearly everyone encounters.
To abandon, to let go of what you wanted (by thinking, and following that inhibition with directions to one's self) is the only way we can actually make headway towards our "goals", and ultimately, succeed to any degree, in my experience.
If I take my hands off the keyboard because I’m getting some pain, and know I’ve got to stop, but I don't truly "abandon" my intention to play, my nervous system's anxiety engine is still running. As long as my anxiety engine is running, I haven’t made any progress. I only hit the "pause" button for a moment.
What I’m proposing is abandoning, giving it up. That means putting the trumpet down. I’m really not going to play. I'm giving it up. How long? How many times? These are questions to be explored over and over again, endlessly, by each of us with the direct guidance of a qualified teacher, along with verbal and physical reminders.
That gives me the opportunity, then, to give myself a new set of "instructions".
What are those "instructions" (directions, orders, etc.)? I can’t tell you what they are because they’re unique for each person. The common set of instructions begins something like: "Allow your neck to be free.....".
The neck isn't a bad place to start when learning about inhibition. It isn't the be-all and end-all of the Technique, in my opinion, nor does it encompass the usefulness of the Technique in its broadest sense, which is what I'm interested in communicating.
Don't get me wrong, the neck is a crucial area that affects many, if not all, other areas of the body, and the balance of the head is key to our overall postural reflex operating well. But, your relationship with your teacher will help you develop a set of instructions for yourself that make sense and work well for you. These may or may not include some version of the commonly used set of directions.
If that's heresy in the Alexander world, so be it. I'm not trying to offend anyone or upturn what anyone is clinging to as far as their idea of the Technique. But, trying to adopt an abstract, generic set is not that likely to be all that helpful to a student. This is a psycho/physical experience, much like playing trumpet. There is something quite tangible that can't be explained or learned from a book or reading on the internet. This is the danger in our day and age, and, in my opinion, at least in part, responsible for the decline in the quality of teaching of the Technique, at least in the US.
What are these "instructions" about? About "doing" the activity? No. The Technique is not about "doing" something. It is about NOT "doing" something in our normal, habitual way. These "instructions" are about me. They are "reminders" to myself. When I teach the Technique (or the trumpet), the "instructions" are as much for me as they are for the student. The job of teacher and student is the same: to take care of ourselves, to pay attention, to inhibit, to NOT "do". "Instructions" allow me to come back to myself, where I am right now. I think about me, and what I am “doing” or NOT "doing", so I can make some decisions about myself. I have the opportunity to be "easy" on myself if I choose to do so. I want to "leave myself alone", as Walter Carrington would have said, so that the "right thing" has the opportunity to "do itself" (as FM Alexander himself said).
I read Kenny's book some years ago. I even had an audio cassette of a workshop that Bobby Shew copied for me, when I studied with him as a graduate student at Cal-Arts around 1990. It had Kenny speaking at a workshop on this subject matter before the book was published, when he was still formulating his ideas.
There are many resources past and present that point to this idea. I think the reason this comes up again and again is that it is true and this actually does work. But, strictly speaking, although the ideas are similar, Kenny is not teaching the Alexander Technique. To do that, he would need to back up what he was saying with "hands on" work and circle around, verbally and physically, to what Alexander taught (ie, inhibition and direction).
Trumpetings: While I believe I understand the general principle you are describing, I’d like to understand better how you would expect to see this working in practice. Say I am accustomed to doing a couple of hours trumpet practice each day. How many times each day would you expect me to ‘abandon’ playing the trumpet and give myself new instructions? Would this be every time I pick up the trumpet — or just, say, for fifteen minutes, or as long as I can stand it?
From my viewpoint, this thinking is already off track. The student is trying to categorize and compartmentalize the Technique from what they know.
Of course, what else are we going to do but work from where we are? But, when a student asks this question, it does give me some information about how they are thinking and where their nervous system is at the moment (which is to say, anxious to some degree).
My job as a teacher is, somehow, to lower that anxiety level during a lesson. I can best do that by not being nervous myself in trying to get my point across. I would engage the student in a dialog about this using some analogy, experiences from my own life as a player and teacher, and my hands as we work through that dialog.
The specifics of the dialog varies with each student and each lesson. Sometimes, it's good to follow the advice of Walter Carrington (I'm paraphrasing here): when you get the impulse to "do" something, lie down, and see where that takes you.
Do we never proceed? Do we inhibit, and that's all? Is that the end of it? That's the fear and, most likely the source of anxiety. What do I do next? When? How long will it take?
Alexander was fond of saying (again I'm paraphrasing): keep coming for lessons until you don't feel the impulse to ask such questions anymore.
There is no short, easy answer. This gets worked out over time under the guidance of a teacher, but the discovery process is uniquely our own. No one can make this journey for us. No one can give stuff up on our behalf. Please believe me, if I could do this for someone, I would.
Trumpetings: If my Alexander Teacher isn’t a trumpet player, how is he or she going to know what ‘instructions’ will best help me to ‘be easy on myself’ and ‘leave myself alone’ as I approach playing the trumpet?
Alexander's Technique is not for trumpet players. So, the "instructions" are not trumpet-specific. They are for human beings. Do you breathe, sit, use your arms, etc. when you play music? If so, the technique is likely to be useful to you. If you are a trumpet player, you don't need an Alexander Technique Teacher who is also a trumpet player or teacher for the lesson to be useful to your general functioning, where the trouble actually lies.
Trumpetings: As an Alexander Teacher who is also a trumpet player, have you noticed any particular ‘bad habits’ that trumpet players often succumb to, and which lessons in Alexander Technique can help these players to reduce or eradicate? Or is this an unfair question?
Anything I've noticed is student-specific and specific to a lesson and a given moment. That all changes with a different student, a different lesson, and a different moment.
We are all unique. Habits have lots of flavors. Inhibition has lots of flavors. I did a brief video interview with Dave Monette during the time I was training to be an Alexander Technique teacher. He asked a similar question. Although, I felt, in retrospect, that I didn't really have a chance to say what I wanted in full, you can find the interview online. Please also look for the comments I posted after the interview, where I made some additions to our exchange.
Dave attempted to lead me to a similar "commonality" discussion. The editing of the video suggests that I agree and that it's that simple. Although many trumpet players, and instrumentalists in general, tend to lean back when holding an instrument, others, like guitarists or pianists, tend to lean forward. The MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER is that both of these are SYMPTOPMS of a mal-coordination throughout the entire system that can't be addressed directly with much success.
The Technique is a way of stepping outside that symptomatic approach and addressing the situation indirectly, and as far as I'm concerned, quite successfully, if we give it (and the teacher) the opportunity to do so.
Again, if we are thinking in terms of "getting rid of" or "eradicating" stuff (habits), from my point of view, our thinking is off track. Our nervous system doesn't have a "delete" button. Once stuff goes in, it's in there to stay. What we need to learn is how to navigate what we've (often unknowingly) put there. That's what the Technique is: a navigation tool to help us find our way out of the forest of our own creation.