On the Discomforts of Relaxation

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There’s an anecdote in one of F.M. Alexander’s books in which he tells of a child he was working with who had had very restricted mobility because of extreme habitual muscular tension. Using the techniques he had originally developed to deal with his own problems with bodily coordination, Alexander unwrangled much of this tension, bringing her body into a much more neutral alignment. Her response was to complain about how strange she felt.

I have been thinking about this story recently in the context of my own challenges in rebuilding my relationship with the piano. Some of my technical work has involved refining what I do with my hands and fingers, but most of it is about not doing stuff with my shoulders, back, glutes, legs, and (more weirdly, as I have got deeper into this process) intercostals muscles and muscles deep in my abdomen.

It’s very exciting work, but it’s also at times quite disturbing. I was accustomed to a sense of disconnection or alienation from my body from my Alexander Technique lessons: when your body parts are placed in position different from where they are used to living, they don’t quite feel like your own any more. When you are actively preventing a body part from moving into its habitual place (what Alexander terms ‘inhibition’ – a positive process rather than the unhelpful associations with the word in psychological contexts), this sense of disconnection builds the longer you maintain the instruction.

The feeling when a muscle wants to do what it always does but is receiving an instruction to stay still feels to me like a kind of internal itch. It’s very odd and not entirely pleasant, though I have learned to welcome it as a clear indicator that I am doing deep work that will build new and more helpful neural pathways. But there are times when it feels like my whole body wants to sneeze.

Go deeper than this to a place so unfamiliar to a body part that it doesn’t know how to be there and it gets weirder yet. I was recently helped to discover habitual tension in my RH 4th & 5th fingers when they’re not being used that links in with all kinds of other tensions I had already been working on (shoulder and hamstrings mostly, but this is also where the intercostals get involved). When I was first learning to let the fingers lie in a state of relaxation while other fingers worked, I found they were literally trembling in confusion. My 4th finger in particular actually felt quite scared, though once it got used to being there and stopped shaking, it went back to being merely weirded out.

The reason I’m over-sharing all these odd details is because we often assume that the release of tension is going to be relaxing – as in producing a state that feels pleasantly calm. And, ultimately, this work does get to that state. (One of the things I am finding now is that I get up from the piano much more relaxed than I sat down at it, then find it’s at the computer or in the car that a lot of the habitual tensions pile on back into my body.) But en route it can be really quite uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. And that’s something I need to live through and embrace to get to the more mechanically efficient state out the other end.

And shedding extraneous tension is something we need to do in pretty much any of our musical (and, indeed, non-musical) endeavours if we are to realise our imaginative intentions. So I’m finding it useful to consider the pedagogical language I’m using for this process. The discourse of relaxation may still sometimes be appropriate – especially when physical tension is working in tandem with a sense psychological urgency. But at other times, it doesn’t fit the lived experience of consciously retraining our muscles.

The language of ‘ to be ’ or ‘ to ’is useful here; ‘Back to lengthen and widen' is one that often crops up in my self-talk. ‘Release’ is also productive: it articulates the letting-go of habitual tension as an active task. Where one has been actively resisting gravity, to think in terms of ‘allowing’ something to happen is also helpful.

Unconscious habits are tough to change, but the more effective our language for both our teaching and our self-talk, the more possible it becomes. Technical control is a matter of being able to do something at will, and for this we need precise concepts. Over time this conscious competence becomes our new normal, but even then we may find ourselves reverting to old neural pathways inadvertently and will need to reassert our conscious control to find our way back.

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