Do you dare play the thinking game?

How much, and how often, do you think about the things that you’re doing?

Do you, for example, think about the act of walking as you go to work or to the shops? Or are you resolutely thinking about something else, and plugged into an iPod into the bargain?

Modern life seems to encourage us to keep motoring on to the next thing. And if, as FM Alexander notes you and I are like the vast majority of people, doing pretty much the same things each day, and thinking pretty much the same thoughts, it is very tempting to believe that we don’t need to think.* I mean, we know how to walk – don’t we?

But part of the reason why we have troubles with overdoing muscular effort, or just using the wrong muscles, in so many activities is that we’ve never really sat down and thought about what that activity actually requires.

What do you actually need to do to type on a keyboard? Use a mouse? Play a piano? Raise a teacup to your lips? Do you know?

For the next week, I want you to play and experiment. Pick an activity – something simple.

Spend a little bit of time each day thinking about that activity.

  • What do you actually need to do to carry out that activity?
  • Do you know what muscles or joints might be involved?
  • Does what you need to do change depending n external circumstances (different keyboard, different mug, etc)?

Spend just five minutes a day thinking about the activity you’ve chosen. By the end of the week, I’m hoping that you’ll have formed a clear idea of what that activity actually involves. You may even have started checking that against the reality of what you actually do.

Give it a go. Play. Experiment. If you have time, email and let me know the results, or ask me a question if you need to. Because if you give it a go, and if FM is right, you’ll have just begun the first step in creating a new kind of versatility and control over your mind and body. And that sounds like a pretty good thing to have.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.65.
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Inexorable deterioration, anyone?

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Are you on a path of inexorable physical deterioration? Or is your body (and mind!) capable of ongoing change and improvement?

I think I, like most people, just accepted without question the point of view that I was on the downhill path. I’d done all the growing and blossoming I was capable of doing, and from then on I had decades ahead of merely trying to slow down my inevitable physical decline. A very jolly point of view for someone who was then in her mid twenties, agreed. But I suspect not uncommon.

Thing is, I’d accepted this doctrine without question. And the evidence for it is looking increasingly shaky. Remember how we used to be told that once we reached a certain age, our brain cells would begin dying off and not being replaced? The field of neuroplasticity has dealt that notion a pretty firm blow! *

You see, FM Alexander didn’t work from that point of view at all. When he was trying to solve his vocal problems, he experimented with the idea that the three odd things he did with his head when he was reciting were “a misuse of the parts concerned.” So all he had to do, he reasoned, was work out which one of the three ‘harmful tendencies’ (as he called them) caused the others, stop that first one, and everything would be fine.

And it was.

FM found that just by preventing the initial pulling back of his head, he not only stopped the other two ‘harmful tendencies’, but that his vocal condition improved.** By stopping the wrong thing from happening, he allowed his body to assert its natural ‘okayness’.

This is why one of my favourite quotations from FM is “You are all quite perfect – except for what you are doing.” For me, it really cuts to the heart of this issue. We are quite perfect. We are okay. We just disrupt our natural okayness with all the stuff we think we need to do to carry out the activities we love.

So… What if you are fundamentally, essentially, basically okay? What if the problems you are experiencing are things you are doing?

What one thing will you try stopping today – just to see if it makes a difference?


*A great introductory book on neuroplasticity is Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself
** FM writes: “with the prevention of the misuse of these parts I tended to become less hoarse while reciting, and that as I gradually gained experience in this prevention, my liability to hoarseness tended to decrease. What is more, when, after these experiences, my throat was again examined by my medical friends, a considerable improvement was found in the general condition of my larynx and vocal cords.” Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.414.
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Be disruptive: challenge the status quo like FM Alexander


Do you find you just accept things as they are, or are you a person who questions the status quo?

This week I have been reading Michael Bloch’s biography of FM Alexander. I was fascinated by Bloch’s description of FM as a child – an “attention-seeking” boy who was ‘excused’ from regular lessons at the tiny village school in rural Tasmania.


He was disruptive. He asked too many questions.

In 1946 Walter Carrington wrote down his recollections of FM talking about his schooldays:

F.M. said that they could never make anything of him at school. He used to dispute every statement that was held up for his belief. If they then referred him to a book, he would ask how the writer of the book knew it to be true. They used to send him up for thrashings but he still came back for more.”*

 In a school child, this was a disruptive and precocious trait. FM was extremely lucky to have a school master who was prepared to spend time teaching him one-to-one outside of normal school hours.

And we are lucky too, because it meant that FM’s innate questioning nature was not crushed. It was, in fact, exactly that predisposition not to let anything rest that characterised his explorations to create the work we call the Alexander Technique. He didn’t just blindly accept what the doctors said. He didn’t cave in and find a new job when it seemed as though his acting career was finished. And when his investigations into the causes of his vocal troubles were going badly, did FM give up? No!

We should learn from this. Too often we allow the easy answer to stop us from thinking. We accept the status quo. We label something as a ‘habit’ or ‘just the way things are’ and then assume that they are unchanging and unchangeable.

But we don’t know that – not until we ask. Not until we test our beliefs and our ideas.

What assumptions are there in your life? What can you question today?


* Walter Carrington quoted in Bloch, M., FM: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Hachette, 2004, p.18 in the Kindle edition.

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Children and (Learned) Stage Fright: a Rant

This is an undisguised rant about stage fright, why our children grow up to be nervous in front of audiences, and why the Alexander Technique is so important.


Recently my son played cello in his first ever school concert. He got excited about a new piece, and though he didn’t know it very well, he decided he wanted to play  it  instead of the two he’d been practising. Predictibly, he got stuck mid-piece, and I had to murmur hints to help him to the end.

When he sat down, another parent leaned over to him and said in a consoling tone, “It was very brave of you to keep playing. Well done.”

Both he and I fielded many such comments over the next few days. One even said (to me, luckily), “I don’t know how he did it. I would have burst into tears.”

These sound like nice, nurturing, supportive comments, don’t they? So why was my son nonplussed, and why do I feel the urge to rant?

Because they are not supportive comments. And here is why.

These comments come from a very particular world view. If I asked the parents involved, they would probably admit that, in their eyes, having to perform in front of an audience is tantamount to torture. And making a mistake in front of an audience is just about the most awful thing that can happen to you.

But this is just a point of view. It might be common, but that doesn’t make it the only right or normal way to think about performing. How about this for an alternative: there’s an audience of really nice people waiting to hear me play, and I am going to share my favourite music with them. (That was what my son was thinking. I know, because I asked him.)

So which would you rather be thinking as you walked onto the stage: ‘this is torture and I hope I don’t mess up’ or ‘I get to share my fun with all these people’?

The sad thing about the concert was watching all the other children. Many of them were clearly afraid and couldn’t get off the stage fast enough. One girl even burst into tears beforehand and refused to play.

That sort of fear is a learned behaviour. We are not born with a natural fear of performing. We learn it from the people we love and respect.

So… You may be content to live with a fear of speaking or performing in front of strangers. You may be content as you are. Fair enough. But I want to ask you the same thing FM Alexander asked in 1911:

“What of the children?” Are you content to rob them of their inheritance…? Are you willing to send them out into the world ill-equipped, dependent on precepts and incipient habits…? *

Those of us who have any contact at all with children have a tremendous responsibility. The paradigms we live in, the views we hold have the potential to mould their thoughts and actions, for better or worse. In today’s world, a fear of performing or presenting is a serious handicap – one that we would be crazy to want to pass on. For the children’s sake, if not for our own, we seriously need to  reconsider our ideas and attitudes about doing stuff in front of an audience. And for me, the work of FM Alexander is a great way to start that process.


*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.68.

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Interlude: change your rules, change your world. A true story.

I’m postponing the last of the 5 steps to everyday happiness for one week, because I have a really important true story to tell. It’s an important story because it shows so clearly how the rules we make for ourselves can completely change the way we act.


My son is going to play his cello in a concert at school this week. Because he learns outside of the school environment, one of the school music teachers wanted to hear him play so that they could place him at an appropriate point in the programme. So last Friday my son took his cello in to school.

The cello was placed in a safe spot in an office, but I placed his music bag on his coat peg. Clearly he didn’t notice me do it, because later, when the music teacher came to collect him, he didn’t pick up his music. He just went to the office, got his cello, and went off to play.

After setting up, he realised that he didn’t have his music with him.

So what did he do?

What would you do if you realised you didn’t have your music, and you were auditioning for a concert? Would you panic? Would it affect your performance?


What my son didn’t do.

He didn’t panic. He didn’t worry.


What my son did.

Telling me the story later, my son said that he thought, “Oh well, I’ll just have to play my pieces from memory.”

So he did. Really well, according to the teacher.

My son doesn’t know that playing for strangers is meant to be scary. He doesn’t know that playing pieces from memory is meant to be hard. So he did both things unquestioningly and without a jot of worry. In fact, when I suggested to him later that some grown-ups might find that situation hard, he laughed at me.

It’s a question of rules. My son hasn’t learned or internalized any rules that say that playing for other people, or playing from memory, is anything to be afraid of. This means that he hasn’t put up any barriers from playing as well as he can.

So why should we?


Change your rules, change your world

FM Alexander said that “a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”* If you change the rules and assumptions that you operate under, then you effectively change the way you view and interact with the world.

Piano teacher and blogger Elissa Milne gave a great example of this in her most recent post. By encouraging her student to stop reading the note names he had placed over every note in his music, and instead to think about the music in terms of shapes, she was able to change his playing from fumbling to near effortless in minutes.

If a piano student can experience that sort of improvement from a change of rule, what sort of improvement do you think you could achieve?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.44.
Image by J Frasse,

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 2. Rejoice that you are fallible


In my teaching room, I have a cupboard. It has two main uses. Firstly, it stows my computer away out of sight. This is its practical use. But it has a far more important function than that.

It stores all of my students’ sticks.

Sticks? I hear you ask.

Yes, sticks. The sticks they beat themselves up with.

Mental sticks

Obviously I don’t mean actual physical sticks. I’m talking about something far more insidious, though just as damaging. I am talking about the things that people believe about themselves and say to me during their lessons.

“I have such terrible posture.”
“I sit really badly.”
“My right leg is okay. But my left leg is really bad.”
“I know that my walking isn’t good, but there’s nothing I can do to make it better.”
“If my furniture at work was better, I wouldn’t have this neck pain.”


Why these statements are sticks

1. They are examples of what I was talking about last week: they are examples of thinking that is stuck in a groove. They are conclusions masquerading as statements of fact, and the reasoning on which those conclusions are based has long been forgotten. The assumptions are hidden. And hidden assumptions are dangerous!

2. They are conclusions that assume that improvement is impossible. When someone says “I have terrible posture,” typically the unstated ending to the sentence is something like “and it can’t change.” And the student sincerely believes this, because so far they haven’t been able to change what is bothering them. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t change.

3. Because these statements assume that change is impossible, they are a means of abdicating self-responsibility. Think about it. If something can’t change, the how much responsibility do we need to take for changing it? None! Instead, we claim the apparently unchangeable behaviour and use it to make ourselves feel bad.


Give up the stick!

This is what I tell my students. I fact, I hold out my hand and require them to give them up! Here is why.

1. Change is possible.

2. Change begins by owning up to the things that we do to ourselves. Or as FM Alexander would put it, we need to “acknowledge in fact that [we] suffer from mental delusions regarding [our] physical acts.” *

3. Doing this is not an admission of failure. It is an admission of power. As soon as we stop beating ourselves up and own up to the unnecessary muscular activity we are doing to ourselves, we have gained power over it. We are no longer slaves to discomfort. We have, in fact, taken the first major step to mastering it.

So give up your sticks. Send them to me – write them down in the comments and leave them there. And then you’ll have taken a leap away from discomfort and towards everyday happiness.


* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.59.

 Image by Mati Martek, stock.xchng

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 1. Get out of the groove!


Last week I wrote an article all about FM Alexander’s concept of happiness. I talked about FM’s desire that we should rediscover what true happiness is all about (in his opinion): being able to take pleasure in even something as apparently simple as sitting or standing. You see, if we take pleasure in even these small acts, then we will be increasing the amount of pleasurable experience over the whole range of our day.

But how do we do this? This question may be a live one for you, especially if you are like many of my beginning students and find even just sitting a tiring and uncomfortable experience. How do we even begin to think about taking pleasure in sitting or standing?

By taking some simple steps, and being prepared to work at them. For the next five weeks I will give you some steps that FM Alexander wrote about that have the potential to improve your relationship with your body in even the simplest of movements. But just reading these steps will not be enough to magically make a change in your life. You will need to have a go at applying these steps in your life. You will need to do a little bit of work.

Do we have a deal?

Okay, then let’s begin!


Get out of the groove!

In his first book, Alexander wrote a lot about overcoming mental habits, because he believed that physical difficulties came about as a direct consequence of unhelpful thinking. And when wanting to control mental habits, FM wrote,

“the first and only real difficulty is to overcome the preliminary inertia of mind … The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when sent in action, glides along the familiar, well-worn path…”*

I think it is fair to say that on certain topics we all have set views and ideas. But did you know that we can have set ideas on even the apparently simple things in life, like sitting? Alexander describes these using the picture of grooves, or well-worn paths.

Sometimes these grooves are useful and helpful. Sometimes they are not. For example, many of my students first come to class with the notion that ‘sitting up straight’ is good, and slumping (slouching) is bad. They are furthermore secretly convinced that they do the latter (the slumping) most of the time, and therefore work very hard at trying to sit up straight (usually involving arching their back).

There are two problems with this.

1. They have never really thought about what might be involved in ‘sitting up straight’, and so end up using a lot of unnecessary muscular activity in a way that causes them to be tired and achey.

2. Even more importantly, they have never questioned the underlying assumptions of their behaviour model. First, who says they slump most of the time?! And second, why is sitting up straight inherently good, and slumping inherently bad?

(And yes, I know that might be a phrase you thought you’d never hear from an Alexander Technique teacher. But think about it. When you sit on your sofa of an evening with a nice glass of something to watch your favourite movie, do you really want to be sitting absolutely upright? Wouldn’t a nice, efficient slump be more appropriate here? Just a thought…)


The task for the week.

So your task for the next week is this. Pick an activity. Pick something simple, like sitting or standing, or getting out of a chair. And think about what assumptions you may have made about that activity. What are you convinced is true? And what if you played, just for fun, with not having those assumptions. What would be possible then?

Sometimes it is our convictions about what it true and unchanging that are the very things that are holding us back. They are the groove, the well-worn path. If we lift our feet from the path, just for a step, then a whole forest of adventure is waiting for us.


*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.67.??