Maija Sinisalo – Safe to be insecure

It took me a long time to find a subject for this talk. When I started my training, I thought that I would be a superwoman when I qualify. In my final presentation I’d impress you with a special skill, obviously with perfect inhibition. This journey turned out to be much more personal and very different from what I expected.

Last autumn I took a private lesson with a teacher whose work I value a lot. I entered the room with a total lack of confidence. I was tormented by demons whispering in my ears: You don’t understand a thing about the technique! Your neck is not free enough! You haven’t learnt anything! How can you expect to teach anyone, ever?

I was afraid that he would see how bad I was and remember me as a hopeless case.

He asked me what the technique had given me so far. Words started flowing out of my mouth. This was a turning point. I found myself telling him how fundamentally I had already changed. If I stopped criticising myself I could appreciate how far I had already come.

This is why I want to talk about my personal experience and about how I changed during my time in the school. My training brought about a great deal of unmet things from within. I hadn’t an idea it had all existed in me.

I think I was born a musician. I started playing the violin when I was four years old and because it was very natural for me, I let it take a bigger and bigger role in my life. My parents were musicians and as time passed by all my life revolved around it. Gradually being a violinist became my whole identity.

As I developed I was offered opportunities to perform in both theatre and orchestras with two different instruments.This was flattering but it wasn’t able to choose which direction to specialize in and I had less time to practice.

I had never really enjoyed practicing much. It just seemed to me to be a way to force my body to cooperate with my wish to communicate music. There was an expectation, that you could never practice enough, and nothing less than perfect was acceptable. I tried to motivate myself to practice but I felt guilty all the time. I was satisfied only if my hands were so tired I couldn’t play anymore.

I believed that by practicing I’d reach a certain level and prove to everyone that I really was a good musician. I couldn’t understand why my hands felt stiff and unresponsive to my orders the more I put myself under pressure. I often lost the joy of making music. So many people around me were carrying the same guilt and were trying their best to hide it. There was no way to talk about this to my teachers. The worst case scenario would have been for others to find out how bad I really was. Even later on when I got a permanent job in a big symphony orchestra I thought I hadn’t really deserved it. I’d just been lucky in the audition.

Sometimes when I did manage to give up the control I could perform better than I had expected. I just didn’t know how to get there.

Being a professional musician also meant constant evaluation and competing against my friends for jobs. We would try to laugh at the harshness of the business. Our regular jokes would be ”A mistake in music is a mistake in life”, ”You’re bad and you can’t” or ”A bad musician is a bad human being”. Sadly I gradually started believing all this.

I got little warnings every now and then when some teachers tried to influence my physical appearance and convince me that my posture would get me into serious trouble. I took these attempts only as personal insults and didn’t want anything to do with this subject.

After my father suddenly died I started suffering from serious performance anxiety. I didn’t know how to grieve and everything felt unbearable. I tried to go on with my life and cling on to playing. My hands trembled and I might even panic on stage. I felt out of control and I hardly enjoyed playing at all. Now I didn’t just think I was weak and bad but others begun to notice it.

My body started failing me. First my back snapped and I couldn’t walk for weeks. Then suddenly my arm started hurting so much that I was unable to play even though I was still on trial for my new job. All the doctors gave me different answers. The first physiotherapist wanted me to strengthen my shoulder and neck muscles. I was able to return to work but the combination of 1,5 hours of exercise and a full working day was too much.

In the end the pain was there every day and I was back on sick leave. The new plan was to eliminate all the pain. Anything that might make it worse was forbidden and it really restricted my life. I wasn’t even allowed to carry a bag or ride a bike. The list was endless. The physiotherapist tried to show me all the right positions but I couldn’t even breathe if I tried to hold myself in the right way. I was deeply ashamed of my body and most of all myself when nothing seemed to make any real difference. I felt more and more isolated.

One day in the library I came across a master’s thesis’ about music and something called the Alexander Technique. It talked about a new quality of communicating with your body. Something created hope in me. I felt like this was the missing piece of the puzzle. This could be my chance to get back to work. I enrolled on a weekend introductory course and read everything I could find about the subject. One of the first activities at the course was to sit down to a chair and stand up again. The teacher would film us doing it. I was sure I could do it better than the others, because I knew the answer would be in the neck. I simply would not pull my head back and down and shorten my spine.

I was shocked when I saw my video clip. I failed as miserably as all the others. However it was somehow comforting that no one could perform the tasks perfectly. We were all equally bad and there was no hierarchy present. People would open up during the weekend and suddenly there was space for emotions and communication. I felt empowered and deeply moved.

I started taking lessons and when the teacher touched me for the first time the pain in my arm disappeared. After battling the pain for 1,5 years this was the first thing I found which had a direct effect on my pain. Even when it came back in between the lessons I still believed I could get rid of it for good. If my back showed signs of stiffening I’d just work on myself lying down and it wouldn’t hurt anymore.

My body felt more alive than ever, but it wasn’t all about the body. I had some really magical lessons, and even after not practicing for two years there were moments when I played the violin during a lesson and it sounded to me even better than when I was part of the orchestra. I also started seeing value in other things than music. I continued to take private lessons over the year and started thinking about other options. I started a university degree in educational science. During this I supported a child suffering from ADHD and this personal contact made me feel valued and gave new meaning to my life. A quiet touch made such a difference and that really interested me.

I was so convinced that the Alexander Technique was the missing part of the puzzle to returning to my life as a musician

that I started looking at teacher training courses to achieve this. It took me lots of courage to dare to ask my teacher if I’d be suitable for it. I still thought you’d have to be somehow special to be accepted to a training course. The thought of doing it just for my own sake didn’t exist in my world.

I ended up in my favorite city, Berlin after my teacher recommended the school of a certain Dan Armon. I felt an immense inner peace during my one-week visit and I wanted more, even when I used to tremble in Dans hands for a long time. I see it as the pressure from within to be perfect.

It still took me a whole term of visiting to allow myself the privilege of training as an Alexander Technique teacher. I had been afraid of making mistakes all my life. How could I make such a big decision? It might be the wrong one! Most of all, how could I leave my job, my dream, my life? I was even afraid of asking Dan, because I was afraid of what he would say. In the world of music the figure of authority has the power to say whether you are good or bad and I was afraid that he would judge me.

Despite this fear of mine I felt he was authentic. I could sense in the whole class that he was deeply respected and gave them the space to explore without telling them what to do. That’s why I felt he was the right teacher for me. I signed the contract and stepped into the unknown. For the first time in my life I felt free.

In the first year I had to meet the depths of my insecurity.

I started training still thinking that I had a talent for the technique, because I felt such a strong impact on my body from the very beginning. I was used to doing things I was good at and it confused me after I saw I hadn’t understood it completely. What was even worse: I couldn’t just leave my habits behind and prove that I had learnt something.

I felt very unstable. I didn’t understand how I could have a really good day at school and the next day I’d hit rock bottom. I fought hard against these feelings. I thought they would go away if I just learnt to concentrate more on directing. I spent long hours on the floor preparing myself. I kept on repeating the chain of directions and tried to get the body feeling connected. It didn’t make me stronger, quite the opposite: I even got sick after years of good health and my back started giving me trouble again.

Far too soon the day came when I put hands on for the first time. I had battled the chair for a week and hated every second. The stiffness everywhere felt overpowering and I wasn’t able to stop contracting. When Dan took me to meet my first guinea pig I felt like screaming! I wasn’t prepared. I was having a bad day and in my opinion it was the worst moment for this. He got me going and left me there to find my own way. I felt I’d been thrown into cold water without being taught to swim. Slowly I started realizing how insecure I was.

Gradually I settled into the school and when things went well it was out of this world. My bad days didn’t come so often anymore but when they did they were worse than ever before. I was desperate to avoid a public breakdown and I still thought directions would conquer. Unfortunately trying to push it away made it more visible and that was exactly what I didn’t want. I was very critical towards myself and others and most of all I felt guilty for being so weak.

Sometimes people wanted to listen to classical music during class. This was the last straw. The first time it happened I couldn’t avoid the breakdown. I couldn’t stop thinking about my perceived failure as a musician and I simply couldn’t stop crying. When it happened again I couldn’t talk about how bad it made me feel. I felt paralyzed and after trying to hide on the floor I had to leave the room or go home. The only comfort I got was that some of my fellow students saw my pain and would comfort me.

The tea breaks were also strange. I spent most of the time blushing if anyone gave me any attention. I was out of my comfort zone. It was new to me to be seen without hiding behind the violin or a role. Sometimes when someone was putting hands on me I felt the blushing approaching and there was nothing I could do. I was deeply embarrassed. I might feel dizzy or get a strange sensation of having no security, or I’d just freeze. These moments were very intimate and I felt naked and too exposed. On the other hand I think a fundamental need to be seen pulled me towards these situations like a magnet.

My mother came for a visit in the summer. It was a shock. She enjoyed the work she got very much but I couldn’t open any conversation about it. She thought she had managed to do what the teacher wanted her to do and that was it. I understood that one of the driving forces in us both was to do things right. She was imprisoned by this habit. For me the change had already started and I could finally see this. I felt a deep sense of belonging to my new life. There was raw beauty in seeing people more as a whole.

Towards the end of my first year I reached the ultimate breaking point. I was helpless and ashamed of myself. I decided to start therapy. Luckily my therapist was very sensitive and the process with her proved to be supporting the training wonderfully. I begun to realize I had traumatic experiences for which I wasn’t to blame. Slowly it felt like these blocked energies could finally start moving inside me and express themselves. I wasn’t just stuck with them. My breakdowns wouldn’t come so frequently anymore. I realized I needed time to recharge, to take care of myself. Something meaningful to do besides my training would also help. My experience with a growing number of violin pupils gave me a feeling of being capable and this brought me joy.

When people worked on me I noticed more and more how the contact would work better if I stopped trying to be good at it. My bad days might transform into good ones after I gave in completely, and this surrendering would work even when I was putting hands on someone myself. It fascinated me. Everything worked much more easily if I just dared to give up the control, and now I had actual tools to study this phenomena. If I had no expectations I might actually get somewhere!

There were still regular moments, in which I felt exposed, but now I could see more clearly what my reaction to this was. The fear took over and paralyzed me. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was horrible to feel so powerless. A big change happened one day when I was having a private lesson with one of our assistants. Suddenly on the table the feeling of utter insecurity just washed over me and we both noticed it. I couldn’t explain in detail what was going on but there was an atmosphere of trust and security. I remember being clear in my words about not being sure if I wanted to go any further. This time I could enter this unknown place with him when I knew I could stop working any time if I wanted to. It was safe to be insecure. The shame wasn’t so devastating anymore and I felt deeply seen.

I realized I should set my limits myself. It was up to me to decide how far I’d be willing to go. The uncomfortable feelings wouldn’t take over and make me helpless if I stopped fighting them. I could recognize them, include them in the present moment and carry on. I started recognizing this fine line in others as I was putting hands on them. The only thing I could do was to stay in myself and meet the moment with them. Such experiences still feel like the most precious gifts and their beauty moves me deeply.

An interesting change happened with an old habit of mine, smoking. I had smoked somewhat regularly for 20 years. The time in the training had made my body more and more sensitive and I’d often feel nauseous after smoking. In the autumn I decided to follow a two-week detox program, and during that time I didn’t smoke at all. It was actually easy. In the week after the program I realized I hadn’t smoked my regular cigarette after school since I started the detox. In time it became harder and harder to smoke, because my body physically rejected it. Even though I still craved for the high I sometimes got from the first drag it got less over time.

One day at school I mentioned the subject to a teacher. He gave me an interesting idea: to inhibit the desire to quit smoking! This was new. I realized I had the obsession I should quit! After that day whenever I wanted to smoke this realization made it easier for me to stop and think if I really wanted to smoke that particular cigarette or not. I also heard about a book someone had used for quitting. The trick in it was that you should smoke all the time whilst reading the book. Just before I started my third year in the training I saw it in a bookstore, bought it and placed it on a shelf where I could see it every day. Every time I looked at it I felt that nauseous feeling and I really didn’t want to open the book at all. I haven’t smoked since.

The third year of my training started and I got my first pupil. Already just observing her first lesson with Dan was a special experience. The subtle change during the lesson was clear. I felt connected to the fragile and raw beauty of life again. I was a somewhat nervous and insecure teacher within but something in my work in general changed with this new responsibility. I had to start thinking more concretely about how to explain the work to others. It was a nice surprise to realize she got something out of it and after a while I noticed I liked to work even on the guests at class which was something I had been very afraid of before. I could give out something very meaningful to others even when I wasn’t a perfect alexandrian.

I learnt through practice that I had to explain the Alexander Technique to people I worked on as I saw it. Copying others or thinking about how it should be done wouldn’t help. It had proven to be beneficial and deeply satisfying to dare to go to the unknown with the guidance of a trusted teacher, so it had to be possible to learn from ”not knowing” also when teaching. It started being interesting to be in this open space. I didn’t lose myself in every detail anymore and I started building up confidence.

This proved me the value of the openness of our training. We can all look for our own ways to work. Each pair of hands shows its own understanding of the work. I find this very enriching. Dan doesn’t force anything upon us. He’s just there patiently every day to show each of us where we are at that very moment. The summer intensive is a good mirror for this process. Between the summers 2014 and 2016 it changed from a foggy, slightly distressing competition to a beautiful melting pot where it was possible to meet and get inspired by different views. If things or people seemed to clash I could let these experiences refine my own understanding of the technique. And a radical observation for someone hating conflicts: It wouldn’t even be the end of the world anymore if I fought with someone.

I can recognize a slight shift in motivation in anything I do in life. The musician-self was mostly guided by what I thought I should do. Even when I wanted to play the violin I ended up doing it more for others than for myself. Now I take lots of time to reflect if my actions were guided from an inner motivation, an honest need in me. I don’t practice the AT because I need to cure all my pain, I do it because I see more richness in life through this new honesty.

My relationship to hearing music has also changed. When someone plays music in school I don’t freeze in terror anymore. If it’s too much for me I can either turn it off immediately or tell someone I can’t take it. I have more options and sometimes I can even listen to it.

This year I still suffered one of my regular term breakdowns. It being a pattern for so long helped me to find ways to inhibit it. Before the summer intensive in Falkenhain I felt the self-loathing and exhaustion approaching and to my surprise I could take care of myself and avoid it this time. The shame didn’t take over. Since then I haven’t lost myself totally in the self-hatred anymore.

I came to realize I wasn’t necessarily weak. I was vulnerable. Or sensitive. It changed my perspective in the most profound way. I still have to deal with my insecurity every day but whenever I dare to show my sensitivity I can reinforce the new way of dealing with how I am.

My shame can turn into acceptance of who I am. The equivalent of guilt is now a sense of responsibility. My loneliness has shown me new ways of communication. My so-called weakness can transform into strength if I let my sensitivity guide me.

And now I’m suddenly in the end of my training. It feels like the time passed unbelievably fast but at the same time I simply can’t imagine being that person I was three years ago. These years have shown me that everything can and will change. Accepting that and working with the change, not against it seems to bring me so much more. Looking back still hasn’t given me the answers to why I was protecting myself so much from the world. What made me so scared of mistakes, scared to be seen, scared of losing control that I tried as hard as I could to hide behind my habits. I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that in the Alexander work I don’t ask for the reason. I can acknowledge each moment with less judging. Only from this place I can act honestly towards myself and others. If I can transmit even a glimpse of this understanding and the beauty of my process to my pupils I’m happy.

I remember reading somewhere that training to be an Alexander teacher is one of the greatest gifts one can give himself. In this time I have come to realize I’m not only a musician. First of all I’m me and I can add to that whatever I choose to do. I couldn’t be more grateful I decided to make this choice. I’m grateful for having had all these people here as my mirrors. All my fellow students who I met during this time taught me more I could have imagined. I’m grateful to all the guests and visiting teachers for enriching our growth.

I want to thank you all from my heart.

And the assistants:

A.K. for his warmth and spirit

R.R. for her unbelievable precision

J.G. for challenging me

E.M. for all the compassion and her subtle invitations to the most graceful movements

J.S. for his never-ending trust in life and for showing me the strength within

But most of all I thank Dan for allowing all this to happen under his wings. Without you I wouldn’t be who I am.

Ron Spielman – Gedanken zur Diplomarbeit

Als langjähriger Musiker, sowohl bei den Münchner Philharmonikern als auch beim Rosamunde Quartett, plagten mich die üblichen berufsbedingten Wehwehchen, die eine ziemliche Odyssee durch die verschiedensten Körpertherapien ins Rollen gebracht hatten.

Nach einem Besuch in meiner Heimat, wo ich auf gleich zwei Freunde traf, die Erfahrungen mit der AT gemacht hatten – in einem Fall war die Freundin sogar mitten in der Ausbildung – fasste ich mir ein Herz und nahm die erste Stunde. Die löste bei mir das sprichwortliche Aha-Erlebnis aus und ich meinte bald, all meine Probleme gelöst zu haben. Ganz am Anfang hatten wir unser 10-jähriges Quartett-Jubiläum, und bei dem Konzert habe ich mich so wohl gefühlt wie lange nicht mehr!

Dennoch waren diese Flitterwochen nicht von Dauer. Als äußerst zielfixierter Mensch machte ich mich, mit Spiegeln und eisernem Willen ausgestattet, an die Arbeit, und grub mich in ein veritables Loch, aus dem es irgendwann kein Entkommen zu geben schien. Ich war drauf und dran, das Ganze nach etwa vier Jahren hinzuschmeißen, aber suchte in dieser sehr desillusionierten Phase Dans Assistentin, Elisabeth Molle auf. Sie fasste mich kurz an und exklamierte “Aber das ist doch wunderbar. Sie müssen die Ausbildung machen!” Auf ihr Geheiß wurde ich am anderen Tag bei Dan in der Wochenendklasse vorstellig und war alles andere als begeistert. Wie öde, dachte ich mir im Stillen. Wie kann man sich nur drei ganze Jahre damit beschäftigen? Ich blieb zwei Stunden, bezahlte meinen Obolus und meinte unverbindlich, ich würde mich vielleicht mal wieder blicken lassen. Eigentlich sollte ich anschließend sofort zum Flughafen, um nach München zurückzufliegen.

Aus heiterem Himmel kam der absolut irrationale Gedanke: ich storniere den Flug und bleibe. Dieser Sache muss ich ein bisschen näher auf den Grund gehen.

Damals bin ich eine Woche jeden Tag als Gast in der Schule erschienen und in den darauf folgenden Monaten wurde ich ein absoluter Dauergast. Eines sonnigen Tages, auf einer Yogamatte in Tango Vivo liegend, kam eine weitere, auf Anhieb nicht so willkommene Eingebung; es geht zwar gar nicht, aber ich muß das hier machen. Es war eine große Entscheidung, die den Verzicht auf einen Teil meines Berufes nötig machte, aber ich nahm die Strapazen einer Dauerpendelei und die materielle Last eines doppelten Wohnsitzes auf mich, und fing bei Dan an. Die Entscheidung habe ich niemals bereut! Als ich zum ersten Mal an einer Mitstudentin arbeiten durfte, habe ich einen solchen Frieden in mir gespürt. Schleichend veränderten sich bei mir Muster im Alltag und beim Spielen und mir wurde immer klarer, dass dies ein lebenslanger Prozess sein wird. Ich habe auch die beglückende Erfahrung gemacht, von Kollegen angesprochen zu werden, die den Prozess aus einiger Ferne mit ansehen, und auch Interesse an der Technik gezeigt haben, weil es mir offensichtlich so gut getan hat. So gibt es mittlerweile eine kleine Schar von begeisterten Anhängern bei uns in München. Außerdem hat sich meine Unterrichtstätigkeit wie eine Lawine ausgeweitet; es kommen immer mehr Anfragen von Geigern, die eine ganzheitlichere Form des Lernens suchen, und in den letzten Jahren habe ich mehr als zehn Schüler in großen deutschen Orchestern untergebracht.

Dan führt seine Klasse mit einer sehr unaufdringlichen, aber trotzdem allgegenwärtigen Aufmerksamkeit und vermittelt die Prinzipien Alexanders in absolut puristischer Form. Ich fühle mich privilegiert, einen Lehrer mit so großer Erfahrung in der Technik zu haben und bin sehr gepägt von seiner Arbeitsweise, aber auch von seiner Lebensweisheit, die immer wieder in Form kleiner Geschichten offenbart wird, wenn wir allzu ernst zu werden drohen!

Es herrscht eine ausgesprochen kollegiale Atmosphäre, bei der wir auch enorm viel voneinander lernen. Nicht zuletzt profitieren wir auch von vier ausgezeichneten, grundverschiedenen Assistenten.