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The Great Unraveling (or The Law of Subtraction)

alexander technique inspiration learning the way of the peaceful musician Mar 16, 2024

by Peter Jacobson


This is second essay in a a new series called "The Way of the Peaceful Musician" series, which is also the theme of the 2024 MBMS Summer Retreat. You can read the first essay here. 


I had my first Alexander Technique lesson in the summer of 2001, at the age of 22. Having recently turned 45, this means I have been studying the work for over half my life!

What was it that brought me to the doorstep of Brian McCullough, my first Alexander Technique teacher? Years of pain and frustration. Making music, the thing I loved to do more than anything, was exhausting and painful. I felt demoralized, hopeless, desperate for solutions.

The problems began my freshman year of college. I began the year with a head full of steam. I was ambitious and driven; I was going to be somebody! But about halfway through that year, the pain in my arms and back started and it didn't go away. This was quite a blow to be debilitated by pain at the age of 19. I tried various things – physical therapy, ultrasound, diet changes, and periods of rest – but these things provided nothing more than temporary relief. I even took a semester off from music to study abroad in India hoping that would fix things. Nope. I returned home with all the same issues and a very long beard.

I don’t remember exactly what happened during my first Alexander lesson. But I very distinctly remember how I felt – light, free, and expansive. It was like a temporary ceasefire after so many years at war with myself. This feeling didn’t last for very long but it did give me a glimpse into a possible future without so much pain and discomfort. And it also gave me the thing I needed the most at that point in my life – hope.

I was hooked.

I continued my Alexander lessons on a regular basis and it soon it became clear this was a very different way of learning. Nearly all of my previous learning experiences were about the “What.” The emphasis was on do this, do that, practice harder and longer until you get it right. It was all about doing accumulating ever more knowledge and skill.

My Alexander lessons turned all this upside down. There were no exercises or etudes to practice. The primary concern was not “what” I was doing but “how” I was doing it. I was continually being invited to pause, expand my awareness, to stop pushing myself around, to lighten ‘up’, to use my thinking constructively, to let things happen instead of force them and to use a fraction of the effort I was accustomed to using.

As a “Try-Hard” (my made up term for someone who spends way too much effort on a given task) and a perfectionist this was a challenge for me. (Brian, my first Alexander teacher, told me years later I was the most tense and tight student he had ever had up to that point in his teaching career.) But each lesson helped me unravel a little bit more of the habitual tightness and stiffening I had accumulated over the years. There were other benefits too. I was becoming more aware of my habitual body patterns in everyday life. My playing become easier and less painful. My singing voice become more resonant and free. My thinking become clearer. I found myself less reactive and more poised in stressful situations.

At some point I made an important connection – the wonderful results I was getting from my Alexander lessons were not the result of doing. Instead they were result of undoing all the unnecessary and harmful things I was inflicting on myself.

This wasn’t addition. This was subtraction!

This was a major epiphany for me. And it serves as the first core principle of The Way of Peaceful Musician approach:

The deeper qualities we seek in our music-making – peace, freedom, harmony, poise – are innate with us and are revealed through a process of subtraction.

This is a concept you'll find in many different fields of study. Like in the world’s great spiritual traditions (especially in eastern spirituality and western mystic traditions). The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

F.M. Alexander’s version of the law of subtraction was “non-doing,” which is expressed in two of his most famous sayings:

“When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.”

And:

“Prevent the things you have been doing and you’re halfway home."

You’ll also find a version of the law of subtraction in one of the classic texts on music performance, Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music. He calls it “reducing interference" and suggests there are two ways we can improve our performance – by increasing potential and by reducing interference.

As a young, ambitious musician, I was obsessed with increasing my potential. But because I was misusing my body I ended creating more and more interference. It was like I was pressing down on the gas pedal and the brakes at the same time. My Alexander Technique lessons showed me a much more intelligent and sustainable approach. Not only did I feel better, my performance also improved. Go figure!

Whatever you call it – "subtraction" or "non-doing" or "reducing interference" – it’s all the same idea:

Do less. Get more.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Until you discover how challenging it can be to put it into practice.

More on that in my next essay.


Questions for Reflection

  • What deeper qualities do you seek in your music-making?
  • What are some of the ways you interfere with yourself in your music-making (and your life)?
  • Where have you seen evidence of the law of subtraction in your life?

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