The Magic Button Delusion

Pushing a button to accomplish a task is deeply satisfying.  When riding an elevator as children, my sisters and I would vie for the privilege of pushing the button which would magically light up and take us to our desired floor.  Even as an adult, when pushing the buttons on displays at certain types of museum I enjoy a frisson completely out of proportion to the usually ho-hum sequence of events unleashed.  (Usually, a lighting change or a robotic mechanical movement.)  I think buttons give me a gratifying sense of being in control: look at the power I wield in my finger!

I've mentioned only some rather mundane examples of events activated at the push of a button, but every day modern technology puts operations of greater and greater complexity under the control of our pointer fingers.  There is a button on my electric piano which calls forth from the instrument the playing of a piece far beyond my own pianistic skills.  My partner has a collection of sewing machines of various vintage; some of the more recent ones will accomplish quite sophisticated, computer-guided stitchery at the push of one of their buttons.  There is even an infamous button on a certain red phone that will call forth the nuclear annihilation of our planet should it ever be pressed by a U.S. President.  And who knows what impressive feats may eventually be accomplished at the push of a (virtual) button on my iPhone?  (Maybe I should download the iAvertNuclearDisaster app from Apple.)

We humans love the concept that we can solve problems at the push of a button.  We love this concept so much that we try to apply it even when there is no magic button to push. . .we just act AS IF there were such a button.  We bring a great deal of vexation upon ourselves by applying this delusion to the operation of our bodies.

Your body, composed of billions of interconnected cells, functions in every action as an integrated unit of unimaginable complexity.  Whether you are throwing a baseball, singing "The Man that Got Away," or reading a blog, all the various parts of you have to coordinate, precisely balancing this tension against that one, all the while digesting food, pumping blood, fending off disease, and performing myriad other functions.

Even if we simplify this situation by taking into account only the activity of muscles, we are left with an astounding complexity to consider.  Every muscle of your body has a role in every action you perform, whether that role is to contract by a certain amount, to release contraction by a certain amount, or to maintain a certain degree of tension as other muscles change.  If we had to coordinate this intricacy through conscious thought, our brains would soon implode.  Luckily, our systems take care of much of this muscular activity reflexively, without our needing to get involved.  In fact, when we try to get involved, we normally mess things up, like the proverbial centipede who can't take a step when he stops to think about which foot moves next.

As both Alexander teacher and voice teacher, I am constantly confronted with "centipede" students who have been taught (elsewhere) to think about and move certain body parts in isolation, without consideration for the complexity of the system or for the delicate balance that must prevail among all the parts of that system.  These students have been misled into believing that success comes through the pushing of a magic button: just move this part here and all will be well.

The magic button delusion takes many forms.  For now I will limit my discussion to how it can interfere with the freedom of three different functions.  In posture, which involves a sophisticated counter-tension of muscles throughout the body, an often-recommended magic button is to pull back the shoulders, which eventually tires out the back muscles and makes them ache.  In breathing, you hear the misguided advice of pushing the "diaphragm button" in various ways—usually advocating the poking out of the stomach area, or sometimes pulling in—which ends up only restricting diaphragmatic movement.  Singing teachers in particular seem to invoke a large number of magic buttons for the action of making vocal sounds.  Some common ones, which I will blog about in detail at another time, are raising the soft palate, opening the throat, lowering the larynx, and holding out the ribs.  Pushing any of these magic buttons, by ignoring the delicate interaction of a entire system of muscles, risks throwing off the balance of the vocal muscles and generating constricting laryngeal tensions.

What I am looking for in each of my students is a free, unobstructed response of the whole self, as a unit.  The system of the whole self is far too complex to be managed through direct control of each part.  Therefore, to push a magic button—to move, raise, lower, hold, or otherwise interfere with any individual element of the system—will not lead to freedom or to the most accomplished use of your body, but rather to unwanted tension and frustration.  You must learn to give up desiring the direct control of your coordination and start ALLOWING your body's natural, virtuoso reflexive control to take over.  This happens not by pushing a magic button (read, doing any particular action), but by stopping those actions that are getting in the way of your coordination.

This non-doing approach to singing is what we will practice in your voice lessons.  Alexander lessons will help you to consolidate your skill in non-doing by applying it to everything you do.

Save your button-pushing for your microwave popcorn.