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.

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

Music students who use the same practice room at the same time every day.

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

People who park in the same parking space every single day.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“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.” [1]

Grooves can be good. They help us to get through every day of our lives – they speed up decision making and get us through our days faster. But…The problem with the groove is that, while you’re in it, you’re not thinking hugely effectively. You may be following an established protocol very easily, but you won’t necessarily have analysed whether that protocol is really best for your needs. Sometimes your protocol will be sound, but at other times it will be staggeringly inappropriate, and you’ll be too busy in your groove to notice.

For example, it may look like a time saving measure for a physical therapist or chiropractor to stick to one side of the table for making adjustments on patients. They don’t have to move as much, and they get really good at adjustments on that side. But it comes at a price: they risk being less comfortable if they have to work in a different space where they are forced to use their ‘wrong’ side. And they risk muscle fatigue and injury to the side that is working harder.

Similarly, the music students I work with tend to love the routine of just block-booking a practice room as far into the future as the computer system will allow. They book the same room, and the same time. It gives a rhythm to their day-to-day life, and makes practice as normal a part of the day as eating or sleeping. But this also comes at a cost. When these students come to do recitals, they have to perform in very different rooms at different times of day. At a time when they already have the pressure of grading, they also leave themselves open to the disorientation of new spaces and different circadian rhythms, a new acoustic, and a lack of the environmental cues that helped them to memorise their pieces. The added load from all these new stimuli can be enough to hinder them from performing as well as they could.

Nonplussed by the unexpected

FM Alexander knew this only too well. In his first book he recounts a story of a young man who had been given an introduction to one of FM’s students, a prominent businessman. The young man hoped for a job, but was stunned when the businessman shouted at him, “What the devil do you know about business?”

“Of course,” the young man continued, “I was so unnerved that I could not even collect my thoughts and I was so flurried that I could not answer his further questions. He told me he hadn’t any position to suit me.” “My dear young man,” I remarked, “why did you allow Mr. —– to insult you? Why did you not remonstrate with him …” “I was so upset by his sudden attack, and I didn’t expect to be treated in such a way.” “Just so,” I replied, “you were nonplussed by the unexpected. But I hope this will be a lesson to you. Mr. —– was only testing you, and he wants men who are capable of dealing with unexpected events and situations in his business.”[2]

We need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to be able to deal with stimuli that could cause fear, and the way to do this is through  knowingly and deliberately breaking your grooves, in order that you can improve your physical and mental flexibility and your tolerance of stress.

Physical and Mental flexibility

I know it seems fairly obvious, but unthinkingly carrying out the same physical protocols day in, day out, is not likely to be hugely beneficial for your physical health. You run the risk of never actually taking even a moment to STOP, and allow your body to properly rest.

But this is true mentally, too. Trapping yourself in an unthinking groove won’t help you mentally either. To take the musical example, if you mix up the practice room you use and the time of day you practise, you are giving yourself low-stakes opportunities to experience different acoustics and different experiences of playing. This gives you the mental flexibility to be able to deal with changes of space, time and audience when you perform. This means that you’ll be far less likely to be phased by a grumpy examiner, or that audience member rustling a cough sweet wrapper for an eternity!

Small amounts of stress are good

Deliberately changing your routines will also leave you less open to amygdala hijack. This is where your reasoning centres become unable to inhibit the fear reaction from the primitive parts of your brain, making it difficult to think or remember anything.[3] By choosing to mix things up, you are helping your brain to develop the reasoning power and mental discipline to control your amygdala more effectively. There is an increasing body of evidence that choosing to undergo small amounts of stress helps to prime your brain for improved performance by causing the production of new nerve cells that help you to be more alert. [4]

So try changing your routines. Find ways of subtly placing yourself under a modest (and short-lived) amount of stress.

  • If you are doing an audition, for example, choose to play in lots of different spaces with different acoustics, and choose to play in front of people.
  • If you’re doing a half marathon (like I will be soon), choose to run at different times of day, or after doing some heavy mental work, in order to stretch your mental discipline.
  • If you are involved in an occupation where it is tempting to do things one way all the time, see if you can find a way to change your movement patterns.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

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

[2] ibid., pp.140-141.

[3] Katwala,A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.123.

[4] http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/

Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

“I just want to play freely – I don’t want to feel uncomfortable”

Often as musicians, we find ourselves playing challenging material – something that is just a little beyond where we feel comfortable. That’s certainly true as we are learning an instrument. I think it’s also true in other areas: I’ve found while training for my next 10km race, often the running that my training programme requires involves me feeling a bit pushed.

And we can have ambivalent reactions to that feeling of discomfort when playing challenging material. Working with amateur musicians, particularly, I often hear the desire to feel comfortable while playing. People want to play easily – they want it to be flowing. They want to be able to ‘switch off’ a little bit and enjoy themselves. They certainly don’t want to feel ‘on the edge’!

Certainly, we don’t want to be ‘on the edge’ all the time. I think it’s important that we rest, and that we take the time to revisit material so that we CAN take a step back and enjoy our music-making (or training…).

On the other hand, I’ve read some material recently that gives good solid evidence for why playing challenging material – at least some of the time – is important for our growth and creativity.

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

When we work on playing challenging material, we are effectively improving our ‘neural networks’. Particularly with complex physical skills like driving a car, playing sports, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, there are too many lines of thought happening at once for them all to be controllable in working memory. When we practise we link parts of the skill together into ‘chunks’ that enable us to streamline how many things we actually need to process. [1]

Mastery in pretty much any field could be defined (in part) by how effectively the performer in question has created ‘chunks’ that help them carry out their skill. Psychologist Adriaan de Groot found this when he studied the ability of novice and master chess players to recreate a chess board from memory. The masters could do it easily, but only if the boards resembled patterns from a real game. If the pieces were random, they did no better than the novices. The chess masters didn’t have better memories – they simply had more experience of more boards. They could divide what they saw into chunks for easy use. [2]

If we work on creating chunks of information by consistently working on challenging ourselves with new and trickier material, we can improve our performance, too.

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

The improvement of mastery from creating chunks alone can help us expand our limits so that we can do/play more challenging material. But we may be expanding our limits in another way, too. In her book Cure, author Jo Marchant describes the ‘central governor’ theory of physical exertion: the concept that we all have a ‘limiter’ in our brains that prevents us from exerting ourselves beyond safe levels. Many believe that particular kinds of physical training – like short-burst high intensity interval training – help to retrain the central governor so that we can exert ourselves a little further.[3] But what if this is true on a psychological level, too?

Psychologist Wendy Mendes studies the effect of changes of attitude to stressful situations on our sympathetic nervous systems. Mendes has found that, put very simply, how we mentally approach a challenging situation determines how stressed we get. If we look on a challenging situation as scary, we will have a larger and longer-lasting adrenaline response than if we look on the same situation as exciting.[4]

As FM Alexander found when investigating his own vocal problems, we can often have inaccurate concepts of what it is that we are doing. We can think we are doing an activity in a certain way, but actually be doing it very differently to how we imagine! [5] This is equally true of activities or material we find challenging. What if the challenge isn’t actually in the activity itself, but exists purely in the way that we perceive it?

If, therefore, we accustom ourselves to testing our limits by playing challenging material, we are improving our ability to mentally approach challenge. We will be better able to cope under pressure.

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

A bit of a challenge, then, is a good thing. It helps us achieve mastery, and enables us to expand our concept of where our limits might lie. It gives us experience that will enable us to cope better under pressure. Just remember to be mindful that the challenge you accept is also realistic. A newbie mountain climber should probably not choose Everest for their first major challenge. Even a relatively skilled pianist might be biting off more than they can chew if they choose some works by Liszt (or virtually anything by Alkan!).

So make sure the challenge pushes you a bit, and then work at it. The results might astonish you.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Penguin, Kindle ed., p.55.

[2] Katwala, A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.33f.

[3] Marchant, J., Cure, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2016, p.80.

[4] ibid., p.171.

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

Which comes first when learning new stuff: the repetition or the meaning?

repetition or interpretation

In the work I’ve done with performers (of all types), there seem to be two main approaches to the task of learning new material.

The first is Repetition camp. The performer learns the new role or piece of music through consistent and constant repetition. As they repeat it, they learn the structure and develop an interpretation organically through the rehearsal process. Some performers actually say they can’t really work on interpretation until they have all the words/notes by memory!

The second approach I’ll describe as the Analysis camp. In this approach, the performer does an in depth analysis of the role or piece of music. They develop an interpretation through the process of analysis, and only then do the words or notes stick in the mind. It is the meaning behind the notes or words that causes them to be memorable.

So which is the better approach? Which form of learning gives better results? Well, it probably won’t surprise you that my answer isn’t a straight yes to one or other approach. Unless you’re planning to perform from memory, that is…

Memorising is your goal? Then no mindless repetition!

If your goal is to be able to perform the piece reliably from memory, then just pure repetition is not going to give you a result that will be robust under stress. Associative chaining (that’s the technical term) is great, but if you miss a note or a phrase in stressful circumstances like an audition, the likelihood is that it will be hard to recover. The evidence is that giving yourself cues (technical, dynamic, phrasing, interpretive) gives. You a better chance of performing under pressure.[1]

Why choose? The flexibility issue.

The primary problem with wanting to choose just one of these approaches, and the main focus of my article today, is that it just isn’t very flexible. Here are the three ways you might be missing out by limiting yourself to one single approach to learning new material:

It isn’t mindful.

There’s good evidence that learning and then unquestioningly following a set of instructions will serve you more poorly than interrogating the principles behind the instructions as you learn them so that you can adapt them to other situations. This is particularly true for mechanical skills, but I think it holds true for processes like learning repertoire, too. We need to be able to adapt our approach to the particular material in front of us – that way we make the best of the material according to our unique skills and needs. [2]

FM Alexander would describe this as “keeping in communication with our reason.” He wanted to encourage adaptability:

A proper standard of mental and physical perfection implies an adaptability which makes it easy for a man to turn from one occupation in which a certain set of muscles are employed, to another involving totally different muscular actions.[3]

It isn’t joined-up

When you have two different approaches to something, why keep them separate? I am reminded of AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones speaking about fields of attention. He had had the experience of EITHER noticing what was going on within himself, OR thinking about the external environment. Then he had a breakthrough.

It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress… It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields – one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extrqspection) -= to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.[4]

It suffers from tunnel vision.

In her fantastic book A Mind for Numbers, Prof Barbara Oakley describes a phenomenon called Einstellung. Literally meaning ‘installation’, she describes it as when we ‘install’ a roadblock in our thinking. When faced with a problem or a task, we might be tempted to focus all our effort on just approach to a solution. But it might not be the right one! If we stay committed to the approach we prefer, we are likely to miss other more valuable approaches. [5]

Let’s try for flexibility instead.

Flexibility means:

  • Having a number of different tools and approaches in your toolkit;
  • Being prepared to use different tools according to the material and your goal;
  • Being prepared to change tools if the one you’re using isn’t working, or if the director/conductor tells you to.

I’ve talked before about open-mindedness being one of FM’s highest positive values. Interestingly, one of his definitions of it involves being able to change jobs if necessary; we see a flavour of that in the quote from Man’s Supreme Inheritance earlier in this article. What he is getting at, I think, is having the ability to recognise when things aren’t working, when the circumstances or processes that you are following are not working to help you achieve your goals, and then to change them.

[1] https://bulletproofmusician.com/regular-memorization-works-ok-but-heres-why-deliberate-memorization-is-way-better/

[2] https://bulletproofmusician.com/mindful-learning-day-wife-nearly-failed-driving-test/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.136.

[4] Jones, FP. Freedom to Change, London, Mouritz, p.9.

[4] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., pp.19-20.

Image by njaj from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(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]

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

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

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf

Why a pre-performance performance is a great idea

A pre-performance performance can stop little things getting in your wayEarlier this year my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It reminded me once again of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Misdirected effort? How to get back on track.

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againAre you running into a brick wall in the practice room, out on the tennis court, or on the pitch? Do you find yourself working on something, but to no avail? It is very likely that you are suffering from a case of misdirected effort!

Misdirected effort: a case study!

High school English was once of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was studying for my HSC (sort of the equivalent of the UK A levels), and I really wanted to improve my marks in my English essays. But it didn’t seem to matter how many extra hours of study I put in – my marks never really got any better.

Have you had an experience like that? I have had similar experiences as a musician, and my students certainly have reported frustrations in a similar vein. It’s annoying not to see improvement. Lack of progress can be utterly demoralising. And often the problem could be solved so very easily.

The question we fail to ask

Back in high school English class, I failed to ask myself a really important question, mostly because I was too busy reading literary criticism texts to improve my scores. My students fail to ask themselves this too, again because they are too focussed on what they are doing. I’ve known sportsmen, even maths and science students who missed this question too.

‘Am I directing my effort to the right place?’

According to Prof Barbara Oakley, this phenomenon even has a name: the Einstellung effect. It’s where an idea that you already have in mind prevents you from finding a better idea or solution.[1] In effect, you are so wedded to one way of working that any other doesn’t even have a chance of entering your head!

Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?

But why do we behave in this way? According to FM Alexander, it comes down to our belief systems. He said in 1923,

“We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.”[2]

Now it might seem obvious to say that people will think and act according to the make-up of their genes, beliefs and life experience, but note the word he uses to describe them: peculiarities. He isn’t being pejorative or mean – he’s just saying that sometimes we don’t believe things that are hugely sensible. We construct ideas about what we can and can’t do based on experiences (which we may have misinterpreted at the time), memories (which we may not have recalled accurately), and things we’ve picked up from all manner of places (and which may not be true).[3]

So if you think about it, it is hardly surprising that sometimes we get stuck on a particular idea or course of action, and are thoroughly unable to even see that we are stuck!

Solutions

The key to getting unstuck is to develop the mental discipline of stepping back and asking yourself if there is something that you are doing that is getting in your way. This was the very first question that Alexander asked himself when he wanted to solve his vocal hoarseness, and it’s a great question for us all to use.[4]

Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, came up with these four questions that I think expand on Alexander’s question in useful ways. They were originally intended for teachers dealing with organisation change, but I think these questions are great for anyone. Here they are:

  1. Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
  2. Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
  3. Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
  4. Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?[5]

If we ask ourselves these questions, we have the opportunity to see what mental block we have put in front of ourselves. Once we know how we are blocking ourselves, we will know what areas to work upon so that we can direct our effort more effectively. This may mean approaching a difficult semi-quaver passage from the tail end instead of from the beginning, and working backwards. It may mean slowing down, and that may feel odd. It may mean stopping and taking a walk!

When we ask ourselves questions, we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And that is the key to sustained improvement.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., p.19 (loc 345)

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, p.304.

[3] Levitin, D., The Organized Mind, Penguin, p.50.

[4] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion, p.25.

[5] https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/06/23/why-unlearning-old-habits-is-an-essential-step-for-innovation/

Learning to follow through: why we bail out on our plans

Musical phrases require us to follow through to the endDo you follow through? Do you push through to the end of things?

My son is currently learning Solveig’s Song by Grieg for his grade 4 trumpet exam. One of the things that he is finding tricky at the moment is playing right through to the end of the phrases. Each phrase is quite long and requires good breath control, and it is so very tempting to cut the long note at the end of the phrase short and have a break!

I have experienced something similar with one of my recorder pieces. I found myself cutting a phrase short, and realised I was doing it because I was already thinking about the tricky phrase coming up!

It doesn’t just happen in music. I once taught a group of actors who were using a chaise longue in a scene. They were all experiencing achiness in the low back. When I watched them, I realised that they all effectively ‘stopped sitting’ a few inches above the seat of the chaise – at the same height as all the other chairs in the rehearsal room! Plonking down those final few inches when they’d already ‘sat’ was causing the low back discomfort.

FM Alexander didn’t follow through, either

FM Alexander found that even after he’d discovered the physical acts that were causing his vocal trouble and had created a plan (and whole new set of mental disciplines) in order to use his voice more effectively, that actually using his plan was a whole other challenge. He reverted to his ‘instinctive use’  – his previous way of using his voice – more often that not. FM realised that he was trying to use a new protocol that he had carefully reasoned out, but was trying to judge how well he was doing by whether he was feeling right.[1] This is a bit like deciding to follow a healthy eating plan but finishing every meal with a big slice of chocolate cake: self-defeating!

Deciding not to follow through = ‘feeling right’

The thing is, when we see the phrase ‘feeling right’ we can be misled into thinking it’s referring purely to physical sensation.  But it can refer to the more subtle pay-off of not having to examine one’s thinking, too. Even as we decide to follow a particular plan in order to take us towards the goal we desire, we can still fool ourselves into thinking we are changing and improving. We can believe we are following our plan, while not actually following through on everything that we need to do in order to change and improve.

If I am shortchanging one phrase to think about the next, I am choosing to feel right (worrying about the next phrase is more important than finishing this one).

When my son stops the final note in the first phrase of Solveig’s Song early, he is choosing to feel right (I would rather stop playing than have to rethink the length of the phrase so I can breathe in further).

If my students stop using their hip joints before they reach the chaise, they are choosing to feel right (I would rather not have to think about the chair height, but just sit the way I always do).

But if we genuinely want to improve, then we really do need to examine our thinking. We need to honour the process that we’re following, and choose to not just follow that process, but also accept all the implications of that process. And sometimes that will involve having to change the way we think. So I’ll need to stop worrying about the next phrase, and just keep playing the one I’m in the middle of. My son will need to rethink his phrasing and breathing so that he can play his piece the way he wants.

What about you? What implications do you need to accept and incorporate, so that you can follow your process all the way through to its conclusion?

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, 1985, pp.44-45.