Habit (Continued)


I recently reread that little book by William James called “Habit.” It is best called “A Little Book on Habits” because he only writes about habits in the plural. He understood the importance of habits, telling a story of a tiger whose cage was opened after a train wreck, but after sticking his nose out, the tiger returned to his familiar home, the cage. James comments, “Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.”

Of course, James fell into the fallacy of generalizing from one frightened tiger to society as a whole. Within 25 years of his writing this, the Russian Revolution did not save the unfortunate daughters of the Czar “from the envious uprisings of the poor.” He goes on to opine on the importance of reinforcing new habits, but concludes that “With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.” William James himself, of course, was a famous suffering man, an illness without a diagnosis. “There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering (sic) sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.” His younger brother was an officer in the 54th Massachusetts and almost lost his life in that hopeless charge of Negro troops at a Southern fortress. William stayed home. No concrete deeds for him.
Is See Saw Swings a “manly concrete deed?” Probably not, but at least it exists, and is designed to reinforce good habits while helping to eradicate bad ones. That is at the surface level. If a student uses this book with all possible variations, it will probably alter that student’s essential HABIT.


Mr. Alexander’s discovery is rooted in the hypothesis that the relation of the head to the body determines the individual person’s quality of movement. This has led to Alexander teachers everywhere using their hands to lengthen a person’s neck. If you are an actor or a musician, you may have received training in this lengthening of the neck and broadening of the back. If you are not in the arts, there is a high probability that you’ve never heard of it, in spite of the efforts of thousands of devoted acolytes who have spent a century advertising. I myself studied the technique for fifteen years with Marjorie Barstow, who was herself trained by Frederick Alexander in London beginning in 1920. She was 20 when she began her lifetime study and 84, when she gave me my first lesson. (I was 27) I promise you I didn’t understand it, even though something powerful happened. She put her hands on my head and lifted while I fiddled on my viola, and suddenly it felt like my arms had gotten longer and my hands were far away, which made it impossible for me to control my playing using my HABIT. And it sounded better. And I had no idea why, or how, and was completely unable to reproduce the results later on.

So, friendly readers, I don’t expect you to understand this yet, either. Please bear with me as we take this journey of discovery, a journey that began for me as a student and continues to this day with my violin students, who teach me far more than I could ever teach them. Obviously, everything that I have to say about playing the violin will apply to typing, writing, walking, talking, thinking, chewing, and taking it easy. And by the way, the reason that all the advertising has failed is that Mr. Alexander’s theory about the head/body relationship is bunk. And yet, even though it is wrong, it often produces good results. Science is full of fortuitous accidents. How can something be wrong but useful, right but useless? This is beginning to sound like the Tao, the pathless path of contentment and good government.


When I began lessons with Marge, she was taking people’s heads way up high. My first instruction was actually with a pulchritudinous violinist (and AT student) who raised my head up high and asked what I was feeling. I told her, in no uncertain terms, just how uplifted I was by her gentle hands on my stiff neck, but mostly I was distracted and it didn’t help me play my viola at all.

By the time she turned 90, Marge was paying less attention to how far the head could move. As I said, the theory is wrong. Alexander Technique is not about the relationship of your head to your body, though it seems that way, and it often helps.
Here is a teaching story from Marjorie’s studio which may shed some light. A student asked, “Will this turn into a habit?” Her teaching assistants smirked because she had always told them that constructive thinking is not habitual. But then she said, “Yes.”
A personal anecdote: I spent two weeks in Alexander camp with Marjorie and 70 other searchers from all over the world. (Including Australia and Russia). When I returned to work in the orchestra that September, a colleague in orchestra asked me if I had been lifting weights. No. Why? Because your shoulders are broader. Oh. And I had no idea how that happened, nor did I even feel it.

Marjorie would always use her hands in helping people in and out of chairs and initiating a walk. She would ask, “What did you feel?” More often than not, I honestly said, “I didn’t feel anything.” Because after that first experience with Marjorie when my arms seemed to grow a foot longer, the work never had that much impact. Now I understand why I felt nothing.
My HABIT was so entrenched that it could not recognize the alien sensations. And that explained why I could not take the work home with me. It was all about mindless training, no matter how much Marjorie asked us how we were feeling and what we were thinking. (Now, as I am typing and writing and thinking and remembering, I am actively using Mr. Alexander’s discovery to ease my path. I have questions that deactivate my HABIT with such gentleness that I can feel everything happening all together one at a time. (One of FM’s aphorisms).

Published by Michael Alexander Strauss

Professional violist and teacher. Creator of See Saw Swings and Bowing Magic.

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