The key to being more efficient is not what you think

Applauding hands: a performer's reward for being more efficient?

It is rare that I come across someone who doesn’t want to be more efficient – or just plain better – at some aspect of their lives. Most of us have something that we want to improve. Very often we’ve read books, been to workshops, paid for courses, but still we don’t improve in the way we want. Sometimes we’ve worked really hard, practised regularly, and what we want still seems out of reach. What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we get over ourselves and be more efficient? And why do some people actually manage it (and make the rest of us feel a bit envious)?

I was reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, and he articulates something in a business context that has clear parallels to our experience of wanting to be better in other areas of our lives. Newport outlines what he calls The Principle of Least Resistance:

The Principle of Least Resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment.[1]

In other words, it becomes easier to try for ‘inbox zero’ than it is to write an article or (autobiographical detail coming up) finish the marketing strategy that is so needed. Clearing your email has an immediate reward, whereas finishing the article or the marketing strategy don’t have any immediate thrill or tangible payoff – even if they are far more beneficial in the long term.

Least Resistance looks more efficient

But I think Newport’s Principle of Least Resistance applies in many other contexts, too:

  • I am really struggling with my bowing arm in this passage. I need to learn the rep. I’ll muscle through.
  • I’m struggling with the breathing in this tricky passage in the Schubert. I have this problem other places too. But I need to have this performance ready for next week. I’ll worry about my breathing later.
  • My mouse hand hurts. I have to get this report finished. My sore hand can wait till I’m done.

How often have you found yourself taking a path of least resistance in order to get the short term goal, but at the expense of your own wellbeing? We find ourselves doing the thing that seems easiest in the moment, and rarely stop to consider that if we spent some time thinking about a more appropriate response, things would go better in the long run. Frank Pierce Jones quotes FM Alexander as saying:

You are worse off than before if, in the process of achieving your goal, you destroy the integrity of your organism.[2]

If we are honest with ourselves, even as we make the choice of least resistance, we know that we aren’t really helping ourselves. But if you’re anything like me, you rationalise the short term thinking with a promise to be more strategic and properly think about things once this immediate crisis situation is over. And then the next crisis situation comes along!

The Principle of Least Resistance … supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.[3]

Alexander Technique as the key to being more efficient.

The reason why Alexander Technique is both so powerful and so troubling is that one could see it as a general antidote to the Principle of Least Resistance as described by Newport. The fundamental idea of Alexander’s work is this:

The centre and backbone of my theory and practice, upon which I feel that I cannot insist too strongly, is that THE CONSCIOUS MIND MUST BE QUICKENED.[4]

As I have discussed elsewhere, Alexander wants us to develop the mental discipline that will enable us to change the way we think, in order that we can also change the way we move. And in order to do this, we have to allow ourselves the time and routine to be able to practise and hone our mental discipline.

This is the difficulty, of course. As Newport observes, it is far easier to keep achieving small goals and looking busy (and feeling busy and productive) than it is to stop and look for a better solution. This is perhaps why the majority of the population yearn for improvement, but don’t take the steps to achieve it. Our culture rewards looking busy, and there’s plenty of studies from Behavioural Economics that demonstrate that as a species we aren’t very good at giving up short term benefits for long term rewards.[5]

The other, more practical, reason why people don’t practise their mental discipline is that they haven’t made space for it in their lives. As anyone who has tried to learn a new skill knows, the key to consistent improvement is to find time to practise regularly.

Being more efficient requires us to stop and change

So if we want to develop the mental discipline to actually change our thinking and our movement, there are two key steps:

  1. Make a commitment to stop prioritising short term goals
  2. Make practical changes to our schedules and routines to make space for regular practice and everything else that promotes mental change.

Cal Newport’s book is full of practical ideas for changing routines and setting up behaviours so that ‘deep work’ is given a priority, and I recommend reading it. But this is an Alexander Technique blog, and I’m going to remind you of the processes that Alexander wanted us to incorporate:

  • Analyse the conditions present.
  • Reason out a means … whereby a better use could be brought about
  • Make the experience of receiving a stimulus to do the old way, and refuse to do anything immediately in response
  • Mental practice: give directions without attempting to do them
  • Trust in your reasoning processes
  • Make mistakes
  • Rest, reflect and evaluate
  • Keep on deciding to not do things in the old way.[6]

If you want to be more efficient, you can’t do the same things in the same old way any more. Stop. Find a space in your day – a couple of minutes will do. Decide to work on the thing you want to improve. Pick one of these processes, and find a way to work on it, just for a couple of minutes. At first you may find it hard; after a few days or weeks, you may find it hard to stop! And that’s when you know you’re making real progress.

[1] Newport, C., Deep Work, London, Piatkus, 2016, p.58.

[2] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, Mouritz, p.4.

[3] Newport, op.cit., p.60.

[4]Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.36.

[5] If you’d like more information on this, Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational would be a great place to start.

[6] You can find all of these, either directly or by inference, in Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.39-48.

Photograph by Niklas Bildhauer, Germany. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Why it pays to look beyond the obvious (ouchy) thing

Look beyond the obvious - like a sticking-out finger while playing recorder. Me playing a treble recorder.

If you have a problem in a particular area – say, your bowing arm if you play a stringed instrument – it becomes very tempting to focus on that area exclusively. I see this a lot with musicians, which is why I focus on them first, but it isn’t exclusively a musician problem. I have lost count of the number of times students have come into lessons wanting to talk about why, when they use the computer, their mouse hand hurts (either the whole hand, or just a finger/region). So it often surprises my students when I start my lesson plan by looking at what they are doing in other areas. I am, in fact, doing the thing I want to teach them to do: to look beyond the obvious – past the problem area – to what else is going on.

Today I want to discuss the relationship of direct vs indirect, and explain why you might want to expand your focus in order to sort out the difficulty you may be experiencing. Whether it is music, sports, or the office keyboard, if you look beyond the obvious you might find fascinating things!

The near-myth of the specific problem

We often spend our time functioning as though all our body parts were just separate lumps of matter, not really connected to us, that we can effect and impact separately. I suspect this is the logic that lies behind the idea that we can move and influence body parts separately, creating specific ‘fixes’ for specific problems we find affecting us. For example, I remember as a young recorder player being concerned at how my left little finger would fly around in the air as I played. It stretched out away from the instrument like a maiden aunt holding a cup of tea; I was convinced it was throwing the balance of my whole hand off kilter.

So I trained myself to keep it resting on the body of the instrument. Initially this seemed like a great solution. Then I began to wonder why my left ring finger was not moving freely, and why I sometimes got a tired/sore forearm after playing.

I had noticed a very specific fault, and then constructed a solution that was specific to the parts of me that I felt were not right. I was just looking at the little finger, and not at everything else. But I thought it was just me that did that sort of thing, so I was both amazed and relieved to discover FM Alexander had done exactly the same thing. When he first tried to find a solution to his vocal hoarseness, he looked only at what he was doing with his head and neck. It was a matter of great importance when he realised that his torso was also affected![1]

Of course, we are not all separate body parts, and it is folly to think that we can move or change one part without there being some sort of knock-on effect elsewhere (even if it is only small). Because we are a psycho-physical unity, any one change has the potential to affect everything else. But it also has an interesting extra twist: if we notice a problem in one area, we might not be seeing the cause, merely an indirect expression or consequence of something else.

Let me explain.

When FM decided to look beyond the obvious

When FM Alexander first observed himself reciting, he saw that he did three things: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. Now it could have been entirely possible that the three things were unconnected, but Alexander was smart enough to realise that it was highly likely they were all part of one big ‘something wrong’. So he went looking to see which one he could actually prevent. After long experimentation, he found something truly fascinating:

I found that when reciting I could not by direct means prevent the sucking in of breath or the depressing of the larynx, but that I could to some extent prevent the pulling back of the head. This led me to a discovery which turned out to be of great importance, namely, that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx. [2]

Even more impressively, the condition of his vocal organs improved! 

What Alexander found was that by directly stopping one of the symptoms, he could stop the others. In other words, when he broke the beginning of the chain of causality, the rest of the chain ceased to exist. This is particularly impressive when one considers that FM was fairly certain that it was the depressing of the larynx that was actually causing the hoarseness.[3]

Practical steps for us

We can take some very practical ideas away from this.

  1. If something hurts or is not feeling right somehow, take a good look at your whole body. You might find other indications or symptoms of things ‘not right’.
  2. The place that bugs us might not be the root cause of the trouble. It might just be the end of a chain of causality. Try changing or preventing misuse that you’ve spotted in other areas, and see if that helps.
  3. We are working with observing and changing things, and that’s really hard to do in the middle of a large project at work, or while learning complex musical repertoire. You will need to set aside time to think about this properly.

Alexander had success when he looked and experimented; you can, too. Just be prepared to look beyond the thing that’s screaming at you the loudest!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.29.

[2] ibid., p.27f.

[3] ibid., 29.

Photograph by Matthew Mackerras, 2018.

Performance process vs desire to ‘perform’

Jennifer trying to follow her performance process.

I did a gig with (one of) my recorder group(s) recently, and it brought to the surface something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I noticed myself, while playing, wanting to somehow ‘perform’ – to signal to the audience that I was having a good time. Every time I did, I made a mistake. When I followed my performance process – that is, when I just played the piece in front of me and didn’t think about how the work was being received – the performance was better. It led me to a clear understanding of this idea:

There is a difference between sticking to the process and creating a performance that the audience can embrace, and wanting to ‘perform’. The latter is a different process. At best, it will run alongside the process that actually does lead to the performance; at worst, it will detract from it.

What is performance process?

So what do I mean by ‘performance process’? Quite simply, I mean all acts that contribute to a performer creating a performance of a work. Some people do this without a lot of formal training; they go about certain activities – like studying the play text, or working on sections of their music score – and without being aware of it, create a cohesive and coherent understanding of the work that they then present to an audience. Others learn how to do these processes: they learn text study, or score reading, or counterpoint and harmony. They learn how to rehearse and practice effectively, and they learn how to take the work they’ve done in the rehearsal room onto the stage.

In either case, whether intuitive or formally trained, I would argue that the performer is, when creating a process, following a line of research and reasoning. They are creating an interpretation of a work, and the means by which they will take that interpretation fo the stage. The questions I’ve given below might form broad categories for investigation while creating the performance process:

  • What information can I find to help me decide what the work means?
  • What do I want to convey to an audience?
  • What do I need to do in order to give an audience everything they need so that they can piece together my understanding of the work?

You might notice that these questions are very similar in conception to the steps FM Alexander suggested we follow when constructing a process:

(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]

Wanting to ‘perform’ defined

I want to draw a clear distinction between the work done creating and following a performance process with what happens when a performer starts “wanting to ‘perform’.” Here are some of the motivating factors that I notice in myself when I slip into this mindset.

Wanting to perform:

  • Helping the work along
  • Showing the audience I’m enjoying myself
  • Showing the audience what I want them to know
  • Making the audience feel stuff
  • Making the audience enjoy the music.

I think a lot of us will have experienced these desires at some point in our performing careers. It might not have occurred to you before, but they are all examples of departing from the performance process that you have designed, and doing something different instead. That’s why I made mistakes as soon as I started trying to show the audience that I was having fun: I had stopped following the process that we might call ‘Performing the piece’, and instead creating a new process that we might call ‘Look how much fun I’m having!’

As I look at all those motivating factors written down, I can see that there’s a common factor in all of them: lack of trust. Let’s examine that a bit further.

Trust issues in not sticking to performance process

There are three major trust issues that I can identify when I indulge my desire to ‘perform’ a work. One is about not trusting the work, one is around not trusting the audience, and the final one is about not trusting myself. Let’s take them in turn.

Helping the work along.

If I try to ‘help a work along’, I’m tacitly admitting that it needs my help in order to be fulfilling to an audience. If a work is good, I don’t need to help it along; it will contain everything necessary for an audience to enjoy it if I just do the work of playing the notes/motivations/saying the words with the right inflections in the right places. If I try to ‘do a bit more’ to get the work across, then I’m effectively saying that I don’t believe the work has enough integrity to be able to stand for itself. If it doesn’t have integrity, I probably shouldn’t be performing it at all!

Not trusting an audience to understand or enjoy the work for themselves.

If I want an audience to see how much I’m enjoying playing, then I am imposing my enjoyment upon them; I am overstepping a boundary. We can’t make the audience feel anything, and we can’t make them feel any more strongly if we force our personal feelings upon them. Any actor or comedian will tell you what happens if an audience in a comedy is a bit slow and the actors start to try to make the audience laugh: the audience typically will ‘sit on its hands’ and place itself in opposition to the performers. Then nobody has any fun!

Neither can I force an understanding upon an audience. I can give them enough information so that they can easily make the logical/emotive leaps that I hope they’ll make, but again, I am not responsible for someone else’s understanding. This has a distinct parallel with teaching: you can put information in front of a student, but it is up to the student to do the work of integrating that information into understanding.

Not trusting myself

It might not be obvious at first glance, but if I switch from the ‘Perform the piece’ process to ‘Look how much fun I’m having’, I’ve actually made a decision that my original process wasn’t adequate. Not only have I made that call mid-performance, but I’ve made it with no evidence that I’m correct. I’ve chickened out – dropped everything I’ve rehearsed in order to make up a new process ‘on the fly’.

FM Alexander had a similar issue when he was experimenting with reasoning and the creation of a new process for speaking in order to solve his vocal problems. He realised that he needed to overcome the desire not to ‘feel wrong’:

This meant that 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 “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well. [2]

If I drop the process I’ve rehearsed mid-performance, I am not trusting in all the hard work I’ve done. How silly that sounds! 

And how human. It takes mental discipline to stick to the process we’ve designed, even in the face of our own adrenaline-induced confidence wobbles. But we can do it. Alexander solved his vocal issues; we can stick with our rehearsed process trust our smart, understanding and emotionally receptive audience, and have a really successful gig. We can choose to perform the work, rather than perform ourselves performing the work. And if we do, from my own experience, things tend to go quite well!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1984, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.45.

Photograph of Pink Noise by Benjamin Westley.

Is there one right way of sitting?

There is no such thing as one right way of sitting, just as not all chairs look like this one.

I’m about to start teaching Alexander Technique to a new batch of orchestral musicians, and I’m pretty certain that at some point one of them is going to ask me to show them the right way to sit. The right way to sit for playing cello, or guitar, or violin. The correct way to sit to avoid back pain and exhaustion in long orchestra rehearsals.

What would you tell them? Is there one right way of sitting? Broadening the question out: is there a ‘one right way’ for every activity?

One right way – a question of levels

If I’m talking to a group of complete beginners at Alexander Technique, I’ll probably sound like I’m giving a very qualified yes to this question, but only because of where they are coming from. A group of new students is used to doing every activity in their old way, with their old understanding. Part of my job is to demonstrate to them that their old way of understanding things may not be the most effective or evidence-based of approaches. With regard to sitting, I often ask groups to point to where their hip joints are; it is a rare student who points to roughly the correct location.

Because moving at the hips joints should be a key part of any strategy to sit effectively and efficiently – especially for prolonged periods – my replacing of their old idea of hip joint location with a more accurate one is going to make big differences. This is because we have swapped an incorrect idea for one that is more accurate. This is what FM Alexander wanted his teachers to do:

where ideas that are patently erroneous have already been formed in the [student’s] mind, the teacher should take pains to apprehend these preconceptions, and in dealing with them he should not attempt to overlay them, but should eradicate them as far as possible before teaching or submitting the new and correct idea.[1]

So are my newly enlightened students now sitting better? Absolutely! Have I given them ideas about how to get into a chair that utilise mechanical advantage? Yes! Will they take these ideas away and believe that they have been taught the ‘one right way’ to sit? Yep.

Why we don’t want to introduce new habits for old

If a student walks away from a lesson with me believing that they’ve learned a better way to sit, then I’ve helped them a bit. I won’t have really done my job, though, because according to Alexander teaching is something more than replacing an old habit with a newer better one. He said

by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself [2]

If I don’t engage a student’s reason, then I’ve not really helped them to lasting change. If my definition of the Alexander Technique from the other week is correct – a theory and practice that teaches us how to discipline our thinking in order to direct ourselves better in any activity we choose – a student who walks away with an unchallenged belief in there being ‘one right way’ to do an activity hasn’t yet developed the mental discipline to choose the best course of action in any circumstance.

To take the specific example of sitting, not all chairs are the same. Not all chairs have a lot of space in front of them. Some of them are in buses or cars. Even if there aren’t space considerations that will change the specifics of the protocol you use when you approach them to sit down, the height and shape of the chair certainly should be considered. I want you to be able to sit efficiently and comfortably in all chairs, not just the one in my teaching studio!

The aim of re-education on a general basis is to bring about at all times and for all purposes, not a series of correct positions or postures, but a co-ordinated use of the mechanisms in general. [3]

Going beyond the ‘one right way’

I really want to encourage you to play with going beyond the ‘one right way’ style of thinking. I’m going to use sitting as my specific example again, partly because it is very specific, but also because almost everyone does it at some point!

If I were working with you, I would want to encourage you to think about:

  • The chair – how high is the seat? Is it flat, sloping, bucket-shaped? Does it have a backrest, and is it sloped?
  • The circumstances – how much space is there in front of the seat, or to the sides? Are you carrying anything that would change your plan?
  • Your anatomy – hips, knees, ankles
  • Your playfulness – what do you feel like doing?

And then based on all these variables, I would encourage you to make a plan, and carry it out.

Every time you sit, it will be different. Even if the chair is the same, you are not. Embrace that – don’t be an Alexander robot – and keep playing with your thinking. Do that, and you will truly be fulfilling what Alexander wants you to do: to be able to direct yourself in activity with co-ordination and grace.

Have fun.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.88.

[2] ibid.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.308.

Image: Dori [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)]

Keep success going: don’t chase results!

I learned not to chase results by singing with fingers in my ears, just like this German girl.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to keep success going. I said that in the initial stages of learning a new skill, we are rendered inconsistent because we have a dodgy process AND a poor (or at least inconsistently good) use of ourselves. If we want to be successful, we need to have a consistently good process, and we want to use ourselves consistently well as we follow the process we’ve honed.

But there is one more thing that can trip us up in our quest to be truly awesome at what we do (or, if you’re British and prefer understatement, rather good at what we do). It is this.

We start to look at the results.

Worse, we may begin to assess our effectiveness by our results. This can lead to a dangerous path: choosing to chase results and forgetting the process.

Chasing results

Let’s be honest: we all love results. Pretty much everyone wants good results from their efforts. The problem is, results can’t be good all the time. The peril of success is that it becomes very tempting to be bewitched by good results. When you do this, it can become very easy to stop thinking about the process that led to the good results in the first place. And if you stop thinking about the new process and focus on the end, FM Alexander says that it’s very likely that you’ll (without noticing) revert to using the old process that you’d worked out wasn’t useful. He writes:

if the pupil thinks of a certain end” as desirable and starts to pursue it directly, he will certainly take the course of action in regard to it that he has been accustomed to take in like conditions. In other words, he will follow his habitual procedure in regard to it, and should that procedure happen to be a bad one for the purpose (and the fact that he needs re-education proves this to be the case), he only strengthens the incorrect experiences in connection with it by using this procedure again. [1]

By failing to focus on the new process, and instead focusing on results you want to achieve, you actually run the risk of strengthening the old and insufficient way you went about things before! Musicians and sportspeople: this is doubly dangerous when you begin evaluating the results you are getting while engaged in the activity. I’m sure every musician has experienced that moment as they play where they begin to think about how well things are going, and then immediately make a mistake! My lovely singing teacher, the late Gerald Wragg, used to try to get me out of this particular trap by asking me to block my ears. When I couldn’t hear properly what sounds I was making, it was easier to focus my attention on carrying out the changes in technique he was asking me to make. The physical barrier made it impossible to chase results!

Sticking to process and choosing not to chase results

My singing teacher found that the only way of stopping me evaluating my singing – as I was singing – was a physical barrier. I’m sure most of you aren’t as recalcitrant as me! You can choose to stop focusing on results, and instead work on the process – what Alexander in the following passage calls the ‘conscious means’:

If, on the other hand, the pupil stops himself from going to work in his usual way (inhibition), and proceeds to replace his old subconscious means by the new conscious means which his teacher has given him, and which he has therefore every reason to believe will bring about the desired result, he will have taken the first and most important step towards the breaking-down of a habit, and towards that constructive, conscious and reasoning control which tends towards a mastery of the situation. [2]

Note the final sentence of the passage: Alexander is telling us that we are aiming towards mastery. He isn’t looking at ‘just good enough’ or even ‘fairly proficient’; he tells us that if we keep working on using our constructive, conscious, reasoning control, we will achieve mastery! If this is the case, then evaluating our success by only looking at our results might not tell the whole story. We should ask ourselves: did I follow my new process? Did I manage to stop myself from going to work in my usual way? Have I improved my skills at mental discipline?

If Alexander is right – and I firmly believe he is – then if we just follow the process we’ve reasoned out, success (mastery) is inevitable. Start by working on the process, and leaving the results to themselves.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.308.

[2] ibid.

Image: Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)]

One simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage

Yes, I know: it’s a clickbait title. But in this post I really do want to give you one simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage! Looking confident in front of people often comes up in my classes or workshops. It came up just last week, in fact, when I was working with some teachers here in Bristol. Even people who have a lot of experience being in front of a crowd – like teachers or performers – sometimes feel that they struggle with confidence, and want to have a greater air of authority in front of their particular audience group.

If you want to project a greater sense of authority and presence to your audience, I have one question for you. What are you doing with your head as you breathe in to speak?

The three harmful tendencies

When he wanted to investigate the cause of his vocal hoarseness, FM Alexander looked in the mirror, and saw that he did three things when he began to recite: he pulled back his head; depressed his larynx; and he sucked in breath. What is more, he noticed that he did exactly the same three things preparatory to speaking normally – each movement was a little smaller.

Reasoning that these movements were harmful and contributing to his vocal problems, Alexander tried to prevent them. He discovered

…that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx … as I gradually gained experience in this prevention, my liability to hoarseness tended to decrease. [1]

Alexander found that pulling back his head as he went to speak made a clear contribution to his vocal troubles. The question I want to ask you is: do you do the same thing?

Opening the mouth vs opening the head

In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, there are two different strategies people use to breathe in and speak. The minority leave their skull still, and drop their jaw to breathe. 

Picture: Dropping your jaw to breathe and speak will help you appear more confident onstage

The others choose the more inventive strategy of leaving their jaw still and opening their head. That is to say, they pull their head back away from their lower jaw.

Picture of a head being thrust away from a still jaw, which does little to make you look confident onstage!

This has knock-on effects all the way down the spine, making a negative impact upon the whole breathing mechanism. More interesting for today, though, is the effect that it has upon the way a person appears to an audience.

Appear more confident onstage

If you pull your head back and leave your lower jaw still in order to speak, your eyeline changes – you will be looking down at people. Even more interestingly, your back and chest will now need to work a little harder than normal to keep your body balanced after you’ve thrown your skull backwards, so you’ll have turned on muscles that lock up your chest and your ribs. This will cause you to look ‘tight’, and your voice will seem thinner with the decrease in resonance. You may also have needed to raise your shoulders to try and manoevour air into the upper part of your lungs, as the lower portion will be impeded by the muscle tightness. In short, you’re likely to look nervy, or as my acting students would say, ‘lower status’.

Participants in my voice and presentation skills workshops typically report that when  they see a participant volunteer speak by just allowing their jaw to move downwards, they see a positive change. They report seeing someone who is more confident and self-assured; a speaker who is more engaged with their audience; a speaker who can be heard more clearly. Remarkably, a small change in what a person does with their head in relation with their body can make or break an impression of being confident onstage.

It’s worth noting that the speaker might still FEEL nervous. They may not feel the confidence that the others report seeing. But that’s okay. It’s normal to feel nervous;  but no speaker wants their nerves to impact negatively upon their impression to their audience. 

Being or feeling confident can come along later with experience and practice. For now, it is enough to appear confident onstage. And to do that, you can begin not by thinking about confidence directly, but by approaching it sideways – by thinking about just opening your jaw when you start to speak.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.27-8.

Base tension levels too high? It may trigger stage fright

Base tension levels might be too high, like holding these hand grips!

If you suffer from performance anxiety, you may want to consider if you have a problem with base tension levels.

Everyone has a base level of tension or a collection of muscular movements – a ‘set’ – that they take into every activity. FM noticed this right at the beginning of his investigations into his own vocal hoarseness. He found that he made three actions with his head in relation with his body: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. He first noticed himself doing these things while reciting. Soon, though, he found he did them to a smaller degree in normal speaking, too.[1]

When we are engaged in an activity that requires more of us – like reciting a particularly dramatic piece of Shakespeare, or playing in front of an audience – we do our habitual ‘set’ of muscular tension more. FM realised that the three ‘harmful tendencies’ that he noticed in himself were relatively small and didn’t have any particular effect during normal speaking. When he recited, however, the three tendencies were larger and more pronounced, and he would become hoarse while he was acting.

I recited again and again in front of the mirror and found that the three tendencies I had already noticed became especially marked when I was reciting passages in which unusual demands were made upon my voice … what I did in ordinary speaking caused no noticeable harm, while what I did in reciting to meet any unusual demands on my voice brought about an acute condition of hoarseness.[2]

FM’s three harmful tendencies had an immediate and negative effect upon his vocal prowess. But the physical tensions that we carry around with us on a daily basis may prove problematic when we are about to perform in a very different way.

The Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has been around since 1908, and describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Put simply, if you are engaged in a fairly demanding task (like performing) and want your performance level to be high, then you need to hit a ‘sweet spot’ of arousal. You don’t want to not care or not feel anything at all, but you also don’t want your system to be so bombarded with stimuli and so full of stress hormones that you’re hitting the limit of what you can handle.

If your base tension levels are high, you sit at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson grave U curve.

We know that stress hormones are likely to create a level of arousal that could impact upon our performance – ageing parents, unruly kids, a difficult job are all likely to take their toll. Sian Beilock explains:

People with chronic stress in their lives are likely to sit at the top of the U under normal conditions, so when they are faced with the added pressure of public speaking they may be more likely to perform poorly than those who normally sit on the uphill side. If a spouse who is anything but a calming entity is put into the mix, the consequences can be disastrous.[3]

Physical stimuli matter too

We often forget, though, that physical factors are likely to do the same thing. Trainer Don Clark tells a wonderful story about a colleague who was asked to give a training session for a meat packing company, and was given for his training room a cold storage area! The trainees had so much excess environmental arousal from the cold room that the trainer had to work very hard to reduce the arousal factors within his course so that everyone could learn effectively.[4]

Physical stimuli might not be all external, however. The base levels of tension that we take with us everywhere in the course of our day are likely to have just as big an impact. Think about it: FM Alexander noticed that he pulled his head back MORE when he was about to recite some demanding Shakespeare. Similarly, we are likely to increase our base tension levels in response to the stimulus of an impending performance:

  • I walk around every day with (for example) very tight trapezius muscles and resultant raised shoulders. I’m already at a fairly high level of physical arousal. My system is irritable (used as a technical term here).
  • I raise my shoulders a little every time I talk, or walk, or buy an ice cream.
  • If I am about to do something more demanding – like perform in a concert – I will do the shoulder raising even more.
  • This shoulder raising is likely to have a negative impact upon my ability to perform. This is because it sends my arousal level into the danger zone where my system is overloaded.

The solution? Reduce your base tension levels!

There are a lot of things that can help: breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, forms of therapy like CBT all help. But Alexander Technique is uniquely a tool that helps you to notice and change your habitual use of yourself. You can look in a mirror like FM did, and see if you can spot and then prevent the physical movements that you make as a precursor to every activity. Or you can book in to see someone like me. We can work on reducing your base tension levels using a combination of discussion and hands-on guidance.

If you are more relaxed – physically and mentally – on a daily basis, you will be more able to cope with the increased demands upon your system that performing involves. And then you’ll be better able to give the truly captivating performance that you most desire.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] Beilock, S., Choke, London, Constable, 2011, p.316.

[4] Clark, D.R. (2010). Arousal and Performance. Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/performance/arousal.html. Retrieved on 27 June 2019.

Image of hand-grips Elfer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Image of Yerkes-Dodson graph from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law, accessed 27 June 2019.

The (Alexander Technique) secret of how to keep success going

I think we’ve all had the experience of having a little bit of success at something – tennis backhand, semiquaver runs, baking biscuits – and being a little bit fearful because we don’t really know how to keep success going. Those first few times we succeed, it can feel like a total fluke as to whether we keep doing well or spectacularly fall on our faces. We want to improve, and to be able to consistently succeed at the activities we attempt. But how can we do that?

The Alexander Technique gives us two areas where we can work. Let’s look what the areas are, why they exist, and how we can improve each of them.

Little better than chance?

I remember when I was first learning to play tennis, and learning the movements required to complete a good backhand stroke. Sometimes my coach would send a ball to me, and I would carry out the backhand technique perfectly. Other times it would go wildly, astonishingly, impressively wrong. But why was it so hit-and-miss (sometimes quite literally)?

If you’ve had this experience, it typically occurs because either your process is off (or not fully understood), or you’ve not got sufficiently consistent use of yourself to be able to carry out your process effectively.

Dodgy process: if we don’t yet fully understand the process we are following then we’re likely to make unintended changes between repetitions. If this happens, no matter how well we use ourselves when using the process, positive results are likely to be little better than chance.

Inconsistent use of self: if your co-ordination and your general use of yourself is not consistently good, you aren’t likely to be able to follow our good process consistently well every time, and your results are likely to be patchy. 

table showing that good process AND good use of self are needed to keep success going.

Two areas of attack to keep success going

From the diagram above, it’s pretty clear that there are two areas of attack if you want to have consistent success in anything you’re attempting. The first is to work on the process, and the second is to work on your general co-ordination – your use of yourself – and your ideas about what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

In following these two lines of attack we are following in the path of FM Alexander himself, who came to similar conclusions when he was attempting to solve his own vocal problems. After he had been working on the problem for some time, he realised that he was not simply creating a new process and then attempting to follow it. Rather, he was creating a new process (a set of directions), but was doing something else too:

I saw … a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end, and by acting quickly on this decision I did not give myself the opportunity to project as many times as was necessary the new directions… with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander recognised two things:

  1. He needed to practise his new process more thoroughly
  2. He had allowed another sneaky idea to get in the way: he had added in the idea that he needed to act at once. This got in the way of him maintaining a good general use of himself.

So he worked on two fronts, and I want you to work on these ideas too.

Keep success going with mental practice

Alexander knew that he didn’t know his new process well enough, so he worked on ‘giving directions without attempting to do them’. Musicians and sportspeople will recognise this as mental practice. If you run through the steps of what you intend to do you will know them better, thus giving you a greater chance of carrying them out effectively when you need to.

Work on your general co-ordination.

This sounds a bit nebulous, and potentially can be. But I want you to think about Alexander’s realisation that he was led astray by his desire to go into activity at once. Can you give yourself the freedom of the thought that, even if your coach sends a tennis ball in your direction, you can choose whether you are ready to hit it? Can you maintain thinking about the poise of your head in relation to your body as you work on that semiquaver passage?

If you work on these two fronts, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance of consistent success. We all want to keep success going. If you do the mental work, you really can achieve it.[2]

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] Or you can fail gloriously. I remember seeing a snooker match where player Peter Ebdon would come to the table, assess the state of play, choose a shot, play it perfectly, and have it turn out disastrously wrong. This happened every time he came to the table. Of course, he lost the match. In the post-match interview he confessed he was fascinated at how he’d managed to get every single decision he’d made wrong over the course of the match. He really had chosen every shot – but they were the wrong shot! There’s nothing wrong with failing gloriously – it just means you carried out a stunningly inappropriate process.

How do you respond to mistakes?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?

I read an interesting blog post recently about mistakes by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. He comments briefly that mistakes are inevitable, but then reminded me of a far more important lesson: the mistake is only as good as our response to it.

Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. We all get steered off course at some point in our lives. What really counts isn’t that we make a mistakes but the choices that follow those mistakes.[1]

According to Shane Parrish mistakes are potentially useful, depending on the choices we make afterwards. And FM Alexander would agree! So what is a good method for best using our mistakes to move us forward?

Experimentation leads to information

When I work with my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama I ask them to keep a reflective journal of their experiences during their time with me. I encourage them to follow the example of FM Alexander: 

I saw that if ordinary speaking did not cause hoarseness while reciting did, there must be something different between what I did in reciting and what I did in ordinary speaking. If this were so, and I could find out what the difference was, it might help me to get rid of the hoarseness, and at least I could do no harm by making an experiment.[2]

Like FM, I ask them to pick particular areas of playing or studying that they want to improve, and then to construct experiments that will help them work on these areas.

I then have the privilege of reading and marking the reflective journals at the end of the unit. There’s always a massive amount of good in the journals, but also one consistent mistake: the failure to reflect upon their errors and include that learning as part of the design of their next Alexander Technique experiment. And this is what Alexander himself did so well: when, for example, he discovered the three harmful tendencies he exhibited when speaking and reciting, he wanted to know which tendency caused the other two. He examined the feedback from one experiment, compared it to his hypotheses, and then constructed a new experiment based upon it.

As I was unable to answer these questions, all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror.[3]

Mistakes lead to re-examination

But what if you make a mistake? And what if it’s a really bad one – a howler? What do you do then?

FM Alexander had those too. At one particular point during his efforts to solve his vocal problems, he even remarks, 

all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.[4]

And that sounds like a fairly big error! And what Alexander did is impressive: he went back to pretty much the beginning of his investigations, and re-examined everything. He conducted “a long consideration of the whole question of the direction of the use of myself.” In doing this he discovered that he’d based all his work on a fairly major assumption which, through his practical experience, he had experimentally proved to be untrue.

The finer points of what Alexander assumed aren’t really important today. What really does matter, though, is that he took the time to learn from his mistakes. And from the way he went about things, we can construct a basic process to follow for our own experiments.

Learning from mistakes: the process

At some point we’ve all learned or used a form of basic scientific method like the one I’ve listed here:

  • Observe stuff
  • Create a hypothesis about why the observed things are happening, or how to stop them happening
  • Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  • Gain results

For most of us, though, we tend to stop there. What Alexander would probably rather we did is this:

flowchart of how to analyse mistakes and feedback

I’m hoping the flowchart makes it a relatively simple process – because it is! But many people are like my College students and don’t bother with it. Why?

I suspect it’s partly that most of us learn from a young age to fear mistakes and desire to bury them. More than that, though, it takes a degree of humility and discipline to follow through and really examine our mistakes. But FM Alexander is a prime example of the kind of success that can be achieved if we just do the work.

So will you?

[1] Parrish, S., ‘Your Response to Mistakes Defines You’, https://fs.blog/2014/09/mistakes/ , accessed 10 June 2019.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[3] ibid., p.27.

[4] ibid., p.34.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Flowchart made by Jennifer.

What’s the best way to handle fear? One step at a time.

Jen with her bike: she had to handle fear of hills and traffic

I rode my bike downhill on a traffic-laden major road in Bristol last Saturday. No big deal for many of you, I am sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’m fairly new to cycling, and I’ve not been cycling on the road for very long at all. And it was a big deal for another reason: the hill. Because of experiences I had in childhood, the prospect of cycling down steeper inclines has been a bit of a hurdle for me. However, not only did I cycle on one of the busiest roads in Bristol, but I cycled down one of the bigger hills in Bristol, too.

So how did I get up the courage to do this? How did I handle fear and learn to do things that scared me?

Deliberate practice: the way to handle fear.

The answer is practice. I worked up to it (or down, depending on your point of view…). I spent a fair while cycling just on (flat) cycle paths in Bristol and Cardiff, learning to be comfortable on my little folding bike. Then I started cycling on quieter roads. When I felt okay on quiet roads I started using the busier roads, but at quiet times of day. Then I started cycling up and down hills on quieter roads…

Do you see the pattern here? I constructed a series of small steps that would enable me to build up my confidence, while all the time expanding the range of what I could accomplish. I also had some lessons early on that gave me some good professional advice, so that I knew the technical aspects of what I ought to be doing. And now I feel sufficiently comfortable to be able to make my way along steepish, busy roads in the centre of the city. Not bad going!

Deliberate practice in the performance arena

This is exactly the system that I use when I teach my courses on overcoming stage fright. I take a group of people who very often don’t even want to sit in front of a group, and through the delivery of some technical advice and a series of exercises I lead them, step by gentle step, to be comfortable giving off-the-cuff presentations or musical performances. And my students have the same experience as me: what they thought at the beginning of the course as being impossible, by the end of six short weeks becomes easy. They learn to handle fear in a constructive way.

This is the power of working in small steps. It is not for nothing that FM Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, said that 

Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence[1]

Alexander is asking us to make certain that we construct for ourselves a pathway towards the goal we want to achieve. And we must make the steps in our pathway small, so that we can build confidence from each small success that we have.

Handling fear in three points

So if you have a goal you want to achieve, try to do these three things:

  • know what the goal is
  • construct a pathway towards your goal, with lots of small achievable steps
  • get professional advice on any technical aspects you need to make success easier (like cycling lessons!)

And if you’re interested in overcoming stage fright, be sure to sign up for my next course. I’ll be running it in person and via Skype before the end of the year!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY Irdeat 1997, p.384.