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

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

Is your set-up causing pain, or the way that you’re using it, or both?

If I had to give a one sentence definition of Alexander Technique, I would say that it’s a toolkit of ideas and processes to help you carry out any activity you choose in the easiest, most efficient, most enjoyable way possible. Mostly Alexander Technique teachers talk about the way that you’re going about activities, and rightly so. They want to focus on how you are using yourself as you use your office set-up, for example, or your musical instrument, because that’s a primary focus of what the Alexander Technique is about. FM’s whole journey began with the question

[Was it] something that I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?[1]

Right from the beginning, Alexander identified that he was using his body poorly, and that this inefficient use of himself was causing trouble. He very clearly here drew a distinction between, for example, medical problems and self-inflicted problems. FM said he wasn’t physically broken; he just didn’t use his body well in order to speak.

We Alexander teachers also tend to focus on this area in part because very often our students come to us having spent a lot of time and money thinking about their set-up. They’ve spent a fortune on chairs, keyboards and wrist rests to no avail. Students are really ready to think about their own part in their problems.

One extreme to the other

However, sometimes we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We can fall into the trap of looking only at ourselves. We note that Alexander Technique is about taking self-responsibility for our problems, and we whole-heartedly take responsibility for everything. But that isn’t sensible. We’ve just gone from one extreme (thinking our problems aren’t our fault) to the other (assuming everything is about the way we’re approaching activity). Neither extreme is true or accurate.

We could argue that even Alexander fell into this trap when he was investigating how to solve his own vocal problems. He realised that he needed to know what he was doing; in his own words, he needed to “analyse the conditions of use present.”[2] But why stop at analysing your own use? Why not do a detailed analysis of your desk, or violin, too? As an Alexander Technique teacher, I can teach you how to use the set-up you have efficiently and well, but if your set-up is poor, you’ll always be fighting against it.

I was working with a violinist last year who’d had the same shoulder rest for a few years. But they’d bought it while they were still growing; a few years later, and it was completely the wrong height for them now they were fully-grown. Once they changed the set-up AND looked at their use of themselves, all the shoulder tension went away.

If we exclusively focus on the way we’re using our bodies, we run the risk of missing out on a whole area of analysis that might yield significant improvements. What about the way our office furniture is set up? What about the way my student’s violin is set up, with shoulder and chin rests? Aren’t these equally worthy of examination?

Check the conditions!

Musicians: look at your set-up. Classical guitarists should think about their footrests and music stand position. Violinist should think about their chin and shoulder rests. Recorder players: consider thumb rests. Don’t take anything for granted.

Office people: take a good hard look at your desk. Are your desk and chair the right height? Is your keyboard close enough? Is your monitor the right height? If you use two monitors, is the one you use most directly in front of you?

Hot-desk people: do you take the time to properly set up your work space when you arrive? We kid ourselves that it will take too long. But isn’t a few minutes worth it for a whole day free of discomfort?

There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves. We can work on how we use ourselves, and that’s the most important job! But don’t forget the external circumstances. They can make a world of difference, too.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.25.

[2] ibid., p.39.

Businessman stretching in an office — Image by © SuperStock/Corbis

Correcting unshakeable belief: what if your teacher was actually right?

Correcting unshakeable belief is like moving a big rock!

Correcting Unshakeable Belief…

I’ve been working with a trumpet student recently. He likes to play his trumpet standing, and as he does so he juts his pelvis forwards and pulls his upper thoracic spine backwards – a bit like the shop dummies at many UK clothing stores! I’ve worked with him; explained how the extension through his thoracic spine prevents movement in his ribs and interferes with his breathing; done hands-on work and given him the experience of the improvement of tone and breath control when he stops the ‘H&M pelvic thrust’.

So has he changed it? Nope.

You see, he is convinced it helps him reach the high notes. Even though he knows that change in pitch happens via valves and embouchure, on some level he believes that the extension in his spine is essential for high notes, and that he won’t reach them if he doesn’t do it. He has an apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity of jutting his pelvis forwards.

I’m sure that most of us, if pushed, could think of a similar experience. I can clearly remember having a very similar interaction with my tennis teacher.

So why didn’t I do what my tennis teacher told me? Why doesn’t my trumpet student do what I suggest, especially when he has had a clear demonstration of the improvement he could experience? After all, if we’re paying a teacher to help us, why don’t we follow their advice?

The answer is that, on some level, we believe that we know better. We have an (apparently) unshakeable belief. And correcting unshakeable belief seems like a very big thing to accomplish.

A question of belief

Everything we do and every action that we make is, ultimately, a result of the constellation of ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true, and that constitute what FM Alexander called our psycho-physical make-up.

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. [1]

When we carry out an action it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, it conforms to our image of ourselves and our place in the world. My student, for example, just his pelvis forwards when he changes pitch because on some level he believes he has to. It conforms to his beliefs about himself and trumpet playing. When I come along and demonstrate to him that he doesn’t need to make the jutting movement with his pelvis, I create for the student a dilemma. Do he believe me, or do he trust in his own untested beliefs?

This is the challenge faced by a student in pretty much any Alexander Technique lesson. If the demonstration is sufficiently strong or the previous belief not strongly held, then the student will change what they are doing quickly and easily. But if the teacher’s demonstration challenges a movement behaviour that keys into a core belief about what the student needs to do to exist in the world, then they are likely to cling to the old behaviour.

But the dilemma won’t go away. It will sit in the student’s mind and irritate, a bit like having a stone in your shoe. Sooner or later, my student is going to have to think about his jutting pelvis!

So how do you deal with this situation?

As a teacher, you just have to accept that sometimes (often?) the student thinks they know better than you. Your job is to, in Alexander’s words,  “the placing of facts, for and against, before the [student], in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality.” [2] You can’t take any responsibility for a student’s understanding, only your presentation of material before them!

As a student, you have to approach each lesson mindful of the fact that you come bearing beliefs and assumptions that probably aren’t helping you. If your teacher suggests a change to what you are doing, you need to inhibit your instinctive response (to disagree!) and then as open-mindedly as possible, try what your teacher suggests.

Correcting unshakeable belief is a matter of playing the long game. Just keep presenting the facts (if you’re the teacher), and keep trying to have an open mind (if you’re the student). Sooner or later, something has to give.

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete ed., p.304.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete ed., p.88.

What I learned about auditions and competitions by not making the cut!

Preparation for auditions and competitions is all-importantLast week my colleague and I travelled to Amsterdam to compete in an international recorder competition. We worked really hard, but I’m sad to say we didn’t get past the first round. All is not lost, though, because the experience helped me understand the pressures that students of mine feel when they have to do competitions and auditions.[1] Here’s what I learned from the experience, with some pointers about how to do it with less stress.

What did I learn?

Not making the cut sucks. It just does. If it happens to you, make sure that you plan something nice for yourself after the bad news. Take care of yourself.

But apart from that…

I was reminded of just how many variables in the auditions or competition process that you can’t control.

  • You don’t know who else is going to show up
  • You don’t know what the judges are looking for
  • You are walking into an unfamiliar room with a new acoustic
  • You don’t know what time of day you’ll be performing.

What this means is that when you walk into the competition round, or the audition room, you have no idea what you’ll face. You can make guesses about what the panel will be looking for, but you’ll never really know. So it’s a cognitive distortion to pin your sense of self-worth on the outcome, or your belief in your future employability or career success. Ultimately, the outcome isn’t really in your control! The panel are in charge of who gets through to the second round, not you. So if they don’t include you, you have to remember that there were many variables that were outside of your control.

But there are things that you CAN control

Writing in 1923, FM Alexander approached the topic of nerves and performance, and stated something that I don’t think people take seriously enough:

…we must remember that it is only the small minority of experts in any line who really know how they get their results and effects… Therefore directly anything puts them “off their game,” they experience considerable difficulty, at any rate, in getting on to it again.[2]

In other words, because most performers (and FM was using golfers as his example) don’t really know how they are doing what they are doing, they are more likely to be put off by the weird acoustic in the hall, or by the other candidate ostentatiously doing stretches in the warm-up room.

Ideally, we don’t want to be put “off our game.” We can take steps to make this less likely:

  • Rehearse in different spaces and acoustics
  • Play at different times of day
  • Create mock performances for friends, family and any other crowd you can gather together.

Don’t be put “off your game”

But if we’re doing auditions or a competition, we also want to make sure that, if we are put “off our game,” that we can get back to it again. And FM Alexander tells us how:

It is only by having a clear conception of what is required for the successful performance of a certain stroke or other act, combined with a knowledge of the psycho-physical means whereby those requirements can be met, that there is any reasonable possibility of their attaining sureness and confidence during performance.[3]

Alexander’s recipe for success is to control your own performance. You can make sure that you are as well-prepared as it is possible to be under your particular given circumstances. That means:

  • Setting goals; knowing what is required for a successful performance
  • Working out a means of meeting those goals
  • Doing the practise necessary to make sure that you can carry out those means effectively. If that means spending many hours practising one trill, then that’s what you have to do!

The advantage of doing this work is that, once you’ve done the auditions or competition, you have criteria for assessing your own performance. Did you achieve the goals you set? Did you carry out the process you designed? If you’re lucky my colleague and I were, you’ll be given a video of your performance so that you can watch it back and learn what you can do better next time.

By doing the prep work, you can control your reaction to the process. Yes, it’s stressful – I’m not denying that. But you’ll have taken the steps to reduce the stress as much as you can, and you’ll have given yourself the best chance to shine. And in the end, that’s the most important thing.


[1] Full disclosure: I know that my students have a tougher time than me, because I’m not hoping for a professional full-time musical career. My students have more invested in the experience than I did. But I still wanted to do well!

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.340-341.

[3] ibid., p.341.

Do you have an evaluation addiction?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I have a number of students with an evaluation addiction. It crops up strongly amongst the musicians, but it’s by no means limited to their number. Writers have it; artists and businesspeople have it. Sportspeople suffer from it too. And a full disclaimer: this is a problem I continue to work on as a musician.

What do I mean by an evaluation addiction? It’s when a performer, for example, evaluates what they are doing while they are doing it, to the detriment of their own performance. Author Melody Beattie describes it very neatly:

After I finished the first two chapters of a book I was writing, I read them and grimaced. “No good,” I thought… I was ready to pitch the chapters, and my writing career, out the window. A writer friend called, and I told her about my problem. She listened and told me… “Stop criticizing yourself. And keep on writing.”
I followed her advice. The book I almost threw away became a New York Times best-seller.[1]

Once upon a time, one of my students, a violinist with perfect pitch, was so intent on criticising her intonation that she had reached the point where she could barely string a phrase together. She was so busy evaluating her playing (and finding it wanting) that she was actually unable to play.

As I see it, there are two major issues at play here. Let’s look at them in turn.

Evaluation addiction assumes the worst

My violin student had a major problem with negative thinking. I think partly as a result of her perfect pitch, she spent all her time not just listening to the intonation of her playing and berating herself for getting it wrong, but assuming that it would be wrong. Before even picking up the instrument, she had decided on some level that things were going to sound out of tune. And because humans are very adept at carrying out what they have decided, that’s exactly what would happen – she would play slightly out of tune.

We need to address this tendency to project a ‘worst case scenario’ onto what we are about to do. FM Alexander realised that mental attitude was important:

When… we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [2]

If we want to improve our performance, we need to begin by addressing this addiction to assuming the worst.

Evaluation addiction takes up brain space.

The other major issue with evaluation addiction is that it consumes your concentration. The neuroscience of it is that we only have a limited number of ‘slots’ in our working memory – we used to think seven, but the modern estimate is only four.[3] If you choose to occupy one of these four precious slots for evaluating what you’re doing, then what vital part of performing are you going to jettison? Are you going to stop thinking ahead and planning the next phrases in the music? Or maybe quit listening to your ensemble partners? If you’re playing sport, are you going to stop scanning the field for gaps, or stop keeping an eye on the position of your teammates?

Of course, the big irony with giving up so much of our precious attention to evaluation is that it is practically useless. Think about it: when you evaluate something like the pitch of a note, you are evaluating something that you have already done. If you’ve already done it, you can’t change it. It’s out there in the world. Berating yourself about how bad it is might be tempting, but it just isn’t helpful. Believe me – I know this. I’m renowned for the faces I pull if I mess something up in a concert. And when I pull faces, I usually mess up the phrase I’m just about to play as well, because my mind is in the past rather than the future.

If we give up the temptation to evaluate what is already gone and put our valuable attention on what we are about to do, then things are likely to go so much better for us. FM Alexander has these words of comfort for us:

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[4]

Our job, then, is to direct our thoughts to planning what we want to achieve. If we have a clear idea of what we want to have happen, then we have a far better chance of directing ourselves in movement to be able to carry out our designs.

It’s something I’m definitely working on: leaving the evaluation addiction behind, and placing my attention on something that will actually help. Anyone else with me?


[1] Beattie, M., The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, 1990, p.11.

{2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.52.

[3] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, (eBook ed) Penguin, 2014, p.41.

[4] Alexander, FM, The Universal Constant in Living, IRDEAT, p.587.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos

Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

make an experimentIf you’re stuck – if you’ve got a problem and you can’t see an easy way out – can you design an experiment? For example, if you’re not sure about whether you are struggling over that semiquaver passage because of fingerings or because of uncertainty about the notes, how could you decide?

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

When I ask them, people tell me all sorts of ideas about what the Alexander Technique is about. Some think the AT is all about nice feelings, or all about theory. Or standing up straight (it’s not!). Some people think it’s about having things done to you, like some kind of therapy. But it’s actually based on experimentation. In the opening chapter to his 1932 book The Use of the Self, Alexander described his technique as

“practical experimentation upon the living human being.” [1]

In other words, making hypotheses and finding ways to test them is not just practical – it’s a fundamental part of how Alexander Technique can help you.

I have a student who had had an injury to one of her hips, and knew that she was probably using it gingerly. But how could she tell exactly how differently she used her (once) injured right leg compared to her left? By coincidence, she was given not one but two pedometers by kind friends. And she created an experiment. She put one pedometer on her left leg, and one on her once-injured right. At the end of the day the left pedometer registered around 900 steps, but the right one only registered 400ish.

Proof? Not yet – the pedometer might be faulty. So the next day she followed the same routine, but swapped the pedometers to the opposite legs. The result? The left one registered 900 steps again, and the right one only 400ish. My student had proof that she was doing something very different with her once-injured right leg. Once she had that proof, she could begin to think of ways to change things.

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

So how do we do it? I suggest we try following FM’s example. When he was trying to work out how to solve the vocal problems that threatened his career, FM said that he , FM followed these steps:

He collected his facts. He knew that reciting brought on hoarseness. He knew that normal speaking did not cause the same problems. By observing the patterns, he could see clear differences between the two different forms of speaking.

He made a hypothesis. Based on his observations, FM concluded that he must be doing something different with his vocal mechanisms while reciting that was harmful, compared to what he was doing when speaking normally. It fitted the observations, but it was still just a hypothesis – he needed to find a way to prove if what he suspected was true.

He designed a test. He watched himself speaking in front of a mirror, first just speaking normally, and then reciting. He repeated these steps, to make sure that his observations were accurate. And from these, he was able to prove, interestingly, that his hypothesis was actually false![2] From there, he could design new experiments based on his new knowledge.

And that’s the point. If FM had tried to fix things without forming a hypothesis or making an experiment, he would have been using trial and error – it would have been sheer luck if he’d solved his problems. Luck is fine, but it doesn’t help you the next time a similar problem shows up. When you make an experiment, you are following clearly defined steps, which means that you’ll be able to follow your reasoning again at a later date. You won’t constantly be reinventing the wheel; or worse, just guessing.

Making an experiment: the steps

So if you want to know what is causing your problem and make steps to solve it, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Collect your facts
  2. Make a hypothesis
  3. Design a way to test your hypothesis
  4. Have fun.

Don’t forget step 4 – that’s what it’s all about, really!

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.22.

[2] ibid., pp.25-6.