How I learnt to stop worrying (part 1)

rediscoverAlexander Technique, Learning process, Musician's health, Musician's wellbeing

“Directions, however serve merely to impart means by which a certain goal can be reached.”

Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony 1911

The theme 

It is late in January and here in Australia the state calendar gives the schools a 6 week break between mid December and next week.  Aside from vacation from usual routine and family time, this turns into contemplation and ‘planning the year’ time.  But it seems that there is a game we humans have learnt to play, which usually consists of getting out of the usual routine during ‘vacation’ time, having contemplation and planning time which may include a change in direction and then waiting for that tumultuous state of worrying whether we deserve or are capable of achieving that plan to arrive.  Perhaps this last part of the game is only unique to me? Maybe no one else here (in Australia) or elsewhere has ever come across the ‘worry ending’ to the ‘planning the year’ game? The thing is, I can’t really be sure, since the nature and behaviour of worrying and the doubting that is gives birth to isn’t observable as an exact science.  

However, for me this year’s planning game is different, since for the first time in my adult life, I have decided, and consciously drawn up my year’s plan around what I want to achieve in direct relation to what interests me fully instead of planning it around worrying (which I know I subconsciously use to do).  Will I achieve to sustain the lack of worry? Something that had become such an integral fabric of my life style? I don’t know.  Honestly, I am not worried about it as much as I am interested in achieving my humble little plan.  But as a way of accountability, I want to keep a year-long blog to share some history, strategy and the unfolding story of moving from being a ‘worry addict’ towards a state of applying myself towards my goals with evolving consistency.

Defining this thing

There is that Cole Porter song ‘what is this thing called love’.  On different days I love to listen to different versions of if.  This version by Charles Mingus leaves no time for any worries to get into the mind, at least that is how engaged I am with it when listening to it: “How does he make that bass line work!!!” is where my attention is at.  I think the clue to what got me out of the groove was learning to engage myself with cultural discourse, analysis and especially dialogue through music.


There are countless renditions of this song and it serves as the ultimate reminder of how the same song which has basically become a cultural tool within the jazz standard realm can be interpreted in countless ways.  From Charlie Parker’s rendition (and his melodic composition based on the changes) to the various vocal and instrumental versions, the song is an evolving testimony to the concept of stylistic development and musical understanding of form.  I want to pay this song’s basic history some attention as a way of depicting how one can learn to stop worrying, as well as a tools for defining the feeling of worrying.

The other connection between Porter, worrying and jazz improvisation is that as I see it, to be an improvising interpreter is to choose to be in a state of not worrying.  The results may or may not spill over to the moments when that person isn’t on stage, rehearsing or doing musical activities.  I mention this, because the evolution of giants such as Mingus, Parker, Bill Evans, Holiday and countless others (these are amongst those who have interpreted ‘What is this thing’) has to be based on presence.  Worry kills presence.

Getting back to the song itself; it is from a 1929 musical revue Wake up and Dream.  I am not worried that I will do a brief segue way and bring attention to the title song, ‘Wake up and dream’ since it has stunning lyrics that also happen to make a good transition for defining what ‘worrying’ is.  If you play a game of replacing occurrences of the word ‘dream’ with ‘worry’, I think you might see what I mean: 

Wake up and dream
It’s so easy to dream
Things are not what they seem
Wake up and dream
Open your eyes
Take a look at the skies…

I don’t know how I had learnt to become addicted to worrying, I certainly know that I had to become “conscious that I had simply gotten into a groove” of not looking at choices and commitments in any other way than through the lens of worrying or seeing things as they were not.  A curious state that leads to taking up the attitude of worrying about ‘what might eventuate if….’.  I am not worried that I haven’t used the dictionary definition here and am using Cole Porter’s compositions and my favourite renditions of them instead.  This is because it is what the thing does that we can form a dialogue around and not the definition of the thing.  Both ways can be useful, but this former is the one I have chosen; without worry of missing out on the richness of the latter.

The lyrics of the ‘What is this thing’ (I should mention that it only the song’s chorus and not the verse that is used in the jazz standard setting), don’t bother with defining love, but they focus on what it does to a person.  It asks questions about this undefinable and changing states brought about by the thing: 

What is this thing called love
This funny thing called love
Just who can solve its mystery
Why should it make a fool of me

If you play the replacing word game again, this time replacing ‘love’ with ‘worry’, I think we might have shared all we need to share about this mostly private and sometimes public state of worrying; a state that is worth discussing because it has this power to dampen both creativity and energy needed for skill development.  The song doesn’t try to solve the problem of a ‘hanging on’ broken heart, it expresses that state through the action of music making.  I am applying the same to ‘getting over’ a lifetime habit of worrying; I am not trying ‘not to do it’ I have a plan to do other things that interest me above and beyond ‘worrying’, things that engage and interest me instead.

Me, looking not so worried at the NVG with the work of one of my favourite artists Mark Rothko.

The only science about defining worrying is that it can release a physiological mess of stuff into one’s system, which can in many cases be as addictive as any habit forming narcotic.  Next, I want to experiment with ways of expressing how a special process referred to as learning has helped to make this year’s planning less like previous year’s.  Each of the topics and personal histories I discuss also happen to represent activities and pursuits that do not benefit from worrying.  

The music and me
It is natural that as a musician, my learning experiences and the guiding procedures (experiments) that I apply towards the study and creation of work holds a wide prism through which I see both learning and creativity.  To a certain extent, this same prism acts as a foundation for the viewing mechanism through which I make sense of the world.  At times, (more often as I get older) this same mechanism comes to use for becoming empty of expectations and open to other’s varied perspectives.  

What the work with the materials of music teachers me becomes especially pertinent in regards to the process of learning itself, and circularly speaking, the application of learning procedures in the practice, study and creation of music.  For me, when it comes to understanding learning and the process of teaching, a main principle is to learn and experiment with the materials at hand.  This principle which is guided by the observable aspects of two of the core materials of music which are change and development in relation to tone and time; circularly speaking, act as a reminder that the geometry and formations which I see through my prism are themselves subject to changes and transformations over time.  

My earliest memories of being curios about the phenomena of sound, are from the age of 4 or 5.  I was fascinated by how images and directions are translated through the musician’s acquired skill into music.  Even after my years of fascination with popular music (which still holds my interest in varied and surprising ways), this transformation of thoughts into organised sound is something that grows ever more interesting with time and familiarity.  As the process of learning to undertake the steps and stages that bring about the skills in transformation, it is natural that the occupation of teaching has also been an important part of my perspective.  

The musician and all-around creative Arnold Schoenberg is someone who I respect deeply beyond my love of his music.  His volume on the Theory of Harmony is a work that I have been intimate with since attending music school.  The content and the procedures of the book are so carefully crafted and refined that every paragraph is a testament to how a well intentioned mind can learn, can set goals and devise a plan to reach beyond what and how it thinks or thinks it knows.

Another favourite artist.

A moving body
It is not easy or even possible to explain why I choose to pursue professional work as an artist’s model.  This part of my professional life did not come about as a mere accident.  The expression that I seek through being still for up to twenty minutes (or longer) at a time is not related to a searching for peace or a performance relating to ‘cleansing’ the soul.  I simply enjoy the presence of it.  I enjoy being a body at attention, I enjoy having little to hide; it’s an evolving challenge that is the closest thing to not being involved in so many machineries of modern existence that lead away from taking care of one’s fellow living creators.  When I am present to the artist, I also learn things.   I learn by listening, seeing and observing the evolution of processes.  I learn through the facilitator’s analysis and guidance.  To be paid to be present is a rare and special thing, and as my work with music is driven from a need rather than a regular financial gain, I merge the two ends of music and movement together so that my body can become a more welcoming structure for the demands of music making.

Worry kills presence, that’s the modelling lesson.  With Kevyn Beacon the dog.

A friend
On another parallel journey to what I have written so far, is the most important part of my existence that I know; to be a mother and to be able to have this incredible honour of having two friends refer to you as ‘mom’.  It is not something that ‘makes me whole or happy’.  This friendship, is infinitely greater and indescribably transformational of an experience for me to fit into categories.  To be this friend, is something that attracts me the most towards the search for what drives teaching as a process.  This is because I know that I can only get lucky with who stands with my children as a teacher during their school hours, and although I have gotten very lucky so far, I know that it is ultimately up to me to learn to learn and to teach my growing friends about their potential to understand their world and their relation to it as learners.  

“No worries allowed on this job mom!”


A teacher
Beyond teachers who have left a mark for all learners, (Monk, Mingus, Ellington and countless others) and beyond Schoenberg and all the music that has crossed my consciousness, I am lucky to have many amazing living people who I call teachers, and who were able to direct my attention towards the process of learning itself.  The person who was able to draw my attention most recently on this subject, has had a pivotal role in pointing at many bodies of knowledge and ways of study that I was not explicitly familiar with.  As I learn anew to sit, be still and work with Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, I am astounded at what composers were able to concentrate from their experience of music and reflect it onto the art of teaching.  What surprises most about working with Theory of Harmony is the similarities between his pedagogy and the pedagogy which came from the work of pioneering work in neurology, psychology and linguists.  

The allure of touch
Today my face is beginning to gain more character and the gaining of distance between me and the strong shifts of adolescence is a widening space filled with a conviction to express the awe of childhood; that fascination with music and transformation of thoughts into actions.  Along the way I fell to the allure of sensation as a way of quietening the noise that arises when steps and stages along a path are skipped.
And as much as these skips were due to circumstances beyond my control, they also fed into a habit that detracted from the focus and direction required to sit, be still and work.  As with any other skill, this skill is a skill that needs a process for its training.  I think that when an art form relating to sensations (sound, visuals etc.) is the matter at hand, the process of training this skill can become more elusive and ‘hidden’ than it needs to be.  This may have been one of the reasons why I fell deeply to the allure of touch when I did, briefly mistaking it for the reasoned process that was missing from much of my education.
The touch-teaching form of Alexander Technique as the technique was practiced by F.M. Alexander and as it was then formatted in to a curriculum of sorts by his first generation trainees has come to be more about a training relating to behaviouralist psychology point of view than about a pedagogue’s understanding of the skill of learning and especially learning to reason relationally and learning to teach oneself or others.

The books
Throughout the rest of this blog series, I want to tease out some possible connections or lines of understanding and perhaps incompatibility between the behaviouralist psychologist’s view of learning and that of the pedagogues which directs the way towards relational reasoning.  The early writings of F.M. Alexander and perspectives on ‘movements between the anatomical structure of the human body’ contain within itself a dialogue between both these views.  However, because of translations of time, personal understandings/imparting of both F.M. Alexander and then that of his first generation of trained teachers, there is a constant fight between the ideas presented in F.M’s writings and the touch-teaching or somatic methods.
I want to form a dialogue between those parts of F.M. Alexander’s writings which present a pedagogue’s perspective and have come to have a somatic meaning to many followers, with the writings of Schoenberg in relation to Theory of Harmony which are inculcated and thoroughly embedded with the most careful and well-planned process for learning relational reasoning.
Because of my interest in music, I want to see how a dialogue between these two sets of writings can put teaching itself as the central aim towards clarifying the underlying process (without sniped steps and stages) that can become the guide of how a person can construct, build and strengthen (through practice) their ability to teach and learn without the reassurance of the feeling sense as a guide for being right.  (To readers who have familiarity with F.M. Alexander, they will recognise this last sentence in relation to his recognition of the problem that stood between him and his intention to recite/act without loss of voice).  

End of part one
In part two I want to dig in further into the comparison between the work of the pedagogue and the somatic ‘teacher’.  Basically, my aim will be to reflect on the comparison between the means used by a pedagogue (reasoning) and those of a somatic or ‘feel-based’ perspective on the process of teaching and learning.  This reflective process that started here moves towards sharing some ideas on planning (reasoning, structuring) and creativity skill development that has helped me to delve into this endless ocean called ‘learning’ without heavily reduces amounts of worry or fear.

I want to end this section by focusing on what interests me, Arnold Schoenberg’s Farben. I hope you’ll gain something from this music too!

A plan for colour.