A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect. [1]

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf

Why a pre-performance performance is a great idea

A pre-performance performance can stop little things getting in your wayEarlier this year my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It reminded me once again of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Learning to follow through: why we bail out on our plans

Musical phrases require us to follow through to the endDo you follow through? Do you push through to the end of things?

My son is currently learning Solveig’s Song by Grieg for his grade 4 trumpet exam. One of the things that he is finding tricky at the moment is playing right through to the end of the phrases. Each phrase is quite long and requires good breath control, and it is so very tempting to cut the long note at the end of the phrase short and have a break!

I have experienced something similar with one of my recorder pieces. I found myself cutting a phrase short, and realised I was doing it because I was already thinking about the tricky phrase coming up!

It doesn’t just happen in music. I once taught a group of actors who were using a chaise longue in a scene. They were all experiencing achiness in the low back. When I watched them, I realised that they all effectively ‘stopped sitting’ a few inches above the seat of the chaise – at the same height as all the other chairs in the rehearsal room! Plonking down those final few inches when they’d already ‘sat’ was causing the low back discomfort.

FM Alexander didn’t follow through, either

FM Alexander found that even after he’d discovered the physical acts that were causing his vocal trouble and had created a plan (and whole new set of mental disciplines) in order to use his voice more effectively, that actually using his plan was a whole other challenge. He reverted to his ‘instinctive use’  – his previous way of using his voice – more often that not. FM realised that he was trying to use a new protocol that he had carefully reasoned out, but was trying to judge how well he was doing by whether he was feeling right.[1] This is a bit like deciding to follow a healthy eating plan but finishing every meal with a big slice of chocolate cake: self-defeating!

Deciding not to follow through = ‘feeling right’

The thing is, when we see the phrase ‘feeling right’ we can be misled into thinking it’s referring purely to physical sensation.  But it can refer to the more subtle pay-off of not having to examine one’s thinking, too. Even as we decide to follow a particular plan in order to take us towards the goal we desire, we can still fool ourselves into thinking we are changing and improving. We can believe we are following our plan, while not actually following through on everything that we need to do in order to change and improve.

If I am shortchanging one phrase to think about the next, I am choosing to feel right (worrying about the next phrase is more important than finishing this one).

When my son stops the final note in the first phrase of Solveig’s Song early, he is choosing to feel right (I would rather stop playing than have to rethink the length of the phrase so I can breathe in further).

If my students stop using their hip joints before they reach the chaise, they are choosing to feel right (I would rather not have to think about the chair height, but just sit the way I always do).

But if we genuinely want to improve, then we really do need to examine our thinking. We need to honour the process that we’re following, and choose to not just follow that process, but also accept all the implications of that process. And sometimes that will involve having to change the way we think. So I’ll need to stop worrying about the next phrase, and just keep playing the one I’m in the middle of. My son will need to rethink his phrasing and breathing so that he can play his piece the way he wants.

What about you? What implications do you need to accept and incorporate, so that you can follow your process all the way through to its conclusion?

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, 1985, pp.44-45.

Do you view performance as process, or as an end?

Pink Noise in performanceWhen preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

Over the last few months, I’ve had a number of students (acting and music) articulate their ideas about an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over, and that your job is to deliver a finished product.

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night. But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process? In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

Performance as process

When I teach actors or singers, they often ask me to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I remind the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that they used when they first created their interpretation. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they place themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.[1]

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

Ideas to promote performance as process

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?

 

[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Noticing the good: improvement through generating a string of successful experiences

Create a string of successful experiences - a bit like bunting flags!When you practice or perform, do you notice good things you’ve done, or just the things that didn’t go well?

It may not surprise you to know that, in my experience, classical musicians are THE WORST at noticing good things about their performance. They can tell me about intonation problems, about missed position shifts, cracked notes, fluffed semi quavers. Rarely can they tell me about the beautiful phrasing, the breath control, the semi quavers that went by without a hitch. In fact, if I mention the good things I heard, most of the time they didn’t even notice them. It is as if they never even happened!

A lot of musical training is centred around noticing and correcting the things that didn’t work. And don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense to notice our mistakes and to attempt to correct them. But if we notice only the things that went badly, we risk setting ourselves up for a hard time, because we will actually be conspiring with the way our brains operate to work against ourselves.

Why your brain prefers bad things

First of all, our brains are, evolutionarily speaking, really well designed for noticing things that are potentially bad or dangerous. The amygdala – one of the most primitive parts of the brain – acts a bit like a security system to keep us away from danger.[1] Our attentional filter also contains some pretty impressive neuro-chemical systems that are designed to break through whatever we are doing to keep us out of danger. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever been driving on the motorway, and only realised you’d let your mind wander after your brain has jerked you back from drifting into the next lane![2]

Because these systems are neuro-chemically based, and because the brain is a plastic (changeable) thing, by paying more attention to the things that worry us (like intonation problems or fluffed semiquavers) we can actually cause our attentional systems and our amygdala to fire more immediately at errors. We can, in effect, train ourselves to be more anxious!

Memory encoding bear traps

Additionally, when we practice a piece of music, for example, we are trying to create stronger memory traces in our brains so that the information can be retrieved more easily.[3] But what is encoded depends on what we most pay attention to and how strong the emotional connection was (either positive or negative).[4] My memories of the ultrasound department of my local hospital, for example, are primarily of the location of the toilets. I was pregnant and having my 20 week scan, and I had been told to drink water so the scan would be more effective. Increased water consumption and a squashed bladder coloured my perceptions and my memories of the space!

In a similar way, it seems likely that our memories of a piece of music will be coloured by what we paid attention to while we learned it. If all we thought about was the stuff that didn’t work or seemed hard, then that is most likely what we will continue to remember.

Learning to notice good things: creating a string of successful experiences

So the key, then, is to dampen down the effect of the amygdala, and to take advantage of our brain’s abilities in encoding memories by giving it the right stuff to remember. We want to encode positive experiences, not negative ones. And FM Alexander has something to say about how to do this.

A few weeks ago, my lovely colleague Karen Evans and I discussed that one of our favourite sections of FM Alexander’s books is his comment that “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[5] It looks like a simple phrase – because it is. It looks like a truism, too. Obviously, we will be more confident about something if we have success at it. But it really is worth unpacking the significance of Alexander’s comment.

What he is telling us is that, if we want to have confidence in the tasks we perform, we need to have had a string of successful experiences. This string of successful experiences doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves; it gives us a solid foundation of understanding that, because we have completed the task successfully in the past, if we follow the same process, we will have similar success the next time. Our mission, then, is to generate that string of successful experiences.

And we won’t be able to even begin generating that string of successful experiences if we aren’t even able to notice the things that went well. I’ll talk next week about how we begin to structure our practice sessions so that we can generate a string of successful experiences. This week, though, I want to set you one simple task. Each time you practice, can you write down three things that went well? Can you begin each practice session with the intention to notice the good things about your performance, as well as the bad?

Give it a go, and I’ll be back next week with how we can utilise our new-found skills to construct a confidence-building string of successful experiences.

 

[1] Bella Merlin, Facing the Fear, London, Nick Hern Books, 2016, p.20.

[2] Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind, London, Penguin, 2015, p.47.

[3] Barbara Oakley, Mindshift, New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2017, p.34.

[4] Levitin, p.52.

[5] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384.

Image by galzpacha on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change your language, change everything: a neat way to improve your practice approach

change your language and feel more freeHave you ever noticed that the way you describe something changes the way you approach it or experience it? I’ve had that experience recently with my running. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. Prior to the decision, I was ‘going out for a run’ a couple of times a week. But giving myself that goal also encouraged me to change my language. Now I ‘go training’.

The change in terminology changed my approach to the running. I now run more regularly (generally 4 times a week), and with a greater commitment and intensity. I find that I am more prepared to push myself to try a little harder to get up the steep hills in my park, and I’m more committed to keeping going. As a result, I am now able to run further and faster. By changing my language use, I changed my attitude and created an improvement in my fitness.

Change your language; change your flexibility

If you change your language, you change the way you conceptualise the thing you are describing. If you change the concept, you can improve the use.

Regularly with beginning students, I find that they have very little range of motion in their necks – they can’t move their head very far upwards or downwards. When I ask what their neck is for, these students most often reply, ‘to hold my head on’. When I explain the structure of their neck (7 cervical vertebrae, lots of muscles, etc.), and ask them again what they think their neck might be for, they generally change their description to ‘moving my head’. And suddenly the range of motion of their neck frees up markedly!

But this isn’t always true: a person can say that they are, for example, happy with their body shape but not believe it, and not act as if it is true. A person can say that they are writing a novel, and even decide to describe themselves as a writer, yet fail to to do any writing. So when does the change of description create the change in concept, and when does it not?

It’s a phenomenon that FM Alexander understood. Back in 1910 he stated that “A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”[1] It’s one of my all-time favourite sections of Alexander’s work, because he clearly talks about the power behind the changed point of view – the reasoning that goes with it. I didn’t just change my language use when I started to ‘go training’; I had a goal and motivation behind the language. My students don’t just change the range of motion of their necks; they gain an understanding of the structure of their neck which leads them to alter their description.

So how can we use this in our music practice?

Change your language; change the music

Dr Noa Kageyama in his most recent blog discussed something that I’ve been working on with my music students for a while now – the importance of verbalisation. Dr Kageyama recalled Leon Fleischer asking musicians to clearly explain what their musical intent was for a particular passage they were playing. “He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want.”[2]

My students have found the same. One violin student, for example, was having trouble with the intonation and phrasing on a piece by Grieg. After I asked him to explain exactly what he was trying to achieve, his playing of the passage improved substantially. I had encouraged my violin student to ‘own’ the concept behind the musical passage by encouraging him to put it into words.

So if you are struggling with a particular passage, try explaining to yourself (or to a friend) what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Or if you find you have labelled a particular passage ‘difficult’, try to explain to yourself what is difficult about the passage, and then how the passage fits into the structure of what is around it. By doing this, you’ll have changed (or at least improved) your concept of the passage in question. And if you change your language, you open yourself up to new opportunities for discovery and improvement

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.44.

[2] http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/a-technique-for-finding-your-car-keys-faster-that-might-also-be-applicable-in-the-practice-room/

Image by dan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

Are you in a musical rut? Do you ever find yourself drifting through the same pieces each time you practice? Do you struggle to find the motivation to try something new or difficult?

It can be very tricky to keep momentum, particularly as a solo performer, and especially as an amateur musician. Faced with the choice between doing hard work learning (potentially challenging) new material, or spending time refining something we already know, many of us will choose the latter option. It saves us the pain and trouble of learning the new piece, and we have the instant gratification of improvement. We feel like we have achieved something, even if we secretly know that we haven’t really achieved very much at all.

There are good reasons why we avoid the harder task. Engineering professor and learning expert Barbara Oakley reminds us that “we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.”[1] In her book A Mind for Numbers she recounts a medical imaging study of mathphobes. When the math phobic subjects thought about doing maths problems, the pain centres of their brains lit up. But when they actually started working on the problems, the pain went away. In other words, the anticipation of doing the thing we find uncomfortable is actually painful! But if we get on and do the task, the pain goes away and we are open to the rewards of our labours.

This ‘inertia of mind’ is nothing new: FM Alexander wrote about it in 1910. He reminded us that most people live very narrow lives, doing and thinking the same things every day. But he also reassured his readers that once this inertia of mind is overcome, “it is astonishing how easily [the brain] may be directed.”[2]

So what should we do to get out of our musical rut? My suggestion to you today is to try setting a goal or a deadline for yourself – something that is public, time limited, and just a little bit outside your comfort zone.

Doing the slightly scary…

Setting a slightly scary new goal (like a new performance, or one with a new partner, or with brand new music) has the following benefits:

Deadlines – a performance gives you a deadline to work to
Accountability – other people will know about what you’re doing, so you can’t procrastinate
Novelty – humans like things that are new and shiny. New and shiny goals are more attractive, so we are more likely to spend time on them.
Uncertainty – a bit of uncertainty is good. It’s good to occasionally find oneself doing things that might not work – as FM said, “I could do no harm by making the experiment…”[3]

It’s a tactic I am currently using myself. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. It has had an immediate impact upon the consistency and intensity of my training runs, even though the event in in late September, and as I write it is only early May!

Similarly, my son isn’t particularly ready for his cello exam. But we decided to book for an earlier date rather than waiting a couple of months, as he and I agreed that he will be more motivated by the earlier deadline. We both think that he’ll just get bored if he has the extra time!

But only slightly scary!

But make sure that you put enough safety features in place so that you aren’t paralysed by fear. For example, when I was recovering from stage fright, an important step was playing a solo piece in performance. I pushed myself by picking a stupidly difficult piece (the first movement of the Bach Partita? Please!), but I made sure that I picked a small venue where it wouldn’t matter if I messed up, and I had my consort friends around for support. I also gave myself plenty of time to prepare.

So if you’re stuck in a musical rut, see if you can find a way to create a goal for yourself: a new piece, a new performance, or a new collaboration. Make your new goal interesting, time sensitive if possible, and just a little bit scary. And don’t forget: the anticipation will be painful, but once you get stuck in, the discomfort goes away. Then you just have fun.

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, New York, Penguin, 2014, pp84-5.
[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.67.
[3] Alexander FM., The Use of the Self, IRDEAT, p.413.

Why trusting decisions is vital for your development

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Do you have problems following through, trusting decisions that you’ve made? Perhaps you work hard at finding the right answer, but then have trouble trusting your choices when it comes to the crunch?

I think all of us struggle with this at some point. One of my students found trusting decisions a challenge, but recently made a breakthrough. When I first met him, he struggled with following through on what he’d planned. In essays he wouldn’t quite write the sentence that would nail his argument. When playing he would choose in performance to not quite do everything that way he’d rehearsed.

He reminded me of – well, me actually. As a young theatre student,  lecturers constantly told me that my acting just didn’t hit the mark. My playing choices were good, but it just looked like I didn’t really commit to what I’d decided was right. I wasn’t trusting decisions that I’d made, and to an audience it looked like I was holding back.

FM Alexander had the same sort of issue when he was trying to solve his vocal problems. He had worked out what he was doing wrong, had experimented with preventing it (with some success), and had worked out a better protocol so he could use his voice more effectively. There was only one problem: when he went to speak, he went back to using the old protocol and using his vocal mechanisms poorly. Why?

Being right vs feeling comfortable

FM realised that he was looking to old habitual feeling pathways to work out if he was doing the new (unfamiliar) thing effectively. It hadn’t occurred to him that doing the new thing might not feel comfortable. And when faced with the choice of feeling uncomfortable doing the new thing or feeling comfy doing the old ineffective thing, he chose the latter.*

It was only when he realised he had to trust in his reasoning processes totally that FM really made progress. He said:

my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ‘end’ must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.**

This was exactly the problem I’d had as a student actor. I made decisions about what was the right way to play the role at any given moment, but if I had a choice between trusting decisions I’d made and feeling comfortable, I chose feeling comfortable every time.

My student, having studied this section of Alexander’s text, had the opportunity to change his response. He began trusting his decision-making process, and had a lot of success. He got through to the final of a major college music competition, and played beautifully. A couple of days later, I asked him about the experience. He was thrilled, because he’d had a plan for how to handle the final, and he’d followed through on every part of it. He had trusted his decisions.

Can you think of an area where you need to trust in the decisions you’ve made, and just follow through?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, pp.43-44.
** ibid, p.45.
Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net