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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!

chasm

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

Why exercises won’t help (and three things that do!)

When I was younger I was a devotee of aerobics. I was far too embarrassed about my body to actually darken the doors of a gym, so I used to watch a TV programme called Aerobics Oz Style. Each day I’d get myself into my exercise shoes, turn on the TV, and prance up and down to the music, doing my best to follow the commands of the instructors.

Each episode of the show would have one instructor and at least 2 other people (usually female, often blonde) helping to demonstrate the movements. It was a well-produced programme, and the producers chose their instructors and demonstrators well – they were qualified, well-regarded within their profession, and frequently had been competitors and even winners of Aerobics Championships. (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

This was long before I had even heard of the Alexander Technique. But even then, as a wannabe actress, I had sufficient powers of observation to notice something really interesting about the instructors on the show. They were all doing broadly the same movements at the same time. But they didn’t look the same. In fact, if you looked closely, sometimes you could see that they weren’t really doing the same movements at all. And if you experimented and tried out the different movements – say, with a particular armline – you would realise that the different ways the instructors were moving their arms would actually cause different muscles to be exercised.

The instructors were not deliberately doing slightly different things. I think they genuinely and honestly thought that they were all demonstrating exactly the same movement. And yet they were different.

Why does an exercise give different effects on different people?

Simple: because they’re different people. There is a section of FM Alexander’s fourth book where he discusses exactly this point: that a set of exercises could be responsible for different effects in different people. “how could it be otherwise?” Alexander asks.They exist in different private universes, and have different ideas about how their bodies can and should work.  So just as different people walk and speak differently, so they will carry out a set of exercises differently, and will receive different effects as a result.

So why don’t I give out exercises?

Because it could do more harm than good.

Even if we stuck with the basic principle that giving a specific exercise for a specific problem could help that problem directly (and FM has a lot to say about that), there’s still the problem of the private universes. If it is true that every person will have a slightly different conception of how their body works, what the exercise involves, how to do it, etc., then everyone will do the exercise differently. And I as a teacher can have no real idea of exactly what effects my student will get. I woul be a poor teacher if I recommended something and didn’t know if it would work!

If exercises don’t work, what does?!

In his fourth book, at one point Alexander likens humankind to ill-controlled pieces of machinery. He says that “in ordinary mechanics, if we knew that the control or controls of  machine were out of order, we should at once decide to have them put right before expecting the machine to show the mechanical stability and usefulness of which it is capable.”*

In other words, we don’t need to load ourselves up with more things to do – we need to fix the controlling mechanisms, and get the gremlins out that are causing us to malfunction. And how do we do that? Here are three ideas:

1. Paying attention to what we are doing. How often do you actually notice what you do with your body when you are walking or driving a car? One of my students was shocked recently to discover how tightly he gripped the steering wheel.

2. Having a plan for what we’re doing. Have you ever thought about what you actually need to do to walk, or use a computer keyboard?

3. Not leaping into action. Do you jump up as soon as the phone rings? What about trying to receive that stimulus, refuse to do anything immediately in response, and then think about whether you really want to answer?

Alexander wanted us to think. He wanted us to have conscious reasoned contol of our potentialities. With the best will in the world, exercises aren’t going to get us there. But trying out the three ideas above just might.

*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.561.

Dodging the perfection trap

How good are your worst days?

I fell to thinking about this after experiencing a crummy day. The low part of the day occurred when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up for his cello lesson; only then did I realise that I’d left the cello on the other side of town, and that there was no way of going back to get it in the time available. And the teacher wasn’t answering her phone. Oops.

Some of my students have been having crummy days too. Sadly, theirs have been a little more serious than mine. External circumstances have knocked them sideways. One, for example, had to deal with a minor crisis that entailed both emotional upset and a degree of hard physical work that would ordinarily have caused significant back pain.

When this student came for her lesson, she told me how bad her week had been, and about how difficult it had been to keep thinking ‘Alexander’ thoughts in the midst of all the upheaval. So I asked her about how she’d handled the incident. My student then explained about all the planning she’d done so that her life was disrupted as little as possible, and that she’d done all the physical work. And, she said, oddly, she wasn’t as tired or sore as she’d anticipated.

“So did you use Alexander thinking to help you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she replied.
“And did it help?”
“Well. Yes. But I couldn’t keep it up all the time.”
“Ah,” I said. “But isn’t that a very high standard to set when you’re in a crisis?”

From where I was sitting, my student had achieved significant success. She’d experienced the crisis but hadn’t reacted in her usual (old, habitual) way either to the emotional stimuli or the physical work that came afterwards. She had taken care of herself wonderfully. In my eyes, she had done brilliantly. In her own eyes, however, she hadn’t done as well as she had been pre-crisis, and was therefore a failure.

 There’s such a temptation to judge our progress and our success using our good days.  Musicians are brilliant at this. ‘I could play that obscenely difficult semi-quaver run on Monday, so that’s now my minimum standard for success. If I don’t get that run right, I’m a failure.’ That’s the sort of thinking I used to indulge in on a fairly regular basis.

Sportspeople do it too. Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a classic example. At his best, he plays the game at a standard that is truly near perfection. Indeed, Ronnie strives for and expects perfection. So when he has an off day and plays only excellently, he often gives post-match interviews where he expresses great dissatisfaction with his ‘poor’ play.

Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself… Sometimes people get excited about shots I play, breaks I make, and I think it was terrible. I’m my own worst critic.”*

Perfection is a tough standard to set for yourself. It is, pretty much by definition, unachievable. If we try to judge our progress by our good days, we are falling into a less extreme version of the trap of expecting perfection. If we take this path, we are more likely to discount our successes and, like my student, judge our efforts (and ourselves) as failures.

When life throws you something difficult to handle, it’s going to be harder than normal to keep your head and keep thinking constructively. That’s why we spend time in Alexander Technique lessons practising thinking constructively around simple activities like walking, or sweeping, or raising an arm (I once had a lesson about lifting a teacup). By working on activities like these, we are creating the building blocks that can lead to success in activities and situations that are a bit more complex.**

What would happen if we gauged our progress by how well we get through our crummy days? Is your worst day less worse than before? Then rejoice! For if we all rejoiced a little more, wouldn’t that do a lot to change our view of ourselves and our world?

 

*Quotes from an interview with Brian Viner, The independent, 7 January 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/ronnie-osullivan-i-still-let-my-demons-get-the-better-of-me-1859989.html

** cf. FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat collected edition, pp.588-589.

Is it okay if you change?

sell_on_change

I’m a very lucky person in many ways, and one of the areas of my life in which I am most fortunate is my work. I love my job. I believe that teaching the Alexander Technique, helping people to improve their thinking, their movement, and their lives generally, is just the best job in the world.

One of the aspects of my job that I love most is meeting new students. Because I teach courses at a couple of different locations on a termly basis, I see groups of new students fairly regularly. In the past week, for example, I’ve met and worked with three new groups of people. Two of them were at the Folk House in Bristol, and the third was a group of students from the Young Actors Studio at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

One of the questions that I (and many of my colleagues) typically ask a new student when working with them for the first time is: “Is it okay if you change?” The range and variety of answers I hear to this question never fails to excite me. “Yes!” says one student. “NO,” says another in a decisive tone. “What?!” exclaims another. “What, my clothes?” asks another. “Hm, maybe…” says another. Lots of different answers.

In my class at Royal Welsh College last Sunday, one of my nw students countered my question with another question. The exchnge went like this:

Me: “Is it okay if you change?”
Student: “Ye- … Hang on. Why are you asking me that?! What’s that got to do with the Alexander Technique?”
Me: “That’s a brilliant question.” I turned to the group. “Why am I asking that question? And what’s it got to do with the Alexander Technique?”

And now I’m asking you: why do I ask if it’s okay if you change? I’ll give you a minute to think of an answer.

——-

There. How did you go? There are all sorts of good reasons why I use the question. But the one that most intrigued my Cardiff students is the one I’m going to talk about today.

So why do I ask about change? Well, it all comes back to what my job is about. Most, if not all, teachers in the Interactive Teaching Method give a standard definition of the Alexander Technique as a part of the introductory class. We say that the Alexander Technique is the study of the relationship between thinking and movement. We talk about the fact that, physiologically speaking, thinking precedes and controls movement – you can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking happening first. Put very simply, this means that, if you want to change the way you move, you need to change the way you think.

If the Alexander Technique is about thinking and movement, and my students (on the whole) want to change something about the way they move, what’s my job? Well, my job in some sense is to help my students change, by encouraging them to change the way they think (or, as my Cardiff students would have it, to ‘mess with their heads’!).

This is what I try to do with that opening question ‘is it okay if you change?’ I want to start the process of change by prodding their thinking – their thinking about change.

My teenage students in Cardiff, I realised, on the whole don’t have a problem recognising change happens. Their lives are full of change: exams, fashion, music, college, university… Everything in their lives is constantly, and visibly, on the move. For the rest of us, change can be a far more slippery concept. We get up, we go to work. We come home. We eat, we sleep. We have hobbies or evening classes we like to go to. We watch the TV programmes we like. Our lives follow a broadly similar patterm. Change, if we think of it at all, becomes something almost to be feared.

When I explained this to my teenage students, their faces became very sad and serious. “But that’s terrible,” they said. “How could anyone live their life like that?”

The thing is – change happens. It happens to all of us. It is in the nature of life that things change. We can deny it, hide from it, dull our perception until we can’t see it any more, but it is still there. Change will happen. Either it happens with our passive consent, or with our active involvement. So why not open our eyes, use our minds, and work on what Alexander calls “the never-ending intellectual problem of constructive control, which, instead of destroying, develops the interest and general intellectual pleasure in even…ordinary acts”?*

So… Is it okay if you change?

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat collection edition, p.308.

 

 

Stage fright? Untwist your thinking!

Yarn-Kitty-500

Perhaps because the topic is in my mind, it seems as though every time I turn on the TV or listen to the radio I hear another instance of a performer whose career was blighted by panic and performance nerves.The most recent reference was on Radio 3 (the thinking person’s Radio 4!), during a programme about the Swiss-Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

The prevalence of the condition is truly mind-boggling. And the most interesting thing about it is that it isn’t just us amateurs who struggle and suffer. Some truly great professionals have fought their panic every performance night. Laurence Olivier survived by asking his fellow actors not to look him in the eye while onstage. Ian Holm, according to the website IMDb, developed severe stage fright in 1976 while performing in The Iceman Cometh, and has barely returned to the stage since.

The most intriguing reference to stage fright in the past couple of weeks was, again, on Radio 3, this time on the excellent programme Composer of the Week. Last week’s composer was Enrique Granados who, in addition to being a fine composer, also a renowned pianist in his day. Indeed, it was his performing career that paid the bills, and this was a source of difficulty for him. For Granados, like Clara Haskil, like Laurence Olivier, like Ian Holm, was a sufferer of near crippling stage fright.

The reason why I found Granados’ plight so intriguing, however, was because of a short quote that was included in the radio programme. Apparently Granados said:

If, in an audience of 1000 spectators, I know that 999 like me but one does not, I will play poorly, because for me that one person will be the only one out there, and I know that nothing I do will please him.

Take a minute to read that quote and think about it. Granados has just admitted that if the audience contains just one person who is not guaranteed to love his performance unconditionally, he will play poorly. Hmm. The problem with this is that no audience is 100% guaranteed to love you, unless it is entirely composed of your family and friends, in which case you are unlikely to hear anything constructive afterwards that will help you to improve.

Not only that, but it sounds uncomfortably like Granados makes a decision to play poorly, based on his fear-filled assessment of the audience. He doesn’t say “I am likely to play poorly.” He uses the far stronger statement “I will play poorly.” That one person doesn’t like me, so I won’t bother to play well because I know that nothing I can do will change their mind. Those of you with any knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will recognise this as a fully-fledged cognitive distortion – a type of twisted thinking. Granados is basing his whole performance on his opinion of an audience whose thoughts and feelings he cannot possibly know in any detail! From the sound of this, Granados’ life as a performer may well have been plagued by the tension created by his desire to play well fighting with his decision to play poorly.

Would you want to live in that particular universe? Does the logic of it sound reasonable to you? I suspect not! Yet, when it comes down to it, my hunch is that most performers, when questioned closely, would ‘fess up to a similar sort of twisted thinking around their performance practice. One of the most common, for example, is an actor looking out at the audience before the show, and expressing a strange combination of fear and hatred towards them as the actor wonders if the audience will be ‘good’ tonight.

Clearly this sort of twisted thinking is of no help to us whatsoever. But how do we get round it?

What we don’t do is to try to block out those twisted thoughts, or to just struggle on past them. This is just adding a whole new layer of tension on top of the stress created by the original twisty thinking.

Instead of this, FM Alexander suggests that we approach the problem indirectly by inhibiting our habitual manner of use in reacting to the old stimulus. We then give ourselves the opportunity of making a new decision.* In other words, when we’re approaching the performance date, or when we’re waiting in the wings ready to come onstage, we feel a strong stimulus to think about the audience. Our instinctive reaction is to be drawn away from ourselves and into a nightmarish fantasy where we leap to conclusions about what the audience will like or want. Alexander is asking us to notice the stimulus, but not to be drawn in. Instead of thinking about the things we can’t control (the audience and their reaction to us), we could think about things that WILL be useful to us. We need to make a decision to think about ourselves, about our role or our music, about the care with which we have prepared ourselves to perform.

And we need to stick to that decision. Alexander said:

We are by nature creatures of impulse … and will remain so, more or less, so long as we are content to struggle on … in the last analysis, success will depend upon the individual’s capacity to carry out a decision.**

So make a decision not to be ruled by the twisted thinking that leads us out of ourselves. Think instead of those things that are useful to you: your preparation, a sense of perspective about performance and audience, sticking with the process of just saying the words or playing the notes, and knowing what you want to achieve with your performance.

And enjoy it!

 

*Paraphrase of Universal Constant in Living, Iredeat Combined Edition, p.601.
** ibid., p.602.