The solution to a cunningly concealed problem

The little drummer boy

I recently had the dubious pleasure of watching an old video of myself at 15 years of age, playing drums. 

Having played professionally for more than 30 years, I have, of course, seen and heard myself play many times. But I hadn’t seen this ancient piece of footage since it was broadcast in the late 1970’s. I recognised the drum kit, but not the boy playing it.

My partner and myself, both of us Alexander Technique teachers, were fascinated by some of the movements that young Simon was making while playing. Although the boy was unrecognisable as yours truly, some of those movements were quite familiar, because they had still been observable 20 to 30 years later.

Certain kinds of unhealthy movement patterns had become very well established by that age, which would continue into adulthood and of which I would remain completely ignorant until a significant amount of damage had been done.

By the time I began Alexander lessons at the age of 37, I was unable to drive a car or sit on a drum stool for more than an hour without severe pain. After so many years of abuse, my body required a lot of chiropractic intervention as well as Alexander Technique, and the road to recovery was very long indeed. 

I relate all this in order to make one point: 15-year-old Simon had no idea there was anything wrong. 25-year-old Simon had no idea. By the age of 30 I knew I was in trouble, but still had no idea that the trouble might have been caused by something I was doing. 

To a teacher of Alexander’s work, it’s as plain as the nose on that little boy’s face. Looking at that video now, even if I didn’t know who it was, I can see that he is distorting his body in ways that are limiting him and might eventually cause physical symptoms and possibly even damage. 

The time-traveller’s strife

Now imagine what would happen if I could go back in time and warn him, show him what he was doing to himself and offer to teach him how to stop creating those distortions.

Would he listen? Would he be fascinated and keen to know more? Or would he just nod and smile and hope to slip away at the first opportunity? Trust me, it’s the latter, and he would not be at all unusual. 

This is a challenge for those of us involved in Alexander’s work. When we walk down the street or look around an airport lounge we see little drummer boys everywhere (metaphorically speaking). We see the impositions and limitations that people are putting on themselves, and we know that most of those people have no idea there is a problem and wouldn’t believe us if we told them. 

So the question is: how do you offer people a solution to a problem when they don’t know the problem exists?

It hasn’t happened yet

Sometimes, the reason why people don’t know there is a problem is that they don’t have any symptoms yet. 15-year-old Simon absolutely did have a problem, but he didn’t have a symptom. If nothing hurts and everything seems to be working okay, then most people would say there is no “problem”. 

There is no point whatsoever trying to persuade people to change something about themselves that might become painful ‘one day’.

For one thing, we are only talking about probabilities here. Somebody else, with a different build and different life experiences, subjecting his/her body to the same kind of distortion that I did, might not have suffered the symptoms that I did. It’s highly likely that they would, but not certain.

We can’t expect people to get excited about preventing something that might never happen anyway. It’s no good saying: “If you spend this much time and money now, you might prevent X, Y and Z from happening in the future.” As Alexander found out the hard way, you can’t sell prevention.

Prevention vs. cure

Alexander wrote quite a lot about the almost universal preference people have for some kind of “cure” over a process of prevention; for solving problems after they’ve happened, rather than taking steps to prevent problems before they come up. 

He made it quite clear that in his opinion the concept of “cure” is a narrow and limiting one. In 1923 he wrote: 

Just stop for a moment and think, for instance, of the lack of reasoning associated with a plan of life under which the child … is permitted gradually to develop imperfections and defects, so that long ere the age of adolescence is reached, some curative method of treatment has to be adopted in an attempt to eradicate imperfections and defects which, under a reasoning plan of life, would never have been permitted to become present.

Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, Mouritz 2012, P. 95

I can certainly vouch for the “long ere the age of adolescence” part. Having spent over 25 years teaching young drummers in various school music departments I can tell you it’s as true today as it was in 1923. 

I can recall pupils as young as 12 running into the same problems that I had in my 30s, so that “some curative method of treatment [had] to be adopted.” 

That’s sad.

Alexander continues:

Under such a reasoning plan of life, the principle of prevention would be the fundamental underlying the child’s education, which means that from the beginning preventive measures would be adopted where the well-being of the child is concerned.

I can only imagine what my life would have been like under that “reasoning plan of life”. But, F M Alexander, an actor and elocutionist, an expert in the use of language to capture the imagination of an audience, spent a lifetime writing and campaigning against this culture of “cure” and trying to persuade the world to adopt a culture of prevention. 

He got absolutely nowhere. 

I’ve got no chance.

No gambling required

Fortunately, there is an easier way. We don’t have to change the mindset of the human race, or try to sell prevention. Once people start doing the work they quickly realise why it’s a good idea, because Alexander’s work is an extraordinary tool for improving performance — any kind of performance, in any kind of activity.

If 15-year-old Simon could have been persuaded to give Alexander Technique a try in order to improve his musical performance, he would have felt and heard the benefit almost immediately. We wouldn’t have had to ask him to take a punt on preventing X, Y and Z, he would have done the work in order to improve his drumming (and other activities) and X, Y, and Z would have been prevented as a bonus. 

You know what? We wouldn’t even have to mention X, Y, and Z.

In fact, even if X,Y, and Z have already happened – even if there are actual symptoms – we still don’t have to mention it.

Some years ago, I was working with a young bass guitarist when something shifted in his system that hadn’t shifted for many years, and the pain in his neck — stemming from an injury in childhood — went away.

I cannot stress enough how little interest we had in neck pain. When I first met him we had talked about it, of course, but he had long ago given up hope of a cure and this was absolutely not one of our goals. He came to me to improve his performance. 

In fact, given that he had long ago stopped looking for a solution, I seriously doubt he would have come to class at all if I had been offering pain relief. He was over the moon at this outcome, of course, but the miraculous disappearance of his pain was a happy side-effect.

A change of focus

When I first began teaching, I had the usual kinds of promises on my website about helping with back pain and RSI etc, just like 90% of Alexander Technique websites today*

I now believe this was a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, Alexander’s work has solved some pretty severe physical problems for me, and I’ve seen it do the same for many others. The point is, when I finally did start the work, the immediate and obvious benefits that I (and my colleagues) noticed, were the changes in my performance. 

That’s what kept me going. 

The physical symptoms took years to clear up, but I became a more effective and valuable contributor in my professional life almost immediately.

So, I’m not suggesting I would turn people away if they complain of aches and strains and fatigue. Of course we have a powerful tool that can help many of them and we should use it. All I am suggesting is a change of focus towards becoming a better you.

If I could go back in time and change the destiny of 15-year-old Simon, I wouldn’t mention the problems I can see, or the world of pain that lies in store if he doesn’t make some changes. I would offer him a process that can make him a more effective and valued drummer. I would offer him a process that can unleash his full potential in anything he wants to do.

I would offer him a process that can help him become more successful at whatever is important to him, and I would let the prevention of what may or may not come to ail him happen in its own good time.

* Actually, it’s more than 90%. In a random selection of websites from a Google search in June 2021, every single site had “solving back pain” as the top reason for doing Alexander’s work.

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By Simon Gore

Simon teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol, England, and is a course coordinator for the ITM teacher training programme.

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