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Alexander’s Three Steps to Success in Anything

person-writing

Is there something that you love to do, that you’d like to do better? Maybe it’s your Alexander Technique. Or maybe writing, or singing (my two current obsessions), or running… Maybe you’d like some advice on how to do these things better? Well…

Over the past week I’ve read three separate blogs by three thoroughly different writers, and all three have had the same theme: the importance of doing the work.

The first was by Seth Godin, and was called Talker’s Block. He wrote about the fact that people don’t eveer complain about not being able to talk – they just get on with it, because they don’t necessarily care about the quality of every word they speak. Yet writers can fall into the trap of caring about every word they write, to the point where they can stop writing altogether. What would happen if they just wrote a certain amount every day, and worried about the quality later?

The second article was by Chris Guillebeau. He wrote about the fact that writing a very large number of words, and more importantly, writing them regularly, was the key to his ability to write effective prose fairly quickly. The quality didn’t come first; the word count did.

Finally, author Sarah Duncan told a story about artist JMW Turner, who while out sketching was accosted by an admirer who wished to buy his sketch. When Turner asked for sixty guineas for a sketch that took 10 minutes to produce, the admirer was astonished. ‘Ah yes,’ JMW Turner is supposed to have replied.  ’10 minutes, and 40 years of experience.’ In other words,if you do something often enough for long enough, you are going to achieve a level of proficiency. Maybe even mastery.

This is something my singing teacher has been trying to tell me for… well, I am embarrassed to tell you how long. He doesn’t emphasise quantity of practice. He emphasises consistency and regularity.

You need to do the work.

This is something that FM Alexander also emphasised, and was the key to the creation of the work we call the Alexander Technique. If you read the chapter called Evolution of a Technique that describes the process of creation, you will notice all the references to time or consistent practice and experimentation. For example:

“I repeated the act many times…”
“I recited again and again in front of the mirror…”
“…all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror. After some months…”
“It is difficult to describe here in detail my various experiences during this long period…” *

And all these references occur within three pages. There are plenty more in the rest of the chapter.

Doing the work

Okay, you say to me. We get it. If we want to be good at this Alexander stuff, or anything else for that matter, we need to work. But how do we do that?

Helpfully, Alexander told us that, too. He is quoted by a number of writers, including his niece Marjory Barlow, as saying this:

You can do what I do, if you do what I did.

So we need to:

  • Experiment. Try stuff out. Play. Have fun.
  • Do it a lot. By which I mean, do a bit every day.
  • Give ourselves the luxury of time. We live in a culture that expects instant results. This is far too great a burden to place on ourselves. If we give ourselves time, we take away a layer of stress and pressure to succeed. And that means, funnily enough, that we’ll be more relaxed and open, and therefore in the best condition to achieve success.

Success, according to Alexander, isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t a mystery. It’s just a matter of doing the work.

And we can all do that. Can’t we?

 

FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.413-415.
Image by kristja, stock.xchng

Trust vs. Proof: Alexander Technique and ‘Getting it Right’

Today’s post is inspired by my students who ask me ‘Am I getting it right?’ What I want to talk about is:

  • What my students are really asking for
  • How this relates to the difference between proof and trust

‘Am I getting it right?’

This is a common question in lessons. Typically a student had a good experience in last week’s lesson, and they’ve been so inspired that they’ve thought about it all week. They come in, sit down, and say something like, “I’ve thought about this thing all week. And I’m wondering, am I doing it right now?”

That is what the student says. But if I probe, their underlying meaning is usually this: “I think I’m doing better with this thing. But I want you as an expert to agree with that.”

They’ve worked hard. They think they’re doing okay. But they want me to validate their opinion. They want proof.

proof

Proof

One of my favourite movies is called, amusingly, Proof. It’s a little-known Australian flick starring Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe (pre-Gladiator), and is about a blind photographer. Well, that’s the way it was sold. It is actually about a blind man (Martin) who has an overwhelming distrust of other people. He photographs the world so that he has some sort of objective ‘proof’ that their spoken versions of the world are truthful. The tag line on the posters was ‘Before love comes trust. Before trust comes proof.’

Of course, the whole point of the movie was that Martin is setting his standards impossibly high. He expects those close to him to be perfectly truthful and consistent all the time. And he wants proof of this before he will trust them. But there will never be sufficient proof. In the course of the movie, Martin is forced to learn that everyone makes a mistake, and that the nature of love and friendship is such that if he wants friends, Martin will have to trust first, and forgive if necessary.

In other words, trust and proof are not conditional. In fact, they are could almost be said to be mutually exclusive. If you need proof of something, then you aren’t trusting.

Trust, proof and FM Alexander

This is something that FM Alexander had to learn. At the end of his lengthy experiments that led to the work we now call the Alexander Technique, Alexander realised that he needed to have “trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends,” and that it needed to be “a genuine trust’ not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.” *

Yet in the very next sentence, Alexander says that he decided he “must at all costs work out some plan by which to obtain concrete proof ” that his process was successful.

Hm.

Well, by sheer dint of hard thinking and ever such a lot of practice, Alexander came up with a plan that would give him the concrete proof that he desired. At the time. But when he wrote his final published work in 1941, Alexander could say this:

“Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable.. We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.” **

I don’t know about you, but if I had two boxes, one labelled Proof and one labelled Trust, and I had to put this quote in just one of them, I’d be choosing the Trust box.

Lesson of the day

If we use our tremendous powers of reasoning, make a plan, then stick to the plan; if we keep sticking to the plan; then we will have success. It is inevitable. So do you want proof? Or are you brave enough to trust in yourself? Tell me in the comments!

 

* FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete edition, p.427.

** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat complete edition, p.587.

Stage Fright and Alexander Technique: Direct and Indirect Learning

It’s Guest Post Time!
A post from my colleague Karen Evans about her experiences of stage fright, and how we can work indirectly to solve our problems, step by step…

pianohands

This post involves quite a long story about me. My apologies. I think the details are important, in an indirect sort of way.
I play the piano. Not professionally, just in a fairly average, amateur way. And as much as I love it, there’s always been an element of fear. For years I would not play if anyone else was in the room. Usually I waited until the next-door neighbours were out.
On the other hand, I really missed playing with other people. I used to play violin in orchestras, and sing in choirs, and now I don’t (long story). Making music with other people has a buzz all of its own.
However, experiments playing for people to hear were not successful. Butterflies in the stomach I can cope with. Complete congealing of the brain is something different. You can’t see what is written on the page, you have no idea where your hands are on the keyboard and those hands are shaking badly. It is not conducive to playing well. And when this starts at random in the middle of a piece of music and will not stop (oh how I envied those people who say ‘Once I get started I’m fine’), it’s pretty catastrophic.
Now here’s the weird bit. I didn’t set out to conquer my stage fright. It was always something for the future; I had other, much more pressing challenges in the present. But, the idea that “I’m a musician, the whole point is to perform music” kept running round my brain. And here and there little things happened.

 

Little things that make a difference
First, I asked my husband to listen to me (he was delighted!). It took several goes, over several months, before my hands stopped shaking. Then came the Christmas carols for the family singsong.
That turned into a game of ‘hunt the right note’, but fortunately everyone was singing so loud they couldn’t hear me. Next was accompanying my sister for sight-reading practise. I stopped apologising for mistakes only at the point where she got really cross – about the apologies, not about the mistakes!
This all took place over months and years, when the right mood and the right chance coincided. Each time took a lot of courage, and a lot of convincing myself not to sell the piano afterwards. But I kept thinking about it, in a behind-the-scenes sort of way.
Next step; one of my Alexander students, a singer, said he needed an accompanist. We negotiated for rehearsals only, and not in public. He thinks his singing isn’t really up to the standard of my playing, and I think my playing can’t really keep up with his singing. But we rehearse anyway. It’s fantastic fun, and we’re both learning so much.
Then came the fateful day when I saw an advert in the local paper. ‘Piano player wanted for the Ashby Spa WI (Women’s Institute) choir’. Something in my head decided ‘I can do this’, and I did it. I now play regularly for about 20 very lovely women.
So what about the brain congealing? Well, somehow, I’ve learnt to control it. I can feel it starting, and (mostly) I can take a step back and choose to switch it off before it gets too bad. My choir don’t have to endure pages of wrong notes, just a bar or two. Now that’s what I call a ‘changed point of view’! (see Jen’s blog Banishing Stage Fright With the Jazzmen Part 1).

 

Working on the problem by… not working on the problem!
But what caused that shift? How did I learn to do this?? It was nothing I did directly. I’d tried for years to conquer the stage fright directly. Visualisation – no good. Positive reinforcement – nothing. Loads of practice and knowing the piece really well – still no. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway – dreadful. I hadn’t set out with the clear intention of curing myself, I hadn’t deliberately and consistently practised these very helpful techniques until I made them work. I had no definite strategy.
Not directly.
But what about all the other stuff? The carols, duets, the long-suffering and supportive husband?
My sister, my singing partner? The lots and lots of thinking in the background?
Maybe all that stuff did actually come under the heading of learning. Indirectly. Maybe the length of time, the teeny-weeny steps, the ‘in the background’ thinking are as important a part of the process as the most carefully crafted plan, and the most assiduously practised exercises.
But this doesn’t have anything to do with the Alexander Technique, does it? Well, now I come to mention it – maybe it does.
In fact, FM Alexander had very clear ideas on the importance of learning indirectly. He says, ‘A satisfactory technique … must be one in which the nature of the procedures provides for a continuous change towards improving conditions, by a method of indirect approach under which opportunity is given for the pupil to come into contact with the unfamiliar and unknown’.*
So, how did I do?
Procedures – tick
Continuous change – tick
Improving conditions – tick
Indirect approach – big tick
Opportunity – tick
Contact with the unfamiliar – tick
Seems like my adventure is exactly what Alexander had in mind. I wonder if he would have come along to choir practice for a good sing-song??
*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, V ‘Manner of Use in Relation to Change’, IRDEAT edition p.585.
Image by healingdream, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Alexander Technique and Singing: Process, not Product

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This is the story of my most recent singing lesson, where I learned once again the vital importance of the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on process, not product. It mirrors very neatly the experience of a delightful colleague of mine, Bill Plake, playing his saxophone. When you finish my article, swing on by and read his.

I have been having singing lessons for a few years now. I am lucky that my teacher, Gerald, has had Alexander Technique lessons, and knows the books of FM Alexander fairly well.

At my most recent lesson, we began, as always, with some exercises. Gerald played the notes that he wished me to sing. I sang them. We did this, going up the scale a little way. Then Gerald paused, and thought for a moment. He didn’t tell me that what I had done was wrong. Gerald almost never does this. Rather, he asked me to do the exercise again, but with one vital difference. He asked me to sing the notes with my fingers in my ears.

At first, I didn’t want to do it. A stubborn streak in me resisted, whether from vanity or a deep-seated suspicion of trickery. But I trust Gerald, so I sighed, put my fingers in my ears as requested, listened hard to hear the notes from the piano, and then sang.

It was weird.

The sound I could hear inside my head was bizarre. I could barely hear the piano.  I couldn’t hear anything else at all – none of the sound of my own voice that I was used to hearing bouncing off the walls of Gerald’s teaching room. I had no idea at all if it sounded good, bad, indifferent, or downright awful. I didn’t even have feedback as to whether I was hitting the right notes. So I just sang.

The experience was completely discombobulating and yet strangely clarifying all at the same time. The sound feedback I was getting from inside my own head was thoroughly unfamiliar and it was tempting to be carried away by the shock of it.

At the same time, though, I realised that the removal of all my usual markers for how I was singing was freeing me. There was nothing pretty to listen to. So all I could do was think about the process of what I was trying to do. I was thinking just about the note, the vowel, and the breath. It was astonishingly, daringly simple. It couldn’t possibly sound any good. Could it?

Then I looked at Gerald. He was smiling. This is a good sign.

I still don’t really know how it actually sounded. Gerald was pleased, though, and that’s good enough for me. But that isn’t the point.

The point of the story: complete commitment, total detachment

What I learned last singing lesson was a practical demonstration of what I talked about in my blog Banishing Stage Fright with the Jazzmen, part 2. I learned about the primary importance of process over product.

You can’t directly control product. It just doesn’t work. Product is of its very nature the outcome of some sort of process. So if you want to make the product as good as possible, the only real choice you’ve got is to work on the process.

FM Alexander put it this way: “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable… We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”*

What FM Alexander asks for is no less than this: complete commitment to the process, and total detachment from the outcome.

Of course, it is easy to say this in theory. But it quite another to experience it in practice.

So I have a challenge for you: can you find one situation this week where you can make an attempt at complete commitment to process, and total detachment from the outcome? Tell me what it is in the comments!

FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, in the IRDEAT edition, p.587.

 

Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 2

Last week I told you the story of Darryl Jones, who played bass for Sting when he started his solo career with the album Dream of the Blue Turtles. Today I want to tell you about another of Sting’s musicians, so that we can learn another useful tool to conquer stage fright.

 

To recap the story…

If you recall, Sting was trying something totally new. He was leaving a very successful band, and was striking it out on his own with a whole new group of musicians. They were about to play their first concert – a new band, playing a  set of songs where half were completely new and unheard, and all of which were being re-interpreted. Sting, if you recall, hadn’t got together just any old band. He had found a group of jazz musicians, and was creating a whole new jazz-rock fusion sound.

Director Michael Apted filmed the build-up to the concert. He asked each musician in turn if they were nervous. Last week we learned from Darryl Jones’ reply. This week we turn to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, to see what he can teach us.

Marsalis

The other jazz man.

Branford Marsalis is another profoundly inventive jazz musician. Back in 1985 he was just at the beginning of his career, but he already had an impressive resume. And he was never one to mince his words! So when Michael Apted asked him if he was nervous about the upcoming gig with Sting, this is what he said:. 

“If I was Sting I might be nervous but I’m not Sting, I play jazz, I know what it’s like to be shat on, you know what I mean? I am a jazz musician, I know what it’s like to play some stuff that nobody wants to hear.”*

I know this is a little stronger language than normally appears in my articles, so bear with me… 🙂

Branford Marsalis isn’t nervous. Why not? Because he is used to an audience not necessarily liking the music he is playing! Marsalis here leads us towards what I believe is a very strong motivating factor that lies behind many performers’ stage fright

they fear the audience’s bad opinion.

Fear of the audience is a strong reason why people fear going out to perform. Back when I worked in professional theatre, I can remember actors nervously  peering out from the wings, scanning the audience suspiciously, and wondering if they would be a ‘good’ house that night. And by ‘good’, they meant an audience that liked them and liked the play.

Wanting to be liked is completely understandable and natural. The problem arises when we think about the audience so much that we begin to lose sight of what it is that we need to do in order to win their good opinion.

We need to perform.

In other words, we need to summon up all that we have learned from our hours of research and rehearsal, all the work that we have done, and carry out the performance in a way that we have reasoned out is going to best achieve our goals.

‘But shouldn’t we be thinking about the audience?’ I hear you cry. Well… Yes, but not in the way that most people do. Obviously we need to remember that the audience is there. But do we need to tie ourselves in knots to try to please them? Well, no, not according to Branford Marsalis! His experience very clearly included situations where, in pursuit of his creative goals, he played in such a way that the audience just didn’t like it. On that day. At that time.

The thing is, not everyone can be happy all the time. But what might you sacrifice in order to satisfy your audience? What if Stravinsky had burned the score of The Rite of Spring straight after its controversial first performance? Western classical music would have been very different!

FM Alexander said, “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? we should reserve all thought, energy. And concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”

Branford Marsalis, when faced with the choice of playing the way he wanted, or trying to be ‘right’ for the audience, chose to play in the way that he had decided was best. He stuck with the process he had chosen. And fear of the audience’s reaction became unimportant as a result.

What about you? Will you stick to the process you’ve reasoned out will get you to your goal?

 

* Sting, Bring on the Night, directed by Michael Apted. Quote occurs at about 60.58 on the DVD release.
** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.587.

Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 1

Today I want to discuss what we can learn about conquering stage fright (performance anxiety, call it what you will) from jazz musician Darryl Jones.

darryljones_1

One of the first LPs I ever owned (remember LPs?) was Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles. My parents gave it to me for my birthday in 1986 or 1987. I absolutely loved it, and played it a lot. The thing that made it so different, so exciting, was the jazz influence. Sting had managed to get hold of some very well-respected and influential jazz musicians to play in his band, including Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones and Branford Marsalis. 

Now, as part of my current general revisiting of things past, I went in search of the documentary Bring on the Night that director Michael Apted made about the beginning of Sting’s solo career.

It is a fascinating film, and a great piece to watch if you want to see a document on the way creative process is both sheltered and commercialised by artist management. To my mind, however, the most fascinating element occurred towards the end of the film, as the band prepared for their first live gig. Apted asked the members of the band in turn if they were nervous.

Now, let me back up a bit and explain the background. Sting had just left The Police, one of the most successful bands of the 1980s. He was creating a rock/jazz fusion album that most people at the time thought would be a disaster. The jazz musicians were not only doing a different style of music, but flying in the face of general opinion that they were ruining their careers. And  they were all about to go on stage for the first time; a new band, to play a set list where half the songs would be completely new to the audience.

If you were a member of Sting’s band and Michael Apted asked you if you were nervous, what would you say?

Would you be nervous? Would you be scared? Would it affect the way you played?

You see, many people would have very definite answers to these questions. They would feel nervous, and they would view that as a negative thing. And the combination of the physical sensation and their negative interpretation of it would then affect their performance, causing them to play less brilliantly than they would wish.

But is this what the Jazz Man says?

This is what bassist Darryl Jones said in reply:

Darryl Jones: “yeah, always. I mean, I think that’s a good space, to have some nervous energy. So many times that first night is the best night because of that nervous energy.”

So often the thing that separates the truly great performers from the rest of us is their attitude towards nerevousness. We feel the butterflies in our tummy, and conclude that it’s a bad thing. Darryl Jones feel the butterflies, and knows that he’s “in a good space” and ready to go out and have fun.

So, today’s lesson about conquering stage fright from the world of jazz:

We can change our attitude toward nerves.

FM Alexander said something similar when he commented that “a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.” *  If we change our point of view, we can help ourselves and turn something we have labelled negative into something that can help us.

Do you have a performance or a presentation coming up? What would happen if you took the butterflies as a good sign? 

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.44.

 

 

Don’t stay being a victim!

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This post is likely to get me into trouble and upset a few people. Why? Because today I want to talk about the concept of being a victim, and the place of self-responsibility in the Alexander Technique.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve met students who’ve had some really tough things happen to them. Near fatal car accidents, severe motorbike accidents, physical violence, workplace bullying, sudden and severe health scares… Nasty things. Things that we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Some of my students have suffered physical or emotional agony that has persisted, in some cases, for years.

We probably all know people who have suffered something in those realms. Perhaps one of you reading this article today is in a similar situation. And it is you in particular that I want to talk to. Because I have realised something important: my students who have suffered all have one thing in common. They are remarkable for the way in which they handled the events that have struck and laid their lives waste.

How did my students react to being a victim of nasty events or circumstances? By not being a victim.

 

The two meanings of victim

In that last paragraph I deliberately used the word ‘victim’ in two different ways. In the first sentence I used the word as you would speak of a victim of crime; to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “one who suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment,” or even in the softer sense of “one who suffers hardship, injury or loss.”* In other words, someone who has had something unpleasant happen to them. This is a noun. It is a statement of fact.

Sometimes, however, the term ‘victim’ moves from being a noun, a fact, to becoming a decriptor or a label. It becomes an identity in which people can clothe themselves. And it can be such a danger.

I’m sure we’ve all known people who have failed to move on from an incident which hurt them. Years later, they still refer back to the incident, speaking of it in similar terms as soon after the incident happened. They just don’t seem to be able to let it go. And as we look at them, we see that in some way they are stuck, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, in a way that is not helpful to them or to anyone else around them. It is a painful thing to witness.

This concept of victimisation led author Melody Beattie to write:

“We do not have to be so victimized by life… We are not victims. We do not have to be victims. That is the whole point! … We can do what we need to do to take care of ourselves… If we can’t do anything about the circumstance, we can change our attitude. We can do the work within: courageously face our issues so we are not victimized… We are victims no more unless we want to be.”**

And Melody should know. She survived drug and alcohol dependency, divorce, co-dependency and the death of a child. She knows about pain and suffering, and she knows about the necessity of moving on.

So what tools can the Alexander Technique supply to help with this? Two very powerful concepts – self-responsibility and the freedom to choose.

1. Self responsibility. Think about the event that happened. Ask yourself if there was anything that you did/said/did not do/did not say that contributed to the event. If no, then great! If yes, then you’ve got a great place to start learning and healing and moving forward. This is the equivalent of FM Alexander asking “was [it] something that I was doing … that was the cause of the trouble?”*** It’s a simple question, and yet so very powerful.

2. Choice. The bad event has happened, or is happening. Ask yourself if you are able to choose your response to that event. This is what Alexander did when he began his investigations into how to alleviate his vocal problems. He realised that  he needed to “make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”**** For example, one of my students historically had a terrible relationship with her parents. Through reading FM’s words, she decided to see if she could make the experience of receiving the stimulus of being with her parents, but refuse to do anything immediately in response. What she discovered was that she could create the space in which to choose to respond without her usual rancour. What her parents said still irked her; she simply chose not to respond to it.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I know this is a tough ask. I know that what I am suggesting is difficult, and may even seem practically impossible. And yet it is the way forward. I’m not asking you to believe me. Believe Melody. Believe my students. And believe in yourself.

 

* Oxford English Dictionary online, http://www.oed.com
** Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, pp.209-210.
*** FM Alexander, Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.412.
**** ibid., p.424.

 

Why BBC Apprentice Tom’s back pain chair won’t work!

chair

The BBC TV series The Apprentice finished on Sunday when inventor Tom Pellereau won Lord Sugar’s £250 000 investment. I’ve like Tom all the way through the series, so I was a very happy viewer. There was, however, one moment in the programme when I simply hooted with laughter: when Tom first announced his business plan. Tom plans to create an anti back pain chair that will prevent injury and discomfort. This is his explanation of his business plan about 12 minutes into the final episode:

“The business is to save organisations money by reducing the personal and financial cost of back pain…The business is two-fold. It’s a service to measure the likelihood of employees having back pain, and it’s a set of chairs or furniture that will actually help you to train those muscles so that you’re much, much less likely to have back pain or other problems in the future.”*

Tom’s goal here is a good and noble one (even if Lord Sugar didn’t like it a bit!). Back pain and musculo-skeletal conditions generally are a major cause of workplace absence. When Dame Carol Black wrote a report on occupational health for the UK government in 2009, the economists working with her estimated the cost of workplace absence generally at one hundred billion pounds per year – with musculo-skeletal disorders being the most significnt culprit.**

So Tom’s instincts are correct. Back pain is a major issue in the UK. It is a major issue for employers.

So why do I say that Tom’s chair idea won’t work?

Tom is basing his whole business plan on two assumptions:

1. Back pain is caused by weak muscles

2. A back pain chair can be designed that will fix the weak muscles.

Let’s take these two points.

 

The Fallacy of Weak Muscles

There are any number of people out there, usually trying to sell you fancy chairs or shoes, that will tell you that any problems you may have with poise or posture are the result of weak muscles. Alexander puts it  little differently. He says that such problems are caused by undue rigidity in some muscles and undue flccidity in other muscles; but that the rigidity is found “in those parts of the muscular mechanism which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.”

In other words, we use our bodies in ways other than intended by nature, for whatever reason. Some muscles then have to overwork to achieve the misuse. So Tom’s solution wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the misuse, and it doesn’t deal with the overworked muscles. In fact, it would try to strengthen the weak ones, so that all the muscles would be overworking!

And just in case the reader didn’t get his point, Alexander said, “all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of people today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to led to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” ***

 

Chairs are not the answer.

Chairs were the subject of my very first article, Teach the Chairs? In it I talked about the fact that, in Alexander’s view, chairs just don’t solve the problem. And it makes sense. If it is our misuse that causes the muscular rigidity in the first place, can we really expect that just purchasing a piece of furniture is going to fix the misuse?

We are smarter than furniture. Put bluntly, if we want to slump about, not even the fanciest ergonomic chair is going to stop us for long. If we have certain fixed ideas or erroneous preconceptions about what we need to do to sit at our computer, the provision of a fancy chair may make our employer feel better, but the chair cannot work on our misconceptions and change our thinking. Only we can do that.

Luckily, Lord Sugar didn’t much like the chair idea. He preferred the nail files. I admire his good judgement.

* Transcribed from the BBC TV programme The Apprentice. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice
** Dame Carol Blck interviewed by Mark Porter on Radio 4, Case Notes, 7 April 2009.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.62.
Image by winnond, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice

sir-alan-sugar-boardroom

The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!

 

First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.

 

Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?

 

Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Turning Off Your Limiter

shower

Yesterday, I was working with one of my students – a lovely man called Ian – on standing and looking up to the ceiling. To begin with, Ian’s head came forwards to look at the floor quite happily. Looking up to the ceiling, however, was a different matter. It just didn’t happen. His neck wouldn’t extend at all. After some discussion about necks and what they are capable of (in theory, you understand!), a bit of hands-on work and some gentle cajolery, Ian’s neck extended just a little, and he looked in the direction of the ceiling. Wht follows is what happened next, as closely as I can remember it.*

“What do you notice about that?” I asked.
“Someone’s pushed the red button,” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“On the electric shower. The shower has a limiter to stop the water getting too hot for children. If you want warmer water, you press a red button and the limiter turns off.”
“Ah,” I replied. “So your neck had a limiter?”
“Yes.”
“And it’s just switched off?”
“Yes,” Ian said.
“Cool!” 

What a great image this is. Ian had a ‘limiter’ that impeded the flexibility of his neck – but it wasn’t hard-wired  like the limiter on the electric shower. Ian found that he had a limiter in his thinking. For whatever reason, he had developed a belief that he couldn’t move his neck in such a way that he could look at the ceiling. The belief led to the impeded movement.

FM Alexander talked about exactly this phenomenon in 1910. He said, “the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of though quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence.”**

So how do we turn off these ‘limiters’, these “trifling habits of thought” that stop us from moving as freely and flexibly as we’d like? Today I want to give you a couple of warnings of things that DON’T work, and pointers on something that DOES.

 

Things that DON’T work: Try Harder!

It is really tempting, when faced with a limitation, to just throw more energy at it and hope that it works. This is the strategy I used to use as a musician when faced with a musical phrase that was too tricky for me to play. I’d worry about it all the way up to the troublesome phrase, then just go faster and throw more energy and muscular effort into my fingers and hope that it would work.

It didn’t.

Alexander says that this is a little like placing dependence upon a thermometer that we know is defective. It’s human, but it’s not sensible.

 

Things that DON’T work: Finding out WHY…

When faced with a seemingly random and puzzling limitation – like an inability to turn one’s head towards the ceiling – some students become fascinated with the origin of the limitation. “Why do I do that?” they ask. I don’t know why they do it. More to the point, I don’t really care.

Now, before you accuse me of callousness, let me explain why I say this. You see, knowledge of WHY doesn’t help the behaviour to go away. Stopping the behaviour helps it to go away. My experience as a teacher is that the students who become most obsessed with why they do the things they do, take longest to stop the limiting behaviours and improve. The search for why turns into a “fascinating bypath” (Alexander’s phrase) that leads nowhere useful.

 

Things that DO work: Using Your Head

Alexander comfortingly says that there isn’t a single habit of mind (or resultant habit of body) which may not be altered. Great! But how? By the inculcation (learning) of the principles concerning the true poise of the body, and using them in co-operation with an understanding of the powers of the objective mind. Put simply, we need to learn just how powerful the mind is, and put it to good use.

Most of us never really think too much about the things that we do as we do them. When, for example, was the last time you thought about how to look up to the ceiling, or get out of a chair, or walk, before you did them? But this is what Alexander asks us to do. He asks us to actually pay attention to what we do and how we do it. He asks us to use the power of our objective minds to analyse and plan our movements, and then to follow the plans we’ve devised. If we use our reasoning powers, we will begin to experience the power of the principles that underly all easy and efficient movement.

 

Is it hard work? Sometimes. Is it infuriating? Yep, sometimes.

But does it bring rewards? Yes. Definitely yes. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my student Ian.

 

* A couple of points about this. First, it’s part of the training I received as a teacher in the Interactive Teaching Method for the teaching of the Technique of FM Alexander (ITM AT teacher for short) that accurate recall of a student’s words – or even whole exchanges – is considered essential for good teaching. If you want to know more about this, just email and ask me.

Second, I asked Ian’s permission to quote him and credit it with his name.

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.52.
Image by Alex France, stock.xchng