Blog

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

Yellow sign - When you practise Alexander Technique you are a mind under construction.

Students often ask me how they should practise Alexander Technique. Often it’s the new students who ask, but sometimes the experienced ones do, too. We work on something in a lesson, and the student experiences a positive change. Understandably, they want the positive change to persist and even get better. So they ask me: “How should I work on this?”

And at this point I take a deep breath, because I’m about to say something to them that they may not like.

But before I tell you what I tell them, I’m going to explain why asking how to practise Alexander Technique is such a tricky question.

We think we know what practising looks like.

Most of us have either played a musical instrument, or been involved in sport, or trained for a 10k or a sponsored walk, or done something that involves practice. So we think we know what it is. A cello teacher, for example, might work with her student on making the shifts in a 3 octave C major scale, and suggest that the student just works on the shifts in order to get used to the movement pattern. Similarly, when I ran my first 10k race I followed a training plan that told me how often to run each week, and how long/fast each run should be.

Both of these are good examples of direct instruction. The teacher tells the student what to do, and the student (hopefully) goes away and does the thing they’ve been told to do. They are working on a skill, and they are working on it directly (on the instrument/pounding the pavement). 

In addition, the student isn’t necessarily thinking at all of the manner in which they are following the teacher’s instruction – it is possible for them to work on the skill without really considering the way they are using themselves at all. They are taking their current general condition of use into improving the specific skill.

Working indirectly

We know that we don’t have to practise ‘on the instrument’ all the time, but often I find students feel like they aren’t really practising unless they’ve actually held the violin for a set number of hours. However, working indirectly – for example, doing a similar but unrelated activity – can be a great way to improve one’s skill.  I discovered this recently with my running. I started doing daily yoga just as a bit of fun, and then discovered that running up hills seemed much easier because I’d gained significantly more leg strength!

Sometimes even just allowing oneself to stop focussing so hard on something and having a break (or a daydream) can be hugely beneficial. There’s a ton of literature available now demonstrating that allowing one’s brain to drift for a while in ‘default mode’ helps with creativity and problem-solving.[1] How often have you come back from a walk, or come out of the shower, and realised that you’ve solved the problem that was bothering you, without even apparently thinking about it?! That happens because you’re not thinking about it directly.

Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, we practise Alexander Technique by working indirectly. If a student has been crunching their torso down into their pelvis, for example, I probably won’t get them to specifically do anything to try and prevent the crunch. This would be working too directly and specifically – my student would try to use their old familiar ways of fixing problems and possibly end up in even more difficulty than they were before!

This is why, when my student asks me what they should do to practise Alexander Technique, I suggest that they ‘keep the lesson in mind.’ Bluntly, I want them to think about it, but not too closely.

Is that all?! Does just thinking about something really make a difference?

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

FM Alexander was trying to get us to use our brains more effectively, and he firmly believed in the transformative power of a change in thinking. As I quoted last week, FM said early in his writing career,

A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[2]

If we take seriously the notion that we are a psycho-physical unity, then it must follow that a change in thinking will lead to a change in our entire psycho-physical organism.

Getting out of thought grooves

I also want us to take seriously the idea that we get stuck in grooves of thought just as surely as we get stuck in habitual patterns of movement. We think the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways most of the time. So what FM also wants us to do is to re-examine our concept of thinking. And there’s plenty of evidence from the fields of neuroscience and psychology that our traditional ideas of good thinking – keep concentrating, keep focussed – might need some altering.

When I tell a student to keep the lesson details ‘in the back of their mind’, I’m trying to get across the idea that we spend a lot of our lives – too much – in focussed mode thinking, and that what most of us need is a bit more default mode time. We need to trust a little more in the power of daydreaming; we need to let our ideas change in the background while we do other things. If we do this, we will be playing with a new concept of thinking. And if we play with a new concept of thinking, we will change.

[1] My favourite author on this is Prof Barbara Oakley. See her book A Mind for Numbers, or her more recent publication Learning How to Learn, co-written with Terrence Sejnowski and Alistair McConville.

[2] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

Image by Acrow005 from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Are you really changing? Foundational change vs ‘getting better’.

Foundational change?

Foundational change happens at root-level, not in the canopy.

I spent some time interacting with a group of Alexander Technique students recently, and it took me a while to articulate something that I saw while I was with them. There was clearly a lot of improvement going on in these people’s lives, but some people had changed really significantly in ways that others didn’t seem to have. And it occurred to me: there are different levels of change. There is a difference between changing fundamental ideas and beliefs about oneself, as opposed to getting increasingly more adept and more efficient at the compensatory movements that we use to avoid having to change.

How might this show up in practice? A woodwind player might reach a very high standard of accomplishment on their instrument, but if they don’t address the issues that they have around breathing, for example, they may well find they reach a ceiling beyond which they can’t progress. An employee might be incredibly capable and effective, but if they have a self-limiting belief that they aren’t good at communicating or networking, they will always struggle to get their ideas across effectively.

Foundational change = a changed point of view

FM Alexander commented that 

a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[1]

However, he also recognised that changing one’s point of view could be difficult. 

experience of human idiosyncrasies has taught us that the most difficult thing to change is the point of view of subconsciously controlled mankind.[2]

In other words, most of us haven’t developed the tools or processes – the sheer mental discipline – to be able to change our point of view. We don’t possess the knowhow or the stamina to be able to examine the ideas and beliefs that are within our psycho-physical selves, and then alter them according to circumstance or new evidence. Foundational change, to be blunt, involves a degree of work, and you need the right tools.

Of course, the Alexander Technique is intimately concerned with developing the tools, processes, and stamina to be able to do just this. My job is to be able to help you change your psycho-physical self so you can become a better version of you. And part of that process sometimes involves assisting a person to improve the version of themselves that they currently hold, as opposed to challenging deeply-rooted foundational beliefs, though of course we do that too. To use a horticultural metaphor (borrowed a little from Henry David Thoreau), we can either work on pruning the new growth, or we can get to work on the roots.

Sometimes, thought, a student will work almost exclusively on pruning the ‘new growth’. They do become a better version of themselves, but not in the same foundational way as someone who tackles the root-level ideas and beliefs.

So why might a person decide to stick with canopy-level change? Why might someone shy away from the root-level improvement?

Canopy-level feels safer, and root-level change feels scary.

On the one hand this is human. Sometimes we do this sort of thing because the thing that most needs changing is so confronting and scary that we practise a form of denial and try to avoid it. Or the thing that needs changing is likely to take time and effort, and we really don’t relish the idea of beginning the process.

On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on improving the way we are using ourselves currently, we are effectively blocking off areas of our psycho-physical make-up from investigation and improvement. We’re fencing bits of ourselves off and ignoring them for the sake of making other areas better. This reminds me of one of my neighbours. He would spend a lot of time and effort working on the part of the garden closest to his house, but ignore the second part of the garden that was further away (and not immediately visible from the back door). One area was worked and reworked constantly; the other was left to weeds.

I am the last person to advocate taking away the comfort blanket of someone’s denial. I do also humbly and gently suggest, however, that as an approach to life, sticking with canopy-level change isn’t hugely healthy or satisfying. No matter how good we become at the compensatory movements and behaviours that make us feel like ourselves, we still aren’t dealing with ourselves as a whole. We will eventually reach a point where, like my neighbour, there is little more useful canopy-level tidying to be done. We need to move to the bits that are less visible, but will ultimately make a more significant and longer-lasting difference. In the end, foundational change is where our efforts should tend.

[1] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

[2] ibid.

Image: Chamal N [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Fear of falling; cello intonation: Attitude changes create life changes

fear of falling is both a physiological and a psychologic phenomenon.

What does cello intonation have to do with fear of falling??!

FM Alexander recognised during his lifetime that people would likely mistake his work as something purely physical. Any long time reader of my blog knows that this isn’t true! Within the Alexander Technique there is a very strong emphasis on changing one’s thinking in order to improve both mentally and physically. But sometimes the less helpful ideas that form part of the mental matrix with which we interact with the world can be tricky to spot. I’ve been working with some older students recently, and they have highlighted one prevailing mental attitude that really isn’t helping anyone very much: our attitudes towards ageing, and the likelihood of falling as we age.

Fear of falling is something that my older students identify as a very real concern, if not for them personally, for their circle of friends. Having done a bit of research, today I want to use the whole issue of fear of falling as an example of the way a prevailing attitude can change our lifestyle and behaviours for worse or for the better. I’m going to suggest that some of the problems that I see with young musicians (especially strings; especially cellists) actually have a very similar root to fear of falling in the elderly. I also want to show a way that Alexander Technique principles can help if you happen to be stuck in a cycle where fearfulness is limiting your horizons.

Fear of falling as a mental attitude

Having spoken with my students, we’ve identified three areas where we think fear of falling has its root: outdated societal beliefs (in this case about ageing); language use that takes away personal responsibility; and personal decision-making that generates an attitude of mind.

Outdated or mistaken ideas about what is normal:

Our ideas of ageing can be woefully outdated. We consider ourselves on a path to inexorable deterioration after age 40, even though we know that life expectancy is now vastly higher than 30 or 40 years ago. On the one hand we are healthier than ever before, but our beliefs about health expectations haven’t necessarily kept up with the science. As a running enthusiast myself, I know that the races I enter are full of people older than me (and they are frequently far fitter than me, too). In fact, the oldest female to complete the 2019 London Marathon was 84 years old – there’s a video of her that is well worth watching if you want to challenge your perceptions of what older people can achieve.[1]

Language use:

We say to a toddler that they ‘took a tumble’ – their fall is minor and unimportant. Someone who is adult might say ‘I fell over’ – it’s a sentence in the active voice. They’re taking a measure of responsibility for the event. But for the elderly we typically use the expression ‘you had a fall’ – it’s in the passive voice. It takes away any sense of personal agency or responsibility in the event.[2] 

One of my students described how one of his neighbours injured herself by tripping over a hosepipe in her garden. She was furious when friends tried to describe her as ‘having had a fall’. “I fell over!” she exclaimed. My student’s neighbour was not going to allow a change in language use to take away her responsibility for having left a hosepipe in an unfortunate place!

Not only is there no sense of personal agency or responsibility in the sentence when we use the phraseology ‘had a fall’, but the fall becomes a noun – a thing. It has an identity, like a table or a chair. It becomes something that might happen. Falling becomes, in fact, something to fear.

Personal attitude of mind.

And there’s good evidence that attitude of mind has a huge part to play in the likelihood of a bad outcome with falls in the elderly. A study carried out by the University of Sydney demonstrated that, even when people have a relatively high physiological risk of falling, if they perceive their risk of falling to be low they are actually less likely to fall than someone physiologically well who has a fear of falling.[3]

Obviously physiology is hugely important, but we can’t deny that attitude of mind is crucial. If we continue with the example of fear of falling, that fear can lead to:

  • gait changes (which actually increase the likelihood of a loss of balance);
  • reduction in stride length;
  • and giving up activities that are considered risky (and the loss of activity leads to loss of strength, which leads to more balance problems and, you guessed it, a higher chance of falling).

This is why FM Alexander stated that:

When therefore we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [4] 

Put very simply, if a person fears falling, they are very likely to change their gait and their stride length to anticipate the fall and hopefully limit the damage when it happens. Sadly, the very act of changing gait is enough to make the fall more likely. (A similar thing happens to people of any age when it snows)

We can make changes to shoes, flooring, and so on. But shouldn’t we also change the mental attitude that anticipates disaster?

Cello intonation as a mental attitude

When I work with strings players, I very often see them using a lot of muscle tension when they are playing, particularly in the left arm and hand. They have a concern about intonation. When I press them about it, I come across certain broadly common beliefs:

  • Intonation is really difficult, especially relating to shifts
  • If it’s wrong, the audience will hear instantly
  • If one note is even slightly out of tune, the whole performance is ruined
  • The note (which note? Any note!) is really difficult to get in tune.
  • The way to try and control the intonation is to use lots of muscle tension in the left arm, hope, and then if it’s slightly wrong to fix it and pull a face.

Can you see the similarities with the areas that contribute to fear of falling? I hope so!

In both cases the tension and anticipation of a bad outcome contributes to the creation of the outcome. How could we fix this?

Anticipation of fear? Planning for excellence

It’s a truism of the personal development world to say that a person gets the result that they’ve put their mind on. If we anticipate failure, we’re actually in a sense planning that failure, even though we don’t really want it. Not only that, but we then have to put in place ‘disaster recovery’ plans or course corrections to avert danger. So why not use all that thinking where it will make a real difference – before we act?

  • For the older person (or anyone on snow), this means making a decision to keep with a normal gait; to make any reasonable physical adjustments (moving the hosepipe); and to plan before each step where and how the next step is going to be.
  • For the strings player, this means hearing the next note in their head before they play. Then they can trust in their practice and training, and allow the subordinate controls of the body to make the shift.

In both cases, planning for the desired outcome is the key to success. It won’t work every time (life is sometimes random and odd things occur), but it will increase chances of a positive outcome happening regularly. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing that one is doing something useful and positive, rather than being fearful and reactive. Just that satisfaction has to be worth giving it a try.

I also know that my suggestion sounds very simple and a bit glib. But it isn’t. What I’m talking about here is taking back responsibility, and then applying consistent mental discipline to attain a positive outcome. That’s a core principle of the Alexander Technique, and I firmly believe that it can help in almost any circumstance, if you sincerely give it a go.

References

[1] Her name is Eileen Noble. See also https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/news/a27302824/oldest-woman-london-marathon/ Accessed 2 May 2019.

[2] This website from the NHS has a great example of use of passive voice when describing falls. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/falls/ ; accessed 1 May 2019.

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/news/older-people/fear-of-falling-raises-fall-risk/ ; access 1 May 2019. See also http://fallsnetwork.neura.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Delbaere-Wagga-Wagga-2014-2.pdf – A PowerPoint that has some lovely graphics that support the NHS article above. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[4] Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete edition, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.60; FM’s italics.

Image By Pz – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13281261

Expertise and mistakes: how many mistakes does it take to become really good?

How many mistakes does it take to become an expert at something?

Millennium Stadium in Cardiff full of people - what if the number of people represented how many mistakes you make to become an expert.

I recently went to speak to a group of primary school students in Bristol about what it is like to be a musician. The Year 5 students were brilliant. I played this piece for them, and then asked them what they thought a person would need to do to be able to play a piece like that. What does it take to become really proficient at playing an instrument.

Passion, Practice…

First, the Year 5 children said, you would need to really love what you were doing. Then, they correctly identified practice as one of the primary things a person would need to do to become really proficient at anything. When asked what good practice would look and sound like, they even talked about:

  • Little bits every day
  • Working most on the hard bits
  • Working in sections
  • Playing things really slowly

And then one of them said, “you would need to look at the mistakes you were making and see if you could find out why you were making them, because then you could stop them.”

… And Mistakes

Realising that I was in the presence of true geniuses of growth mindset thinking, I asked them about mistakes. They all told me that mistakes are actually really good, because they tell you the things that you don’t know yet, or can’t completely do yet.

At this point I was strongly reminded of FM Alexander’s words about his struggles and experimentations to find a solution to his vocal problems. At one point he says:

I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences… [1]

And again later in his investigation:

I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice. [2]

Alexander here very clearly views his mistakes and his experiments as valuable, even when they don’t work. Not only that, but he was prepared to persevere with them even for months without knowing if he was having any success!

How many mistakes?

The children in this Bristol school were impressing me with their attitude towards experimentation and mistakes. So I decided to test them. “Do you think I made any mistakes in that piece I played today?” I asked them. The majority correctly guessed that yes, I had.

And then I asked them, “How many mistakes do you think I’ve made over my playing career, since I picked up a recorder for the first time?”

One of the children put his hand in the air immediately. I called on him. “A whole STADIUM of mistakes!” he said.

What a great image. A whole stadium of mistakes. I instantly thought of Wembley, or Twickenham. I thought about the stadium in Cardiff, which I walk past every time I go to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to teach. Imagine every seat full, and every person in those seats representing a mistake. Every seat an opportunity to interact. A whole stadium of opportunities to learn and grow.

Is your stadium full yet?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.32.

[2] ibid., p.41.

Image: Wikimedia Commons. No machine-readable author provided. Whoelse~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain]

Shoulders and breathing: should my shoulders move when I breathe in?

I’ve been working with a fair number of singers of late, and I’ve noticed afresh just how much stress and uncertainty exists around what shoulders should do during breathing. When you breathe in, should they move up, or should they stay still? Of course, it isn’t just singers who worry about their breathing; any musician who plays wind or brass may have similar concerns. I’ve worked with sportspeople who also wonder about the relationship between shoulders and breathing.

An image of the shoulders, as we wonder about the relationship of shoulders and breathing.

I’m going to suggest that we work from the protocol created by FM Alexander in his ‘Evolution of a Technique'[1], and see if we can work out what these structures should do.

Analyse the conditions (of use) present

In this phase we analyse what structures are there, and (if there is a physical student in the room) how the student actually uses them in activity. If you are the student – which, for the purposes of today, you are! – then find a mirror and watch yourself breathe for a couple of moments, and note down what you see.

From my blog a couple of weeks ago we know the basic structures behind the breathing mechanism. We know that the ribs move, including the top couple just under the collarbone. (They are raised during inhalation by the scalene muscles)

We also know that the shoulder girdle structures sit over the top of the ribs. The acromioclavicular (or AC) joint is a fixed number of degrees (around 20) but allows for some play as one moves the whole shoulder girdle.

Reason out a means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about.

This is the phase where we reason out a general route towards a better use of ourselves. Let’s have a go at creating a general use of ourselves involving shoulders and breathing.

We know that the ribs move and expand in order to make the pleural cavity larger; we also know that the first two ribs move and raise. We know that the shoulder girdle sits over the ribs. Therefore, it seems logical that the shoulder girdle is also likely to raise during breathing.

But do we actively need to control this? Again, logic would suggest not. As we’ve discussed, there’s not a lot of articulation in the A/C joint, and the first two ribs don’t move a massively long way up. So it seems likely that any movement would be accessory movement – that is, movement that happens to accommodate the body part that is actively moving.

Therefore: we need to pursue a means of breathing that enables the shoulder girdle to passively move.

Project the directions necessary to put the means into effect.

This is where we start creating actual thoughts about what we are going to tell ourselves to initiate movement. Here I want to leave the specifics up to you, but I want you to think about the following ideas:

  • If you include a sentence that involves your shoulders, you will almost certainly activate them BEFORE you turn them off. That’s probably not so helpful! Ironically, possibly the best thing you can do to more effectively handle the relationship between shoulders and breathing is not to think about it actively…
  • You will want to include something to remind yourself that your ribs, chest and back will all experience movement during inhalation and exhalation.
  • You might want to think about what you do with your head and neck as you begin to inhale.

I’m hoping that setting out the question of shoulders and breathing in this way won’t merely give you a simple answer, but also teach something more important. FM Alexander wanted to teach people to think: he wanted us to make our reasoning faculties more alive.[2] If we use the process from his third book, as we have today, we can begin to carry out the kind of thinking that Alexander hoped we would learn to do. And if we do it consistently, maybe our experience both of thinking and of moving will substantially improve.

Let me know how you get on.

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

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.39.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why you needn’t worry about doing Alexander Technique wrong.

What if I do Alexander Technique wrong? Can I make things worse?

A tick and a cross - can you do Alexander Technique wrong?

While working with my students recently, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. There are a number who are worried about changing what they are doing and experimenting, because they are afraid of making things worse.

Does that sound familiar to you? Perhaps you also aren’t completely satisfied with how you’re moving and responding to your environment, but you’re worried about making a change in case you mess it up!

You don’t need to worry, although it’s completely understandable if you do. First of all in this post, I want to examine the background to why a person might think this view makes sense. After that, I’ll explain why we not only shouldn’t worry about doing Alexander Technique wrong, but that we should actually embrace experimentation as a way of life.

Fear of getting worse: everything is connected

I’ve talked a lot recently about the physiological basis behind Alexander’s work: the idea that our minds and bodies are all one thing:

I, in common with most people, conceived of “body” and “mind” as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either “mental” or “physical” … My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware that the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate “mental” and “physical” processes in any form of human activity.[1]

If we are a psychophysical unity, then making a change in one area will change everything. So students worry that if they start experimenting with how they are moving their legs while walking, for example, that they could generate unhelpful consequences in other areas that ultimately cause them more problems than if they’d just stuck to what they know. And this is based in truth: if we make a change to one part of the system, then there will be consequential effects throughout the rest of the system, because each one of us is a psychophysical whole.

My students worry, in fact, that if they experiment with the wrong thing, they’ll do Alexander Technique wrong. So they fear experimenting.

However, there is a major problem with using psychophysical unity as a piece of evidence used to discourage experimentation, and it is this. If you are unsatisfied with the results you are currently getting, and you’ve consistently received those results from the process you are following, then you need to change the process in order to improve.

So my students’ issue isn’t really with changing stuff – they’re having lessons with me (and you are reading this blog!) so they’ve signed up for change. What they are afraid of is making a mistake.

Fear of getting worse is a fear of making mistakes

I’ve written recently about how we are taught from an early age to fear making mistakes. Being wrong is bad and shaming; getting the right answer gets us praise and is good. Understandably we most of us want to feel good, so we learn to shun wrong answers. We learn to avoid situations that might entail us making mistakes and feeling the shame that we’ve come to internalise.

This is a powerful motivational factor against making mistakes. Imagine how much more powerful it is when joined to a student’s completely understandable desire not to make any change to their system that might cause discomfort or pain? We don’t like things to hurt, and we don’t like making mistakes, so we fear experimenting and getting it wrong. But we also don’t want to be stuck doing the same old things in the same old inefficient way. What to do?

Category mistakes and robust systems

I wrote in my post about mistakes that much of our fear of mistakes is based on a category mistake. We take the limited number of cases where it is possible to make get things wrong (such as school tests) and mistakenly extrapolate that to all of our experience. I wrote:

But when you think about it, if you look across the whole of a person’s life, remembering STUFF for tests and then quoting it back on the papers is a very small and specific category of activity that isn’t repeated very often anywhere else. [2]

The likelihood of us getting something ‘wrong’ when we’re using our reasoning to experiment with how we’re moving and responding to our environment is actually really small. Part of what we’re doing when we’re working with Alexander’s ideas is improving our reasoning processes, so maybe we should have a little more faith in them, and a little more patience with ourselves as we get better in using them.

But there’s another important point that needs to be said. We are not china dolls; we are not inherently breakable. It takes significant amounts of injury or disease to make it actively dangerous for us to experiment with using our bodies better. Obviously, if you have a medical condition you should follow primary healthcare advice and be mindful of not taking things beyond limits. But for the vast majority of us the limits of experimentation are pretty broad. 

So maybe we should be a little more patient and trusting of our selves and our reasoning. Maybe we should be a little less fearful. Maybe we should all just make a few more mistakes. And if we make those changes to the way we respond to Alexander’s work, maybe we’ll notice that our approach to life generally becomes a little freer and more fun.

That would be worth the occasional ‘mistake’.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1984, p. 21.

[2] https://activateyou.com/2019/02/whats-right-with-being-wrong/

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change to a more constructive performance mindset with one word

Different coloured brains to visualise changing to a more constructive performance mindset.

Can you change from a destructive performance mindset to something more beneficial with just a single word? Is it too good to be true? Put bluntly: is Jen indulging in click bait headlines?

Actually, I’m not. I firmly believe that it is possible to change your mode of thinking away from a performance mindset that is destructive using just one little word. But before I tell you what it is, I want to give a little background on why it works.

Psychophysical unity and performance mindset

Because we are a psychophysical unity, we enact the ideas that we have about ourselves and our abilities physically. And sometimes we may have no real notion of how far the implications of our belief mind extend, until we examine the end result of one of our ideas. FM Alexander gives the example of a student who had made the decision to avoid disagreeable sensations from activities by engaging her mind with pleasant thoughts. Put simply, she avoided putting her whole mind towards anything difficult or taxing, and instead did something akin to daydreaming to avoid any sensation of discomfort. The same student then wondered why it was that she had starting to find it difficult to keep her mind engaged while reading.

I showed her how she had been cultivating a most harmful mental condition, which made concentration on those duties of life which pleased her appear as a necessity. She had been constructing a secret chamber in her mind, as harmful to her general well-being as an undiagnosed tumour might have been to her physical welfare. [1]

Words matter

So the ideas that we have about what we do can have far-reaching consequences. And so often, our ideas can be negative; psychotherapist Philippa Perry in her book How to Stay Sane describes our internal dialogue as being to some degree “toxic chatter” that is loaded with 

hateful thoughts about ourselves and others; unconstructive self-scoldings; pointless pessimism. [2] 

Most of the time we don’t notice the toxic thoughts, and they don’t have a massive impact upon what we are doing. But in a high-stakes situation or a high-stress environment – like a performance – our unhelpful thoughts are likely to have a disproportionate negative impact upon our psychophysical systems.

I see this every time an actor apologises before they run through an audition monologue in class, or a student says ‘I hope I get this right’ before they attempt getting out of a chair. They are getting their apologies in early before a poor performance. And why do they need to do this? Because they assume that a poor performance is likely to occur. They have envisioned it! That is to say, they have constructed for themselves a performance mindset that is highly likely to result in poor performance.

One word that changes everything

The word that changes everything is one I learned in my university theatre training: the word if. Theatre director and acting system creator Constantin Stanislavski used the word ‘if’ as a foundational part of his acting system because it lifted his actors out of actuality and “I to the realm of imagination”:

With this special quality of if … nobody obliged you to believe or not believe anything. Everything is clear, honest and above-board. You are given a question, and you are expected to answer it sincerely and definitely. [3]

Recently I was working with a violinist, who was struggling in the preparations for an upcoming performance. When the person played for me, their intonation was off, their vibrato uncertain. I asked the violinist what they thought of themselves as a musician. “Well, I don’t think I’m any good,” the violinist replied. 

This made me feel very sad. I decided to call on my theatre training and invoke the power of if. I told the violinist I wasn’t going to try to change their belief, but just to ask them to play a little game with me. They agreed, so I continued. “What would it be like,” I asked, “if you really were a good player?”

The violinist’s eyes sparkled, and they played again. It sounded completely different: good intonation, clear tone, strong and appropriate vibrato. It was the clearest example I have ever seen of how just one little word can completely change a person’s mindset, by allowing them to play with thinking differently.

Over to you

Is there something that you believe that isn’t helping you? Do you have a performance mindset that you know holds you back when you go to play or present? Don’t bother trying to believe something different – that sounds like a lot of work and too much stress when you’re close to performance time. Instead, why not harness the power of your imagination? What would it be like if you were confident/capable/great at presenting/totally in control of your material? Imagine what that would be like, and then go out and play. If nothing else, you’ll have given yourself a moment of relaxation instead of stress just before your gig. But you may well surprise yourself with the power of that one little word.

Give it a try.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, New York, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

[2] Perry, P., How to Stay Sane, London, Macmillan, 2012, p.26.

[3] Stanislavski, C., An Actor Prepares, trans. E.R. Hapgood, London, Methoden, 1988, pp. 46-47. Author’s italics.

Breath control: ideas for breathing better

Ah, the breath.

A dandelion clock like this one is a great opportunity to play with an out breath!

Breathing is the subject of countless blogs and articles. It is a major topic within yoga, pilates, mindfulness, and goodness knows how many other forms of exercise and bodywork. And why? For the simple reason that so many of us feel we don’t do it very well. And if we feel that our breathing is problematic in ordinary daily life, then it is likely our worries will be amplified (quite literally!) when we put the mouthpiece of an instrument between our lips, or we start to sing or act, or even give a presentation at work.

We need to get to the bottom of our more general issues around breathing. Therefore, today I am going to give you a whistle stop tour of your respiratory system, because it is my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher that we tend to have a lot of inaccurate ideas about what it is and how it works.

Do you know where you breathe?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s something that is actually really important. Pretty much everyone knows that the air we breathe in goes into our lungs, but after that, all knowledge is up for grabs! Some people lift their shoulders up to their ears when they take a breath. Others try to ‘breathe into their belly’. Some suck their tummy inwards when they breathe (I’ve heard singers describe this as ‘reverse breathing’). But what is anatomically most appropriate?

It’s an important issue, and can cause a lot of issues around unintentional vibrato. So take a second, and put your hands where you think your lungs are.

Did you put them on your chest?

Lungs are surprisingly large: they start just under the collarbone, and go all the way down to the base of the ribs. They have a truly massive surface area, because we need it to be able to hold all the air we would need to take part in serious physical exertion (or, indeed, playing a contrabass recorder). 

Lungs and shoulders

If we think of the lungs as massive sacks for the moment, it seems reasonable that, if the sacks are filling with air, that there would be an expansion involving the ribs and the back. And seeing as the shoulder structures rest over the top of the ribs, it only seems fair that there should be a little accessory motion in the shoulders, too. Note that I say ‘accessory motion’ – raising your shoulders to your ears doesn’t really help you get any more air in your lungs. We don’t end to deliberately lift them, but we shouldn’t be keeping them absolutely still, either.

Diaphragm and belly

The diaphragm is a muscle that you may have head of, and it has an important function in the breathing process. It is the diaphragm contracting downwards that causes the change in pressure in the pleural cavity that starts the process of breathing in. Now, when the diaphragm contracts downwards, it runs into the organs beneath it – primarily the digestive organs. These don’t like being squished, and need to move in order to avoid it. They can’t go downwards, because there’s pelvis in the way, and can’t go backwards because the spine is in the way. So they move outwards as we breathe in – or should do, in a normal breathing pattern.

(If you want to watch a video explaining the system, try this one from Crash Course. The mechanics of lungs and diaphragm are about 5 minutes in)

Breathing control

The trick with breathing is that it is both a hard-wired system (try not breathing, and see what your body does) AND voluntary. That is to say, we can choose to a large degree when and how we breathe. This is good, because it means that we’re able to talk and play musical instruments! But it also means we can impose ideas and beliefs that can really impede the normal action of the respiratory system. Anyone who has done any classical dance training, for example, probably won’t be comfortable with allowing their belly to move outwards, because it conflicts with good form in classical dance. Or if you’re like some of my classical singing Alexander Technique students, you’ve been told so many times that shoulders should not move while breathing that you actively hold them down!

Rediscover your breath

One of the best ways I know to rediscover the whole respiratory system, after doing a bit of research looking at anatomy books and YouTube videos, is to lie down and feel what you do when you breathe. Why lying down? Simply that you’ll get feedback from the floor as to what parts of you are moving (or not), and you may be able to notice changes a little more easily. There’s nothing more mysterious about it than that.

I would suggest lying on your back on the floor, with your feet flat and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. You can put some padding under your head if you like. And breathe. Notice what happens in your chest, shoulders and back. Notice what your belly does. Once you’ve started to acquaint yourself with your breathing patterns, start experimenting with allowing movement through your ribs, back and abdominal region as you breathe in and out.

Jen on the floor investigating her breath control.

It is tempting, too, to focus solely on breathing in. I would strongly recommend that you spend just as much time noticing what happens as you breathe out. Notice which muscles are working, and which ones relax. Experiment with just how much you can get out of your own way and allow your system to do the work for you.

Once you’ve investigated your own breathing, and experimented with what your system does if you leave it alone, you can start to branch out, and notice, for example, what you do in order to breathe in, or to speak. But for now, just enjoy experimenting with your respiratory system, and let me know if you discover anything interesting.

Image of dandelion courtesy of Sivan_Zamir at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

Whole body vs separate parts : how choosing the right concept changes everything

A cut up apple - whole body or separate parts?

Have your ever seen someone play music, or take part in a sport, and felt as if they were needlessly throwing all of themselves into the activity? Or perhaps you’ve seen (or been) the person who is obsessed with the action of one particular part of the body – possibly because it hurts – to the exclusion of all else. I see both things a lot with the musicians that I work with: the trombone player who uses absolutely every part of her body to move the slide; the pianist who is obsessed with the action of his right thumb.

Both of these characteristics – the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and the ‘laser focus’ on one particular area – stem from correct ideas about the human body, but in both cases they have been taken to unhelpful extremes. So how are we whole, and how are we separate? And how can we change our ideas to think more helpfully about our physical structure?

Body as whole

On the one hand, we are a psycho-physical unity. As FM Alexander said,

it is impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity.[1]

This means that everything is connected – mind and body. And if we decide to change the way we are using one part of our body, because our body is a whole system, everything else must necessarily change around it. This means that taking the body as a whole system is likely to effect better and more effective changes than looking at specifics.

Each request from his teacher to do something, and each injunction not to do something else, means a building-up of a series of specific psycho-physical acts towards the given “end,” namely, learning to write. This means that although the “end” may be gained, the result as a whole will not be as satisfactory as it might be, for nothing will have been done in the way of re-education on a general basis…[2]

Here’s an example of this in practice. A student can come to me with an issue involving arms and hands (when playing a trombone or a saxophone, for example); I work to help them stop muscular tension in their neck and back by perhaps questioning their concept of what they need to do to breathe, or whether they need to use neck muscles to think, and the arm problem vanishes. This is very cool, and looks a little like magic, but is based on the physiologic truth that a change in the musculoskeletal relationships in one part of the body will have ripple effects everywhere else.

Body as separate parts

But things are also separate, and often, like Alexander, I see people who are using themselves in such a way that their whole body is involved in an unhelpful pattern of tension. FM, for example, noticed this in some of his clients who came for help with speech defects:

When he spoke, I also noticed a wrong use of his tongue and lips and certain defects in the use of his head and neck, involving undue depression of the larynx and undue tension of the face and neck muscles. I then pointed out to him that his stutter was not an isolated symptom of wrong use confined to the organs of speech, but that it was associated with other symptoms of wrong use and functioning in other parts of his organism… I went on to explain that … he “stuttered” with many other different parts of his body besides his tongue and lips. [3]

Sometimes I work with musicians who want to use their whole bodies to play their instruments. For example, a trumpet player might use her whole body to raise the instrument up to play, bending backwards with her spine, rather than simply using her arms. If I work with the trumpeter and help her to separate her arms (appendicular structure) from her spine (axial structure) then raising the instrument becomes much easier.

And both things are true. They may look a bit contradictory, but they’re not – they just function on different levels. And we can take advantage of both ideas in order to improve how we’re performing.

Questions to ask yourself.

So if you’re practising, for example, you could ask yourself these questions:

Kitchen sink scenario: Am I using everything to carry out this activity? Could I think a little more about things being separate?

Laser focus scenario: am I thinking of myself too separately, or am I concentrating on separate parts and forgetting the rest of my body?

The extra credit challenge: can I manage to think of things being separate AND hold the idea of being a whole person, all at the same time?

You may find that your ability to play your instrument without crunching into the music stand, or to use a laptop without being sucked into the screen, improves if you play with these ideas. Let me know.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.21.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.233.

[3] Alexander, The Use of the Self, p.70.

Image courtesy of punsaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mind your language use: the way you describe a thing changes it.

Has it ever occurred to you how important language use is to the way we describe the world? The words we use to describe a phenomenon don’t only describe it; in some sense, they also author it. The word usage gives the listener a sense of what you think about the phenomenon (and also what they should think about it). In a very real sense, the way we describe something creates it – it makes it in our psycho-physical image.

This being so, we can sometimes create problems for ourselves by our language use. We can use unhelpful word choices that skew our ability to perceive something for what it really is.

I want to give you two examples of words that I’ve heard to describe physical movement recently, and I want to contrast them with a different word to describe the same physical action. I want you to see how we can give away responsibility for our flaws by the language we use, and that by changing the words we can take back ownership; if we reclaim ownership of our problems, we also reclaim control of the solution.

Collapse

Suppose a student says to me that she ‘collapses’ in the mid-torso when she sits. What sense does this give? What other things ‘collapse’? The language used makes me think of buildings, or of towers of children’s building blocks. These things can collapse – if the underlying structure isn’t strong, or if a force acts upon it in the right way, then the tower falls.

But is the human torso really like that?

Flop

What if my student said that she ‘flops’ at a point in her mid-torso. Where else do you hear the word ‘flop’? I think of flopping onto a bed or into a sofa. Again, there’s this sense of things falling, of being acted upon by gravity.

In both cases, there is a sense of a lack of a controlling force. A tower of bricks doesn’t have a guiding intelligence. When I flop into bed, I am so tired I am barely awake – there’s very little guiding intelligence going on there, either!

Crunch

But what if my student decided to describe the folding in her mid-torso as a ‘crunch’? Does that make a difference?

Crunched up paper. Crunch is a better term for what happens to muscles than flop. Language use is important.

To my mind, yes. When I hear ‘crunch’, I think of two things. First of all, I think of the act of squeezing a piece of paper into a ball. The other thing that I think of is abdominal crunches – the exercise that trainers get you to do to improve the tone of your abdominal muscles.

You’ll notice that both of these images involve physical work, and they both involve something being contracted. The paper is made to contract into a ball; the abdominal muscles contract because they are working.

If my student describes her mid-torso phenomenon as a ‘crunch’, she is using a word that implies physical effort, and implies a controlling force. The controlling force can decide not to crunch the paper or the abdominal muscle; the controlling force (the student’s brain) can decide not to ‘crunch’ her mid-torso. Not only is this description more active and take more responsibility for the action, it also fits better with what is actually happening anatomically.

Examine your language use

So today I invite you to examine your language use. What language do you use to describe your physical movements? Is it helpful language, and does it have a basis in fact/anatomy? Can you change the words you use so that you have a greater sense of control over the physical movement you are describing?

Learning to look at what we think, as we think it, is a tremendous skill. You may well find that you have more control over the quality and efficiency of the way you move than you previously thought.

Image courtesy of nunawwoofy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net