Habit, an essay rooted in Alexander Technique

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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…

EACH OF US HAS A HABIT, AND THE HABIT IS REAL. IT IS A SUIT OF CLOTHES HIDDEN BENEATH OUR SKIN, COMPOSED OF NERVES, MUSCLES AND TENDONS CONDITIONED TO CAUSE US TO BE THE WAY WE ARE, EVERY DAY, UNTIL WE REPLACE IT.

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

A 564 WORD INTRODUCTION TO WHOLE BRAINED VIOLIN STUDY

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?

I DON’T THINK SO.

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.

Introduction to See Saw Swings

In the course of 8 progressive chapters, the student practices 1) a basic finger pattern, 2) a different basic pattern,  3) rhythmic applications 4) learns to form a 1st finger bridge, 5) practices hooked bowings, 6) a 2nd finger bridge together with triplets and Lydian tetrachords, 7) slow double-string crossings together with fast single-string crossings, and 8) receives a creative introduction to shifting that culminates with chromatics.

Bowing Principles

See Saw Swings presents three basic bowing challenges to the beginning and remedial student: long strokes, short strokes and string crossings. As the student switches between see saw motions and fingering patterns, it activates each side of the brain in turn. When practicing a string crossing, put all attention into tone production. When practicing fingers, put all attention into fingers, and let the bow take care of itself. The oscillation between brain hemispheres activates neuroplasticity, i.e. an accelerated learning curve!

The drawing of the children on the front cover illustrates the See Saw Swings approach: string crossings use a see saw motion, but in each bow stroke the arm swings back and forth! See Saw! Swings!

Getting Started

Sing See Saw before playing it on the instrument. The words alone are good but also use solfege, preferably movable do. Young children have always been surprised and delighted to discover that the entire book is based on one simple theme.

In See Saw Swings students begin by oscillating between two strings instead of one at a time. It also insists on adding fingers as soon as possible! This is the essence of whole brain learning.

Advancing through more complex music

  1. As soon as the student can play the first line of See Saw Swings, teach the first two measures of Twinkle: the notes are the same, just in a different order! Practicing the second line prepares the third finger, which easily trains the student to learn the B section of Twinkle. Most beginners have trouble putting the third finger cleanly on the A string but See Saw practice accelerates the process. Playing the first four pages of See Saw Swings prepares the student to easily learn every Suzuki song through Perpetual Motion.


  2. As soon as the student can play the first two songs of See Saw Swings in A major, move forward to Autumn Feast (D Major) to demonstrate the symmetrical nature of our strings. Be certain to have them read the notes, especially making the connection that the fourth measure of Spring Showers is identical to the second measure of Autumn Feast. Once comfortable in D Major, students will easily read the D Major Suzuki songs.


  3. Spring Flowers introduces the 4th finger and gradually leads back with stepwise motion to the first line. It takes five minutes at a slow tempo for the student to play these first four pages, Spring Showers and Spring Flowers. This approach conditions the student to play an extended piece of music from the beginning of their study.

  4. Summer’s End introduces the low 1st, low 2nd, and low 4th fingers, which leads quickly to the practice of a Bb Major scale. All 12 major scales are embedded in See Saw Swings. As soon as the student has found the low second finger, return to Spring Showers and write in G naturals on the E string, while maintaining C# on the A string. This practice conditions the student to learn the three minuets near the end of Volume I.

Constant repetition of these exercises makes it easier to train a well-formed left hand and to improve intonation. (Sevcik style from the beginning, but in a child-friendly package!)

After a student has mastered the shifting exercises at the end of the book, return to the beginning and perform in different positions.

Ensemble Adaptations

See Saw Swings lends itself to an easily improvised piano accompaniment: arpeggios, block chords, canonic action and free improvisation can turn any page of See Saw Swings into a charming recital piece. I highly recommend playing these pieces together with your students in canon. Canons can begin at the measure, half measure, or quarter measure. Playing in canon trains the student to hear contrapuntal rhythms from early in their development.

Closing Thoughts

The key to mastery is thoughtful repetition, so be certain that the student is always reading the notes while striving to play beautifully and in tune. It is crucial to apply the rhythms, and once the student has become comfortable with the shifting exercises, to return to the beginning of the book to practice in third and fourth positions, and entirely on a single string. Add variations: add slurs, accidentals, and rhythms, different tempi, and anything else that challenges the student to learn new skills.

When a student has made one pass through See Saw Swings, they will be prepared to learn concerti by Seitz or Vivaldi, supported by continuous practice of fundamentals.

After a student has mastered See Saw Swings with variations, s/he can go to the next level by studying See Saw Slides, Volume 2 of the Bowing Magic sequence (shifting, glissando, ear training, and vibrato).

Michael Alexander Strauss