Learning to follow through: why we bail out on our plans

Musical phrases require us to follow through to the endDo you follow through? Do you push through to the end of things?

My son is currently learning Solveig’s Song by Grieg for his grade 4 trumpet exam. One of the things that he is finding tricky at the moment is playing right through to the end of the phrases. Each phrase is quite long and requires good breath control, and it is so very tempting to cut the long note at the end of the phrase short and have a break!

I have experienced something similar with one of my recorder pieces. I found myself cutting a phrase short, and realised I was doing it because I was already thinking about the tricky phrase coming up!

It doesn’t just happen in music. I once taught a group of actors who were using a chaise longue in a scene. They were all experiencing achiness in the low back. When I watched them, I realised that they all effectively ‘stopped sitting’ a few inches above the seat of the chaise – at the same height as all the other chairs in the rehearsal room! Plonking down those final few inches when they’d already ‘sat’ was causing the low back discomfort.

FM Alexander didn’t follow through, either

FM Alexander found that even after he’d discovered the physical acts that were causing his vocal trouble and had created a plan (and whole new set of mental disciplines) in order to use his voice more effectively, that actually using his plan was a whole other challenge. He reverted to his ‘instinctive use’  – his previous way of using his voice – more often that not. FM realised that he was trying to use a new protocol that he had carefully reasoned out, but was trying to judge how well he was doing by whether he was feeling right.[1] This is a bit like deciding to follow a healthy eating plan but finishing every meal with a big slice of chocolate cake: self-defeating!

Deciding not to follow through = ‘feeling right’

The thing is, when we see the phrase ‘feeling right’ we can be misled into thinking it’s referring purely to physical sensation.  But it can refer to the more subtle pay-off of not having to examine one’s thinking, too. Even as we decide to follow a particular plan in order to take us towards the goal we desire, we can still fool ourselves into thinking we are changing and improving. We can believe we are following our plan, while not actually following through on everything that we need to do in order to change and improve.

If I am shortchanging one phrase to think about the next, I am choosing to feel right (worrying about the next phrase is more important than finishing this one).

When my son stops the final note in the first phrase of Solveig’s Song early, he is choosing to feel right (I would rather stop playing than have to rethink the length of the phrase so I can breathe in further).

If my students stop using their hip joints before they reach the chaise, they are choosing to feel right (I would rather not have to think about the chair height, but just sit the way I always do).

But if we genuinely want to improve, then we really do need to examine our thinking. We need to honour the process that we’re following, and choose to not just follow that process, but also accept all the implications of that process. And sometimes that will involve having to change the way we think. So I’ll need to stop worrying about the next phrase, and just keep playing the one I’m in the middle of. My son will need to rethink his phrasing and breathing so that he can play his piece the way he wants.

What about you? What implications do you need to accept and incorporate, so that you can follow your process all the way through to its conclusion?

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, 1985, pp.44-45.

Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Why BBC Apprentice Tom’s back pain chair won’t work!


The BBC TV series The Apprentice finished on Sunday when inventor Tom Pellereau won Lord Sugar’s £250 000 investment. I’ve like Tom all the way through the series, so I was a very happy viewer. There was, however, one moment in the programme when I simply hooted with laughter: when Tom first announced his business plan. Tom plans to create an anti back pain chair that will prevent injury and discomfort. This is his explanation of his business plan about 12 minutes into the final episode:

“The business is to save organisations money by reducing the personal and financial cost of back pain…The business is two-fold. It’s a service to measure the likelihood of employees having back pain, and it’s a set of chairs or furniture that will actually help you to train those muscles so that you’re much, much less likely to have back pain or other problems in the future.”*

Tom’s goal here is a good and noble one (even if Lord Sugar didn’t like it a bit!). Back pain and musculo-skeletal conditions generally are a major cause of workplace absence. When Dame Carol Black wrote a report on occupational health for the UK government in 2009, the economists working with her estimated the cost of workplace absence generally at one hundred billion pounds per year – with musculo-skeletal disorders being the most significnt culprit.**

So Tom’s instincts are correct. Back pain is a major issue in the UK. It is a major issue for employers.

So why do I say that Tom’s chair idea won’t work?

Tom is basing his whole business plan on two assumptions:

1. Back pain is caused by weak muscles

2. A back pain chair can be designed that will fix the weak muscles.

Let’s take these two points.


The Fallacy of Weak Muscles

There are any number of people out there, usually trying to sell you fancy chairs or shoes, that will tell you that any problems you may have with poise or posture are the result of weak muscles. Alexander puts it  little differently. He says that such problems are caused by undue rigidity in some muscles and undue flccidity in other muscles; but that the rigidity is found “in those parts of the muscular mechanism which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.”

In other words, we use our bodies in ways other than intended by nature, for whatever reason. Some muscles then have to overwork to achieve the misuse. So Tom’s solution wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the misuse, and it doesn’t deal with the overworked muscles. In fact, it would try to strengthen the weak ones, so that all the muscles would be overworking!

And just in case the reader didn’t get his point, Alexander said, “all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of people today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to led to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” ***


Chairs are not the answer.

Chairs were the subject of my very first article, Teach the Chairs? In it I talked about the fact that, in Alexander’s view, chairs just don’t solve the problem. And it makes sense. If it is our misuse that causes the muscular rigidity in the first place, can we really expect that just purchasing a piece of furniture is going to fix the misuse?

We are smarter than furniture. Put bluntly, if we want to slump about, not even the fanciest ergonomic chair is going to stop us for long. If we have certain fixed ideas or erroneous preconceptions about what we need to do to sit at our computer, the provision of a fancy chair may make our employer feel better, but the chair cannot work on our misconceptions and change our thinking. Only we can do that.

Luckily, Lord Sugar didn’t much like the chair idea. He preferred the nail files. I admire his good judgement.

* Transcribed from the BBC TV programme The Apprentice. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice
** Dame Carol Blck interviewed by Mark Porter on Radio 4, Case Notes, 7 April 2009.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.62.
Image by winnond, FreeDigitalPhotos.net