F.M. Alexander on Tension and Freedom in Guitar-Playing

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” 

F.M. Alexander

Frederick Matthias Alexander created a work whereby he could break free from habitual patterns of tension. We all have these patterns. Some are constructive, others are not.

The Alexander Technique is a practice whereby students can inhibit automatic muscle contractions. It’s widely used by actors, musicians, and people with chronic pain.

His idea was that if you stop all the non-desirable tension patterns, the best use of the self could emerge. This means that we can do any action with the least effort needed.

This is the implication of the quote, “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” If we don’t go wrong, we’ll go right.

This is not a universal truth. In many areas, we can topple one bad element only to have it replaced by one worse. We may not be aware of all the forces at play. And changing just one element in an ecosystem can cause an imbalance in which new problems can arise.

Alexander counters this by focusing on the prime directive: freedom in all joints, appropriate tension for the task at hand, and a general sense of “up.”

A common mistake beginning guitarists make is to assume that what feels “natural” is the best way. It rarely is.

That is because these feelings are only based on previous comfort (homeostasis). Much of playing classical guitar well is counter-intuitive.

So we must avoid what we know to be wrong while allowing for new possibilities. Meanwhile, we continue to discover, through teachers and experience, what to avoid.

Viktor Frankl also spoke to this in more general terms: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Avoiding the wrong gives space for something different and new. This can feel strange because it is not our usual way of doing.

If we continue to inhibit (prevent) excess tension while keeping the prime directive in mind, we can play with more ease, fluidity, and awareness.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Hi Allen,
First public performance ever! I am up to Level 1E in The Woodshed program. It is certainly mega helpful.


~ Peter Graham

-Peter Graham

I also want to thank you for including more video lessons on the Bridges Guitar Series. I have learned to play Calatayud's Waltz. The most exciting thing about having done this is that I sight-read the entire piece as I was learning it. Six months ago looking at a sheet of music was like looking at Egyptian hieroglyphics. Learning to read notation is empowering and I appreciate the sensible way you are teaching us to learn to read music.


~ Steve Simpler

-Steve Simpler

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