You can Improve Performance by Doing Less: Why it Works, and 4 Tips to Harness its Power

61263_9449Have you ever wondered how the truly great artists manage to create their masterpieces? Have you ever listened to Yo-Yo Ma play cello, or watched Roger Federer play tennis, or Fred Astaire dance, and considered how they got that good? Well, practice is a big part of it, absolutely. But I want to suggest that the great artists have all realised the power of a simple process: they understood that you can improve performance by doing less.

Novelist Rolf Dobelli recounts a story of the Pope asking Michelangelo, “Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?” Michelangelo’s reply is remarkable: “It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David.”*

This story, for me, cuts to the heart of what the Alexander Technique is all about, because it speaks to the principle of economy of effort. Michelangelo had an idea of what he wanted his David to be, and then he cut away everything that wasn’t a part of his vision. Simple. Elegant.

Economy of effort to improve performance

Back in 1910, FM Alexander realised that people had a problem with economy of effort. He wrote: “Unfortunately, all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of the people of today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to lead to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” **

Bluntly, when FM looked around at the world, he thought that people weren’t having the success they craved because they were doing too much. And a lot of us are STILL doing too much, or going about things the wrong way. Or even doing too much WHILE going about things the wrong way! And then we worry, because we aren’t achieving the results we expected.

If that sound crazy, well, it’s because it is crazy. But it’s also very human. We’ve learned from a very early age that doing more is the socially expected course of action. Want to succeed? Do more. Even if you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing in the first place. I’m sure you, like me, have had the experience of playing music, or acting, or hitting a tennis ball, wanting to improve performance, and actually making things worse.

The solution?

To improve performance by doing less. If you think you’re doing too much – whether physically or mentally, try doing a little less. The game I often give my students is the 50% less game – ‘can you do this with 50% less effort?’

And when you take away the unnecessary, what are you left with? I ran across this quote from Alexander teacher Marjorie Barstow. It very much speaks to this idea of taking away the unnecessary. She is quoted as saying to a student, “All you have is the absence of what you had.”

Michelangelo’s absence was David.

So how do you achieve an absence? Here are my tips.

 Keys to Doing Less.

Have a good idea of what you want to achieve. Steven Covey talks about things being created twice. Before the physical creation there is a mental creation. The better your mental creation, the better your idea of where you want to end up.

Know your resources. I can’t give a quote or a footnote, but I’m guessing that Michelangelo chose both his materials and his tools carefully, picking ones that were appropriate to his intentions. We need to do that, too. This may mean going out and buying the right sort of shoes if we plan to start running. It may mean finding out where our hip joints are.

Watchfulness. I’m willing to bet that Michelangelo didn’t wield his hammer and chisel mindlessly! He would have been incredibly watchful, making sure that he didn’t cut away more than he needed to, and that he cut away in the correct places.

No preconceptions about the effort required. This may sound like I’m contradicting tip number 1. But I’m not. Having a goal is one thing, but keeping an open mind about how little effort you may need to achieve that goal is quite another.

Yes, it takes a little bit of work. But will it take any more than all the unnecessary effort we’ve been channelling into our activities? Probably not. And if we are successful, we may well be amazed at how easily we can take away ‘all that is not David.’


* Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Sceptre Books, p.304.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.62.
Photograph by Richard Simpson, stock.xchng

Performance as process, not product

Recorders are where I learn about performance as process

When preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

It has struck me recently that it is very tempting to think of an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over. ‘I mean, I’m performing now, I don’t have time for all that exploration stuff!’

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night.

But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process?

In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

When I teach actors or singers, I am often asked to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I have reminded the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that was needed when the answers were first created. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they have placed themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.*

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.


Conquer stage fright by changing point of view


Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble


Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright


Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.


* Taken from, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips,

Thought – performance mismatch: How to actually do what you think you are doing


Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?

It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.

As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.

I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because  when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.

And what do I most often see?

They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

They are not opening their mouths to sing.

They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.

In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.

Open jaw: 

  • small number of muscles used
  • relationship of head to body is left alone
  • breathing mechanisms left free to do their job

 Open head:

  • muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
  • muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
  • relationship of head to body altered for the worse
  • combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms

If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?

According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.

So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.

When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.

Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?


The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!


I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin,

Dodging the perfection trap

How good are your worst days?

I fell to thinking about this after experiencing a crummy day. The low part of the day occurred when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up for his cello lesson; only then did I realise that I’d left the cello on the other side of town, and that there was no way of going back to get it in the time available. And the teacher wasn’t answering her phone. Oops.

Some of my students have been having crummy days too. Sadly, theirs have been a little more serious than mine. External circumstances have knocked them sideways. One, for example, had to deal with a minor crisis that entailed both emotional upset and a degree of hard physical work that would ordinarily have caused significant back pain.

When this student came for her lesson, she told me how bad her week had been, and about how difficult it had been to keep thinking ‘Alexander’ thoughts in the midst of all the upheaval. So I asked her about how she’d handled the incident. My student then explained about all the planning she’d done so that her life was disrupted as little as possible, and that she’d done all the physical work. And, she said, oddly, she wasn’t as tired or sore as she’d anticipated.

“So did you use Alexander thinking to help you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she replied.
“And did it help?”
“Well. Yes. But I couldn’t keep it up all the time.”
“Ah,” I said. “But isn’t that a very high standard to set when you’re in a crisis?”

From where I was sitting, my student had achieved significant success. She’d experienced the crisis but hadn’t reacted in her usual (old, habitual) way either to the emotional stimuli or the physical work that came afterwards. She had taken care of herself wonderfully. In my eyes, she had done brilliantly. In her own eyes, however, she hadn’t done as well as she had been pre-crisis, and was therefore a failure.

 There’s such a temptation to judge our progress and our success using our good days.  Musicians are brilliant at this. ‘I could play that obscenely difficult semi-quaver run on Monday, so that’s now my minimum standard for success. If I don’t get that run right, I’m a failure.’ That’s the sort of thinking I used to indulge in on a fairly regular basis.

Sportspeople do it too. Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a classic example. At his best, he plays the game at a standard that is truly near perfection. Indeed, Ronnie strives for and expects perfection. So when he has an off day and plays only excellently, he often gives post-match interviews where he expresses great dissatisfaction with his ‘poor’ play.

Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself… Sometimes people get excited about shots I play, breaks I make, and I think it was terrible. I’m my own worst critic.”*

Perfection is a tough standard to set for yourself. It is, pretty much by definition, unachievable. If we try to judge our progress by our good days, we are falling into a less extreme version of the trap of expecting perfection. If we take this path, we are more likely to discount our successes and, like my student, judge our efforts (and ourselves) as failures.

When life throws you something difficult to handle, it’s going to be harder than normal to keep your head and keep thinking constructively. That’s why we spend time in Alexander Technique lessons practising thinking constructively around simple activities like walking, or sweeping, or raising an arm (I once had a lesson about lifting a teacup). By working on activities like these, we are creating the building blocks that can lead to success in activities and situations that are a bit more complex.**

What would happen if we gauged our progress by how well we get through our crummy days? Is your worst day less worse than before? Then rejoice! For if we all rejoiced a little more, wouldn’t that do a lot to change our view of ourselves and our world?


*Quotes from an interview with Brian Viner, The independent, 7 January 2010,

** cf. FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat collected edition, pp.588-589.