Pam Bartlett's Blog


Thanks for Then and Now

Thanks for Then and Now

Last week, a student told me a story about walking in his neighborhood, feeling very free and easeful after his lesson, until he noticed a woman coming out of her house a few doors down. At that point, he felt himself beginning to take on a more closed and protective posture, though she posed no real threat. It felt familiar, but the contrast with the previous moment was striking. Recalling discoveries he’d made in recent lessons, he was able to have a different response to her presence, one that allowed him the freedom in movement that he’d been enjoying on his walk. 

Realizations like this are common among people who are taking Alexander Technique lessons. When something shifts and a kind of effort is no longer needed, there’s an “aha” experience, and a comparison between old and new. It’s interesting to think about why we respond the way we do in certain circumstances, and how a response becomes a habit, but I think there’s another aspect of this that’s also important. 

We learn our use of ourselves throughout life, in whatever conditions we find ourselves (F.M. Alexander used the term “use of the self” or just “use” to describe how each of us as united mind/body, or self, responds to stimulus from outside and from within). We use our temperaments, natural gifts and tendencies, and the abilities, powers of observation and reason available to us at the time. With those tools, we find ways of being in the world; everything from how to sit at the computer to how to play a musical instrument to what happens when we meet a neighbor while out on a walk. We do the best we know how. When something we’re used to is no longer working, and suddenly it feels obvious, hindsight is a little tricky. Feeling free of the old habit is liberating, but for many of us, it’s tempting to be hard on ourselves or feel regret for not having known better before.

Today, I encourage you to send a mental note of thanks to your younger self (even the self from 5 minutes ago). That self got you through some things and brought you to this moment. Now you know more than you did. If you want to consciously change something, you can start from exactly where you are. Let go of some of the worry about current blind spots too, because of course, we all have them. Thinking about our lives, and learning from mistakes is in our nature. Limiting the amount of time we spend in the energy of “should have known better” is another layer of changing how we respond, and frees us up further to be present and open to different choices going forward.

Take a moment to just let yourself be where you are, with nothing to change or fix. Recognize the support of the ground under your feet or the chair seat under your sit bones. Gently bring your attention up and out. Let your neck be free. Allow in the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Fine tune your awareness. Practice a tiny pause before taking your next action, and trust yourself to know what to do.

A Stoplight is an Opportunity

A Stoplight is an Opportunity

Last week, a student told me a story about walking in his neighborhood, feeling very free and easeful after his lesson, until he noticed a woman coming out of her house a few doors down. At that point, he felt himself beginning to take on a more closed and protective posture, though she posed no real threat. It felt familiar, but the contrast with the previous moment was striking. Recalling discoveries he’d made in recent lessons, he was able to have a different response to her presence, one that allowed him the freedom in movement that he’d been enjoying on his walk. 

Realizations like this are common among people who are taking Alexander Technique lessons. When something shifts and a kind of effort is no longer needed, there’s an “aha” experience, and a comparison between old and new. It’s interesting to think about why we respond the way we do in certain circumstances, and how a response becomes a habit, but I think there’s another aspect of this that’s also important. 

We learn our use of ourselves throughout life, in whatever conditions we find ourselves (F.M. Alexander used the term “use of the self” or just “use” to describe how each of us as united mind/body, or self, responds to stimulus from outside and from within). We use our temperaments, natural gifts and tendencies, and the abilities, powers of observation and reason available to us at the time. With those tools, we find ways of being in the world; everything from how to sit at the computer to how to play a musical instrument to what happens when we meet a neighbor while out on a walk. We do the best we know how. When something we’re used to is no longer working, and suddenly it feels obvious, hindsight is a little tricky. Feeling free of the old habit is liberating, but for many of us, it’s tempting to be hard on ourselves or feel regret for not having known better before.

Today, I encourage you to send a mental note of thanks to your younger self (even the self from 5 minutes ago). That self got you through some things and brought you to this moment. Now you know more than you did. If you want to consciously change something, you can start from exactly where you are. Let go of some of the worry about current blind spots too, because of course, we all have them. Thinking about our lives, and learning from mistakes is in our nature. Limiting the amount of time we spend in the energy of “should have known better” is another layer of changing how we respond, and frees us up further to be present and open to different choices going forward.

Take a moment to just let yourself be where you are, with nothing to change or fix. Recognize the support of the ground under your feet or the chair seat under your sit bones. Gently bring your attention up and out. Let your neck be free. Allow in the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Fine tune your awareness. Practice a tiny pause before taking your next action, and trust yourself to know what to do.

Ready or Not?

Ready or Not?

You can learn a lot about your driving habits by paying attention to how you feel and what you notice when you stop the car.

Here are six things to try while waiting for the light to change:

1. Gently quiet your thinking and bring more of your attention up and out to your surroundings and to the present.

2. Let your body be supported by the seat and seat-back, and let your neck be free enough to turn or nod your head easily. When we drive, we’re affected by the motion of the car, and can subtly brace each time we start or stop. Take a moment to un-do some of that accumulated tension. 

3. Notice whether you’ve been using a lot of unnecessary effort such as holding the steering wheel tightly, clenching your jaw, or holding your breath. Try bringing you hands to rest on your lap and them bring them back up to the steering wheel while inviting your neck and shoulders to remain easy and quiet. Free your jaw, let your tongue rest on the bottom of your mouth, and allow yourself a full exhale and an easy inhale. 

4. Let the visual information come to you. In stressful driving moments, it’s common to push the head and neck very far forward while straining to see more. Even when you need to turn your body or lean forward in order to see, can you find a way to do it more easily?  Un-do tension in the muscles around your eyes as you receive the visual information you need.

5. This is my favorite one! Notice that there is space and distance between your car and those around you. Periodically reminding yourself of this can be very calming when traffic is heavy.

6. You have time! Even if you’re running late, stressing about it worn’t get you there any faster. You’ll arrive happier and in better shape if you worry less and don’t rush.

Try any of these ideas regularly when you come to a stop, and your driving will be a little easier. Happy travels!

What my sleeve taught me about my habits

What my sleeve taught me about my habits

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.

A moment’s notice

A moment’s notice

“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.

From Fear to Fun

From Fear to Fun

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.

Pam

Lost and Found in Translation

Lost and Found in Translation

“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.

“Leap and the net will appear”  — John Burroughs

“Leap and the net will appear” — John Burroughs

Lost and Found in Translation

“Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking at what you did.”
—Neil Gaiman

 

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!

My Teaching Studio

My teaching studio is located at 16 Center Street (Central Chambers) in downtown Northampton, Mass. Click for directions and parking information.

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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