Settling for ‘good enough’ as an antidote to perfectionism

I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism as procrastination

For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.

This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.

Perfectionism as fixed mindset

But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?

This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved.[1] In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that![2]

Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.

Alexander’s take on perfectionism

FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.

it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.[3]

If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?

Listen to the new means; make mistakes

The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.[4]

[1] Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
[2] ibid., p.179.
[3] Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
[4] ibid., p.298.

Stick or quit? Resilience vs knowing when to quit

Stickability – resilience – is considered a virtue. We all love stories about people not quitting in the face of adversity. But are there times when our love of ‘not quitting’ stops us from taking care of ourselves?

Resilience vs not quitting: two stories

For example, one of my students recently told me about how they spent years learning a musical instrument that they came to loathe. But they didn’t quit – they kept playing even after the joy had gone because they didn’t want the instrument to win. The student wanted to prove mastery; they wanted to prove they were a person who didn’t quit.

I did a similar thing with my PhD. Some time into my research, I came to realise that I hated what I was doing. Worse, I came to realise that I no longer wanted to follow the career in academia that I’d initially desired, which made the degree much less relevant to my future and the struggle far less meaningful. But I valued not being someone who quits things, and so I kept going in spite of the physical and psychological harm I was experiencing.

Resilience and not quitting are not the same

I’m never going to knock resilience as a high positive value. We know from the field of positive psychology that resilience – grit – is a key predictor of success.[1] Choosing not to quit when the going gets tough, but to keep with a challenging process in order to achieve a desired goal is a great skill. But that isn’t what we are talking about here.

When my student didn’t quit music lessons, and when I didn’t quit my degree, we were indulging in a behaviour that isn’t really resilience. We were blindly adhering to a value or belief structure even in the face of compelling evidence that we were hurting ourselves while working for a goal we no longer valued. This is what FM Alexander referred to as a ‘rigid habit of mind’ and said was the cause of many demonstrable evils.[2] In my case, it led to a real struggle with my mental health that took a long time to heal.

Borrowing FM’s idea of travel analogies, refusing to quit in the face of evidence that you’re engaged in the wrong activity is a bit like this. Imagine you’re in the car, driving along the M4. You want to go to London, but you’re heading west (international readers: this is a bad move!). You drive past Bristol, past Cardiff. You realise that you’re heading the wrong way, but you don’t turn around. Instead, you keep driving all the way to St David’s (on the west coast of Wales) just to punish the road. And the further you go, the angrier you get at the road for not taking you where you want to go.

In this story not quitting in spite of compelling evidence sounds like a form of madness, and something to be laughed at. But isn’t this a form of madness that we all indulge in sometimes? It’s not for nothing that at the beginning of the chapter where FM talks about rigidity of mind, he quotes Allen Upward as saying:

“The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.”[3]

So when do you stick, and when do you quit?

That’s a tough question, and there’s no single right answer. But a clear-sighted analysis of the costs and the benefits of what you’re doing, carried out regularly, is going to help you avoid the rigid thinking that is so dangerous. You can try asking yourself these questions:

  • How much am I suffering?
  • Is the short-term cost worth the long term gain? In other words, is the goal I’m heading for one that I truly desire?
  • Is it possible to stop temporarily to give myself a break? (This is what I should have done with my PhD)
  • Do I love what I’m doing, in spite of the suffering?
  • Is there anything that I haven’t considered – an alternative that I haven’t seen yet?

Only you can decide if you’re following the right path; just don’t let yourself fall into rigid thinking and find yourself going to a place you don’t want.

[1] See Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, for a discussion on the experimental findings around resilience and success.

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

[3] ibid., p.51.

Auditioning? Be honest about what you plan for

Creating a plan B is a good idea if you're auditioning.

We’re coming up to audition time for musicians and actors looking to get college places, so this post is aimed specifically at those groups, but I think all of us can learn something from it. So read on…

I always recommend that my auditioning students have some sort of back-up plan, so that if they don’t get a college place they’ll still have something halfways organised for the year ahead. The reason for this is to avoid making an already stressful situation worse. All auditioning aspiring actors know that the places in colleges are limited, and that it’s entirely possible that even if you audition well, you might not get selected. With that in mind, it’s not a good idea to add extra pressure by going to your auditions worrying about not getting in because you have no idea what you’ll do with yourself for a year if you don’t!

A couple of my students told me about their experience of doing the rounds of acting college auditions last year. They weren’t successful in getting a place. When I asked them about the experience, they said something really interesting.

They both said they went into the experience knowing that they might not get a place. They did the sensible thing and made sure they had a back-up plan. But they both admitted that, by the final audition, they’d both felt an emotional investment in their back-up plan. They were almost looking forward to it. They almost didn’t mind not getting through the audition.

They didn’t get through. And they (almost) didn’t mind. Because they had really cool back-up plans.

Plans and consequences

I think this story demonstrates something really important about the nature of planning. First of all, planning is important. You need to have plans. Plans are so important that FM Alexander spent time in his seminal chapter Evolution of a Technique explaining a model for how to create them.[1]

FM tells us to have a plan, because without it we have no blueprint for the creation we wish to bring about. But we need to be aware, too, that the creation of a plan isn’t enough, in and of itself. If we create a plan and we don’t like it, our commitment to carrying it out will be low. If we like the plan, we will be more motivated to carry it out effectively and efficiently.

And this is what tripped up my students. They knew that getting a place in acting school was difficult. So they made a ‘mental reservation’ – in a sense, they accepted the unlikelihood of getting a place, and mentally said goodbye to it.[2] In a sense, they gave up the mission of getting into drama school! They created a back-up plan that was so interesting and creative that they could place an emotional investment in it. In other words, they effectively made the ‘back-up’ their actual Plan A. And now that’s the reality that they are living.

Plan B really should be ‘Plan B’

So I’m not telling you to go into audition rounds without having a Plan B. It really does take some of the pressure off a difficult situation. But I am telling you that you need to be honest with yourself. Do you really want that place? Then commit to it. 

Commit to the experience of doing the best you can. You may still not achieve a place – there are many applicants and only relatively few places. And if you don’t get the place, you will feel disappointment. But at the very least you will be able to feel pleased that you had committed to the process. And then you can look to your plan B.

 

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, p.39.

[2] FM Alexander uses this phrase in his discussion of students going about things in their own way; they hear the teacher’s advice and say they accept it but don’t really act upon it. I think we can also do that with ourselves: say we are going to do one thing, and actually commit to doing another. See FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.398.

Image courtesy of truengtra_pae at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sometimes what a student wants is not what they need

student wants and needs are two different things; like wanting and needing chocolate cake!It is a sad truth that sometimes what a student wants is simply not the thing that is going to move them forward most effectively.

My music teacher friends know this phenomenon well. A violin student, for example, may want to improve a particular passage in the music they are playing. Their teacher gives them an arpeggio to work on. The student can’t see the point of the arpeggio and just wants to work on the passage. The student wants improvement, but only wants to work directly on the thing they perceive as the problem.

Here’s another example. An Alexander Technique student has an issue where their arms hurt when they are working at a keyboard (computer or piano, whichever is more appealing to you). The student wants me to help them with their arms. But I look at what they’re doing and can see that the issue with their arms is created by the way they are sitting – there might be a backward rotation in the pelvis and crunching in the neck.

I want us to look more closely at this example, and examine these questions:

  • Why do the student’s arms hurt, and not their neck?
  • Where do I, their teacher, go to work – on the arms where the student expects, or where I think the problem originates?
  • And if I work where I think the problem originates (the spine – or higher!), how will the student respond?

Why do their arms hurt?

One of the key ideas behind the Alexander Technique is that everything is connected; we are a psycho-physical unity. Because everything is connected, if something is not working well in one area of the body, everything else has to compensate and adjust. That may mean that a completely different part of the body may hurt from the one that caused the trouble in the first place.

That’s exactly  what happened to FM Alexander. He was suffering hoarseness when he tried to recite, but the issue wasn’t with his vocal folds. Rather, the hoarseness was an indirect result of the habitual way he pulled his head back and down before speaking.[1]

Where do I go to work as a teacher?

It should logically follow from what I’ve said above, that if I go to work using hands-on techniques on the student’s arms they may get some benefit, but not nearly as much as if I go to where the trouble really started. I need to go to the root of the problem to really clear it up. I also need to make sure that I am clear with the student about why I’m apparently ignoring the bit of them that hurts!

So I’m probably not going to work with my student’s arms as a first point of approach. But where will I work?

Go to where the problem starts

In the example I’ve given, I can see that my student is doing unhelpful things with their head in relation with their body, going down through their spine all the way to their pelvis. I’m likely to use a hands-on technique that interacts with that relationship. But I’ll also be working somewhere a bit higher, because it seems very likely that there’s some kind of unhelpful thinking that has generated the unhelpful movement behaviour.[2] If I can get my student thinking more clearly, then the physical behaviour is likely to vanish far more quickly.

How will the student respond?

My task as a teacher is to help the student improve. What the student wants and what helps them improve might be the same thing, but more often than not, it isn’t. If I’m the teacher, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do the thing that with generate the most benefit for my student. And mostly, that means clarifying their thinking while working with their head in relation to their body.

[1] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, Orion, 2001, pp.27-28.

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

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How self censure can hold you back from greatness

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againIn the past couple of articles I’ve discussed how in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical consequences:

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

First I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Last time I talked about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. And in this article I want to talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me)’ part of the thought train. We’ll look at a potential source of habitual self censure, why it holds you back, and what you could do to change it.

Let’s get started.

‘Bad me’ – why does self censure exist?

The important thing to understand about self censure is that it is a learned behaviour – young children just don’t do it. Ken Robinson tells a story about going to see his son’s preschool production of the Nativity, and a wonderful moment that occurred when one of the Three Kings got a little nervous and said his line too soon.

The third boy had to improvise a line he hadn’t learned, or paid much attention to during rehearsal, given that he was only four. The first boy said, “I bring you gold.” The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”
The third boy said, “Frank sent this.”[1]

The child could improvise because he hadn’t learned yet to worry about being wrong. Both Robinson and personal finance expert Robert Kiyosaki comment that our fearful attitude towards being wrong is something that we learn from authority figures such as parents, teachers, and education systems.[2] The more conscientious of us then learn to self-censure. We don’t risk anything that isn’t definitely and canonically right, and if we do and don’t have the right answer, we punish ourselves. It’s a trait that is particularly marked among classical music students – if they are told (and I have more than one reliable account of exactly this happening) that the minimum standard for an orchestral musician is to be note-perfect, then they learn to censure and fear mistakes of any kind.

But where does fear of error and self-censure lead?

The consequences of self censure

Early in his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance FM Alexander quotes a sentence from author Allen Upward:

The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.[3]

Alexander makes the point that what a person thinks has a huge bearing on the way they act and move. If a person learns when she is young that making mistakes is a bad thing and takes that message as a core belief, then her actions will conform to that belief. She may start to avoid situations where she needs to state an opinion or make a judgement, just in case she gets it wrong. She may, in fact, begin to limit her activities, or at least the manner in which she does them, in order to conform to the belief that being wrong is bad. For example, a violinist may begin to play with perfect intonation and complete accuracy to the score, but with no interpretative flair or interest. Worse, the violinist may even begin to create physical behaviours that are the physical equivalent of the mental limitation he has placed upon himself.

The mental attitude can become a physical behaviour.

When therefore we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [4]

Escaping ‘bad me’

From all that we’ve seen so far, I think you’ll agree that it is clearly a good idea to escape the clutches of ‘bad me’ syndrome! Not only will you experience a better quality of life through being calmer and less anxious about making mistakes, you are likely to notice improvements in the freedom and flexibility of your physical movement, too. But how to do it?

Non-AT tools

Well, FM Alexander held a very high opinion of reasoning, and of the “just use and exercise of conscious reason.” [5] He wanted his students – and that means all of us reading and writing this blog – to be able to use their reasoning powers and think their way out of situations. But that can be really hard if you’re suffering with anxiety and worry. There are plenty of non Alexander Technique tools you can use to address these particular issues, from gratitude journals, affirmations and savouring exercises, right through to mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy. These aren’t AT tools so I won’t discuss them here, but I invite you to research them and find the ones that work most effectively for you.

Alexander Technique to beat ‘bad me’

What I will suggest, however, is that you practise the “just use and exercise of reason” – and this is an Alexander Technique tool. We learn to use our minds more effectively by playing with movement. Other tools will help us directly with the self censure, but indirectly the Alexander Technique helps too. When we focus on one simple movement, we give ourselves permission to play and experiment. This is by definition open-ended and with no right answer. In big ‘important’ activities (like playing music) this might be threatening but for most students it’s okay because it’s just a simple movement, and seems to fall beneath the threshold of anxiety. In effect, we teach ourselves how to be playful again.

Pick an activity and really investigate it. It could be something as simple as picking up the kettle! Really notice what muscles and joints you use when you do the activity. Think about what muscles and joints would most efficiently do the job. See if you can use just these. Evaluate – rejoice in success, and learn from failure. Repeat.

And have fun.

[1] Robinson, K., The Element, London, Penguin, 2009, p.15.
[2] Kiyosaki, R. &Bennett, H.Z, If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t go to School, Fairfield, Aslan, 1993, p.83.
[3] Upward, A. quoted in Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.51.
[4] ibid., p.52.
[5] ibid., p.57.

Is your self image up-to-date with reality?

Self image is how we see ourselvesThe other day I was working  with a student who historically had a tendency to pull his shoulders forwards. The student was convinced he was still doing this. Guess what?  He wasn’t. His self image was lagging behind the physical reality.

Self image: not seeing ourselves as others see us

FM Alexander writes in his second book about a particular kind of preconceived idea, in which we do not see ourselves as others see us. He uses it to refer to people whose sense of themselves is so out of step with reality that they perceive as entirely normal characteristic that the outside world would view as being well away from anatomic norms.

As an illustration, FM picks an example from his own teaching experience of a man with a stutter. In lessons, speaking slowly, the stutter vanished. But when asked to speak in that way in his daily life, the student relapsed I to his stutter as he commented that “Everyone would notice me!”

It’s an extreme example, but it really demonstrates how we all have the ability to be entirely mistaken about how others see us. As FM said:

He [the student] no longer saw things as they were, and was out of communication with reasoning, where his consciousness of his defects was concerned.[1]

But it works the other way, too.

Self image lag

There’s a particularly fascinating version of this kind of mistaken self-perception that arises in Alexander Technique students. They started coming to lessons with a particular physical issue – like having their shoulders pulled forwards – and have come to identify themselves in some way as someone who has this issue. The student is no longer just Joe Bloggs; they are Joe Bloggs, the Person with the Shoulders.

And even after they’ve done massive amounts of work on their particular issue and made huge improvements, it is likely that they haven’t yet altered their identity. They are still Joe Bloggs with the Shoulders, not simple Joe Bloggs. In order to truly change, the student still needs to do the vital work of changing their self image to correspond with the new physical reality.

My challenge to you today is this: what have you been working on recently? Are you so fixated on the fault that you’ve perceived that it has become part of your identity? Check and see if you too need to do a little bit of work on your self image!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.302.

Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay.

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from pixabay.com

A dreadful secret about Alexander Technique and pain issues

Alexander Technique and pain issues…

The secret? You don’t notice when it stops hurting.

A story.

As a very young teacher, I worked with a student who had severe sciatic pain. It would cause the student to spend sometimes days in bed, and severely curtailed the person’s quality of life. I gave them weekly lessons – we’d agreed 10. At lesson 7, the student said at the very start that they didn’t feel they were getting any benefit from the lessons.

I asked about why they’d started lessons. “To help me deal with my sciatic pain.” And how was that pain? “Oh, that vanished weeks ago.” Had the student done anything else in that time that would have made such a dramatic difference? “No, just these lessons.” Had their quality of life improved? “I’ve been moving pots around in the garden this morning.” Could the student have done that before taking the lessons? “Well… No. No, probably not. But I still don’t see what benefit I’m getting from these lessons.”

The student had made huge changes to the way they were moving (and thinking about moving), but once the changes were made, they didn’t think about how debilitating their condition had been before. The student was too busy having fun in the garden!

Selective forgetting: we are geared towards health

When people come to the Alexander Technique with pain issues, they (understandably) hope that the lessons will deal with the pain. And they really want it to do the job quickly. And sometimes dramatic changes really do happen very quickly, and are really noticeable. But when often the change is a little more gradual, we sometimes fall into a cognitive trap that is there to help us, but also gets in the way of us celebrating success: selective forgetting.

What do I mean? Well, when things change gradually, we don’t notice them change. The incremental effect is huge, but day-to-day the changes fall below our ‘just noticeable difference’ threshold, and we forget. It’s a bit like when my son was small, and he said ‘ambliance’ instead of ‘ambulance’. There was a day when he used ‘ambliance’ for the last time, but I couldn’t tell you when it was. Or reading to my son: I would read stories to him every night when he was young. Now he is 14, and I don’t read to him any more; it gradually dwindled and ceased. I didn’t pick a day on the calendar and say, ‘this is the final day for reading aloud to my son’. There was such a day, but I didn’t notice it go by.

Change is like that. Even with sometimes quite severe pain issues, students won’t notice when the difficulty stops. They’re too busy having fun with all the new things they can do. My student didn’t really remember how bad the sciatic pain was, because they were too busy tidying their (much-loved) garden. My music students are too busy learning new repertoire to notice that the use issue that had held them back, isn’t holding them back any more.

They are too busy having fun.

Alexander Technique and pain: getting out of the groove

My music students and my gardening student had something in common – they were stuck in a groove. They were used to thinking in moving in certain ways that didn’t help them. But it really doesn’t take much to change that situation. FM Alexander writes:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working by means of one mechanical unintelligent operation, but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it.[1]

I would add that, not only are we not bound to the old path, but we are so full of the excitement of finding new paths that we don’t even bother looking at the old one!

What does this mean for our old habitual ways of doing things (and the discomfort we caused ourselves)? There’s a day when the discomfort stops, but you probably won’t even see it. You’ll experience the challenge through the period while things change, and you’ll probably be frustrated that they aren’t completely better. But I have to warn you that, because things change gradually and the moments of discomfort and frustration become fewer, you probably won’t notice when they stop.

You’ll be too busy having fun.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.67.

Don’t trust teachers implicitly!

trust teachers but don't follow them blindlyShould you trust teachers implicitly? Should you accept the advice of a professional unconditionally?

I met a person recently who had been advised by a doctor that, in order to avoid upsetting the arthritis in their knees, they should avoid going up stairs and not carry anything heavy. The person not only trusted the advice, but seemed to ‘help it along’. Without being aware of it, they made the doctor’s advice pertinent by placing extra strain on their knees. They would almost push themselves down into the floor at the base of the stairs, as if to ensure that their knees were in the least beneficial position for the physical act of climbing the stairs. Their knees would hurt, thus proving the doctor’s advice was sound. I stress: they weren’t aware of the physical movement, but they were very clear on their belief in the doctor’s advice.

Belief creates physical movement

Students in my classes are well used to me remarking that the way we describe things and the language we use to describe them are incredibly important. If we describe our hip joints as being somewhere on the sides of the body and up quite high, then that’s where we’ll move. (This isn’t where the hip joint is, by the way!) But this applies just as much, if not more, to advice we are given by teachers and medical practitioners. If we trust a teacher or other professional, we are likely to listen to their advice, and sometimes a little more unconditionally than is advisable. We can fall into one of these traps:

1. Blindly following advice without understanding it

FM Alexander fell into this trap when he had acting lessons with Mr James Cathcart. FM was told to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’ and conscientiously tried to do so. He never asked Mr Cathcart what he meant, or what the instruction was trying to achieve. Later, FM realised that the tension in his feet was contributing to the whole-body misuse that culminated in him losing his voice onstage.[1]

2. Thinking we are following the advice, but really doing something different

My music students often speak of their instrument teacher telling them to, for example, use their bow in a particular way on their violins. They go away and think they are doing what their teacher told them, only to find out in the lesson the following week that they’ve been doing it completely wrongly. How frustrating!

3. Following the advice so carefully that we copy the movement behaviours of the person giving it

Many years ago, I had a lecturer who wanted to remind his class that thinking required us to get past a degree of mental inertia. He was fond of saying, “Thinking hurts.” But it wasn’t just a metaphor – he would actually jam his head back and down into his torso as he said it. But because he was a well-like and influential teacher, his class started to take on board not just the words, but the accompanying physical gesture. We started suffering recurring headaches!

4. Following advice that is just plain wrong.

I think we can probably all think of examples of this!

What to do?

The advice from me is this: don’t check your brain in at the door! Hold all advice lightly – even the advice from me. Interrogate everything. Work out what you think is most likely to be true, but even then, continue to gently question and test the limits of what you think is true. FM would call this being ‘open-minded‘. Don’t trust teachers implicitly, but don’t blindly believe your own ideas, either. If you can manage it, you’ll find that the act of reasoning out why you’re being told what you’re told will help you to improve faster and more efficiently.

But that’s just my idea. Go and test it for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Photograph of Grayson Perry artwork by Jennifer Mackerras