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).

Habit, an essay rooted in Alexander Technique


To begin from a beginning, when I was a teenager I read a little book by the father of American psychology, William James, called Habit. In 19th century psychology, pioneered by Wundt in Europe and developed by James in Cambridge, Massachusetts, habit was the core theory behind behavior. Thinking was labeled cognition and was used to override habits. Willpower was labeled conation and was also used to override habits. Nothing has changed except that conation has become an obsolete term. There are still a few psychologists trying to rescue conation from the ash heap, but it is quite clear that they have been failing.

Enter Freud. He wanted to be famous. He needed to make a discovery, to show that he could chart the unknown. He was also a cocaine addict, and while he was high he did have fantastic thoughts about that unknown country, the mind. I consider it one of the tragedies of the 20th century that his essential ideas continue to infect us. Oh, the power of the word: ego, superego, id, psyche, narcissism, Thanatos, Oedipus complex, penis envy, repression, resistance, transference. This was a vomited slime of drug-addled psychobabble that evolved into personality disorders, addictions to anything and everything, refrigerator mothers, personality tests (especially the pernicious Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), the autism continuum, and the endless idiotic horrors of the DSM, presently in its fifth edition. And to this day psychological researchers and clinical psychologists virtually never refer to habit in any of their theories. Why? Because at heart so many of them are still infected by the Freudian dogma of historical effects on behavior. Not all psychologists are trapped in the Freudian bubble, but sadly, many people still are. I say it plain: it does not matter what caused you to develop your HABIT. This essay will present a different approach to the problem of behavior and emotional reaction, leading to an understanding of how See Saw Swings was created, and how it works to set the student free of rigid HABIT.


Happy people are comfortable with their behaviors and contented with themselves. Miserable people constantly regret their behaviors and tend to dislike themselves. “Narcissistic” individuals are criticized for being contented with behaviors that cause distress to others. People with substance addictions have to deal with a physical dependence on the substance and an underlying “psychological” dependence. I am hereby laying out the idea that there can be no such thing as a “psychological” dependence on anything because nobody has ever been able to locate a psyche. Anywhere. In anybody. In place of “psychological”, I propose to replace it with HABITUAL. Such a simple truth, that habits rule our lives, our behaviors, both at the individual and cultural levels. See Saw Swings, by virtue of its repetition and inner logic, was designed to challenge the student’s HABIT, because as long as the student is playing habitually, he or she will make no progress in the quality of their tone and intonation. Why? Because when playing habitually, none of us has any idea what we’re doing!

Virtually everybody acknowledges that we are creatures of habit, with little understanding of anything we do or say. We also, universally, accept that we have many habits, some that we like but many that we want to “break.” (This is sweet nectar for the mind, to think about habits. We are all familiar with the desire to change an eating habit, a social habit, poor study habits, laziness habits, ad nauseum ad infinitum.)

I have spent more than thirty years immersed in the ideas of F.M. Alexander and his followers. It is only through these countless hours of study and exploration that I have come to this most simple of ideas. This idea is so simple that most readers should slow down and think carefully before having any kind of habitual reaction to it. Please do not reject this idea without subjecting it to careful consideration. Remember, I have been coming to this idea for over thirty years now, tested both on myself and on many hundreds of violin and viola students of all ages.

Obviously, the idea is in the title. Note, as you reread the title, that the word, the powerful, simple word, is in its singular form. Think about that for a moment.

One central HABIT rules each of us, all the time, except for those moments when we awaken and apply conscious consideration to our movements, actions, and words.

So obvious this is that why should I say it? I say it because in clinical psychology there is no virtually no recognition of the power of HABIT. The simple truth has been buried for a hundred years under layers of psychobabble.


Is it possible then that every habitual action we take is controlled by a central HABIT? Could it be that the Freudians labeled this central habit, THE EGO/SUPEREGO/ID?

Once upon a habit, researchers performed an experiment on lab rats, er, no I mean undergraduates, which convinced the kids that they were either popular or unpopular. No surprise that the popular kids performed better on puzzles than the “unpopular” kids. Common sense, neh? But not common sense it was to label the cause as “ego depletion.” OMG. How can you deplete a thing that cannot be located? There is not a single area of the brain or body that can be described as housing or being an “ego.” However, and here is the main thrust of my argument, supported by working with hundreds of string students over the decades…


How obvious it is that the “unpopular” students felt their essential HABIT degraded, and once that HABIT was degraded, they performed poorly indeed. I have had this happen to me too many times in lessons with incompetent teachers who could not help me play better, so they degraded me, which immediately made me play worse. “You play everything out of tune,” says the shabby teacher, and of course the student is deflated and plays more out of tune. The positive approach is to begin by training them to play the first note in tune. Then the first two, then three, and so on and so forth. You train good intonation by addressing the student’s ear and helping them hear the difference between in tune and out. You train the student by addressing the quality of his movements, so that he can better control his fingers as they negotiate the fingerboard. By addressing each element of performance separately, patiently, and with kindness, the teacher trains the student how to practice at home in order to improve their intonation. After enough repetition, the poor intonation habit will be replaced by a new technique. HABIT rules each of us. See Saw Swings is a text designed to help both students and their teachers to change their HABIT.

The very word, habit, refers to a suit of clothes. Nun’s habit. Riding habit. This nexus of brain cells, nerves and muscles is real, and if a stroke destroys enough brain cells without causing death, it will also destroy part of the central HABIT. This explains why after being stroked out many people have a personality change as well as having to relearn walking and talking. The HABIT is real. Any time you find yourself thinking about “ego,” replace “ego” with “HABIT” and I predict it will make sense. It also gives the individual greater control, provided that the person has a strategy for replacing the old HABIT with a new technique. This essay will go there, farther down. My experience changing violinists’ habits using the principles of Alexander Technique has led me in this direction. It led directly to the creation of See Saw Swings. And it is important always to differentiate between your central HABIT and the many particular habits that branch off from that deeply anchored root system.

Therefore, when that psychologist with his lab rats (students in Psych 101) followed Freud down the rabbit hole of ego and “ego depletion,” he ignored the easily verified fact that the “unpopular” students had just had their central HABIT severely wounded. Yes, a HABIT can be sliced and diced, and when it is, it feels like you are bleeding inside. And it hurts. We can all remember the hurt.

(End of Part III. Tune in later for the continuation of HABIT)

Whole Brain Learning for the Violin


It sounds so simple, and it seems so correct:

“The best way to learn your instrument is to practice one skill at a time. Repeat each step until you are comfortable demonstrating it for your teacher and classmates.” Essential Elements for Strings, Page 3

Is that how anyone learns how to walk (To practice one muscular/neurological action at a time and repeat each action until you are comfortable demonstrating it for your parents and other relatives)? Is that how you learned to talk (One phoneme at a time, perfecting each phoneme in turn before moving on to the next)? Is that how you learned to read (Mastering every symbol/sound before moving on to the next)? Count? Shoot a basketball? Make friends? Paint a picture?


But it sounds so correct and simple (One step at a time, perfecting each step before you move on the next).

And here is why it sounds so correct to most of us, at first glance. This is precisely how the left hemisphere of the brain processes data.  

There comes a time and there is a place for the perfectionism practiced by the left hemisphere but not at the beginning stages of anything and especially not for children!

In Essential Elements, the first 27 pages are engaged in presenting data contained in the first five lines of Metatechnical Exercises. This data includes all the notes of a scale, three different rhythmic values, crossing strings, and differentiating long strokes from short strokes. I have had students work through See Saw Swings for four months and then sight read every page of Essential Elements for Strings easily, laughing all the way through because it so easy.

How did this happen? Whole brain learning. This is a system in which children find their way around a stringed instrument the same way that they taught themselves to walk, talk, count, and read. F. M. Alexander had an aphorism that describes this process perfectly: “All together, one at a time.”

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? And for the left hemisphere, it is impossible, but for the whole brain activated at once, it is child’s play. The following description -found in the website Seesawswings.com- captures the essence of the process.

With a unique approach, Michael Alexander Strauss has created a training system that oscillates a student’s attention-processing between left brain and right brain to generate an accelerated learning curve. These exercises have also been shown to bypass a student’s debilitating habits and effect dynamic changes at the neuroplastic level. Activating whole brain learning also involves lighting up the forebrain, freeing students to apply their own critical thinking to all elementary challenges of finding their way around stringed instruments.

Just to read these five hundred words is hopelessly inadequate. James Bergin, a brilliant teacher/musician, discovered the magic for himself and said to me, “I set the student playing the page and watch them improve before my eyes. And I don’t have to do a thing.” And why not? Because the child is training herself to play the same way she trained herself to talk.

It’s messy! It’s non-linear! It’s childish! It feels like magic! It is incomprehensible to the orderly mechanisms of left-brained thinking (which explains why it has not worked nearly as well in training most adults, whether beginners or remedial).

Some things must be experienced to be understood. Thank you for reading.

Intonation Exercise for Strings

How to play in tune: how do you know if you are in tune? Really in tune. What to listen for. What to do. How to do it. Nothing seems more impossible than learning to play really, truly, deeply, wonderfully in tune.

The key in this exercise is to listen for combination tones. It can be done with a partner or with double stops by yourself. Combination tones were discovered in the 18th century and written about by Tartini and Leopold Mozart. They are sometimes called Tartini tones.

They occur as part of the overtone series. When practicing with a chromatic tuner adjusted to equal temperament, these combination tones will not appear.

A perfect fifth is a ratio of 3:2, which means that the third partial is heard over the second partial. In simple English, if the root is a D, you find the 3:2 ratio by playing the second partial (D one octave higher) together with the third partial (A, one fifth higher than the D of the second partial). Take away two from three and you have one. One is the root note: D. Therefore, the Tartini tone, the combination tone, the difference tone of the a well tuned 3:2 ratio with a root of D will be D.

When played in canon at the measure, the following passages produce sequences of intervals: perfect fourths, major seconds, major sixths, unisons, perfect fifths, etc.

In this post, I will not burden the reader with the details of ratios and combination tones….just play it slowly together with a partner and listen for the third note, which will appear one or two octaves below the chord that you are playing together.

The second player enters at Bar 2. Other canonic options: at the half note or quarter note.

You can also practice this exercise solo in several ways. The easiest is just to constantly bow the A and D strings together. The first bar will be perfect fifths. The second will produce an octave (D), a major sixth (B/D), and another perfect fifth. Measure four generates a major second (A/G), a perfect fourth (A/E) and a perfect fifth (A/D).

These exercises come from See Saw Swings, available for violin, viola and cello. In the book, you can create canonic and solo intonation exercises in all twelve keys, on all three string pairs, and with a wide variety of melodic variations. I believe that this practice will be revolutionary for your intonation work, both alone and with your practice partner.

Rhythmic Developmental Practice for Violin, Viola, or Cello

Let’s talk about improving rhythm on a bowed instrument. Here is the unique problem: sometimes the bow and fingers change together, but more often than not the bow may be holding a half note while the fingers are playing four eighth notes, etc. This is further complicated by string crossings.

Begin the canonic entrance at the second measure. Then replace eighth notes with dotted rhythms, or any rhythmic combination. There are 58 pages of melodic, rhythmic, string crossing, and shifting variations in the teaching supplement, See Saw Swings.

The See Saw process presents a powerful rhythmic teaching tool. I spend at least ten minutes in every lesson playing See Saw Swings in canon with my students, and they always return to their music showing dramatic improvement. So when one player has four quarter notes, the other is playing four eighth notes and a half note, with any number of possible rhythmic variations. The quarter notes provide the beat! Also, we alternate the quarter note bars, which helps improve the pulse. When I begin, my student can imitate me, which also speeds the process. When we substitute different rhythms in the fingered passages, it spices things up!

Canon practice in See Saw Swings is efficient training for ensemble work because the student learns to fit eighth notes into quarter notes and quarter notes into half notes. As I remarked in the lead paragraph, slurs change everything; it is easy to add slurs to See Saw patterns, creating new challenges.

As in all practice, relentless repetition is a key element, and my students find it easy to play two or more pages of See Saws without pause. It builds endurance. And the See Saw Swings pattern of alternating string crossing bars with rhythm bars generates an oscillation between the brain hemispheres. It is a well-known fact that classical musicians have a well-developed corpus callosum, the nerve network that communicates between the left and right brain. Rhythm improves when my students switch their attention from the detail mind (left hemisphere) to the pattern mind (the right).

My students also apply this to home practice by making a recording of the two pages. The student plays in canon with their own recorded performance. They learn a lot about their rhythm by having to play together with themselves!

Playing in canon is fun, and improved rhythm is but one of several benefits.