My music teacher friends know this phenomenon well. A violin student, for example, may want to improve a particular passage in the music they are playing. Their teacher gives them an arpeggio to work on. The student can’t see the point of the arpeggio and just wants to work on the passage. The student wants improvement, but only wants to work directly on the thing they perceive as the problem.
Here’s another example. An Alexander Technique student has an issue where their arms hurt when they are working at a keyboard (computer or piano, whichever is more appealing to you). The student wants me to help them with their arms. But I look at what they’re doing and can see that the issue with their arms is created by the way they are sitting – there might be a backward rotation in the pelvis and crunching in the neck.
I want us to look more closely at this example, and examine these questions:
- Why do the student’s arms hurt, and not their neck?
- Where do I, their teacher, go to work – on the arms where the student expects, or where I think the problem originates?
- And if I work where I think the problem originates (the spine – or higher!), how will the student respond?
Why do their arms hurt?
One of the key ideas behind the Alexander Technique is that everything is connected; we are a psycho-physical unity. Because everything is connected, if something is not working well in one area of the body, everything else has to compensate and adjust. That may mean that a completely different part of the body may hurt from the one that caused the trouble in the first place.
That’s exactly what happened to FM Alexander. He was suffering hoarseness when he tried to recite, but the issue wasn’t with his vocal folds. Rather, the hoarseness was an indirect result of the habitual way he pulled his head back and down before speaking.
Where do I go to work as a teacher?
It should logically follow from what I’ve said above, that if I go to work using hands-on techniques on the student’s arms they may get some benefit, but not nearly as much as if I go to where the trouble really started. I need to go to the root of the problem to really clear it up. I also need to make sure that I am clear with the student about why I’m apparently ignoring the bit of them that hurts!
So I’m probably not going to work with my student’s arms as a first point of approach. But where will I work?
Go to where the problem starts
In the example I’ve given, I can see that my student is doing unhelpful things with their head in relation with their body, going down through their spine all the way to their pelvis. I’m likely to use a hands-on technique that interacts with that relationship. But I’ll also be working somewhere a bit higher, because it seems very likely that there’s some kind of unhelpful thinking that has generated the unhelpful movement behaviour. If I can get my student thinking more clearly, then the physical behaviour is likely to vanish far more quickly.
How will the student respond?
My task as a teacher is to help the student improve. What the student wants and what helps them improve might be the same thing, but more often than not, it isn’t. If I’m the teacher, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do the thing that with generate the most benefit for my student. And mostly, that means clarifying their thinking while working with their head in relation to their body.
 Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, Orion, 2001, pp.27-28.
 Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat complete ed., p.52.
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net