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Biting - Its often how we think that matters!

jonnie

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I have for a long time enjoyed the benefits of Alexander Technique and I have mentioned it in a few postings, I thought I would share ideas that were introduced to me a long time ago by my AT teacher to do with biting, its really just observation about anatomy but also the way a lot of people think and AT teachers will point out that the way you think alters the way you move.

Many people have the following subconscious misconceptions. ( they are persistent because they are subconscious - misconceptions that are conscious are readily challenged ).

1. They forget that they have a head and a single lower jaw, our mouths do not mechanically resemble a pair of pliers - sounds daft but some people do seem to subconsciously carry images that do not agree with common sense. If people stopped and examined the image they would see the fallacy but that's the problem with subconscious images and habit - rarely questioned rarely examined, the most intelligent people use themselves in the most ridiculous ways. An alternative definition of habit could be penned along those lines.

Strictly speaking you do not have an upper jaw but rather teeth sockets and teeth fixed in your skull.

2. The next level of misconception and a more common one is to think of a lower jaw closing against the skull as if a hinge existed at the back of the neck. Try chewing with this image in mind for a while just to see how quickly you will induce tension at the back of the neck which ironically may further strengthen the image of a joint there, after all joints get sore so presumably the thing that is hurting is a joint, in reality it indicates a mis-use of musculature. Pain should be a warning but it is often incorporated into our misconception further strengthening it.

This image closely relates to a pacman head - having an imaginary jaw joint towards the back of your neck really can tense just about everything up.

The extreme of this second pathology is when people attempt to lift their head to speak rather than lower the jaw, the attempt is to lift the head up off the jaw - watch people when they are put under a lot of pressure and see how often the head lifts (its often a small movement*) when they inhale anxiously before their first sentence, note also that the inhalation becomes a gulp or a gasp as the breathing mechanism is challenged by the mis-use.

*Alexander had this habit, he required a mirror to see this he could not sense it.

A moments reflection on the shape of a lower jaw in profile shows it is kind of "L" shaped, it may be lifted parallel to the top teeth (forklift truck) or closed at an angle. The lower jaw can be lifted by a whole range of musculature, you can use musculature extending up towards your ears or you can use musculature in your cheeks or around your mouth. Try imagining a scarf extending under your jaw snug with the front of your neck and then tie a knot in the scarf around the crown of your head, think of lifting the jaw from there, think of a rubber band around your nose, under your chin (ok in reality it would probably slip off but imagination can ignore that). The truth is we have almost infinite choice and subtlety in how we lift the jaw and the only thing that stops us experimenting with all of these is fixed ideas, fixed images - in short habit.

The jaw is similar to the shoulder blades in the sense that these are bones that have substantial area. The bones in our arms are pretty much linear however the jaw and shoulder blades have no real joint or single point of rotation or flexure, they have multiple points of muscular insertion, in many ways it would be more accurate to think of them floating in a sea of musculature within certain limits being free to move anywhere or rotate around non-fixed points.

Parallel "lifting" (fork lift truck) is a good way to feel what it is like to raise your jaw without resorting to the imaginary joint in the back of the neck, it's a good idea to play around with all the musculature and see how many different ways the jaw can be lifted and which muscles can be used. Parallel lifting can help to keep the back of the throat more open.

The idea here is not to replace a wrong idea with a right idea it is to make space for new ideas by removing a stubborn subconscious habit or mental image that prevents new things from happening. Alexander said that as soon as we have something good we should "throw it away" - when we cling to good things we invent new habits.

I would like to also quote jbtsax who says elsewhere things that correspond with my own experiences.

"The top teeth rest on the top of the mouthpiece and press down slightly which helps create the sensation of the lower teeth and jaw pulling down and away from the reed. The role of the upper lip is to create an airtight seal at the top of the mouthpiece. The upper teeth being fixed can't bite. It is the upward movement of the jaw that pushes the lower teeth up which when done improperly can cause a "biting" effect. In an ideal "classical" embouchure the lower teeth support the lower lip which is rolled back just enough to cover them. The muscles around the mouth help to press the lower lip up against the reed to control the tone, while at the same time the jaw and chin have the feeling of pulling down slightly. Opening the teeth a bit when one plays helps to achieve this concept."

My way of expressing this is that the (developed) musculature of the lower lip press upwards and since for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction the lower jaw is pressed down slightly by the action of the lip, in response musculature must support the lower jaw but it is not the intent to press the jaw upwards towards the reed but instead to support the lower jaw against the reaction caused by the lower lip pressing upward.

Sometimes I find it beneficial to mentally "dissolve" my lower jaw bone completely, to pretend that I have learnt to play sax with a physical disadvantage (no jaw bone) and learnt to rely only on the flesh of my jaw, other times I seek to disassociate the jaw bone (mentally) from the flesh so that the jaw sinks like a ship sinking in a sea of my flesh.

Of course in reality these images are just as fictitious as the legendary jaw joint at the back of the neck, sometimes one image can be countered by its extreme opposite, taking care of course not to substitute one inflexible unchanging image for another ( those are called habits - bad things ! ).

We need to be careful evaluating images by literal comparison with our own sensations at any given point in time because our "real" our "reference point" or reality is shaped heavily by our own habits their invisible bias in our view of ourselves that we take so readily to be neutral. Its better to use ideas or images to fight ideas or images than to adopt them permanently - they are intended to fight fire with fire not form new beliefs.

In short what we think we are doing is rarely what we are actually doing the only re-assurance that we have in this situation is Alexander's assertion that when you stop doing the wrong thing, when you destroy your habit or the conception or image behind it "then the right thing will do itself" again telling us to use new ideas to destroy old ideas with caution otherwise we risk the new ideas becoming new habits. Alexander stated that we will never know when we are right we can only ever know when we are wrong.
 
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richardr

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From my point of view this is a timely post. The neck of my usual tenor is away for re-corking, together with my two favourite mouthpieces so I've been having to experiment with 'pieces that I haven't used for a long time on my spare tenor. Right now I'm seeing whether I can manage with the mouthpiece on which I began my saxphonic journey many years ago. It has a narrower tip opening than the ones to which I've become used and requires no pressure at all from my lower jaw to support my lip.
 

Guenne

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those are called habits - bad things !

Hey,

Thanks for your post.

I have been an Alexander student for about 5 years, taking both hands-on-lessons and Skype lessons with Bill Plake (Pasadena).
Bill would probably answer that if they help you, habits are not necessarily bad things.

Lots of the Alexander thinking can be found in the teaching of Joe Allard, although Joe wasn't an Alexander teacher, I'm not even sure if he knew about it.

Here's one of Bill Plake's thoughts:

Opening your mouth

Cheers
 

Nick Wyver

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Here's one of Bill Plake's thoughts:

Opening your mouth
That was interesting, thanks, but it took me a while before I realised what he was on about. When I first tried to open my mouth whilst holding my lower jaw steady, I couldn't do it. Eventually I got the knack of tilting my whole head backwards. I must confess I haven't studied what other people do when breathing but that way seems bonkers.
 

jonnie

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Hi Guenne, nice to meet a fellow AT person and also thanks for the article.

"Bill would probably answer that if they help you, habits are not necessarily bad things"

I would allow Bill to speak for himself there:)

I would suggest if he does say this then he would want to qualify it carefully. ( whoops now I am speaking for him - why dont you ask him to write a paragraph on this and post it up at a later time ?)

A habit as Alexander defined it is almost always considered a bad thing because it is a habitual, unchanging, unthinking and unexamined reaction to a stimulus, we can react almost instantaneously to a given stimulus if we have habits but for that 'benefit' we give something up in return. Anything that is a habit can be performed the same way but with voluntary choice rather than unconcious slavery it does not deny us a particular path it simply asks us to re-examine things afresh every time which is surprisingly little overhead or work.

Alexander's whole concept is based on the observation that pretty much any habitual and unthinking voluntary reaction to a stimulus is bad simply because the reaction is not evaluated, an immediate observation is that a habitual reaction denies us the space to insert a pause and find a better way.

We have to get inside the pure definition of habit as it applies to Alexander work - it condemns you if left unbroken to always react the same way to a given stimulus - how can that ever be helpful? You always have the choice of performing a task in the habitual way should you so choose after first inhibiting an immediate response and this can all take place within the blink of an eye, we do not give up any options we do not wish to.

Of course we jump out of the way of speeding cars by involuntary instinctive reaction but that is not what Alexander is concerned with
.

Alexander was concerned with following principles, core fundamentals that enable us to stop the interference we would otherwise subject ourselves to. If a habit is useful in reminding us to take note of how we are going about things then yes sure the habit may well be useful. I for one wish I could develop a habit to always be aware of my neck and head when I am typing at a computer keyboard. At one stage I considered perhaps wearning a wrist band or some kind of a memory aid to pull me out of computer induced postual stupor.

My first contact with AT was over fifteen years ago and just like any other AT student or teacher I find myself constantly thrown back to the very start time after time - AT is the most difficult thing and paradoxically the easiest thing anyone will ever be asked to learn because it constantly asks us not to learn but to unlearn and in western society at least that is an extraordinarily difficult thing for most people to do. Anyone who tells you that they are doing well at Alexander Technique probably isn't people who are actually doing well probably stay well clear of allowing themselves to think that as it is a form of "being right" which gets in our way.

In Alexandrian terms really the only habits that are truely beneficial are ones that remind us of the "first principles".

Of course loyalty to a principle is perhaps a habit and we can rapidly turn it in on itself and say well isn't it a habit to believe or adhere consistently to the "first principles" and yes indeed it is. I know some Alexander teachers who are purists and perhaps overlook benefits that may be found in other areas.

There are other modalities out there such as Tai Chi, Heller, Hanna, Ideokinesis (Todd, Andre Bernard and others) and other somatic disciplines and those who choose to follow an Alexandrian path without examining other possibilities are showing signs of habit but hopefully most have looked around but adhere to the principles they have been taught because they have experienced benefit - I personally have found benefit from the others so I guess I am not a Alexander purist but it remains my bedrock.
 
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jbtsax

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This is a lot to digest in one setting. Thanks for introducing these concepts. There may be some questions that follow.
 

Guenne

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A habit as Alexander defined it is almost always considered a bad thing because it is a habitual, unchanging, unthinking and unexamined reaction to a stimulus, we can react almost instantaneously to a given stimulus if we have habits but for that 'benefit' we give something up in return.

Thanks for making that clear (we both know that).
Creating that awareness of my habits, and what they are doing to me (not only to my playing) took me years (and will take years, as the process never stops).
One of my first Alexander books was named (I am translating from German): "From Autopilot to self control".
Well said I think.


asks us not to learn but to unlearn and in western society at least that is an extraordinarily difficult thing for most people to do.

Yeah, and in sax playing many things are about avoiding (habitual) things and not learning special skills.
I've learned that too.


Cheers, Guenne
 

jonnie

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My reading glasses wore out half way through the first post. Anybody got the abridged version?

Sorry for the length Colin but I don't think I can abridge it for you :)

A skilled AT teacher might come up with something more condensed but it is extremely difficult to point out almost universal habits to people because they will rarely believe they have that habit, that is why a visit to an AT teacher is often a profound experience for people.

I put considerable care into repeaded edits of the first posting and I still see things that need adjusting, AT demands a degree of linguistic precision and clarity which I find difficult to achieve it needs to be precise and comprehensive because even then when people's habits are pointed out to them they will say "I don't do that it must be other people" or "impatiently.....Yup yup yup - I already got it, I understood what you meant the first time" after which then they will immediately go back to doing their thing exactly the way they did it before anyone pointed it out to them.

The expediency of intellectual understanding does not cut the cake - careful unhurried thought and observation just might.

Its the nature of the beast.

Long monologues might not be the ideal but I wanted to point something out and it would be worthless and irresponsible not to give it my best shot to aim for accuracy - the length I am afraid is a consequence of this and
my own imperfections.
 
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ProfJames

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What is the problem even if "you" do bite? Not everyone has the same embouchure.
 

jonnie

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What is the problem even if "you" do bite? Not everyone has the same embouchure.

What do we mean by biting?

The type of biting I am interested in here is one that places unnecessary strain on the entire respiratory system and in particular the throat and larynx, anything that tenses the neck region has consequences throughout.

If biting is simply moving the lower teeth towards the upper teeth then there are ways to do this with or without unnecessary tension - beginners seem to opt for the latter?
 

Guenne

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The type of biting I am interested in here is one that places unnecessary strain on the entire respiratory system and in particular the throat and larynx, anything that tenses the neck region has consequences throughout.

In fact biting (as far is I understand) often leads to stiffening, resulting in bringing no (or uncontrolled) pressure instead of too much pressure to the reed.

Joe Allard used to use the syllable "ex" (from www.joeallard.org)

Cheers, Guenne
 

jonnie

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Thanks Guenne, useful

The Allard "ex" is familiar to me.

Leibmans comments on holding the reed not the mouthpiece are interesting I would like to think about that next play session.

I don't get along with Allard's advice to feel the reed with the teeth, I rely a lot more on lower lip support and a lot less on the lower teeth, I gain most of my lower lip upthrust from much lower down and also support from the entire facial mask.

Within my own experimentation I am increasingly drawn to the idea that embouchure cannot be understood in isolation, it is intimately bound up in the way we breath, if the breathing changes then so must the embouchure. I cannot support this. I get the impression that the times when breathing is going very well then embouchure seems to matter a lot less than it does when breathing is not going so well.

I think the two are intimately bound and apart from personal taste and all the physiological differences with teeth, oral cavities and so on you would need to understand the way that someone else breathes to understand why they have the embouchure they do.

Perhaps we should think of the breathing apparatus as including the mouth, the lips, the oral cavity, the tongue, the facial mask, the jaw I think Alexander would have gone a lot further.

As I write this I am looking into the distance at a tree - if I stare hard at it with intent my breathing tightens as does my neck, if I soften around my eyes and 'melt' my gaze and perhaps allow my eyes to wander to other parts of the scene then the tightness lifts - familiar to an AT person I know.
 
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ProfJames

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Do people who have false teeth take them out in order to play, or leave them in?
What a cracker! I have three false bottom front teeth which I can remove.....but...........it depends if I move my bottom jaw or my upper jaw..........
 

Alice

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I have been taught to play this way,
Saxophone Embouchure

I am not sure if I understand about "biting" in the sense of the original post but i've never had any misconceptions about how my jaw works.. probably because of my extensive skull collection.
 

Colin the Bear

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I find it amazing that some need a teacher and a structured learning programme to accomplish what others know from the get go.
 

richardr

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I find it amazing that some need a teacher and a structured learning programme to accomplish what others know from the get go.
Teachers are sometimes a mixed blessing. Each of us has his/her own ideas of how it should done. One teacher's "bad habit" is the right way to do it for another. To give one example, before I ever went to a teacher, I'd got into the habit of blowing A# using the side key. My first teacher insisted that I ought instead to blow Bb using the Bb key and that's the way I usually do it now, the way I showed Dot-to-dot. Her teacher told her this was wrong and that she ought to blow A#. That's what she does.
I'm fortunate now in having a teacher who knows enough not to be too prescriptive. If it works, do it. He may suggest a better way and if that works I'll do it; if it doesn't I carry on as before. He's worth every penny of his fees because he's teaching me useful stuff that I might have taken ages to discover on my own, if at all.
 

Lesley

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I have been taught to play this way,
Saxophone Embouchure

I am not sure if I understand about "biting" in the sense of the original post but i've never had any misconceptions about how my jaw works.. probably because of my extensive skull collection.
I tend to use fig. 5. In fact I use 6 as well when I'm conscious of maybe 5 could be incorrect. Pleased to hear neither are incorrect :)
 

jonnie

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I have been taught to play this way,
Saxophone Embouchure
.

Regards the original book (Ben Davis), I would have preferred photos of players who actually use the different types of embouchure and then preferably when playing rather than one person demonstrating all three and either playing half heatedly or just acting. There are intense jazz moments caught on film that demonstrate 5 with a lot more conviction. Coltrane is fun to watch just to see the muscles moving, and perhaps to catch a glimmer of their intent.
 
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