By Travis McKeveny
My two lessons with Leland have been a revelation: I now understand better my tension-producing habits as well as what I will have to do — or, to put it more accurately, what I will have to not do — in order to eliminate them (the habits). Beforehand, I had found quite daunting the task of unlearning such counterproductive patterns, but my sense of the possibilities has broadened. The fundamental tool in this dynamic project of demystification? Awareness. An awareness, however, that is unaccompanied by strain — therein lies the rub.
First a preface. As a performing singer-songwriter, I often feel like a plate-spinner in the circus. I am always trying to do a few things at once — sing on key, get the guitar part right, use my body in such a way as to help bring the song across — and as a consequence fear that one of my figurative plates will fly off its stick and shatter on the floor, in full view of the audience. It was this fixation on executing — as opposed to the quality of execution — that produced the effects which led me to contact Leland.
Said effects were undesirable ones: tightness in my neck and shoulders, aching in my hands, difficulty breathing diaphragmatically, general persistent discomfort. I knew that if I did not somehow shift my attention toward the manner in which I was using my body, my potential as a performer and musician would forever be needlessly limited.
Upon meeting Leland, I expressed all these symptoms and concerns. Then our first lesson began. The initial exercise involved getting in and out of a chair — which is to say, examining how I would typically use my body while getting in and out of a chair. As it turned out, I was unnecessarily engaging my shoulders and not ‘taking possession of the floor,’ to borrow Leland’s phrase. These two things were related. With Leland’s guidance (arms around my torso while sitting up and down; hands checking my shoulders and neck), I discovered that I could rotate forward at the hip-joint, aligning the weight of my upper body with my firmly-planted feet; this allowed me to stand up without strain. When I would sit down, Leland told me to forget the chair (and, at other times, he removed it). This is because the Alexander Technique encourages us to reprogram our habits by not ‘end-gaining,’ or focusing on the ultimate result of movement (i.e., being seated in a chair), but rather by being aware of the movement itself — this will permit one not to fall back into unwanted kinesthetic habits. The chair, as Leland said, was ‘incidental’; the process whereby I had up until that point chosen to approach sitting down and standing up, crucial.
We also did some work while I lay on a table, with a couple of books under my head for support. Leland advised me to think of the body as lengthening in all directions, and allowing the back to be ‘quiet’. I had an easier time relaxing when I was not intending to relax but instead observing myself impartially. Allowing the breath to do its work unimpededly was difficult; this owes to, among other things, my many years of singing in a strained and tense manner.
Both my body-use vis-a-vis the chair and my breathing showed improvement during the second lesson. Leland also had me do some walking around the room — this was the most frustrating exercise. The simple act of moving one foot forward while leaving the hips where they were felt unnatural. Patience is a virtue — or maybe it’s the capacity to suspend one’s reflexive self-judgment: repetition of an act without cognizance of how one is acting defeats the purpose of the Alexander Technique, serving only to more deeply ingrain unwanted habits.
Again, working with Leland has shined a light on how I might reverse or modify ways of being. I do, however, have a long-track record of being easily frustrated. I look forward to proving myself equal to the task of choosing another way, not once, but time and again.