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5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 1. Get out of the groove!

Forest_path_in_Yvelines_-_France

Last week I wrote an article all about FM Alexander’s concept of happiness. I talked about FM’s desire that we should rediscover what true happiness is all about (in his opinion): being able to take pleasure in even something as apparently simple as sitting or standing. You see, if we take pleasure in even these small acts, then we will be increasing the amount of pleasurable experience over the whole range of our day.

But how do we do this? This question may be a live one for you, especially if you are like many of my beginning students and find even just sitting a tiring and uncomfortable experience. How do we even begin to think about taking pleasure in sitting or standing?

By taking some simple steps, and being prepared to work at them. For the next five weeks I will give you some steps that FM Alexander wrote about that have the potential to improve your relationship with your body in even the simplest of movements. But just reading these steps will not be enough to magically make a change in your life. You will need to have a go at applying these steps in your life. You will need to do a little bit of work.

Do we have a deal?

Okay, then let’s begin!

 

Get out of the groove!

In his first book, Alexander wrote a lot about overcoming mental habits, because he believed that physical difficulties came about as a direct consequence of unhelpful thinking. And when wanting to control mental habits, FM wrote,

“the first and only real difficulty is to overcome the preliminary inertia of mind … The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when sent in action, glides along the familiar, well-worn path…”*

I think it is fair to say that on certain topics we all have set views and ideas. But did you know that we can have set ideas on even the apparently simple things in life, like sitting? Alexander describes these using the picture of grooves, or well-worn paths.

Sometimes these grooves are useful and helpful. Sometimes they are not. For example, many of my students first come to class with the notion that ‘sitting up straight’ is good, and slumping (slouching) is bad. They are furthermore secretly convinced that they do the latter (the slumping) most of the time, and therefore work very hard at trying to sit up straight (usually involving arching their back).

There are two problems with this.

1. They have never really thought about what might be involved in ‘sitting up straight’, and so end up using a lot of unnecessary muscular activity in a way that causes them to be tired and achey.

2. Even more importantly, they have never questioned the underlying assumptions of their behaviour model. First, who says they slump most of the time?! And second, why is sitting up straight inherently good, and slumping inherently bad?

(And yes, I know that might be a phrase you thought you’d never hear from an Alexander Technique teacher. But think about it. When you sit on your sofa of an evening with a nice glass of something to watch your favourite movie, do you really want to be sitting absolutely upright? Wouldn’t a nice, efficient slump be more appropriate here? Just a thought…)

 

The task for the week.

So your task for the next week is this. Pick an activity. Pick something simple, like sitting or standing, or getting out of a chair. And think about what assumptions you may have made about that activity. What are you convinced is true? And what if you played, just for fun, with not having those assumptions. What would be possible then?

Sometimes it is our convictions about what it true and unchanging that are the very things that are holding us back. They are the groove, the well-worn path. If we lift our feet from the path, just for a step, then a whole forest of adventure is waiting for us.

 

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.67.??

 

 

Can the Alexander Technique help me be happier?

Today’s post is all about happiness, and why FM Alexander believed that doing his work could make students happier in their daily lives.

legoplay

At dinner tonight, I told my son that I was expecting a student this evening, even though it is school half-term holiday. He put down his fork and looked at me. “I don’t like it when you have students at night,” he said. “I like it when you have students while I’m here downstairs. Then I get to hear you laughing.”

“You hear me laughing?” I asked.

“Not just you,” he said. “Lessons sound like fun.”

An abundance of laughter is not what students expect when they sign up for Alexander Technique lessons. And sometimes they are surprised when they start having fun. But FM Alexander would not have been surprised at all. In fact, he devoted a whole chapter in his second book to the relationship of his work to happiness: why people experience a lack of happiness, and how doing Alexander’s work can reverse this lack and change it to abundance.

 

Why we are lacking happiness

FM wrote, “the lack of real happiness manifested by the majority of adults today is due to the fact that they are experiencing, not an improving, but a continually deteriorating use of their psycho-physical selves.”*

In other words, because the majority of us don’t use our bodies as efficiently or appropriately as we could, over time our bodies begin to feel the pinch of our less-than-perfect use of ourselves. We get aches and pains. We suffer irritations of body and mind. Our experiences of happiness become shorter and more fleeting.

FM is suggesting that our difficulties in being happy are a knock-on effect of our general lack of understanding of how to use our bodies and minds most effectively. And if we want to experience greater happiness, we need to attend to the way we use ourselves first.

 

How to turn lack of happiness to abundance

Alexander’s view is very simple. In order to experience a greater quantity and quality of happiness in our lives, we need to learn the principles of using our minds and bodies more efficiently and effectively.

He writes, “one of the greatest facts in human development is the building up of confidence which comes as the result of that method of learning by which the pupil is put in possession of the correct means whereby he can attain his end before he makes any attempt to gain it.”**

In other words, if we learn Alexander’s principles, if we actually take the time to think about how to use our bodies even in apparently simple acts such as sitting or standing, we can develop not just an intellectual interest, but genuine pleasure. And FM’s picture of happiness, repeated often in the chapter, is that of a healthy child using its body beautifully and naturally in an activity that interests it.

So, to recap, here is FM’s recipe for happiness:

·        Happiness (or the lack of it) is a byproduct of how we use our minds and bodies;

·        If we want to improve the quality of our happiness, we need to think about how we go about our daily activities, even something as ordinary as sitting;

·        If we can control the means whereby we achieve our goals, we will have success. And this leads to that happiness of a child who is fully occupied in something it loves.

And if we think about these things, then my son – and all our children – will delight in hearing us laugh more often. And wouldn’t that be a great world to be a part of?

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.382.
** ibid., p.387, p.388.

Image by Afonso Lima, stock.xchng

Can the Alexander Technique cure me?

This post is prompted by the students I have had recently who have experienced significant medical problems. They come to me in pain, and want to know if the Alexander Technique can cure them. I have even been asked if the Technique could help fix a prolapsed disc (like a slipped disc, but worse) without surgery. So… Can the Alexander Technique cure medical problems?

Pretty much…no.

I can almost hear the intake of breath. Yes, the Alexander Technique is fantastic, and any teacher you ask will tell you stories of students who have begun lessons in significant pain and discomfort who experienced dramatic improvement. But the Alexander Technique is not medicine, and does not cure structural conditions. The Alexander Technique deals with functional matters – what FM Alexander called our manner of use – the stuff we do to ourselves that limits us.

ParkBench

The difference between structure and function.

One of the most striking examples of the difference between a structural condition and functioning was FM’s brother, AR Alexander. He suffered severe back injuries in a horse riding accident, so severe that doctors initially believed he would not walk again. He initially walked with two canes, but later with just one. A contemporary described his walk:

When I knew him … he could walk, with a curious swaying motion, for a considerable distance, his trunk very upright and his legs swinging smoothly from the hips. *

Clearly AR had suffered a major structural problem. Yet he not only was able to walk but did it so well that he was accosted by at least one passer-by who was struck by the way he moved.

[A passer-by] stopped  in front of him one day and said, “Sir, I’ve watched you for a long time and I wish I knew what  you have that other peole don’t have.” “I’ll warrant you do,” said AR laconically, and swinging up onto his cane he [walked away]. **

This is the difference between structure and function in a nutshell. AR’s structure was compromised. But he was able to use the compromised structure that he had very well indeed. As a result of the time he spent working with the Alexander Technique, functionally AR’s movement was so free and easy that it invited wonderment.

If you are reading this and you are suffering from pain or discomfort, I bet you have one question for me right now:

 

So how do we know if a problem is structural or not?

We don’t.

This is why I recommend that students seek advice from primary healthcare. If your back is painful, you really should get it checked by a doctor. Yes, I know this is obvious, but so often people don’t take this step!

However, even if there is a structural problem, an Alexander Technique teacher may be able to help you to deal with your reaction to the problem or injury. So often in order to avoid discomfort, we subtly alter our movement to ‘accommodate’ the injury we have. And these accommodations may actually do us more harm than good.

So can the Alexander Technique fix my friend’s prolapsed disc? No! But I can help them use their body more easily and efficiently within the bounds of that structural problem. And moving better may even aid their recovery, making it faster and less painful. And that, surely, must be worthwhile in anyone’s book.

 

* Frank Pierce Jones, Freedom to Change, p. 69.
** ibid.

Image by housey21, stock.xchng

 

Do children benefit from Alexander Technique?

When children and Alexander Technique are mentioned together in the same sentence, it is usually in something like this form: “Children don’t really need Alexander Technique, do they? I mean, when you look at little children, they just move so smoothly and gracefully…”

Well, yes. But…

What about the times when they just don’t? Can the Alexander Technique help children?

ballchild

Why children move well… or not.

FM Alexander was, from the first, profoundly convinced of the importance of his work to children. And as he pointed out in his first book in 1910, children are born with tremendous potential, a potential that we as parents, educators, friends etc. begin to shape almost from the very first day of life. A baby is born with everything it needs to move freely and easily; it is born with an intelligence that soaks up information and impressions insatiably.

Some of what our children take in, we can control; some of it is beyond our intervention. But everything that our children see or do makes an impression. Sometimes the impression made is positive; sometimes it is not. And we parents and educators form the primary source of information and instruction for our children. Whether through imitation or through overt instruction, our children learn what to think, how to think, and how to move through us. And we all, of course, move perfectly, think logically and exhibit open-mindedness at all times…

Hm.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned about children. This is why he wished to teach children his work: so that they would have a framework of principles and tools that would help them learn how to think and how to move. Alexander wished to prevent our children from suffering the same problems that we adults experience.

Children and the Alexander Technique

FM Alexander taught children. In fact, they seem to be mentioned quite often in his work. The youngest that I can recall seeing at this moment was 3 1/2.* He even opened a school, first in England, then in the USA (it evacuated there during World War 2) because he was convinced that education of children was the key to his dream: “I look for a time when the child shall be so taught and trained that whatever the circumstance… it will without effort be ble to adapt itself to its environment, and be enabled to live its life in the enjoyment of perfect health, physical and mental.”**

 

My own story

My son is seven. He had his first proper Alexander lesson (not from me!) when he was 4 1/2. He loved it, and it made a big difference to the constant arching in his upper back that was causing problems with his flexibility.

He has watched students coming in and out of the house for years now. And just recently, he asked about why they came. So I told him a story about how sometimes people can’t do the things they love to do as well as they’d like, because they seem to get in their own way. And I gave him an example that he could relate to (from memory, about moving arms while swimming). And he asked me for a lesson.

The lesson was duly given, changes happened, and my son’s interest was piqued. He demanded another lesson the next day. And the day after that, he wanted to know about where his head stopped and his neck started. So we got out the anatomy books. Just as Alexander predicted in his second book, my son was hooked.***

 

Recommendations

I think Alexander Technique lessons are great for kids. My son has benefited, and I have seen big changes in other children that I have taught. So if you want to investigate this for your child, go right ahead!Just keep in mind the following things:

  1. Look for a teacher who is happy to teach kids, or who has experience of doing so;
  2. Make sure they have some sort of Child Protection training. In the UK, make sure they have a CRB Disclosure;
  3. Expect them to ask you to stay in the room, and probably to join in!

Our children are the most precious asset we have. It is our responsibility to give them the very best tools possible for navigating their future lives. And I strongly believe that the Alexander Technique is probably the best tool around for the job.

 

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.82.
** ibid., p.93.
***FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Edition, p.381.
Image by Monika Jurczynska, stock.xchng

How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?

Person-Playing-Violin-Posters

“How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?”

This was one of the questions that I was asked at the beginning of my group class at Bristol Folk House last night. I love my Folk House students for many reasons. One of them is that they aren’t afraid to ask the questions that I know every student is thinking, but few are game enough to put into words.

It’s a great question, but it needed some clarification. “What do you mean?” I asked.

My student replied that he felt he was having some success in applying what he was learning in class to his everyday life, but he wanted to know how long it would take to be able to do the Alexander Technique really well, and do it all by himself.

Now, my student is expecting a certain type of answer to this question, probably either a time-related answer (x number of months) or an answer about application (depends on how much you practice). Instead, I asked a question in return, and asked the class to answer it. How about you have a go, too!

 

How long does it take to learn the violin?

 

I’ll give you a moment to think of your answer.

 

Got one? Great! We’ll continue. 🙂

My Folk House students gave answers like these:

·        It depends on how good you want to be

·        That’s relative, depending on how much you practice

·        Learning is a constantly evolving process, so you’re always learning

And all of these answers are, on one level, true. How quickly you progress in anything does depend on the quality and frequency of your practice. And learning is indeed a constantly evolving process. But if we settle for these answers, when will be finished learning how to play the violin?

Never.

My Folk House students didn’t look happy with this answer, and neither am I. Never is an unhappy word.

So what if we turned this on its head? Try this for size. As soon as we know that if we pluck or draw a bow across the string of the violin, and that we can change the note by changing the length of the string, we can play the violin. Everything else is refinement.

Can you see that this way of looking at the issue is instantly empowering? A couple of basic facts, and we have the basic tools to go away and work the rest out entirely by ourselves, if we choose to. How fantastic!

The Alexander Technique is no different. In fact, FM Alexander believed that we need to do this stuff for ourselves. Many sources quote him as saying “You can do what I do, if you do what I did.” And what FM did was to work it all out for himself.

As soon as we know that a change in the relationship between our head and our body can make a difference to our freedom and ease of motion; once we understand the power and effectiveness that lies in stopping the unnecessary stuff that is getting in our way; then we have enough basic knowledge to go away and do the Alexander Technique for ourselves.

Everything else is refinement.

Image by Bethany Carlson, stock.xchng

Alexander’s Three Steps to Success in Anything

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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.