The Well-Tempered Cellist

The Power of Attention

by Selma Gokcen

"You're not paying attention," said the Hatter. "If you don't pay him, you know, he won't perform."

-- Lewis Carroll, from Alice's Adventure in Wonderland

Next we look at what it means to undo and to unlearn habits, and to open out the attention, a brave undertaking, to say the least, for the conservatoire-trained Western performing musician.

A perceptive friend (not a musician) made the comment after attending a top-level cello master class recently: Is it really that hard to play the cello? Even after so many years of work? What are these musicians still struggling with, despite a training that begins in childhood and ends some fifteen to twenty years later?

Making music is a supremely beautiful act of attention. One is giving of oneself on every level, and with a desire to communicate in a way that can open the heart of player and listener immediately. The flow of attention possesses energy and acts upon the psychophysical self. It changes brain waves, heart rate, body temperature and the like in both the player and the audience. The question is this: how have our patterns of attention developed during the course of training as performing musicians? My observations after twenty-five years of teaching have led me to a simple conclusion. Conservatoire-trained Western musicians have been schooled, deliberately or unconsciously, in a narrow focus of attention which makes their work more difficult, potentially injurious, and infinitely less rewarding. So no matter what instrumental skills they learn, the fundamental skill of paying attention, which is an important function of coordination, is not addressed. As one of my teachers once said to me, "Yes, we are all supposed to pay attention, but what are we paying with?" In what direction has the 'psychic muscle' developed?

F.M. Alexander's work is about awareness: how we attend to our movement from moment to moment. His findings were and still are revolutionary to the person who encounters the difficulty of changing habits in themselves. Alexander made a study of the nature of habit, based on his own experiences of losing his voice during on-stage recitations. Born with a deductive mind and enormous patience for the task at hand, he observed at various points along the way that he was engaging in far too much effort, and that this over-effort arose merely by thinking of doing something -- in his case, his vocal recitations. In the case of musicians, by thinking of raising the bow or starting the sound, we have already set in motion our usual way of moving. The thought and the action are one.

The first time my students make this discovery they are usually stunned. They realize how deeply their habits are grooved in the brain -- just by thinking of lifting the cello, the whole body can tense. How can it be, they say? I haven't even done anything yet! Once a movement is learned, it is relegated to the cerebellum, the deeper brain structures, where a mere shadow of a thought suffices to set the whole pattern going.

When Alexander finally recognized he was up against such a force of habit, he despaired. He wondered if he would ever regain a healthy use of his voice to permit him the freedom of self-expression. How many performing musicians find themselves in this very predicament, after years of hard work?

The recognition of the force of habit is the key stage in our work of unlearning. The 'thought' that informs movement is where the habit resides. The way in which we pay attention in movement has to change. This crucial insight of Alexander's altered the entire thrust of his enquiry. He realized that he could no longer 'do' to obtain a new result. He had to learn to 'undo'.

Opposed to a state of contraction and overdoing (which results in a narrowing of focus) is the state of quiet, or what Alexander termed non-doing. In this state, the attention is open and receptive. I learned recently that Buddhists call it 'bare attention.' It is fluid and not attached to a particular end, and it includes oneself and one's surroundings. To cultivate this condition of quiet, Alexander worked with the faculty of the nervous system known as 'inhibition'-- the ability of the nervous system not to respond. The conditions are then created for something new to be learned.

My students experience this soon enough, sometimes at the very first lesson, when I ask them to let me take their arm during table work. Some can allow me to do so and some cannot stop themselves from interfering with the movement. Their necks and their nervous system are in a constant state of overdoing. As this overdoing is gradually released or 'undone,' the right thing can do itself, without any harmful interference. The head is freely poised on top of the spine so that spine lengthens nicely, the back widens and we find the balance and the freedom which are there in us all along.

The twin pillar of Alexander's work in changing habits is called 'direction' or the ability to send messages to allow for release of the neck, the freeing of the head forward and up of the spine and the resultant lengthening of the spine and widening of the back. 'Direction' encourages the opening of the attention. Alexander rehearsed these mental orders over and over again until they took hold in his nervous system, and he became confident enough to employ them in activities -- very simple ones at first, such as raising an arm, then more demanding ones like his vocal recitations.

I use this twin-pillar model to help my pupils investigate and understand their habits, both away from the cello and later at the cello. We start working without the instrument at first -- standing, sitting, learning what it is to be quiet and to attend to movement moment by moment. This initial phase can take quite a time and therefore humor is a wonderful ally. Laughter releases the neck and the belly all at once and establishes a basis for going forward. Serious in purpose but lighthearted in practice.

Students learn how to work on their own every day, with 20 minutes spent lying in semi-supine position, head on a small book and back on the floor, with the spine lengthening out and finding rest. The next step is to work in movement, always from the basis of quiet and with open attention. Initially they learn to use the wall and the corner of a door for support, engaging in various simple procedures such as bending the knees or rising up on the toes to teach them the fundamental principle of coordinated movement -- the neck to be free, to let the head go forward and up against the back which goes back, the hips which stay back to allow the knees go forward and away.

Of course without experience these directions are empty words, but to the pupil who enters more deeply into the work, they are like the boat in the proverbial stormy seas of the unknown. One can always come back to inhibition and direction to find inner guidance -- I call it "one's inner compass." Gradually a change takes place in the response of the nervous system and one finds the intractable habit of tension and strain loosening its grip. Something new and entirely different takes its place. The attention opens onto one's surroundings, and one can begin to see, hear and sense more accurately.

Then it starts all over again with the instrument! But by this time the student has at least one toe in the door -- a working knowledge of the coordinating principle and an improved ability to pay attention. In lessons we begin with basic activities like bringing the cello towards oneself, using the arms in contrary and convergent motion and learning to raise the arms from the back, without tightening the neck and pulling the head into the spine. It sounds so simple, and it is, but it is not easy for the cellist who has spent fifteen years or more collapsing or tightening the back and overusing the arms. To break down a movement into its simplest parts is Alexander's approach to relearning, at each stage keeping what he called the 'means-whereby' (inhibition and direction) the primary focus of attention. The resultant change is profound and complete, because one is attending to the whole of oneself in movement, not just to one or two parts. Awareness of the self in thought-action, the pearl of great price in the hero's journey.

And so we go through the actions of lifting a bow, bringing it to the string, encountering the strings one at a time, all the way through the initiating of a sound. At each step of the way, an awakening of awareness and attention to the total pattern of movement. Not doing something correctly, but learning how not to interfere with the natural inborn coordinating mechanisms. The same simple actions of approaching the string and learning to move up and down the fingerboard can be undertaken with the left hand. This way of relearning requires, but also cultivates, patience. As I mentioned earlier, it may not be the way for everyone. If one is interested in dissolving a habit at its roots and enjoying the ease and freedom that can come of it, then this manner of work is worth the time.

Two concepts are useful to discuss here, if only because they are so abused and misunderstood by musicians and teachers. The first is power and the other is relaxation and they are related.

Power arises as a result of a balance of forces. How rarely one encounters this balance in the Western musician. I often seek out concerts of traditional musicians from Iran, India and Turkey just to enjoy their effortless display of balance. They can play for long periods without strain, they can rattle the roof and shake the rafters, and all with such composure. How do they do it? More than likely they have trained with great masters who embodied this fundamental coordinating principle � power results from the balance of forces. To illustrate, here's a photograph of our favorite tennis hero of the moment, Roger Federer. I couldn't have found a more outstanding example of the Alexander principle in action than this man who makes music with his racquet!

Roger Federer

If you look closely, you will see first off that his neck is free and his head is beautifully balanced on top of his spine. No unnecessary contraction there. His back stays well back, his spine is lengthening as his arms extend away in space. He is poetry in motion, fluid, balanced and powerful, an example of what Alexander called the 'position of mechanical advantage' -- deploying force through the Primary Control rather than through contraction, pushing, forcing and over-exertion. His open yet focused attention reminds me of the poise of certain rare and wonderful musicians of old.

For a comparable picture of poise in cello playing, we can look to Emanuel Feuermann. His arms are freely extended from a stable back, and again, note the balance of the head.

Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann

Perhaps no word has more wrong connotations amongst musicians than relaxation. It is confused with collapse and heaviness and its sensory associations can be extremely misleading. How often I ask students to release their arms and the whole spine collapses downward. How to unlearn this conditioned response? Occasionally I will demonstrate (with the pupil's hand on my own arm and back) the difference between an arm that is properly supported by the back muscles and which is light and can move freely, versus a 'heavy' arm which is pulled down by gravity and which inevitably involves a collapse downward through the spine. Once in a public demonstration, a student's eye lit up. 'Aha,' he said, 'the first is like power steering!' Then begins the work to re-educate the sensory awareness so that relaxation entails the proper release, with the 'up' along the spine opposing the 'down' of the heels into the ground and the resting of the entire 'shoulder girdle' (the bony structure formed of the shoulder blade and the collar bone) upon the back. All so that the arm can be raised freely from its socket, powered by the proper head-neck-back relationship, as Mr Federer demonstrates so naturally in the above photograph. A wonderful quote of Alexander in relation to this point appears in the endnotes below.1

I leave the matter of elusive and deep-seated beliefs about successful musical performance to the end of this article, perhaps where it belongs. These beliefs take the longest to unseat and often are the last to reveal themselves, and more than anything they contribute to the narrowing of attention. They are what Alexander called our preconceived notions of learning, and they are planted deeply within us from birth--ideas that our parents, our teachers, schools, peers, experts, along with all the books and dogma, deposited into our brains from the time we began our 'education.' These preconceived notions of learning bark like old dogs and form the fabric of our habits. What are they? 'Concentrate, work harder, try harder, never give up, push for results, get it right the first time, and don't make any mistakes!' And so it goes, on and on. To divest oneself of their harmful effects takes a lifetime of work and watchfulness. The beauty of the Alexander Technique is in the indirect revelation. As one re-discovers ease, balance and harmony of movement, these old ideas are witnessed in a new context. They interfere, therefore they become less useful and eventually fall by the wayside. It is the process of learning to see that takes time.


1. 'I cannot get any direction from my brain through to my arm until it comes through my torso, and the movement of the arm will be affected by whatever sensory and other conditions are present in my torso as the direction is sent through my hands. So much so, that if we have a person with some trouble with the use of the arms or fingers, we do not need to touch the use of the arms or fingers. This we can demonstrate. All we have to do is to restore the use of the primary control, and the use of the arms or fingers will come right in the process.' From 'Bedford Physical Training College Lecture' given by F.M. Alexander. Articles and Lectures: Articles, Published Letters and Lectures on the Alexander Technique, p. 170. (1995, Mouritz) ISBN 0-9525574-6-0.

Selma Gokcen resides in London where she teaches cello and the Alexander Technique at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. For further information, please contact:

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