Habit: Final Chapters


As you read, you can monitor your own HABIT.

As I write, I do as much.

The entry question is: Where is your head?

Where indeed?

I intend this question both physically and metaphysically, literally and figuratively, visually and mentally, this and that, here and there, black and white, up and down.

The typical Alexander Teacher approach will be to use hands to guide the head into the proper relationship with the body. I take issue with that, and so apparently did my teacher Marjorie Barstow; beginning in her late 80s, she began to tell us not to try to be right, because we did not know what was right. Neither did she. In her younger years, her posture was upright, but after several severe falls, she developed a hump in her back, and her head no longer appeared at the top of her spine, but somewhere in front of it. In her famous video for Nebraska Public Radio when she was only 81, her posture was always perfect and she used her hands to take her students’ heads in an upward path, tilting slightly forward. Such long necks appeared on all of those young adults!

Lengthening the neck may be a positive side effect of addressing your HABIT, but it becomes a question of causality: does the quality of movement improve because of the lengthening of the neck, or did the improvement in quality, (i.e. HABIT} produce the giraffe neck?

The fun thing is that whether it is I sitting here writing, or you sitting somewhere, reading, we can both experiment. Here, after I asked where my head was, I chose to lift it slightly, at which point I came out of my habitual slump, my shoulders widened, my hands arched over the keyboard, and I felt a slight stiffening in my spine. I didn’t like the stiffening so I experimented, first by slumping slightly, and then by adjusting my chair so that I have a new relationship with it, the chair. I sat back into the chair, letting the chair support me.

Oh my, can a person have a friendship with a chair?

You may as well ask if a writer can have a friendship with a reader. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. As I sit back in my chair, I keep the arch in my hands but now my arms need to extend. How absurd that I should be sitting so nicely, because I am listening to a recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach toccatas. I realize that he is no longer a celebrity partly because he passed in 1982. However, he was famous for sitting on an absurdly short legged chair, so that he had to reach up to the keyboard to play. His posture was hideous, but his technique and tone were crystalline. He had severe health problems, both mentally and physically, and a stroke killed him in his 50th year. He was a weird dude but once his HABIT was in place, he never betrayed it. He was who he was till the day they pulled the plug on the brain-dead body in a Canadian hospital. The angels weep.

When listening to his recordings, it is easy to relate with him not only because of the sinuous, twisting, crystalline musical lines, but because he was playing along with his own singing, his own often audible singing. Since the piano is contrapuntal, he could only sing one line at a time, so it is always clear which line he favored.

Enough about me, and enough about Glenn. How about you? Where are you? Where is your head? Does it feel heavy and set rigidly on your shoulders? What happens if you lift your chin an inch? What happens if you look up at the ceiling, and then when you look back at the page not go all the way back to where you were? If you try that, you learn that you have a choice about how to carry your head.

This is the end of Chapter 7. Mr. Gould has just begun a fugue. His singing sounds insane, but the music is the very model of rational thought.


What is the difference between having habits and having a HABIT?

What is your reading habit?

Do you plow ahead as quickly as possible, often skimming, and rarely taking time to think?

Or do you take the time to dialogue with the author?

And then do you take time to talk with yourself?

Perhaps take time to ask the location of your head?

Here is the next question: WHAT IS YOUR BODY?

What is my body, now? Why, it is a typing machine controlled by a writing mind. And yours? I suppose it is probably a sitting machine, controlled by a reading mind. I have a writer’s eye, and you a reader’s eye. And whatever I think, for a passing moment, you are sharing the same thought, as certainly as you are reading this word, and this, and this, and this, and this one too.

Tedious, it is, to read this, and this, and this, and this. Tedious too to write it. But the repetition produces a new pattern which can become a habit, and that habit may influence your HABIT, but that particular habit cannot be your HABIT. As I said earlier, HABIT is like a suit of clothes worn beneath the skin. Everyone wears their HABIT, as dramatically portrayed by Mr. Glenn Gould, an unmistakable presence.

The next question is, WHO IS DRIVING? You see that I just assumed that the body can be likened to a car, or an airplane, or a submarine. All of these conveyances need a driver…except when the airplane is put on autopilot, or the car is one of those newfangled robot cars.
Do you see where I am going with this?

Thinking is fun, but if you are letting your HABIT drive the car for you, then you are not thinking about how to steer, or anything. You can be sound asleep, going along for the ride. That last phrase may become a motif. Here it is again….going along for the ride.
I know children who have been driven to their school three hundred times but have no idea how to find their school if they had to do it themselves (No mental map because they were just GOING ALONG FOR THE RIDE).

I have been letting the sound of Bach carry my thoughts forward for these last two chapters. I believe that music is the flow of thought, and it feels as if my fingers and words are flowing along on the river of music. The sound of the keyboard and Glenn Gould humming.
To reiterate the questions: Where’s your head? What’s your body? Who is driving? What is the difference between my habits and my HABIT? And finally, what is the difference between habits and technique?

The answer to that final question is: THINKING. I thought for a moment that I had created a circular piece of reasoning but then realized that I hadn’t; if you are going along for the ride, you can’t possibly think about the driving. You are however free to think about anything else, like…WHERE’S MY HEAD?

I am going to take a break now, play some music, go for a walk, eat dinner. I hope to pay attention to who I am when practicing my viola, working my legs, cooking, eating. I could let my HABIT run the show for all these habits, but I may get more out of it if I choose to be awake. And so it goes with the practice and teaching of violin exercises, like See Saw Swings. The more conscious you can be of the three basic bowing problems, the more you will get out of the exercises. And what are the three basic problems?: long strokes, short strokes and string crossings.


Back to the theme: how can we better understand our own petty discontents? Freud created an industry for treating “neurosis.” Over the last thirty years or so, the psychology industry, in league with Big Pharma, created an industry for treating “depression.” Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses.” Wow. That is one of the great slogans, catchy and easy to remember. It all fits together, because Freud wanted to replace the church with his own supposedly scientific approach to misery, psychoanalysis, the delusion that if you can remember the childhood trauma that launched your neurosis, the insight would provide relief. But now that we read the research of Elizabeth Loftus, we begin to understand that nobody can remember anything very well, and when we think we do, our memories rarely match the memories of others. “Rashomon” was the movie that described how different observers have radically different memories of the same events. Every reader has different memories of the first three thousand words of this essay, based on…what? Your childhood trauma? Your education? Your mood?

Or is there a more simple all-encompassing basis for how we form opinions, for how we remember, for how we express ourselves? And is this basis something everyone understands implicitly? And could it be as simple as a suit of clothes that we are wearing but forgot that we had put on?

Ah, that sounds a little like Freud, when I say we forgot we put it on. But it is not Freud because I say it does not matter that we cannot remember how we put on our HABIT. It only matters that we are wearing it, and it is running our lives right now.

If everything is fine for you, and misery is not a problem, then you can pleased with your HABIT. But perhaps you have a child, a friend, an employee, a colleague, an acquaintance at church, who is miserable. You see them repeat the same behavior, the same feelings. The psychologists will label this poor behavior “repetition compulsion,” as if it were a disease to be treated. But nothing is wrong with the brain of the miserable person. Even if he has been diagnosed with depression, there is another option, that I am putting out there as I listen to Bach, this time Bach that I myself recorded. In this performance, I can hear how I have changed my HABIT. I can hear how I have finally trained myself to hear every sound that I produce. I did this by using See Saw Swings, which is heavily influenced by Alexander Technique. Musically, I aspire to the clarity and expression of Glenn Gould, while not being trapped in his deadly posture. Also, Gould took Thorazine beginning before he turned thirty years old. Thorazine, a heavy duty antipsychotic medication. Why? Was he insane? Many people thought he acted nuts, but he was a high functioning concert artist and recording artist, who throughout his short, miserable, hypochondriac life constantly learned new music and improved his interpretation of the piece that made him famous, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.


Goldberg Variations will be my final metaphor for understanding HABIT. In classical music, theme and variations is a form in which the composer uses a single melody as a text to test his creativity. Mozart wrote variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A filmmaker produced a movie on Glenn Gould called 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

The theme represents that composition’s HABIT. That HABIT will be present in every variation, underpinning a variety of scales, arpeggios, pedal tone passages, virtuoso flourishes, meditational adagios, wild fandangos, sexy waltzes, sad torch songs, passionate love songs, dry scientific treatises, naïve fairy tales, world weary murder mysteries, confessional memoirs, all expressed in musical tones. But when the piece is over, the composer puts that HABIT aside. The Bach of the Goldberg Variations does not PRODUCE the same HABIT as the Bach of the Chromatic Fantasy or the B Minor Mass, although as an artist, he does wear the same HABIT in every counterpoint that he generates.

In other words, having a HABIT is not a disease. No creature, whether human, canine, avian, feline, porcine, piscine, or whatever, can survive its lifetime without the benefit of its own unique HABIT. As William James observed, the tiger in the cage did not burn bright when the cage was opened but obeyed its HABIT of being confined.

“Tiger tiger, burning bright, in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Ah, bless William Blake for framing the essential question that connects William James’ caged tiger with the caged tiger of our own HABIT. I say, let your tiger roam free. Your HABIT will change, and so so will you.

Where’s your head?
What’s your body?
Who’s driving?
And for whom?

Published by Michael Alexander Strauss

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

One thought on “Habit: Final Chapters

  1. I’m finding myself doing a lot of moving and adjusting my head and posture as I read — and I am thinking about how “unslumping yourself is not easily done” (Dr. Seuss). Suddenly, where I put my head as well as the rest of me, seems like a choice, which I know doesn’t sound like a radical idea. It does feel like one though. Maybe the chronic pinch in my right shoulder is trying to tell me something that my brain has neglected to listen to for several decades! I absolutely love how you’ve equated the words psychoanalysis and misery, and it felt so right for you to tie your writing together using the perfect line from Blake! It makes me wonder how long his tiger and your understanding of HABIT have been sharing the same stripes!

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