Don’t be discouraged by failure: tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari

Yarn-Kitty-500

This week I’m completing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warning to singing students.

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:
Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

Firstly I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. Last week, we looked at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results. To end the series, we’ll investigate the dangers of being discouraged by failure, and consider whether it might be more sensible to learn from failure instead.

Why we hate failure

We hate it because it sucks, and it feels bad.

Let’s flesh that out a little. If we fail, it means that we had a goal. we wanted to achieve something, probably something important to us. We planned, we invested ourselves in our goals emotionally, we put in the time. When the time came, we attempted to follow our plan, and it went wrong.

When it all goes wrong, we feel downhearted because we didn’t reach our goals. This is normal and completely reasonable. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve, and we feel the loss not just of the goal, but of the time invested and the emotional energy spent. FM Alexander was no stranger to this stinging sense of disappointment. While trying to work out what he was doing while using his voice to cause his vocal problems, Alexander often took wrong turnings or failed to do what he intended. And when he failed, he definitely felt it: “This indeed was a blow. If ever anyone was in an impasse, it was I.”**

Running from failure

Failing hurts because we didn’t achieve what we wanted. But more than that, very often we take it personally:

“I didn’t make the team, so I must be a bad player.”
“I didn’t get that high note. Everyone knows I’m a rubbish singer.”
“My book didn’t sell. I should quit writing now and stop making a fool of myself.”

Notice that these hypothetical people go one step further than just feeling disappointment. They utilise one or more cognitive distortions and draw incorrect and unfounded conclusions that bear little relation to the event. They manufacture feelings of embarrassment and shame, and then run from them. They may even quit the activity rather than face failure again!

Please don’t quit – there is a better alternative…

Learn from failure

One of the most striking character traits of FM Alexander – in my opinion – is his determination. Because he was passionate about his chosen career, he kept fighting to solve his vocal problems even in the face of a stream of failures and disappointments. He keeps writing sentences like this:

“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that my problem was hopeless.”***

Do you, like me, find that sentence tremendously encouraging? I love the way that Alexander could feel the disappointment, then put it to one side and keep reasoning out new courses of action. More than that, Alexander realised the value of his failures as a resource:

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

Even though he didn’t know how the failures could help him at the time, Alexander knew that the experience would be useful at some point. He knew that failures could help him progress, even if he didn’t understand how at the point when the failure occurred. By analysing the failures, he could begin to understand how they occurred and why.

Learn from failure by…

  • Collecting your failures. Store them up.
  • Analyse them. Are there patterns? Any obvious errors or things that you overlooked?
  • Getting feedback. If you have a teacher, coach or mentor, ask them for feedback. And try to have someone in your camp who will cheer you on even when you lose or fail.
  • Use the information you’ve gathered and create a plan for your new attempt.

For example…

If you didn’t make the team, there may be any number of reasons. Maybe there were better players there on the day. Maybe you made a mistake or two. Maybe the coaches just decided you needed more time to prepare. It does not mean you are a bad player. Ask your coaches what you should work on to improve your game, and keep playing.

You didn’t get the high note? It’s a shame, yes. Some of the audience might notice, but most of them won’t. And will one missed note destroy the integrity of the rest of your singing? Probably not. Keep practising. Work out why the top note didn’t work, and then perform again.

There might be any number of reasons why your book didn’t sell, and the quality of your writing is only one of the possible options. Have you investigated the others?

Don’t run from failure. Feel it. Learn from it. Learning how to learn from failure is probably one of the biggest and most significant steps you could make on your road to success.

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.420.
*** ibid.
**** ibid., p.418.

Impatient about results? Tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari.

checklist

This week I’m continuing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warnings to singing students. Last week I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. This week, we look at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results:

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

 

We’ll look first at why we want measurable results fast, then at why this is unrealistic. Finally, I’ll leave us with a couple of ideas to help counter our thirst for results.

 

Impatient about results: I want improvement, and I want it NOW!

On any new activity or goal we’re working on, or even if we’re working to improve something we’re already doing, the one thing we’re looking for is improvement.

If I take singing lessons, I want my singing to get better.

If I go to French classes, I want to come out after a few lessons with at least a smattering of French.

If I go running, I want to start feeling fitter.

But we don’t just want improvement. We don’t just want results. We want those results to be measurable, and we want that measurable improvement quickly. We suffer, to use Caesari’s words, impatient expectation of rapid measurable results.

And life often just doesn’t work that way.

 

Why results (often) don’t come quickly.

Even if we are learning a whole new skill (as I did last year with tennis), we still are likely to have preconceptions about what the activity involves, how it is meant to be done, how successful we are likely to be, and what body parts we are going to have to use to do it. We are full of preconceptions.**

Part of learning anything is learning to give up what you think you know in order to take on board the ideas that you could never have dreamed of. And this is sometimes a hard task. We are almost preconditioned to hold on to the things we know – they are ours, we thought of them, and we like them. Letting go can be difficult. And yet this is what we must do.

Sometimes it will be fast. We will make terrific process.

Sometimes it is slow. It feels like it is taking forever. Sometimes I feel like I would rather chew my own foot off than have to wait any longer for improvement in the areas that I’m working on! But change comes. In its own time. And it probably won’t look anything like what you thought it would.

At this point, it is practically irresistible to begin feeling impatient about results, get frustrated, ‘chuck a wobbly’, ‘throw your toys out of the pram’. But let’s not, just for a moment, because it’s usually at this point that I remember my all-time favourite quote from FM Alexander.

…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.***

I love this quote because it reminds me that if I’m following a well-designed process, if I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check and using my head, then I cannot fail to have success. I just don’t know how long it will take.

 

How to avoid impatient expectation of rapid results

These are my tips:

  • Keep a list (either mental or on paper) of things that have improved. My own favourite example is playing musical passages that I used to find too difficult, but that I can now play easily. Look at the list whenever you start to feel impatient, and remind yourself of how frustrated you used to feel about the thing that is now simple for you.
  • If you feel frustrated, take a break. Go for a walk or a run. Put on some music and dance around the house. If you release some of the mental energy, you may well find that you’ve solved the issue blocking your progress without having to ‘think’ about it.
  • Remember that frustration and impatience are also signs of growth. When you think about it, this makes sense. If we always stay within what is comfortable and easy, then we don’t ever reach the limits of what is possible for us.

Impatience and frustration, of themselves, are not detrimental. What is truly destructive is allowing impatience and frustration to be the excuse to quit. Why not dance instead?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** See FM Alexander’s wonderful chapter ‘Incorrect Conception’ in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual for a fuller description of this.
*** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.587.

Unbridled enthusiasm – tips for a great New Year from Alexander and Caesari

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Are you filled with enthusiasm for the coming year?

How are you going with your New Year’s Resolutions?

Or have you worked out your goals for 2014? Are you sticking to your plans so far?

If you’re anything like me, you experience a heady mix of emotions at the beginning of the year as you make plans for how you want to best use your time and energies. And it can be tricky navigating a path through the mix of excitement, puzzlement, enthusiasm, fear and confusion.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, as I started one of my holiday reading books, to come across a reminder of some of the most important lessons that FM Alexander teaches us about navigating the process of change and development.

My holiday reading was called The Alchemy of Voice, written by singing teacher E. Herbert-Caesari. In the opening chapter, the author exhorts singing students to strive, experiment and practise daily – all good things, I’m sure you’ll agree! But then he issues this warning:

 

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

What a list! It’s such a powerful selection of principles that I’m going to spend this blog post just talking about the first of Caesari’s three points: the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm.

 

Unbridled enthusiasm – too much of a good thing.

When my son made chapattis recently, he decided not to follow the written recipe instructions. Measuring ingredients seemed slow and tedious. Instead, he decided to put two large double handfuls of flour in his bowl, sprinkle in a bit of salt, and then slosh in some water.

The mix was a little dry, so he added more water.

The mix was still too dry, so he added a little more water.

The mix was STILL too dry, so he added… a lot more water. A whole lot. His chapatti mix looked a little like soup. It needed a lot more flour, and some adult help, to bring it back to being the right consistency.

Caesari’s point at the beginning of his book is that singers are a little like my son. He decided that he knew what chapatti dough looked like, so he didn’t need to measure ingredients. He knew what he was doing. Similarly, Caesari suggests that singers very often think they know what sort of sound they want to achieve, and don’t necessarily follow a reasoned process to get there.

But it isn’t just singers who are like that, and it isn’t just my son. I suspect everyone has this experience. We are convinced we know what our end product should be, so in our enthusiasm to get to the end, we skip some of the slow, boring, tedious, necessary steps that will get us there.

FM Alexander certainly had this experience. In 1910 he wrote:

One day I hope to write an account of how I arrived at the practical elucidation of my principles of conscious control, and when I do, I shall show very plainly how one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm. It is as vivid and keen today as it was over twenty years ago, but I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.**

Enthusiasm and reason

Notice that Alexander doesn’t say that enthusiasm is bad. Neither does Caesari. They both say that unbridled enthusiasm is bad. Unbridled enthusiasm blinds us; it stops us from assuming that we know everything, and causes us to miss out vital steps. It stops us from using our heads.

So this is what we must do:

  • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is good. It keeps us going through the inevitable failures and disappointments along the path to our goals;
  • Remember that we don’t know it all! Humility will keep us remembering that we need to watch out for our hidden assumptions and blind spots;
  • Keep using our heads and following all the steps. It’s hard to be a good musician if you don’t practise. It’s hard to keep fit if you don’t exercise. It’s hard to be a writer if you don’t write! Keep showing up, and keep doing the steps.

If we follow these pointers, then together we can all make a true difference to ourselves, to our families, and to our communities this year. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90. And he did write that account of how he arrived at his principles of conscious control – it’s the first chapter of his book The Use of the Self.
Image by supakitmod from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Decision making and FOMO: what FM would say…

decision-making

Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.

Decision making fail – leaning on the fence

A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.

Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.

But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.

They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?

So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.

Decision making and reasoning

Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?

If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)

But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)

 Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?

Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.

Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.

Try that new restaurant or cafe.

Try that new watercolour brush technique.

Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.

Try a different route home.

In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.

If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.

 

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

Should you go out of your comfort zone?

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Jen at the 10k

Should you go out of your comfort zone and try new stuff? If so, how do you go about it? Today is the beginning of a four week series on why trying new things is good, and how to do it well.

May 5 was a big day for me. It was the day of the Bristol 10k – a 10km run/jog/stagger along the roads of some of the most picturesque bits of my home town.

10km may not seem like much to some of you. To me, it’s a big deal. I only started running seriously in February. I had never before taken part long-term in any sporting activity. I was not fit, not even close to it.

And yet I decided to take part. Why?

Well, it all comes back to the fundamental basis of the work which I teach, the life-changing discoveries made by FM Alexander. You see, Alexander’s work starts with one simple but all-important question:

“Could it be something I was doing… That caused my problem?”

When you start to take that question seriously, you are led to reconsider basic ideas you hold. For example, a plumber student of mine began to question whether he really needed to grip the wheel of his van as tightly as he did in order to keep it on the road.

But then, you see, you start to realise that there is a tremendous value in questioning ideas and mental attitudes that you believe to be true of yourself. You start to question all sorts of things.

I began to question my long-held view that I am No Good at Sport. I began to question my idea that Other People could run, but that I Could Not. These beliefs began to look like easy answers. They were a comfort zone that enabled me to stay away from activities that challenged my view of myself. I realised that the only way to know if my belief was true was to test it out.

And that’s the reason why I took a step outside of my comfort zone, and entered the Bristol 10k.

Your task for this week?

Simple. As you go about your week, keep a mental lookout for any ideas or mental attitudes you hold about yourself that you think may warrant closer examination. Like me, you might believe that you’re No Good at sport. Or maybe art. Or singing. Or speaking in public.

When you think you have found one or two (or more), decide which one you would most like to change, and begin to think about ways you could challenge it. Next week, I’ll give you some tips on how to go about it.

Doing the work: a swimmer’s perspective on (not listening to) other peoples’ opinions

swimmers

For the past couple of posts I’ve written about Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, whose autobiography is full of insight about the challenges of achieving and maintaining mastery of his sport.

First I looked at how Thorpe describes how he stays in the present moment by not viewing the water or pool as a constant. Then I wrote about how he is able to maintain constant attention on the feedback he receives from the water, because of the type and quantity of practice he has done over his career.

Today I want to look at a hidden benefit of Thorpe’s ability to stay in the present moment as he swims: the freedom it gives him from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

Straight after talking about he ‘listens’ to how the way flows around him as he swims, Thorpe says:

“It’s really rewarding because I receive constant feedback without stopping. I don’t need someone to tell me that my stroke looks great or that it looks terrible because I have an inner sense of the water and the environment is already communicating with me.” *

Because he has trained for many years with top coaches, because he has practiced and analysed his technique, because (in short) he has worked incredibly hard, Ian Thorpe has reached a very high standard. He is able to analyse the conditions present in the water, design a stroke pattern to suit, and then carry out pretty much exactly e stroke pattern he designed.
And the result of this hard work? Freedom from the need to listen to other people’s opinions. He doesn’t need someone else to tell him he is doing well. If he has done a good job of matching his stroke to the prevailing conditions, he’ll make his way through the water faster and more effectively.

He will know that he has done well, because he will have met his own criteria for success. He won’t need to listen to see if he has met anyone else’s idea of what is good.

So often in my work with actors and musicians, they suffer from nerves tying themselves in knots worrying about what the audience is going to think about them. Or worse, the critics. They sometimes get so worried, it stops them from performing what they’ve designed at all. And worse, they then torment themselves by wondering how the great professionals often seem to be able to perform without fear of audience reception.

But here Ian Thorpe gives us the secret. His detachment from what other people think is a result of his complete commitment to his sporting process. His commitment to the water frees him from having to care about other people’s opinions. This gift of detachment comes from a lifetime of hard work and dedication to the goal of being better. This is Sebastian Coe put it:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment— whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”**

So how do we attain even a degree of the detachment from results and outside feedback that Ian Thorpe and Seb Coe achieved? By setting to work. This is what FM Alexander said a teacher should do:

“He asks his pupil not to make any attempt to gain the “end”at all, but instead to learn gradually to remember the guiding orders or directions, which are the forerunners of the means whereby the end may one day be achieved. This may not be today, tomorrow or the next day, but it will be…” ***

So set to work. Do a little bit of practice each day on the techniques and protocols that you’ve designed that will get you towards your end goal. Don’t worry about the end goal: if you work on the basics, slowly and consistently, the end goal will take care of itself.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster 2012, p. xii.
** Sebastian Coe quoted in Daniel H. Pink, Drive, Kindle edition, p.114.
*** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.339.
Image by Neil Gould, stock.xchng

A swimmer’s perspective on deliberate practice

swimmer

Last week I wrote about how the Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s approach to swimming can teach us a lot about the power of staying in the present moment. What Thorpe described was a clear decision to treat every swim as a new experience, and to ‘listen’ to the water to find out how the present conditions would affect the way he would swim.

 

We left Mr Thorpe diving into the pool, and then gliding in the water, prior to beginning a stroke. This week we are going to look at what he does next, because I think it has a major lesson for how we can all stay in the present moment more.

Thorpe continues:

“As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body. I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke…”*

Thorpe doesn’t listen to the water once and then stop. He keeps doing it. As he swims, he is constantly receiving feedback from the water, and he uses that feedback to help him choose how to swim even better.

But how does he do that? How does Ian Thorpe have the time and the brain space to keep that sort of contact with the feedback he receives from the water, even when racing?

The answer is surprisingly simple.

Practice.

Ian Thorpe loves swimming. And not just the racing and winning. He loves the practice. His autobiography is full of descriptions of the technical changes he is making to his strokes as he returns to competitive swimming. And towards the end of the book he says “I enjoy aspects of training that most people would think as drudgery; for me, it’s an exploration of what I can achieve.”**

Thorpe has a fascination with the technical aspects of his sport. This is no different to my musician students: the trombonist playing ‘the opens’, or the flautist playing long notes. By working on the most basic elements of their technique many times, they seek to attain a mastery that will inform and enhance the way they play more complex material.

This type of practice is a long way from ‘performance’. Even James Galway would stretch an audience’s goodwill by coming onstage and playing long notes at them! But it is an essential component of end-of-goal performance readiness.

FM Alexander talks about this too. When he was trying to solve his voice problems initially, he realised that he needed to practice the plan he had created to help him achieve his goal of speaking, but separate it from any sense of end-of-goal performance. And he needed to practice it a lot.

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

Because Ian Thorpe has spent countless hours in the pool (and out of it) working on his technique, because he has thought, analysed and planned his swimming stroke – because, in short, he has spent his preparation time carefully – he has the space to ‘listen’ to the water consistently and make changes as he swims.

So if there is an activity that is troubling you, can you do this?

  • Can you break the activity down into some basic key elements, like the flautist’s long notes? (Eg for moving from sitting to standing, moving at the hip joint might be a key component)
  • Can you practice the key components by themselves, just for their own sake?
  • Can you find a fascination in attaining mastery of the key components?
  • And when you’ve done this and brought that knowledge back to the activity at hand, does it make a difference?

Email me and let me know. 🙂

 

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xii.
** ibid., p.283.
*** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.424.
Image by franky242 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Water is not water: a swimmer’s view of staying in the present

swimming

When you swim, do you assume the water is always the same? Or when performing, is the audience just another audience?

Today might be the day you begin to re-evaluate!

I’ve just finished reading one of my Christmas presents – the autobiography of Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe. He’s famous for his world record swims from the age of 14, his very large feet, and his decision to quit competitive swimming at age 24, at the height of his career.

The opening paragraphs of the book were a revelation to me, a non-swimmer who had never thought about water before. Here’s what Thorpe says:

“When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it, the water will naturally guide me into a position; a place for my body to settle… This is the starting point for me, not just floating but lying flat on top of the water. Then I begin to initiate movement…”*

For Thorpe, water isn’t just Water, and a pool isn’t just A Pool. They aren’t constants. The water changes, and is different day by day. His first act when diving in isn’t to thrust forward and begin his swimming stroke. Rather, he waits for feedback from the water. He waits to find out what this water is like, today. How can he best swim in this water, on this day?

I was really struck by this because it reminded me of FM Alexander’s emphasis on analysing the conditions present as part of the development of what we now call the Alexander Technique. Alexander wanted us to take notice of what was happening around us, and then design a custom-built response. An off-the-shelf once size fits all solution wouldn’t be good enough, because Alexander said that in modern life “conditions change so constantly that they cannot be adequately met by any external standard or fixed code as to what is right or wrong.”**

So external conditions change. Water isn’t a constant, according to Ian Thorpe. At this point I began to think about other objects and places I or my students sometimes treat as unchanging constants. The thing is, the more I think about it, the fewer constants I can find.

An audience isn’t the same day to day.
A road isn’t the same day to day.
A musical instrument isn’t the same day to day.
A person isn’t the same day to day.

My challenge to you this week is a simple one: take a look at your daily activities. Are there any places/objects/people that you treat as being unchanging? Would it benefit you to try considering them changeable, and alter the way you react based on how they appear each day?

Oh, and if you want to read a wonderfully poetic musician’s take on the challenge of staying with present circumstances, read Patrick Smith’s blog.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xi.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p. 472.
Image by Salvatore Vuono from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Feeling right, or having success… Which will you choose?

ducks

I have been having a real battle in my tennis lessons lately. My struggle is with my backhand. My teacher has given me very clear instructions on the technique of how to hit a good backhand stroke. When I follow her instructions, I have success.

But do I always follow her instructions?

Nup.

Because, you see, sometimes I decide that I know better. The technique that she has taught me works… but it doesn’t feel right. It feels, well, odd, and new, and… Wrong, frankly. And because it doesn’t feel right, more often than not I decide to go my own way, and do what feels right to me.

And the resulting shot stinks.

But it isn’t just me that has this experience. One of my students recently had a very clear choice between walking in the way that she had decided was most efficient and anatomically correct (but which made her feel like she was sticking her rear end out like a duck), or walking in her usual way and putting up with her lower back aching.

According to FM Alexander, it all comes down to a simple choice.* When I play tennis, I can either go about things in my old usual way and get the same crummy results that I always have, or I can actually listen to my teacher and wholeheartedly follow her instructions. My student can walk in the old achey way, or put her trust in the new way she has decided is best for her purpose.

Even when it feels odd, or wrong.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
Even when I think I probably look like an idiot.
Even if she feels like a duck.

So last week I challenged you to pick an activity and think about what you would actually need to do to complete the activity. This week my challenge to you is to keep refining your plan in odd moments through the day, but to go one step further. Every so often, maybe once a day, put your plan into action. It may feel great. It may feel odd. It might not feel of anything at all. Just give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete edition, p.299f.
Image by Tina Phillips www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net