Pam Bartlett's Blog
This photo happened while I was on my way to a workshop in New York City. Part of my commute took me through the flower district in Manhattan, where plants and flowers of all kinds were being brought outside for display. The scent of the hyacinths hit me, then the glow of the backlit flowers and the scramble of many shops opening simultaneously. I dodged one man after another, each wheeling what looked like an entire garden out onto the sidewalk. In March. In New York City. There was no time, and no place to stand and take a photo. I stopped to look at the composition for half a second, not even really seeing the lady with the hat, and tapped the button on my phone just in time to get out of the way of an irritated guy with tree. I’m happy with the result. It was the magic potion of chance and inspiration, a little trust, and probably some other things. But I think it was also not being too invested in the outcome. That’s all easier said than done sometimes, but the magic we can practice is being open to the possibility.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
― William Morris
I have a plain black jersey-knit sweater that I’ve worn so much, and thrown in the wash so many times that it really should be in tatters. It’s not. At this point, it’s not perfect, but absolutely still good enough to wear in public. If you’ve taken lessons from me in the past few years, you’ve seen it. It’s so go-anywhere-go-with-anything useful, that a chilly workshop participant once offered me $50 for it. I declined (though I let her wear it for the day), because it had been the last one in the store, and was already a favorite.
When the hem of the left sleeve started to unravel earlier this year, I just ignored it, thinking the whole sweater would soon follow. I continued to wear it, rolling up the part of the sleeve that was coming undone. Eventually, since the rest of it seemed to be holding together, I got the sleeve fixed.
A few days after the repair, when I put it on, I had a moment of irritation-turned-to-surprise-relief-and-joy when my hand emerged from the intact sleeve. I hadn’t noticed how accustomed I’d become to the fraying edge, and how accustomed I’d become to ignoring that it bothered me. That only became clear after it had been fixed and I noticed the contrast between my expectation and the reality. Though the problem was gone, the feeling of the problem was still very real. Feeling had become believing.
Navigating daily life calls for compromise and making-do; valuable skills that, when taken to the extreme (ignoring problems), can lead to a chronic shutting down of attention. Long-term, things and situations can wear on us, mentally, emotionally and physically, whether we can articulate the source of the discomfort or not. Maybe this is partly what is behind the William Morris quote; beauty as an invitation to stay attentive.
Over a century ago, FM Alexander discovered that he had been unable to feel the tightening and mal-coordination that was hurting his voice. At some point when he was younger, harmful effort must have begun to feel normal. He had to take this fact into account when he worked out a way to solve his vocal problem; that what he felt was happening didn’t match what he saw in the mirror. His careful observation and experimentation led him on the path to his life’s work; to awaken us to the inherent beauty in our design.
A short blog post for a time of year when life suddenly becomes a lot busier.
A few weeks ago, I had a thought that changed my day, and some days since then….
Can I meet this moment with more expansiveness?
It’s just a thought. It’s not a requirement to change or do anything except ask the question. I chose expansiveness instead of contraction, stiffening, narrowing my field of vision in reaction to feeling overwhelmed by my schedule.
On another day, it could just as easily be:
Curiosity instead of assumptions
Attention to the process instead of an expected outcome
Lightness instead of…
Openness instead of…
A free neck instead of…
You can probably think of some of your own. Offer yourself a possibility. It only takes a moment.
The Alexander Technique helped me transform my fear of talking about the Alexander Technique on the radio.
About a year and half ago, my colleague Merlin Wisswaesser and I were invited to be interviewed on a live radio show called Well Talk (shout out to Merlin’s wife, Meg, for suggesting us!). The idea was a bit terrifying, but I couldn’t ignore that it was a good opportunity. It was also comforting that I would be in the company of my gregarious friend, so I agreed.
The day of the interview was was warm and sunny, and the sky was bright blue. The hour-long drive toward the Berkshires was easy and pleasant. I used the expansive scenery and the softness of the air to help encourage some ease within myself. Why not? At that moment, I wasn’t on the radio. I was just driving. I made a conscious choice (repeatedly!) to stay in the present, rather than projecting myself into the future. Quieting a tendency to expect the worst, I had an epiphany; it turns out that until something happens, there are infinite possibilities, not just terrible ones!!!
I had thought about the prepared questions the day before, which left me free to stay with myself (not my answers) on the day of the interview. As show time approached, I experienced alternating bouts of panic, dread, and excitement. I let them pass through, lightly bringing my attention back to the present. This continued as Merlin and I met at a cafe beforehand, as we walked into the studio, talked with the host, Avi, and sat down next to the microphones. Avi is a seasoned professional and has an interest in producing a good show, so we followed his lead. He was a reassuring presence, moved the interview along, intervened if things fell flat, and assured us that he had full command of the magic of editing!
By the time we were on the air, some of my old familiar fear reactions were fully realized, but as shadows of their former selves. I was able to observe them, rather than becoming overwhelmed. I experienced my vision narrowing, my body beginning to tighten, and a kind of mental fog. Instead of trying to make any of it go away, I just let it all be there and reminded myself that I could also still think, speak, and listen, and I continued to issue this reminder moment to moment.
My memory of the first few moments of the interview is a blurry sense that I had a vocabulary of about ten words. So, for those few moments, I actually didn’t try to say more than I could easily manage. I kept my answers simple as the fog cleared. I trusted Avi to handle it, listened with relief when it was Merlin’s turn to talk, and within a short time, became much more comfortable. By the end of the interview, the fear was gone and I was enjoying myself. It was actually kind of fun!
Later, when I mustered the courage to listen to the interview, I was both relieved and surprised. The first few minutes didn’t really match up with my memory of what I’d said, or planned to say, but it was all OK. I didn’t hate my voice! I lived through it! I briefly fantasized about a career in radio!
Sensations of fear and nervousness are unpleasant, and scream for recognition. After all, they’re trying to protect us. Trying to ignore them or make them go away doesn’t tend to work for me. What did work, in this case, was operating from a different place. F. M. Alexander’s discoveries included the observation that our felt sensations can be misleading. It was counterintuitive to believe that I could function well (not just get through it) while feeling so uncomfortable, but that was the exactly what I needed; to trust what I knew.
Lost and Found in Translation
“Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking at what you did.”
A while back, I came across a few of the violin method books I used when I was nine and first learning to play. My teacher’s instructions were handwritten across the tops of the pages. “Keep bow straight”. “Don’t let bow slide!”. A sliding bow stroke along the length of the string, or one that is too much off of parallel to the bridge will produce an unclear sound. It appeared several times, clearly something I’d struggled with. Many years after my first teacher made these notes, and as I unravelled an issue of excess tension in my bow arm, I realized that some of my trouble might have come from the tenacity of an ancient belief: that controlling the bow is difficult.
When I taught violin lessons, I was always interested in the fact that my students could receive the same instruction from me, and yet interpret it so differently from each other. It was a daily lesson in communication. From a teacher’s concept of his or her own technique, to their ability to understand and communicate about what’s happening in a student’s playing, to the student’s understanding and ability to follow the instructions, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Whatever we choose to practice, whether we’ve been taught or have taught ourselves, has beliefs and assumptions behind it, helpful and not. Success is often measured by more or less consistently achieving a result, even if getting there was difficult or the understanding is still a bit murky. As a young player, if a lot of extra effort helped me find my way to playing with a straighter bow, it made sense that I believed that’s what was required. It also makes sense that it eventually just became part of how I played.
Deciding to unpack this idea and to see if it was possible to use less effort and still control the bow, I had to be willing to give up some dearly beloved habits. Much more insidious than playing habits, were my reactions to sounding bad! When I used less effort to control my bow, it did slide around. I let that happen, bad sound and all. The hardest part? No rushing to fix it, and no judgement. I just stayed with it. I used a mirror to see as much as I could, tolerated the sound, and became interested in the problem. How much and what kind of effort was actually needed? Pretty soon, I discovered a way to be in control of the bow without some of the unhelpful effort I’d learned to rely on so many years ago. A more fluid bow stroke, better sound and more comfort were the results. It was a process of taking a clear look at, and un-doing what wasn’t working, and being open to learning what might.
An Alexander Technique lesson is a place to try new things. Sometimes that involves discovering, questioning, and testing assumptions and beliefs that we didn’t even know we had. Sometimes, it involves learning to un-do something that feels essential but may not be, an idea about a correct position, or maybe just a strategy that has outlived its usefulness. This applies to any activity, not just music!
Is there anything in your playing or in your life that might benefit from a closer look, or anything that you’ve been able to change through a similar process? I’d love to hear from you!
I’ve been writing blog posts about the Alexander Technique and not publishing them for several years now. I’m not a natural writer. I work at it. I do get lots of ideas for blog posts; things that I’d like to share with my students and anyone else who might find their way to me. These ideas, once written down, tend to languish in a state of incompleteness and continual revision. Making little tweaks, (changing a phrase here or there and then deciding to look at it later, only to change it again), has kept me satisfied that I’m moving forward. This isn’t necessarily bad. I’ve written and edited a lot, even for this post and I’m still learning (I played the violin for many years, so I believe in practice!). The problem is that, despite all the revisions, I never feel any closer to being ready. I’m not really sure what being ready will feel like, but publishing equals visibility and visibility feels a little uncomfortable.
Recently, I decided to take the leap and actually start publishing my blog. It’s time. The balance tipped away from needing to feel comfortable and sure, toward wanting to communicate about my work. Though the Alexander Technique is experiential, and defies description in some ways, I think writing and discussion can enhance the experience and offer a framework for understanding it. My hope is that this blog will be a resource for those who have had lessons as well as for those who might be new to the work and interested in its applications in daily life.
The Alexander Technique is, among other things, about paying attention to how we do what we do. Part of the creative process is uncertainty, but we all have a lot of choice in how we respond to that. I don’t have to completely believe in the feeling of unreadiness at this point. I can’t necessarily make it go away, but I can respond differently to it. Attention to “the means whereby”, (to quote F.M. Alexander), can help us see more clearly where we are, solve problems as we progress, recognize new possibilities, and explore new creative territory. I might still worry that I’ll run out of things to say, or that I’ll turn out to be a terrible writer, not just a reluctant one. It’s just as possible that I could find this practice to be rewarding and fun! Anyway, I just think it’s time to start. Taking this step in the direction of being more visible means gently quieting the reactive, if well-meaning, voice that tells me I’ll eventually be more comfortable if I wait. I’m not sure that’s true. I think I might eventually be more comfortable if I start.
So, here goes…
Blog posted. Leap taken!
I welcome your comments about anything I write, and would love to hear suggestions for things you’d like to read about. If you liked this post, please stay tuned for my next installment!
My Teaching Studio
I teach on weekdays and offer daytime and early evening hours. A 45 minute lesson costs $60. A series of 5 lessons may be purchased in advance for $270, or a series of 10 lessons for $510.
To inquire about lessons, please click to email me or call 413-221-7653.
Photographs of F.M. Alexander © 2017 The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, London.
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