Lori Schiff: On Adapting to Remote Instruction, and Learning to Teach Alexander Technique Online

You might remember an episode with Alexander Technique teacher Lori Schiff back in 2019, where she described ways of integrating Alexander Technique principles into our daily lives, dispelled some myths, and helped us all better understand what this type of intentional body awareness can do to help free up our playing (you can listen to that episode here if you missed it).

One of the topics that came up was the question of whether Alexander Technique could be taught remotely – as in, via Skype or FaceTime (this was before Zoom had become a household name).

At the time, she noted that she wasn’t a fan of doing Alexander Technique sessions online. Not that there weren’t terrific teachers doing meaningful work online, but just that in her heart, it was difficult to replicate the in-person experience of Alexander Technique instruction remotely, so online lessons were not an option she would consider in most cases.

That made perfect sense to me at the time, but given the events of the last year, where we had to go through an entire school year of mostly remote learning, I was curious about what this meant for Alexander Technique classes. Like, what sort of adjustments had to be made, so that teaching Alexander Technique online could work in the new reality we all had to adapt to?

So, Lori and I got together for another chat (but this time via Zoom, of course), and she described the various challenges she faced, the ways in which she modified her approach to teaching, a couple valuable tech and production-related hacks she learned, and some of the specific ways in which this challenge has enabled her to become a better teacher, even after 40+ years in the business. And ultimately, why her perspective on online teaching had changed.

Some of what we explored is specific to Alexander Technique of course, but some of what she learned applies more broadly to other teaching too, I think. And it certainly applies to those who want to learn more about Alexander Technique, but don’t have easy access to an Alexander Technique teacher in the area too.

And beyond all of the insights and practical nuts and bolts, I think it’s also a story about the journey that all of us had to take this past year. Where we had to adapt and evolve in unexpected ways, both as teachers and learners.

In this episode, we’ll explore…

  • Some of the most immediate technical hurdles she encountered, and some of the solutions she learned about, and how she organized her classes logistically. (4:13)
  • The best way to position yourself relative to the camera, when you videotape yourself. (7:56)
  • The specific reason why teaching online has made her a better Alexander Technique teacher. (12:18)
  • Is reviewing video helpful in learning Alexander Technique? (15:40)
  • How something could look right, but still be wrong for a particular person. (20:20)
  • What are the primary technology needs for teaching Alexander Technique effectively online? (25:27)
  • A few thoughts on Zoom fatigue… (39:44)
Subscribe to the weekly podcast via iTunes

Lori:
Especially in March when we first, last March, when they first said, okay, you’re on zoom. I, how many times I heard in my head myself saying to you, nah, not online. I even went back and listened to it. I was just like, oh geez. And here I am, 25 hours a week for Juilliard in separate zoom classes and private teaching as well.

Noa:
That’s probably maybe the best place to start because I don’t know how many years ago that was. But I do remember you saying that, and I wasn’t really surprised at the time because my understanding of Alexander technique it was like, yeah, that makes total sense. It’s kind of a bummer for folks who don’t live near a technique teacher, but, but yeah, I, I totally got that. I didn’t really think anything of it, but it did stick in my mind. I think on some level. And then when you mentioned that, yes, you’re having to now adapt online. I was curious how that was working out for everyone. So yeah, maybe you could just tell me, I’m sure there was a process, like when you first found out about this, that’s like maybe not the most exciting news. Uh, there might’ve been some anxiety or some concerns or whatnot, but yeah, maybe you could just walk me through what 2020 ended up being like for you from that perspective and what you’ve learned and where things are headed now.

Lori:
Okay. So starting in March, 2020, when things shut down and we, we at Juilliard all got an email saying we’re not going to be returning after, we were on spring break. We’re not going to return after spring break. And you all have to teach all your classes on zoom. Here’s the zoom account and you’ll need to rewrite your syllabus to reflect the changes. So aside from the other pandemic shock that we all had, I’m looking at that going, huh? Now what do I do? But I have to do it. I have no, there is no choice. And I’m very well aware that speaking with you in the past and, and elsewhere that I’ve not been a fan of teaching Alexander online, there have been people teaching the Alexander technique virtually for years and people that have gained a lot from taking lessons online. I’m an incredibly traditionally trained teacher in my own experience was originally through the hands-on work as well as everything else.

Lori:
So I just couldn’t quite embrace it. So here comes this pandemic and no, no option. I have a contract with the school and I have a whole lot of students I’ve been teaching all year. So I figured it out in stages. The first round, the first few weeks were not quite as good in terms of internet and such. So there was the technical side, eventually upgrading with wifi and discovering what an ethernet cable is. And the fact that my very new Mac, fortunately I had a new Mac, had nowhere to plug one in. So I had to get a thing to plug it into. So all kinds of stuff like that. And then realizing that for me to teach Alexander online, I need to be able to move away from the screen so that I can show people on me what I’m talking about. So I then figured, well, I can’t be anchored to the, the screen itself by wearing headphones that are tethered or having to sit right up close.

Lori:
So I then get a separate microphone. Did the research, all that. So now, you know, as I speak, now there’s a separate microphone. I don’t don’t have to wear headphones or anything. So there’s a whole bunch of technical things that came in fits and spurts and slowly, and, and with quite a bit of stress that made me really appreciate years of study of the Alexander technique. So getting to the actual stuff, in terms of the Juilliard classes, I’ll just talk about teaching instrumentalists and the classes are small. So there’s four people in the class. Although I have so many classes and it was such a shock in the spring that we lumped everybody into maybe six different sessions scattered throughout the week at different times. So people could access it. Our students are all over the world, so we have time zone issues and all sorts of stuff.

Lori:
So teaching a class very early, a class, very late a class in the middle of the day on different days to just to make it accessible. So there’s just a lot of little technical things like that. And I started with these larger groups of people who had already had hands-on work. They had already had at least two thirds of the year of, of classes. So that was an easier beginning then if I was with people who have never had it. So that helped. And then all of it evolved and I will get the actual teaching, but all of it evolved to the fall when we went back to our regular number of classes and our regular teaching. And by this time I’ve figured out my technical logistics and, um, I have been doing 25, one hour classes per week on zoom with either four, three or four people in the class or two.

Lori:
And the two are singers when I have them. And some had had hands-on and some have never had hands-on work hands-on guidance. Um, so had to start out a lot with, um, talking to people a little bit about it. This would be very similar to in-person work where I, we sit and talk for a bit and get questions about, well, why did you decide to take this class? Why are you taking lessons? What are your, what are your, what are you curious about? What are your issues? So typically with instrumentalists, there will be some people coming from injuries, some people talking about stress and performance, anxiety and things like that. So we had those conversations, let’s say with four people in a class on zoom and getting people to speak easily, it was a part of it. Um, I have more, more or less insisted on people being on camera.

Lori:
And I explained to them, I can only help them much better if I can see them, but there are home constraints and all of us have had to allow for that. So occasionally they go on and off a video, but I’m fairly insistent that I see them because I need to see how people move. One of the great things about zoom in this virtual teaching is that we can see people. So, so for example, in a class, I’ll have someone play the violin. I’ll have to give them some directions about how and where to stand or sit so that I can see them optimally because in real life I would see them also. And what we’re looking at in Alexander is a lot of times, um, just the balance of how a person is within themselves generally, but inaction. So it’s not just, okay, here’s this really good sitting posture.

Lori:
That’s great. And then you hand them their cello and all of a sudden everything changes. And that would be true with anything in Alexander it’s in action. So I get people set up in such a way that I can see them clearly and in a way that helps me and that I can hear them because I am working off my ears. So I will have people set up if they’re playing or performing, or we’re doing some movement work, I ask them to be profiled to their camera because you’ll see yourself much better in profile in terms of things like balance and alignment, I will see them way better that way. And then I also share with your audience now, and those students that it, when you use video for practicing, I highly recommend put yourself in profile to the video camera, not head on videos of flat medium.

Lori:
So head on it’s flat. But if you turn sideways, you can see the shape of you, violin or cello or whatever you might try having, you know, one time your left side of the camera, one to the right, because of all the issues of playing. So there’s a quite a bit of explaining about how people present themselves to their video device, whatever they happen to be using. And in playing we’ll work with pointing out various things. So let’s, let’s use an example of a cellist sitting and playing and they play, and then I will ask them, you know, their sense of themselves. You get past the usual, well, I didn’t do this. Right. And I didn’t do that. We get through that pretty quickly. And, and when I ask about sense, I really mean sensation. Not necessarily did they play in tune or this or that, but actually, what do you feel?

Lori:
So a kid playing cello or a young man or woman playing cello, um, I might ask them about their sense of contact with the chair. What is their contact and how do they sense… Are they tending to be kind of compressed to themselves or up, and we have the advantage of video and so that we can start to work that way and say, alright, well just hold your cello there, go ahead and slump down, have a look at yourself. You can see shape. I’m not saying good or bad posture. I really actually don’t like to use those terms and say, okay, somewhat shortened. Now let’s just come up. You don’t have to be perfect. Just what does it look like when you’re more up, as opposed to compressed. We look at that and then we explore sensation. As in, when you’re sitting up too straight, you have a different sensation of contact with the chair.

Lori:
Then if you’re sinking down, if you’re sinking down, you’re kind of rocked back on the sit bones. It’s a little bit heavy in your body. You rock forward on the sit bones. You can come up a little bit. And I avoid saying specific muscles and things. Rather let the student explore and figure out what’s too much. Because when you make some of these changes, as people have been doing for years, whether without Alexander, they think they should sit up better. So, or their teacher tells them. So they do immediately something and often the something is too much. So I start teaching how to regulate when you’re trying too hard, sitting up too straight or not giving enough energy, not only, you know, what does that feel like? How does it look? Cause they can see. And also what’s the effect on sound. So I’m actually able online to give a very full experience that the student pulls out for themselves.

Lori:
And in fact, in some ways I think this is making me a better teacher and this is after about 40 years in the business and 30 years at school. So it’s, you know, here’s this new medium I really wasn’t fond of. And I do believe it’s making me a better teacher, because you have to explain things extremely carefully and precisely. And according to the way a particular student receives information. So you and I may have different learning approaches. You may be more visual or more oral or something. And so we have to figure that out when I’m in person with someone I’m just able to do it a lot quicker for all the reasons of being in three dimensions, but you can do it online. You can, all of you probably listening to this, have played on zoom or FaceTime or something by now. And you absolutely can hear differences in sound.

Lori:
Even when the audio quality of any of the technologies is not great. If someone plays and they play again, it’s different, you can hear differences. And it’s been actually quite remarkable on hearing that the Alexander type of changes that occur through zoom. And there’s a mostly, we’ll wait for other students to comment. So if a student’s playing and they get a little more comfortable and they’re a little less squeezed into themselves, a little less tightened their shoulders or their neck or whatever. And they play the second and third time or fourth and fifth. And it sounds quite different. I’ll let the other students comment on it first. So it’s not coming from me who I don’t want them to think I’m just projecting something. So it’s been actually a rather rich experience. Um, I work certainly through playing, but that’s not every week by any means.

Lori:
We do a lot of fundamental, movement work, exploring what it’s like to feel like exaggerating tensions and then reducing tensions. And what does that do to you structurally? There’s a whole lot of detail in there, which I won’t go into on this. It will take most of the semester again. Um, and then I also introduced, um, some classes where I will screen-share anatomy, pictures, and point out what’s going on with certain muscles and discuss it and then take that into a movement activity so they can see and feel in themselves what’s happening and then even add on playing. So the screen-sharing elements for some of these platforms has been quite helpful. And I found that those sessions were very helpful with the students. So there was all of that. We’re still missing a sensory element that I cannot guarantee through zoom, but I will say that has been way more productive than I anticipated.

Lori:
And I can say that, but I also am in the midst of doing final exams for students, a final exam written exam, in Alexander is more like a survey and it’s, I always thought there’s nothing to sweat over. And I have asked, you know, what was helpful quite it’s really, I have an exam for me to find out what’s working and what’s not. And quite a few of them referenced that it was helpful to see how things worked and then take it into movement exploration. And because I can give them feedback about what they’re doing and I can show them on me, it’s actually worked pretty well. One question that seems to come up from the students, which does not surprise me, is that they’re not always sure that they’re doing, what’s being suggested. Now this would happen in real life too, but with a little bit of hands-on help, you can get people a little bit more, um, sensitized to knowing when they’re doing right and wrong.

Noa:
I am curious about the role of video I know for, for regular instrumental or vocal lessons that each lesson is recorded, has some nice, additional benefits in that you can listen back. You don’t have to pay attention during lessons in quite the same way that you would, if you knew it wasn’t being recorded, you know, you kind of focus more on just kind of like taking notes in class. Like you could focus more on being present and being responsive to whatever’s happening with the teacher, instead of worrying about remembering everything that they’re saying to you in the moment and not being able to go back to it. Has there been benefits to, I mean, is it helpful for people to like review their Alexander sessions afterwards or…

Lori:
Yes it is, um, particularly when we do specific move at work for, um, some, a lot with the plane. Cause it certainly in the, I work with a lot of people who are not musicians by the way. And I’m also working with them online. The musicians of course, are really working hard to get progress of whatever sorts they’re looking for. So some of them have asked, I do not. I chose to not automatically record on zoom. All of the classes we were originally asked by the school to do that, to provide for students that are perhaps halfway around the world. And can’t do things in time. I do not want to teach Alexander via recording. So I decided simply not to do that. What you’re asking about though is reinforcing what if they’ve been present? So if students have been online and they played, occasionally I would hit the record button while the student was playing.

Lori:
And then I would only record it onto my computer and I would review it and see if it was useful. And occasionally I would send them a clip that I thought might be useful. So I’m making that assessment. Is this going to be useful? The student may have made a difference. They may have thought, wow, I, you know, something I didn’t think was good. They might like, but I did not do much of it. I have done that in real class though, when we’re in a, I call it real class. Um, I w you know, I’ll say, look, have you got your phone? Let’s record it. I also work with video in class and videotape and watch the videos straight away with the zoom classes. This year, there was enough going on and enough technologically to try to figure out in real time that it, it was just one step, too many.

Lori:
So I would say it’s very helpful, but for logistics only did a very little bit of that this year. Some students, uh, one or two sent me videos of themselves playing, asking for my input, which I would give a little bit, but, and what I hope was helpful to them, but with Alexander in the moment, learning is really what we’re after. How Noa, if you had recorded something on the violin and you sent me that, and I gave you some feedback as an Alexander teacher, you may or may not be able to implement what I said in the way I meant it. You’ll hear it the way you hear it. If you’ve been in the class for a while, you would probably understand it. But I, I, if we’re in the moment and you’re playing and we make some changes, you’ll feel experiences, changes straight away.

Lori:
And it’s pretty deep. And even without hands-on when the students play in class and we make some changes, I focus their thinking, like, where… Pay attention. You know, you’re playing this, you’re telling me about your bow arm or some issue with that. And I’m going to ask you now to keep that in mind, somewhere, we’ll take into account, but let’s pay attention to your feet, or let’s pay attention to the other side of you or some other. So we expand the field of attention and ask a lot of questions along that route that lead toward the exact improvement the student wants. And it’s not distraction. It’s actually working with the whole person. And we can do that in the moment. I’m not yet sure about just the video recording aspect of that. I think though it does, if the student has had some pretty good experiences that way, and they asked for the recording. Absolutely. Because it is helpful, like audio recording a video lesson, it’s the same.

Noa:
It sounds like if I’m understanding correctly, the part of the challenges in making sure you’re reinforcing the right thing.

Lori:
Yes.

Noa:
The video and not something that isn’t working as well as it needs to for that particular person.

Lori:
Yeah. I would say that’s about right.

Noa:
So I’m reminded of a, like a masterclass that the cellist in my piano trio had where this really famous cellist, this is back when we were students. And I mean, he’s an amazing player and has a great career now. And this really famous cellist watched him play, and this was all translated. So I don’t know what she actually said. She was speaking in Russia, but essentially the transition was like, yeah, I mean, you’re doing everything wrong, but you sound great. So I’m not going to say anything. And I don’t think he was doing anything wrong in the sense of physiologically, like dramatically that he was doing anything that was going to hurt him. Like he’s never had an injury issue, but I think just in terms of how she plays with her instrument and her build and so forth, that’s not the way that she would have him play, but he sounded great. So I, I wondered if it’s possible sometimes if there’s too much of a reliance on video and not enough on like, you’re describing how things feel and how things sound as a result to, to do something that maybe looks okay, but isn’t for that person

Lori:
Now, you’re now you’re hitting it right on the head, because some things will look, I’ve seen people look incredibly balanced, when I watch. And this has happened in, in, in this year in school, um, someone who a lot of us would watch the person playing their instrument. And a lot of folks say, well, really good posture. This person looks so relaxed and I’m questioning that from the experience I have in the training I have. I’m like, well, they look pretty good. I’m not so sure. And in real life, I put a hand on a person like that and find out that they’re very carefully holding everything in the right place. And they will often, you know, they say, I know everyone says, I look good, but I don’t feel, I feel really tense. Well, their assessment, if that’s what they say is accurate and learning to connect mind and body to ease off so that you’re not creating the thing that looks right, but rather living it and let it appear.

Lori:
It takes a little time. So there’s, and this is an element that we can get to, I think, online over time. One element of all of this, when we first started online and I was struggling because as I had said with you in the past, I’m not so convinced about this online teaching. One of the things I had to remember was it, when F.M. Alexander figured out the Alexander technique, he did it all by himself. There was no teacher. There was no, hands-on no other connection. And he had a couple of mirrors and he watched and observed himself and worked quite diligently from what he could see and hear and feel. And he was certainly an exceptional human being, I think, a genius on the level of Einstein or Freud or that type of thinker, but he didn’t have outside help. He had the outside help of the day, like the usual kinds of things we have now, the speech teachers and movement teachers and that kind of thing.

Lori:
But what he was figuring out was something truly different. And so I just kept reminding myself, people, and he even writes in his books, anyone can do what I did. If you do what I did, what he did was self observation for nine years and three way mirrors. So I, I’m not sure I could do that, but it is possible. And it’s with, you know, a lot of patience and the right curiosity, I think, um, it’s very possible. The hands-on work that we do speeds up the process. It facilitates the process. And I think it makes the whole thing yet more exciting. You know, if you were playing and it looked pretty good. And then you work with an Alexander teacher and they just very have a very gentle touch their hands around your neck or back. All of a sudden you realize you start releasing some tension and you’re playing better.

Lori:
It’s pretty darn exciting, but you can get that. We got that on zoom with quite a few students throughout the year. And again, I was quite like, oh, okay, this is working. So it’s possible given a choice. I will still always say, find someone, get some hands-on work. If you’re somewhere where there’s not a teacher nearby, this whole internet thing has been fabulous because now people all over the world have access to all kinds of education, including Alexander. There aren’t Alexander teachers in every town. There’s just not that big a profession. So there’s all this access you can get and great. Get going, learn what it’s about. You will have some really good positive experiences with a good teacher. You will. And when you have a chance, take another step and find someone in person. If you’re a violinist, you wouldn’t want all of your violin lessons to be online. You’d love be playing for a real person at some point. So there’s those elements.

Noa:
This is maybe a bit of a nerdy question, but I always get excited about technology. So you did start talking a little bit about the technological upgrades or adjustments that you had to make on your end. And you also spoke a little bit about maybe some adjustments that need to be made on the learner or the student’s end. Is there more to say about it that I could ask you about in case folks are wanting to make the most fair experience with a teacher or if the teacher’s wanting to make the most of their interactions?

Lori:
Absolutely, um, and great question. I think I can hit both sides of that for people teaching and I, and not just Alexander, but other things, if it involves movement, if the, if this involves demonstrating anything physical, even though often, you know, on zoom or something, you can see the person say from chest up, show your audience as much of you as you can. So therefore that you have to find a way to set up that your screen is in high enough, and you have enough space to, to show a person your whole self. So what I, what I do actually at times is I stand back. And in fact, I do an awful lot of teaching, just standing anyway, which I would have done in real life. I never sit down teaching. So find a way in your space to show as much of yourself as you can, both student and teacher that you’ll help your teacher figure things out.

Lori:
If they can see more of you. As I said, if you can, teaching has the ability to get away from the screen. So again, whatever microphone setup you have, whether it’s built into your computer or something, separate, try to be able to move freely, get up, move around and, and experiment with. I did a lot of experimenting. I set up zoom meetings with myself to watch how it would work and to listen and test everything. Um, for weeks and weeks before every single class I’d set up in advance and check, does the lighting look good? It’s a different time of day. I want to make sure they can see me. So figure out extra lighting, you know, take the time it’s worth the production values to do it. And on the receiving end, it does help. If you’re, if you’re a performer and playing show your, your teachers, as much as you can of yourself find, you know, some people we’re based in New York city.

Lori:
So some people have rather small spaces. So this was an interesting challenge, but people are able to find work their way around to improve matters one way or another. Do your lessons as much as possible on a laptop type screen or monitor, not phone. Um, I had students taking class on phone some because that’s what they had. But then there, the, what I can see of them is quite narrow. It’s no bigger than their phone screen, and there are other sort of complications, but if you’re on a phone, maybe you can set it, just set it up at an angle that it shows you your full body. So keep in mind what, on both sides of it, what the other person sees and give them as much as you can for sound, go for as much clarity as you can. I’m sure we’ve all experienced issues of echo and things like that.

Lori:
I’ll let people, you can go into zoom and reduce that you can, if you’re not using headphones types of things, it won’t interfere with one end of it. So there’s all kinds of things to look at with that. Try to figure out if it’s the beginning of a first session, what I would do is email students and say, here’s, here’s what will help, good lighting, a separate mic and space whatever is possible. And then in the beginning, we’ll test it out before we get to any interesting information about playing and Alexander so that you kind of get as much of that done without interruption. And then we do that. If you are sitting and listening to masterclasses, if you’re in zoom situations where you are, well, actually, we just had a faculty meeting where there’s a lot of people talking and we don’t interact much.

Lori:
A lot of it is announcements and listening to things, I do remind people, you can get up. So students taking classes at school, I keep reminding them, you know, if you’re on zoom and you’re getting tired or uncomfortable, get up, there’s no one sitting behind you that’s going to be bothered. And most of the, you know, it won’t really bother the teachers that much, you know, you’re not disappearing. Just stand up, save your back, wake yourself up. Don’t do jumping jacks it’s a little too distracting, but get up and you can do that. You can move around. So I highly recommend that. The other thing, though, that is really helpful, whether it’s, someone just sitting at a desk and, and participating in a meeting or playing instruments, get the screen height so that you’re looking straight on. I was working with a singer at some point, who was singing a bit and what I was seeing of her, it was constantly looking down.

Lori:
So she had got profile to me and was standing. I could see all that, but her head was down. And, and like, you need to raise your video device so that you’re actually not impacting your physicality because of the video device. So if you get you, you know, spend the time put, if you’re using a laptop, you don’t necessarily have to buy extra stands and things just put a bunch of books under it. It’ll raise it up or lower you down or get us, you know, you can get very creative when we first started online in March. And I figured out I needed to do that. I used an ironing board. It was great ironing board transformed into a standing desk done. Yeah. You know, nobody sees it. It’s, doesn’t matter what it looks like. It’s in the right place for me wearing headphones a lot, perhaps the size of my headphones or my face, or whatever, was creating quite a bit of jaw tension from where they landed.

Lori:
So that was another reason I kind of wanted to get away from it. People that are sitting and watching and listening on zoom and, you know, can get a little tiresome. So maybe people are leaning down on their… Put their head on their chin and their elbows on the desk. And they’re kind of listening, watching a masterclass, whatever, if you do that for very long, um, what’s happening is you’re with your hand on your jaw, you’re pushing your chin and jaw to one side and creating quite a bit of neck tension and quite a bit of jaw tension. Early on and all this, there was a few articles in the New York times about jaw tension and things like that. And I’m watching this and go, well, here’s a reason don’t do that. It’s you just catch yourself in this habit. And like, anything else with Alexander, we’re just looking at habits that, that maybe are causing problems and you don’t need to do so. You look at something like you’re leaning down on your hand where that seems like it’s restful, it’s actually creating quite a bit of, uh, tensions. So when you start, you just remind yourself, okay, don’t do that. Just don’t lean on my hand when I’m sitting here, it’s amazing, actually, what can, how much that reduces problems. So you can start to examine just some of the ways you’re sitting in and being in front of zoom, which helps you in general, but will help in an interaction for a lesson.

Noa:
And this doesn’t have to be so specific as far as like endorsing particular mics or cameras or lighting. But I, I am curious, I mean, you mentioned you’re using a Blue Yeti, which I think is a pretty classic ease of use USB mic for most folks that works pretty well. Can I ask what web camera camera are you using? Is it the built-in one or, cause I know that some of them do a really nice job of much wider view and others are more narrow. And then of course phones can be vertical.

Lori:
Mine is built in it’s the built-in on a lab, a Mac laptop I have in December before the pandemic happened for various reasons, it was time to update my old computer. That was from 2011 and it wasn’t working on a lot of stuff. And so I made, I made the leap into whatever the newest 2019 laptop MacBook is. And it’s been great for the pandemic. The camera’s actually quite, quite a good HD device and I can make it pretty wide. So I haven’t done anything extra. Although I have looked at that because there are definitely advantages to a clip on camera that you can angle very easily differently from your own, um, laptop or a monitor, uh, I have a colleague Alexander teacher who has, uh, an older monitor, but he got a clip on camera and it’s great. And he uses air pods for, for talking. So he is also not tethered and wanders that he kind of wanders out of the, and you hear him just as well. So, so there are, there are ways, you know, everyone has their way, but yes, that’s the camera I’m using. As I say, a blue Yeti, which I had to get a stand for it. That is separate again, because I really do move around the room and I needed to pick that up.

Lori:
Uh, you also mentioned lighting, are we talking, just pulling a bunch of like lamps into that room or do you have special lighting of some kind?

Lori:
So I have some, uh, lamp in the corner that has three different sort of lights on it that are directional and have pretty good bulbs. So kind of blinding me right now. So I have that and I worked that out for one side. I also did get separate, uh, rectangular lighting setups from, I think these are genarays that are on stands that go up and down so that I can direct it carefully. What, you know, what happens in the course of the day, the light in my room changes and I’m teaching classes at nine at night because I have students in China that are in the morning. And the first time I did that, one of them said, it looks very dark where you are, what? Well it’s night time. And then I was like, oh, get a light. So I, I have delved into lighting, which I’m still working on improving because you, uh, you set up a separate light device.

Lori:
You don’t want it glaring in the camera for the people on the receiving end. I also have a mirror behind me, which I sometimes cover for lighting reasons and it makes the room too busy, but I also like to leave it open at times. So you don’t want the, you know, you have to look around your room, you don’t want the light causing glare on a window or a mirror that your student is just constantly distracted by. So I’m very audience centric. I am when I teach live and I am, you know, in a, in a room and I am online like this. So I’ve kind of been looking at what is the other person see? So I would be careful with the lighting thing. When I do have made video recordings on my phone, I’m using a little ring light and the, uh, the phone is in a stand so that I stand away from it. And the lighting there is pretty good. I recommend those. I know some of my students are using them also. So yeah, there are some, some things it takes awhile if you’re not a professional in any of these areas, which I am not, it takes a little while to sort it out. And it’s an interesting education.

Noa:
Yeah. And I, and I meant to ask this earlier, it’s going to sound ridiculous. But so when you say profile, I get what that means. If we’re talking about a cellist, right? Like instead of videotaping head-on to go from the side either for the right side or the left side, but for a violinist or violists say where their head is often turned towards their shoulder, as opposed to looking straight out, you know, from your body, like, what would that mean? Exactly?

Lori:
Well, it’s still, sometimes I’ll have them be not directly, you know, there’s not directly side view. Profile view may be a slight turn, you know, like, so they’re at a slight angle, but it’s still not head-on. Um, I really, with Alexander, what you learned to look at is the entire person and what we want the students to be aware of is their whole self and how everything works together. So if, if you know, violin, your head is of course somehow, uh, balancing the instrument, let’s take it into account. And I, I can see that just fine. And at times, if I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing is, I’ll either ask them to move or I’ll just ask them their experience. But, you know, uh, head-on doesn’t really show me the condition of their back in the way that I’m looking for. So I’m really looking from the top of the head to the, if I can see their feet to that. And even if you can’t see the contact with the ground, the feet on the ground, you can get an awful lot. So it doesn’t, I, I do take care of though to have them sometimes go one side or the other, because sometimes as you point out, like with a violin or viola, sometimes you’re seeing only one aspect and to get the other, so, all right, well now let’s just shift and stand this way.

Noa:
The thing that I was wondering about is because presumably everyone’s doing more sitting now, even then before, uh, in front of the screen, are there things that you’ve noticed in say this year’s group of students at the end of spring semester, relative to last year’s group of students, right? When in March, this was starting to, everything was getting shut down. Like, is there something that’s changed and the kinds of tension that your students have, perhaps that you’re noticing more of this year that might be systematically related in some way to how much time everyone’s spending? Cause you know, a lot of times students will be on their bed or on the couch, or like on the floor or the kitchen table, like in not particularly comfortable places for long periods of time looking down at their computer or phone. So.

Lori:
So it’s, I got… I definitely have a few few comments in response, one piece as to what you just said about yeah. You know, sometimes people got their laptop on their bed or their couch or they’re on the floor. So I spend, I one, one or two specific classes on the ergonomics of sitting with your laptop or computer,, and I did the very first in fact, now you’re reminding me now, the first classes we did this year were all about how to sit at your computer, because I said, you know, y’all are going to be doing a lot of this, some of you. And here’s a few things, not sure they were excited when I said, you know, on the bed is really, if you want, if you’re having issues with your back playing the violin, you probably do not want to be on your stomach, on your laptop, on your couch or bed.

Lori:
This is not going to work. But we, you know, very clearly gently went through everything and I taught them or what the, the field of ergonomics, how to set up in a better balance. So at least within my classes, mostly not all, mostly the set ups and things are pretty good, but I’m not, I, you know, I, some of them took it into account and carry that information elsewhere. Some of them maybe not so much, but we did talk about that and how to set up in a way that’s efficient that you can live the day through and how to mitigate the fatigue that does happen. So there’s that, there’s definitely ergonomics. You can learn that through Alexander. You can also learn some of that through other sources really easily and pay attention. It’s worth it. I can’t say to people listening enough, 20 minutes is a long time sitting on these things.

Lori:
And if you’re in for a while, more than that, it’s absolutely worth setting yourself up in a good way. And I could go into that, but I’ll hold on for now in terms of the kinds of fatigue. I think the overall thing that, um, tensions to see, whatever, certainly what I’m seeing is, is what we are referring to as zoom fatigue. And I know you have a blog about it and it’s a real thing, and there are many elements of it. So by the end of the last few weeks, um, I’ll say we weren’t looking all chipper and cheery online. Um, yes. More tensions. Yes. I actually have seen some of my students who were only online in class very recently. I have seen in person and with masks and windows open and all kinds of things. And, um, I learned quite a lot there and I think there’s definitely more neck and shoulder and back tensions as anyone would surmise.

Lori:
So at the end of your day of working at a two or three zoom classes or teaching that way or whatever, if you haven’t taken good care throughout the day, and your setup is a little bit less than beneficial, it’s by no means, uh, surprising to have a stiff neck or shoulders or any of that. For one, you can mitigate a lot through better ergonomics, as I said, and also, but ergonomics won’t do it alone. So as I said, like I have, uh, I’ve worked out a pretty good setup and I’m perfectly capable of sitting here, not very consciously in a mess. So there’s the consciousness. And the thing that makes Alexander technique different from physical therapy or ergonomics or occupational therapy is the level of consciousness that we bring to everything. And the fact that you have to, you realize that you make choices throughout the day.

Lori:
So if you’ve kind of slumped down in front of your computer for a while, you may not have made a conscious choice, but you could make other choices. And as you learn how to balance yourself well from the inside out and not just, oh, sit up straight. Now my back hurts differently. Cause I’m sitting up too straight. Um, once you learn how to mitigate all of that, you can improve matters tremendously. You don’t have to end up in a mess. Um, so the kinds of things are just, it’s the nature of sitting for long hours, one sitting by itself in a situation that’s not great and you’re not particularly conscious about staying a little bit better. And then there’s the sensory input that I find from zoom is massive. I mean, it’s just so much sensory stimulation, the sound, the light, the internet coming and going all the problems.

Lori:
We’ve all had you react to them. So let’s say you’re a student and you’ve got this a session with your teacher who you so glad to be having the time. And you’ve been working hard and you start playing and somebody’s internet goes funky, yours or the teachers. And then there’s some tension that just happens. You’re just angry or upset or whatever. And then you sorted out and you keep going those things that happen. There’s no experience that doesn’t trigger muscle tension. So maybe it’s only a little bit, but it accumulates. So a lesson perhaps you were really well prepared for and everything was perfectly well set up. And it was all going to be great, gets derailed by zoom. There’s a lot of stress that goes with that. That absolutely will you’ll end up with a tense neck and shoulder and back from that.

Lori:
So it’s not necessarily just that you’re sitting or the ergonomics of it is the whole, the whole world that, that you’re in. And with this, the online experience also means that you’re not, um, your space is limited and not only you might be in the biggest room in the place, but your space is limited by the screen where you have to be and what it shows. And then a kind of I’ve observed, um, subconscious, unconscious you’ll know, better, um, reaction to being in a box. You see yourself, you’re in a box and you realize you can only move in certain ways or you think you can only move. So there’s all of a sudden this other layer of unconscious limiting that starts to happen. There’s an unconscious layer sometimes with people raising their voice and then they get neck tension and all that from dealing with the microphones and raising their voice.

Lori:
So there’s a whole lot of sensory elements going on and there’s visual fatigue. So there’s a kind of an awful lot of one tip for people in the beginning that I was, uh, uh, careful to remember to tell people about is when you’re looking at screens, whether it’s a movie screen in a, in a big theater or zoom screens, we tend to blink less and eyes dry out a lot. And so as you’re looking at your zoom screen or your computer or whatever, remember make yourself blink. It’s a, you know, cause the eyes will dry out. And the other thing that’s reduces a fair amount of fatigue is to look away from the screen fairly frequently, like within every five minutes, because we’re looking so directly at people. It’s not quite the same as in real life. And there’s not much distance. I mean, you’re close to a screen as opposed to the three feet away you might be in or now six weeks by design.

Lori:
But so I I’ve taught, it taught the students to just look up above the screen, look out the window or a picture on the wall and then bring your eyes back. It’s 10 seconds of relief and full confession. I, at some point after a few weeks I was teaching and I’m watching the students and they keep looking away from the screen and I’m thinking, why aren’t they paying attention? And I realized that actually they had been paying attention and it was great. I was like, oh, they did what I suggested it works. It helps. So there are things and there is yes, massive fatigue. And I certainly hope that people will give themselves a little bit of leeway. Um, I hour long classes probably should be 45 minutes. The attention span really is different. And the accrual of that, of those hours is real. So we were doing pretty good in the beginning of the year, by the end of the year, the accrual of this whole situation is, is quite real.

Lori:
And rest is important. Distraction is helpful. Uh, in Alexander work, we do a lying down element called constructive rest, which I also taught early on, which is something you do on your own anyway, very easy to teach online. And I often will start classes with that. Or I taught it as an element of pre-performance preparation, a kind of mind-body meditation. And you can do that as a, a relief at the end of the day. It’s the bottom line is you’re lying on your back with your knees bent and your head supported by some books. And you’re resting. There’s a little more to it than that, but there are ways to unwind that. I think it’s really worth it for people to consider this. This is quite quite a sensory endeavor, all of this and it’s demanding on us.

Noa:
It sounds like the awareness piece is really important because we’re doing so much during the day that is taking your attention away from being more cognizant of how we’re sitting, how we’re moving…

Lori:
The consciousness piece you just is in Alexander. It’s really what we teach is a level of self consciousness that you use in action and at rest. And the self consciousness is extremely positive. It’s not a, and it’s why I keep putting the space in there, it’s not about being shy or worried. It’s actually knowing yourself and knowing what you’re doing and how you’re doing what you’re doing, or how you’re behaving and responding and having, um, an ability to monitor that in a, in a very positive way. It’s not deadening in any way. Uh, in fact, quite enlivening, great way to save energy is when you realize you’re using more than you need and you, you and you learn kinesthetically. So my original question about the online stuff in my own heart and soul was would we be able to do the kind of kinesthetic learning that happens in a, in a hands-on experience?

Lori:
And I think we can go a long way towards it. I have found that, and it’s a little bit more through consciousness and intellect than when it’s hands-on, which is a little more toward the sensory and sensation level. So it’s a kind of a balance which when we teach Alexander, we’re always in that balance, anyway. The current situation took away one element of it, which means as a teacher, I’ve had to get much more creative to help people sense what’s tensions and things in themselves in a way that’s a little different than, oh, my shoulders are tight or my shoulders go up to my ears when I play that’s that’s real, but there’s levels and levels of that. So we teach people how to sense themselves and the parameters of what to do with those sensations. So sensation is a means of it’s, um, it’s knowledge.

Lori:
So aches and pains. To me, that’s knowledge that gave us the system this kinesthetic system, including the aches and pains and discomforts as a means to figure things out. We don’t know when you take Alexander, you learn how to fit that in. Okay. I have this pain in my elbow. It’s maybe it’s coming from something else in me, some the angle of my hand and wrist, maybe actually the tension in my neck is causing my shoulder to pull in and my elbow to do something like that. So sensation is information and what you can learn online, a lot of parameters about that and how to recognize it when students, um, describe sensation to me, I will have to puzzle out a little bit of their way of talking, just their way of referring to things. And sometimes I have to ask a few questions to get clear, but once we figure it out, since the sensation is very useful information and not intimidating someone who’s had repetitive stress problems, ongoing it’s becomes intimidating and depressing and real in those regards. But it’s information that you can actually use given an understanding of it. And that we are able to do that in Alexander teaching. And I know the many teachers that have taught online for years. So what they’re doing is people helping people understand sensation and movement and reactions and how to mitigate it. Our hands-on work facilitates it, speeds it up, makes it more fun. It sure feels good, you know, but it’s possible.

 

Notes

  • Lori notes that she has set up her teaching space so that she can stand far enough away from the camera that students are able to see more of her body (24:59). Here’s an interview she did recently, which shows her setup and what students see when she’s teaching: Alexander at The Juilliard School – Lori Schiff

More info

In addition to the video interview above, you can also hear an audio interview with Lori here: Lori Schiff: The Alexander Technique – At Home with Yourself

You can also learn more about Lori and contact her for questions or sessions here: lorischiff.com

And learn more about group workshops here: Flight Feather Productions

Looking for a summer project?

I don’t know if there’s any data on this yet, but anecdotally, I’ve heard from some folks that as wonderful as it has been to perform with colleagues again, it’s also been a bit of an adjustment to have to deal with nerves again after many months away.

So if you’ve been looking for a fun summer project, and would be interested in adding a few new practice and performance preparation tools to your teaching toolbox in advance of the fall semester, you may be interested in the upcoming series of live workshops, specifically for educators, that I’m running in June and July. Specifically, on Wednesdays – June 16, 23, 30, and July 14 and 21.

I’ll show you how I present effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone to my own students. And there will be worksheets and activities you can “steal,” small-group mastermind sessions, Q&A’s, and perhaps a few random cat videos too. But all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.

Teachers who have participated in this workshop series have reported seeing some pretty cool changes in their students. Not just in terms of the level of their playing, but in their ability to experience a wee bit more joy and satisfaction in daily practice sessions as well.

If you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the details here: Performance Psych Essentials for Educators

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Do you know your mental strengths and weaknesses?

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice hacks that could help you level up.

Share
Tweet
Email