Annual Check-up: the easy route to noticing change

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One night last week my son went to bed in pyjamas that fitted. When he got out of bed the next morning, they were conspicuously short in the leg. He had had a growth spurt overnight.

Now such things happen – changes that are sudden and instantly visible. But often change isn’t so obvious. It is gradual and incremental. It creeps up on you. The classic example is not noticing that your child has grown until someone comes to visit who hasn’t been for a while. When they exclaim how tall your child has become, you also look on them with new eyes. Yes, they have grown, haven’t they?!

It is very easy to just let life slide past and thus not notice the effect of the accumulation of small changes, whether for good or ill. Our child grows, the bedroom carpet gets shabbier, our confidence in our new job increases, our favourite shoes develop worn heels…

Small changes. It can be hard to notice the small changes. FM Alexander knew this. In the opening chapter of his very first book he wrote:

“The evils of a personal bad habit do not reveal themselves in a day or in a week, perhaps not in a year, a remark that is also true of the benefits of a good habit.” *

What Alexander means here is that, if we sit or stand or go about any of the “innumerable acts of daily life” in a way that is less than optimal (or even downright harmful), we may not notice the effects immediately. They might not appear for weeks, or months, or maybe even a year.

But notice that he also says that this is “also true of the benefits of a good habit.” When we make changes that are good and beneficial, we might not notice the benefits immediately. They might be gradual and incremental. They might creep up on us. We might not even notice the improvement for weeks. Or months. Or maybe even a year.

 

Annual check-up time.

Some years ago I decided to take Alexander’s words seriously, and set up for myself a sort of informal annual check-up. At a certain time each year, I think back to that time the previous year. I think back to what was feeling emotionally and physically. I check my diary and look at the sorts of things I was doing each week. I look for the accumulation of the small changes.

Would you like to do something similar?

The end of the year is a good, standard, traditional time to carry out that sort of annual review. One of my favourite writers, Chris Guillebeau, is even making part of his public at the moment on his blog.

Sample questions for your review:

  • How was I physically this time last year? Are there things I can do now that I couldn’t do back then?
  • What was I thinking about this time last year? What preoccupied me? Has my thinking changed, and if so, how?
  • How was I feeling this time last year? Am I feeling differently now? If so, how?

If you haven’t done a review before, give it go, and tell me in the comments how you found the exercise. And if you do this each year, tell me, how does it help you?

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.16.

 

Alexander Technique and Singing: Process, not Product

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This is the story of my most recent singing lesson, where I learned once again the vital importance of the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on process, not product. It mirrors very neatly the experience of a delightful colleague of mine, Bill Plake, playing his saxophone. When you finish my article, swing on by and read his.

I have been having singing lessons for a few years now. I am lucky that my teacher, Gerald, has had Alexander Technique lessons, and knows the books of FM Alexander fairly well.

At my most recent lesson, we began, as always, with some exercises. Gerald played the notes that he wished me to sing. I sang them. We did this, going up the scale a little way. Then Gerald paused, and thought for a moment. He didn’t tell me that what I had done was wrong. Gerald almost never does this. Rather, he asked me to do the exercise again, but with one vital difference. He asked me to sing the notes with my fingers in my ears.

At first, I didn’t want to do it. A stubborn streak in me resisted, whether from vanity or a deep-seated suspicion of trickery. But I trust Gerald, so I sighed, put my fingers in my ears as requested, listened hard to hear the notes from the piano, and then sang.

It was weird.

The sound I could hear inside my head was bizarre. I could barely hear the piano.  I couldn’t hear anything else at all – none of the sound of my own voice that I was used to hearing bouncing off the walls of Gerald’s teaching room. I had no idea at all if it sounded good, bad, indifferent, or downright awful. I didn’t even have feedback as to whether I was hitting the right notes. So I just sang.

The experience was completely discombobulating and yet strangely clarifying all at the same time. The sound feedback I was getting from inside my own head was thoroughly unfamiliar and it was tempting to be carried away by the shock of it.

At the same time, though, I realised that the removal of all my usual markers for how I was singing was freeing me. There was nothing pretty to listen to. So all I could do was think about the process of what I was trying to do. I was thinking just about the note, the vowel, and the breath. It was astonishingly, daringly simple. It couldn’t possibly sound any good. Could it?

Then I looked at Gerald. He was smiling. This is a good sign.

I still don’t really know how it actually sounded. Gerald was pleased, though, and that’s good enough for me. But that isn’t the point.

The point of the story: complete commitment, total detachment

What I learned last singing lesson was a practical demonstration of what I talked about in my blog Banishing Stage Fright with the Jazzmen, part 2. I learned about the primary importance of process over product.

You can’t directly control product. It just doesn’t work. Product is of its very nature the outcome of some sort of process. So if you want to make the product as good as possible, the only real choice you’ve got is to work on the process.

FM Alexander put it this way: “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable… We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”*

What FM Alexander asks for is no less than this: complete commitment to the process, and total detachment from the outcome.

Of course, it is easy to say this in theory. But it quite another to experience it in practice.

So I have a challenge for you: can you find one situation this week where you can make an attempt at complete commitment to process, and total detachment from the outcome? Tell me what it is in the comments!

FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, in the IRDEAT edition, p.587.

 

Is it okay if you change?

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I’m a very lucky person in many ways, and one of the areas of my life in which I am most fortunate is my work. I love my job. I believe that teaching the Alexander Technique, helping people to improve their thinking, their movement, and their lives generally, is just the best job in the world.

One of the aspects of my job that I love most is meeting new students. Because I teach courses at a couple of different locations on a termly basis, I see groups of new students fairly regularly. In the past week, for example, I’ve met and worked with three new groups of people. Two of them were at the Folk House in Bristol, and the third was a group of students from the Young Actors Studio at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

One of the questions that I (and many of my colleagues) typically ask a new student when working with them for the first time is: “Is it okay if you change?” The range and variety of answers I hear to this question never fails to excite me. “Yes!” says one student. “NO,” says another in a decisive tone. “What?!” exclaims another. “What, my clothes?” asks another. “Hm, maybe…” says another. Lots of different answers.

In my class at Royal Welsh College last Sunday, one of my nw students countered my question with another question. The exchnge went like this:

Me: “Is it okay if you change?”
Student: “Ye- … Hang on. Why are you asking me that?! What’s that got to do with the Alexander Technique?”
Me: “That’s a brilliant question.” I turned to the group. “Why am I asking that question? And what’s it got to do with the Alexander Technique?”

And now I’m asking you: why do I ask if it’s okay if you change? I’ll give you a minute to think of an answer.

——-

There. How did you go? There are all sorts of good reasons why I use the question. But the one that most intrigued my Cardiff students is the one I’m going to talk about today.

So why do I ask about change? Well, it all comes back to what my job is about. Most, if not all, teachers in the Interactive Teaching Method give a standard definition of the Alexander Technique as a part of the introductory class. We say that the Alexander Technique is the study of the relationship between thinking and movement. We talk about the fact that, physiologically speaking, thinking precedes and controls movement – you can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking happening first. Put very simply, this means that, if you want to change the way you move, you need to change the way you think.

If the Alexander Technique is about thinking and movement, and my students (on the whole) want to change something about the way they move, what’s my job? Well, my job in some sense is to help my students change, by encouraging them to change the way they think (or, as my Cardiff students would have it, to ‘mess with their heads’!).

This is what I try to do with that opening question ‘is it okay if you change?’ I want to start the process of change by prodding their thinking – their thinking about change.

My teenage students in Cardiff, I realised, on the whole don’t have a problem recognising change happens. Their lives are full of change: exams, fashion, music, college, university… Everything in their lives is constantly, and visibly, on the move. For the rest of us, change can be a far more slippery concept. We get up, we go to work. We come home. We eat, we sleep. We have hobbies or evening classes we like to go to. We watch the TV programmes we like. Our lives follow a broadly similar patterm. Change, if we think of it at all, becomes something almost to be feared.

When I explained this to my teenage students, their faces became very sad and serious. “But that’s terrible,” they said. “How could anyone live their life like that?”

The thing is – change happens. It happens to all of us. It is in the nature of life that things change. We can deny it, hide from it, dull our perception until we can’t see it any more, but it is still there. Change will happen. Either it happens with our passive consent, or with our active involvement. So why not open our eyes, use our minds, and work on what Alexander calls “the never-ending intellectual problem of constructive control, which, instead of destroying, develops the interest and general intellectual pleasure in even…ordinary acts”?*

So… Is it okay if you change?

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat collection edition, p.308.

 

 

Can’t they see I’ve changed?

For my article this week I am again shamelessly pillaging from Chris Guillebeau, superb blogger and traveller and speaker of many truths. Specifically, I’m going to bounce my ideas off his excellent article Homecoming and the Adventure Detox.

In the article Chris talks about the strange decompression effect that can happen when you come home from a trip. You’ve seen and heard new things, and these things have changed you. You want to share them with friends and family. But friends and family may not be interested in what you have seen or heard. They’ll listen politely, but actually they’re keen for you to engage back in your home world – “Have you seen what’s happening with American Idol?”. Anyone who has travelled and had deep or memorable experiences can testify to the disconcerting and deflating nature of this ‘decompression’ experience.

The reason why I’m talking about this article by Chris, apart from the fact that it’s excellent, is that it so neatly describes what is happening in the lives of a number of my Alexander Technique students just now. One student in particular has undergone a lot of changes as a result of working with the principles and tools that I’m priveleged to share with them. In the 18 months or so that this person has had lessons with me, they have changed radically, both physically and in the way that they relate to the world around them. But it is only now that friends and family are starting to notice that they are different. Why?

Why is it that even those who are nearest and dearest to us are not able to see when we have changed? I think there are two issues that contribute to the problem.

Knowing how to look

From working with young actors, I’ve learned one basic fact. Observing is a skill, and most people don’t have it. They’ve never been taught how to look, to really look, at anything.

This problem is compounded when we are asked to look at people. In Western culture we are taught that it is rude to look at others. “Don’t stare!” we are told as children. So we begin to look away, to keep to ourselves. We sneak glances at others, on the pavement or on the train, but we don’t look for long, and we certainly don’t make eye contact! In effect, far from encouraging observation skills, in effect we are taught from childhood NOT to look.

If we don’t, can’t or won’t look, how will we ever see what is different? In fact, how will we ever truly see anything at all?

Analysing conditions past

When FM Alexander talked about his strategy for planning the protocol of a movement, he talked about “analysing the conditions present.”* In other words, looking at what is in front of us at that particular moment, and creating a plan of action based on what we see. Sadly, familiarity can breed contempt: why bother checking out that chair again when it looks the same as the one yesterday? The same thing happens with families and friends.

When we meet someone for the first time, we have no choice but to respond to whatever cues the person gives us regarding their character, personality and appearance. It’s completely different with families and friends. Because they’ve known us a long time, our friends and family tend to respond to us based on their experience of us in the past. They don’t need to observe us afresh, because we’re just the same as we were before, right?! Well, no, actually!

This is why those of us who live a long way from our parents can find it really difficult to visit home. We struggle to hold onto our adult identity as our parents continue to interact with us in the same way that they did all those years ago before we flew the nest and created our own lives.

Our friends and family see us as they used to see us, and as they want to see us. They love us, but sometimes the version of us they love may not fit us as neatly as we all hope and assume. So when they notice that we’ve changed, the odds are that we’ve metamorphosed so radically that their cherished but out-dated impression of us can no longer tally with the person in front of them. The degree of change forces them to reassess.

But they haven’t noticed I’ve changed – what should I do?

When you make changes in your life, and your nearest and dearest continue to interact with the person you used to be, you have a very simple choice. You can relinquish the changes that you have made and conform to their impression of who you are, or you can hold on to the decisions that you have made.

For a time this may be uncomfortable: there may be a disjunction between how your loved ones expect you to respond to them compared to your actual response. But which would you rather be – true to others’ expectations of you, or true to yourself?

And, just as a final thought… If you know you are changing and growing and improving, does it matter if that change isn’t recognised by others? Is the improvement any the less real for not having external approval?

Let’s commit to the process of change. Approval may come, or it may not. Discomfort may come, or it may not. But the process, if it is considered and appropriate, will lead us towards improvement. And what more can you ask than that?

 

*The full phrase used in the Evolution of a Technique is “analyse the conditions of use present.” But why stop at your body? Why not analyse anything around that is relevant?