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

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

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

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

Passion, Practice…

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

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

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

… And Mistakes

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

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

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

And again later in his investigation:

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

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

How many mistakes?

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

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

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

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

Is your stadium full yet?

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

[2] ibid., p.41.

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

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

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

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

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

Analyse the conditions (of use) present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project the directions necessary to put the means into effect.

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

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

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

Let me know how you get on.

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

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

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of getting worse: everything is connected

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of getting worse is a fear of making mistakes

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

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

Category mistakes and robust systems

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

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

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

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

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

That would be worth the occasional ‘mistake’.

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

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

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change to a more constructive performance mindset with one word

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

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

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

Psychophysical unity and performance mindset

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

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

Words matter

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

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

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

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

One word that changes everything

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you

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

Give it a try.

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

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

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

Breath control: ideas for breathing better

Ah, the breath.

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

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

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

Do you know where you breathe?

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

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

Did you put them on your chest?

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

Lungs and shoulders

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

Diaphragm and belly

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

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

Breathing control

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

Rediscover your breath

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

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

Jen on the floor investigating her breath control.

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

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

Image of dandelion courtesy of Sivan_Zamir at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

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

A cut up apple - whole body or separate parts?

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

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

Body as whole

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

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

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

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

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

Body as separate parts

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

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

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

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

Questions to ask yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of punsaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What’s right with being wrong?

Do you have a problematic relationship with being wrong?

Being wrong and being right - a cross and a tick - both are essential to growth and change

It’s a really common thing. A lot of my students will confess to finding the whole idea of ‘being wrong’ really difficult. They all come from a school system that prioritises being right, and a prevailing culture that fetishises perfection in all forms (the obsession with physical perfection is the most obvious and disturbing example, but is only one part of the phenomenon).[1] Some are still within that school system, and have to exist within the structures that they suspect aren’t helping them.

It manifests when they aren’t keen to play their musical instrument in front of a group (or even me), even though they’ve asked for the lesson because they want help. They don’t want to be seen to do things incorrectly or poorly, and feel apprehensive. Sometimes students don’t even have a lesson at all because they are too afraid of being seen to ‘stuff up’. Getting things wrong is vulnerable, and therefore challenging.

So why do I want us all to experiment with being wrong a little more often? What’s wrong with always wanting to be right?

FM Alexander – expert at being wrong

One of the strands that runs through FM’s account of his creation of his work is his constant experimentation. He doesn’t refer to it directly, but it is pretty clear that he must have gotten a lot of things wrong! The work is peppered with time references (after many weeks; after some time; after many months) and statements like this one:

when the time came for me to apply what I had learned to my reciting, and I had tried to do what I ought to do, I had failed. Obviously, then, my next step was to find out at what point in my “doing” I had gone wrong.

There was nothing for it but to persevere, and I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences…[2]

Fear of being wrong is a category mistake. 

But what if our love of being right is a learned behaviour? What if it’s a completely reasonable desire within a specific sphere of activity, and we’ve just misapplied it to most of our activities in our lives?

We get used to being taught specific things we need to remember and regurgitate on test papers – being right – and then transfer that experience into our other activities. Music teachers I know tell me that they sometimes have students who are afraid of playing anything other than a very ‘safe’ interpretation of a piece – or don’t even like playing at all – because they don’t want to do the ‘wrong’ thing. They want the teacher to tell them the ‘right’ thing, and then copy it.

But when you think about it, if you look across the whole of a person’s life, remembering STUFF for tests and then quoting it back on the papers is a very small and specific category of activity that isn’t repeated very often anywhere else. But to a school student – to an impressionable mind at a critical point in the development of understanding about the world – it forms the large part of every day. Small wonder we most of us hold to it so firmly!

My music teacher friends will tell you that a student who wants to be right is afraid of doing the wrong thing. Someone who is afraid is less likely to take risks, likely to be less creative, and suffer more when the inevitable happens and they do perform sub-optimally.

What did you fail at this week?

As adults we have an opportunity to stop this cycle, both with ourselves and with the young people we know. Because adults were once children who grew up in that ‘right is right’ mindset, they often unthinkingly perpetuate it with the children with whom they are in contact. So it was refreshing to read an article about being wrong, and come across this quote:

Spanx CEO Sara Blakely grew up with her father asking her, ‘What did you fail at this week?’ If by the end of the week she hadn’t failed, she wasn’t trying hard enough. She said she learned that being wrong leads you to the next best thing.[3]

This family developed a total shift of mindset. Being wrong became a benchmark of learning, rather than something to be feared. Imagine what you could achieve if you copied that change of mindset. Imagine how different the world could be if we all copied it?!

Being wrong isn’t quite enough

It’s a good idea to ask questions about what we’ve attempted, and to be a bit analytical about things. We do this so that we can avoid emotional backlash, and so that we don’t get stuck with muttering ‘I was wrong. Huh.’ Think of it as a bit like troubleshooting to work out where a problem is. When I was trying to fix my laptop this week, I went through a process of asking questions and ruling out alternatives, so that I could narrow my focus down to the thing that was causing the trouble.

  • How was I wrong – was all of my thinking wrong, or just a part?
  • Did I actually do what I intended to do?
  • Was my reasoning faulty, or did I not analyse the context and conditions well enough?
  • What did I miss?
  • What assumptions did I make that I probably shouldn’t have?

If you take an analytical approach like this, you give yourself a bit of emotional distance, and the opportunity to learn from what you’ve done – both the good and the bad. If you’re learning, you’re benefiting. And if that’s true, you’re almost certainly improving.

[1] See this article for an example: https://www.thisisinsider.com/selfie-harm-photo-series-rankin-asks-teens-to-edit-photos-until-social-media-ready-2019-2, accessed 7 February 2019.

[2] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, p.32.

[3] https://www.fastcompany.com/90292670/why-its-good-for-you-to-be-wrong, accessed 3 February 2019.

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Balance, belief and follow-through: what can musicians learn from Roger Federer?

Even as news broke of Andy Murray’s imminent departure from men’s tennis, another article in the Guardian caught my eye: a piece on Roger Federer[1]. Though not a massive tennis fan, I’ve come to admire Federer and frequently use him as an example of stunningly graceful movement in my Alexander Technique classes. But what can we as musicians learn from Roger Federer? What can we take from his approach to tennis and apply to our own endeavours?

Balance and efficiency of movement

Journalists have been remarking on the beauty of Federer’s play since early in his career – David Foster Wallace’s seminal article on Federer ‘as Religious Experience’ was written in 2006 and still feels current. Here is Wallace on Federer:

Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to… His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game … All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.[2]

What do I as an Alexander Technique teacher like about watching Federer? If you look at photos of him, or watch him play on TV, he never seems off balance. There is an efficiency of movement – he doesn’t use more energy than necessary, and he rarely seems to place muscular effort into anything that would detract from his shot. Even at extreme levels of exertion one never feels that his energies are being misdirected or overdone. This is Federer himself on his style of play:

“maybe it’s also the way I play tennis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”[3]

I think this is directly transferrable to music. As we play, we could make it a guiding principle to make our physical movements suitable to the task at hand – neither too much, nor poorly directed. I’m not suggesting that we try to limit our movement or our energies; rather that, like Federer, if the situation demands exertion and exuberance, that we fulfil those demands in the service of our musical goals. I would love to feel at the end of a recital that I had carried out what was necessary to make the music speak, and no extra!

Rhythm, routine, and fun

Federer has an unchanging routine to determine when he changes his racquets during the match, and a little ritual set up with the ball boys and girls when the new one is unwrapped. He is known to be meticulous about taking off his jacket before the match and putting it over the back of his chair, smoothing away any creases. These things may give us aesthetic pleasure as spectators, but why might he do them? One answer might be, ‘control of environment’. By having a set plan over when he changes racquet (and how it is done) he doesn’t need to think about it, leaving him more mental space (working memory) to devote to thinking about the game.

But he also likes to allow himself moments of creativity and fun. Journalist Tim Lewis:

it was Mats Wilander, the seven-time grand slam winner from Sweden, who noted that to really understand Roger Federer you have to watch him between the points. Wilander especially enjoys how Federer returns a ball to the ball boys after a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a simple, utilitarian interaction: instead, he’ll curate a viciously kinking drop shot that bounces into their hands or a razored slice that makes a satisfying thwock into the canvas behind the court. [4]

The idea of creating routines and patterns of behaviour is a sensible one, as it can help free up the mind before performing and may also have a beneficial effect against stage fright. It does this by removing the necessity of the performer having to use vital mental energy deciding how to prepare themselves, their instrument and music for the performance; it also reduces the risk of forgetting something, thereby lowering the general ‘irritability’ of the performer’s systems.

I also like, though, the inclusion of creativity and fun within Federer’s routine structure. Perhaps some playfulness over warming up, or while tuning between movements/pieces may help to keep a sense of freshness and presence? I’ll leave it up to you to work out how adding some creativity might work for you!

Follow-through

A friend on Twitter remarked that one of the noticeable elements of Federer’s play is his follow-through – it is graceful and flowing, and very much part of his shot. This is possibly where Federer most neatly exemplifies a key Alexander Technique principle, which I and some of my colleagues label ‘additive thinking’.[5]

FM Alexander wanted us to reason out strategies (routes of travel, or protocols) for each activity we undertake. But so often it becomes easy to look at the elements of the protocol one has designed and view them as a kind of checklist. The tennis checklist, simplified hugely, might read:

  • pull racquet back
  • hit ball
  • follow through

But if one were to use these three steps in practice as a checklist, one would end up with a very jerky and unconnected set of movements – quite the opposite of the easy and ‘holistic’ quality we are trying to attain. What FM Alexander wanted instead, and what Federer does brilliantly, is for the player to think of each thing additively at all moments of the shot. In other words, even as one is preparing for the shot, one is also thinking of the follow-through, and vice versa. This ensures that every element of the protocol is retained in mind as the protocol is followed. And what Federer also does brilliantly is to use the follow-through from one shot as the preparatory conditions for the next shot.

How would this function in music? A pianist, for example, would not think of single notes individually, but rather think about each note and each finger movement as encompassing each note in the phrase. The way each note ends is the preparatory state for the next note (or rest, or silence).

Self-belief

Federer exhibits a solid belief in his own abilities; he believes that he can win. And this belief isn’t only visible while he’s winning. Journalist Tim Lewis notes that this belief stuck with him even in the period where he was losing matches and falling down the rankings:

When he spoke about the brick walls he was coming up against, Federer’s response was stoic, hubristic: he was playing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was something deluded about his obstinacy, and it made me both desperately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same. [6]

Federer, like other great sportspeople, is prepared to investigate change: he did change his preferred racquet size. But his belief in his training and ability is paramount:

The core difference between Federer and his rivals is his unshakeable belief in his talent, to trust his genius.

“I’ve always believed I can play tennis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the confidence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pressure.” [7]

Because he knows that he has trained intelligently and consistently over decades, Federer is able to rest confidently on the knowledge that he has attained a level of proficiency in the game that will carry him to success. Equally, he knows that if he continues to train intelligently, he will be able to do fewer hours of physical work than many of his competitors, protecting him from injury while still preparing him for tournaments.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from this as musicians. As Noa Kageyama pointed out in his seminal blog post [8], the number of hours one spends in a practice room aren’t the key to success – intelligent practice is a far greater predictive of success. So we all need to do the things we’ve been told are sensible: mental practice, interleaving, slow practice, and so on. If we ‘work smart’, we design our success. We pay attention to the process, and then have faith that it will carry us through, because we have designed it with success in mind. Or as FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends must be a genuine trust…[8]

Balance, routine, follow-through, belief. Which one will you start working on today?

[1] Kevin Mitchell, ‘Roger Federer: Methuselah of sport still has unshakeable belief in his talent’, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/roger-federer-methusalah-of-sport-still-has-unshakeable-belief-in-his-talent, accessed 14 January 2019.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html, accessed 15 January 2019.

[3] Roger Federer quoted in Mitchell, op.cit.

[4] Tim Lewis, ‘The Pleasure (And Pain) Of Watching Roger Federer, The Greatest Tennis Player Ever’, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a22019668/the-pleasure-and-pain-of-watching-roger-federer-the-greatest-tennis-player-ever/, accessed 15 January 2019.

[5] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, pp.41-2.

[6] Lewis, op.cit.

[7] Mitchell, op.cit.

[8] Now Kageyama, ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’, https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/, accessed 16 January 2019.

[9] Alexander, op.cit., p.45.

Image of Roger Federer in 2011 Australian Open by Christopher Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

All about direction: what do Google Maps and Alexander Technique have in common?

When I was teaching the first year Music students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama last week and asked them what they already knew about Alexander Technique, one of them said ‘direction’. Now, ‘direction’ is a technical term in Alexander Technique, but it turned out my student wasn’t talking about the technical meaning; she meant quite literally that Alexander Technique gives a person a direction of travel. We discussed this in class, and started comparing the Alexander Technique to Google Maps.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So is Google Maps a useful analogy? Is the Alexander Technique a kind of psycho-physical equivalent of mapping software? Let’s investigate.

Google Maps and the direction of travel

In order to think about this properly, we need to think in practical terms about how Google Maps works. To take a simple example, if I’m at College and I want to find my way back to Cardiff Central railway station, I would type it into the search bar: it is my destination of choice. Google Maps then takes the information of where I am and where I want to go, combines it with more information about how I’m travelling, the traffic conditions and road closures, and then gives me typically three different routes to choose from. One of these routes will be direct, and at least one will be longer but more scenic. I get to choose my route according to the quality of the route I want to take – fast, or scenic. Once I’ve chosen my preferred route, all I have to do is to follow the indicated path, and I know that I’ll successfully find the station in time to catch my train home.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So how does Alexander Technique match up against this? The section of FM Alexander’s books that most neatly speaks to this idea of finding a direction or route is this piece from his chapter Evolution of a Technique:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Well, in order to, for example, raise my recorder to my lips, I need to have a destination in mind; for today, let’s say my destination is raising the instrument as efficiently as I can. Having chosen my destination, I then need to be my own route creator, instead of relying on Google’s algorithms! But I’ll be doing something similar: taking my starting place and my destination into consideration, along with other relevant information like joints, muscles, size of recorder, and so on. I can then construct a route or three that will get me and my recorder to where I want them to be.

Now, I can think of at least three ways I could get my recorder to my mouth. But part of my goal wasn’t just locational, but qualitative; I wanted to get it to my mouth efficiently. So I can now choose the route (process) that best fulfils that qualitative criterion.

And having chosen my route, all I need to do is to follow it as accurately as I can.

As a starting place for understanding how the Alexander Technique works, it’s not a bad analogy! So where do you want to go today, and what routes will you choose from to get there?

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

(And yes, I did mention Google Maps in a recent post – this one – but for a very different reason)

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.