Is Good Use Innate?

Alexander teachers sure do like cats! —or so it seems. I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve heard teachers (myself included) use a feline example to demonstrate a point. “Look at the cute kitty’s head leading as it leaps”! Animals may be invoked by some as proof that good ‘use of the self’ is somehow entirely innate and there to be accessed freely ‘if we only let go and allow it’. A cat doesn’t think about its use, the argument goes: it just goes with its natural instincts and everything follows beautifully just as it should. So perhaps we need to become more like cats. If we can only get out of our own way then that is sufficient for the right thing to unfailingly ‘do itself’.

[download a printable PDF of this article here]

Another example of this way of thinking which I came across a while ago, was in a conversation about helping classical singers. One teacher was arguing for a quite extreme version, along the lines of:

“you don’t need to teach anything specific at all—the person just needs let go of trying and be truly present and involved in their performance so that their ‘wonderful inbuilt vocal mechanism’ is free to work as it should”. 

Sometimes this sort of idea is connected to images about indigenous, tribal people — we imagine the human in their ‘natural’, pre-industrial state with a free, full, open, expressive voice, all supported by innate functions which are available to them without having to think about it. So why should we have to?

Now of course ‘getting out of our own way’, and allowing things to happen, rather than relying on rigid, top-down control, is at the heart of what the Alexander Technique is all about. But the ‘be like a cat, and sing like a pre-industrial tribal person’ idea has some pretty serious flaws. For a start, human beings are not, in fact, cats. And we may also note that pre-industrial tribal people do not generally sing opera. Neither of these two points are as facile as they may seem at first glance. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Human beings are not cats

Looking at the grace and poise of a cat, it’s not surprising that we might see them as a model to emulate, and to figure that what we need in order to have excellent movement and coordination is to be deeply cat-like. The trouble with this (as FM was well aware) is that there are very significant differences between a human and an animal. We are not animals that have ‘gone wrong’, but rather have evolved into a state which is profoundly different to the one which animals exist in. 

At some point humans started to consciously change their own behaviour and responses in order to learn how to do completely new things. I suggest that this change is not on a continuum with what animals do, but has taken us onto another continuum altogether. For us the direct, innate, link between our desires, needs and intentions, and the body’s response to those, is broken. We are no longer ‘hardwired’ in the way animals seem to be, which enables us to choose new ways of doing things.

A new-born foal can get up and run in half an hour, and will inevitably do so, so long as it is not eaten first. It seems that the ‘instruction set’ for moving like a horse is ‘built-in’ to the foal already. But people are not like this. If a child is taken away from human contact and lives with animals from a young age (as happens occasionally) it will not get up and walk, and it will not develop the grace, poise and skill we would hope for in a normally raised human child. Humans learn much of what we do from others. Of course there are many essential deep level mechanisms to do with balance, coordination, and movement patterning that are innate. But to make use of them a young human requires other human beings to support them, regulate them, and show them how. A cat raised by humans will move and act exactly like a cat. A person raised by cats, will not move or act anything like a normal human child. It really doesn’t happen ‘naturally’.

The implication of this is that a large part of the instruction set for being a human is not innately held in our bodies, but rather is held in our culture. We need to learn how to use the body’s deep-level organising tendency to our advantage — and that learning is fundamental to being human. We are not like cats. Like the Garden of Eden, that particular gate is shut. As humans, we have, inevitably, to contend with doing, as well as not-doing. And that is not a problem, but the very essence of what being a human being is all about.

Of course, FM was onto all this, but he was a fair bit off as well. He imagined the ‘noble savage’ following his nature or ‘instinct’, but it seems to me that a genuinely pre-industrial, tribal person is actually following a culture which still carries and tacitly passes on learned ways of doing things that co-evolved alongside our physical evolution into the uniquely clever, beautiful and destructive creatures we became when we left animal consciousness behind.

Pre-industrial tribal people do not (generally) sing opera

The above points are well illustrated by the example of the Alexander teacher who wanted to let singers just ‘be in the moment’ and to trust that all be well.  The problem is that, though it is deeply human to make music and to sing, actual song itself is an invented cultural artefact that comes from a specific social context. It’s natural to sing, but there’s nothing natural or innate about singing opera or lieder—and those sounds don’t sound much like the sounds people from other cultures make when they sing. 

Interestingly those sounds are also different from the sounds people from the same culture make when they speak — and since singing involves language, a beginning classical singer is faced with having to produce sounds which are made differently from the way she normally forms words. The vowel forms English speakers use, for example, are very different from the shapes needed to create open, resonant tones in opera singing. Similarly the ‘singers formant’, which allows a singer to be heard over an orchestra, is not generally accessible without doing something rather different to what might come ‘naturally’. So right from the start there is a need for conscious choice and action to become involved in the process of learning to sing. We are not only accessing innate patterns of support, breath and vocalisation (although hopefully that is a big part of what we’re doing) but we are also learning completely new patterns which interact with them. We find ourselves at the delicate meeting place between the body’s extraordinary self-organising capabilities and our conscious, human desires and intentions to do something beyond what is innately given to our system to do.

Having said that it can sometimes be helpful to suggest to student singers who have been bombarded with conflicting and stressful instructions as to what to do, to just let go of trying to do anything ‘right’ and to be with the music and the sound they want to hear in an unforced way.  This works because generally they will have been singing for some time already, and will therefore have internalised a sense what is involved in creating certain culturally sanctioned sounds — they already have a store of implicitly learned knowledge which they can draw on. Persuading them to let go, and to listen for the sound they want to hear rather than worrying about details of tone production, can make an astounding and instantaneous difference to their performance. It can allow both an overall release of their system into support, and give them stress-free access to their implicit learned knowledge about singing. But they can only access that level of performance in this way because there’s been a lot of prior learning about what kinaesthetic experiences lead to what sort of sound. And, to progress further, sooner or later they will need to refocus (explicitly or not) on parts and details, as well as on the overall performance they are looking for.

I think it’s the same with Alexander lessons. If we work with (say) sitting and standing, we are not only learning to let go and allow our body’s innate balance, orientation, postural, and pattern generating systems to function properly. Of course that’s a big part of what we’re up to, but we are also, inevitably, learning (or re-learning) ways of moving and responding which allow those lower-level systems to work, and which support and underpin their continuation in activity. This learning can be tacit — gained gradually and sub-consciously from repetition and physical guidance by the teacher or through our own experiments — or it can be explicit and made conscious. But it’s always there.

So skilled performance, whether singing or getting out of a chair, inevitably involves a refined and evolving dialogue between conscious learning and choice, and the helpful things which the body does ‘naturally’. Good ‘use’ is NOT innate, though there are innate low-level systems which underly it. Our task as humans (if we want to do things well) is to learn to make choices which are in harmony with these low-level systems in pursuit of our high-level human goals. For us this task is in some ways more challenging than for pre-industrial tribal people, because our culture no longer holds the memory of how to go about things in accord with our underlying design. Perhaps a return to a culture in which such knowledge is embedded is our ultimate mission as Alexander teachers. Part of me likes to think so. In the mean time I’m happy to be a person with all that entails, and leave cats to be cats.