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/

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/

Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Big questions: who makes the positive changes happen?

making positive changes in Alexander Technique lessons involves fun!

Are positive changes teacher-driven?

For beginning students looking at an Alexander Technique lesson, it can look a lot like the teacher is doing all the work. The teacher does something with their hands, and apparently makes massive positive changes in the student. Even though there is very often a fair amount of talking going on, it can look a lot like most of the work is being done using hands-on techniques BY the teacher TO the student. The balance of power seems very much to be with the teacher.

But I really want to challenge you to reconsider this notion. I want you to consider the possibility that the positive changes that occur in the course of Alexander Technique lessons are in fact student-powered.

Positive changes are student-powered!

As I discussed last week, what I am doing with my hands during an Alexander Technique lesson is NOT sculpting the student according to my ideas of what is right and good. I don’t decide what would be good for my student, and then mould it! Rather, I am making it increasingly hard for the student to STOP sculpting themselves according to their ideas of what is good. My job is to help the student question whether their ideas are good and useful to them, or whether they would be better served by letting some of their ideas go.*

This means that the balance of power doesn’t lie with me as a teacher at all. If one of my students decides that they would rather hang on to their physical tension (and the ideas that lie behind it), then there is nothing that I can do to stop them. On more than one occasion I have worked with students who have found their reasons for their physical tension so compelling that they have refused to give them up, even though their justifications resulted in physical discomfort.

Happily, because most people don’t have such a life-or-death attachment to their ideas, they are happy – sooner or later – to make the shift in thinking that shifts its physical manifestation. The lure of the benefits of positive change is too inviting to ignore.

In addition, the fact that the student is the one with the power means that they can make positive changes without the teacher being involved. Just this past week one of my students failed to make it to class, but read the recap email that I sent to all the class participants. She thought so carefully about that email during the week that, by the time she came back to class, she had made definite positive changes and was experiencing less discomfort in her daily activities.

If the student is the one with the power, and if a student can make progress without the direct involvement of a teacher, then what is to stop you from improving right now? As an Alexander Technique teacher, one of my most important roles is to give my students a space and a framework for examining what they do and how they do it. But you don’t need me in the room with you!**

What is it that you’re doing, and how are you going about it? What one thing strikes you as something that you could do less, or even not at all? Will you take the challenge to drive your own positive changes?

* Alexander spoke of teaching as “placing facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties…” I am of the opinion that this sounds like a great teaching tool and applicable to other age groups too! See FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.88.
** Though, of course, I’d love to work with you in person, too. 🙂
Image by Kevin Leighton.

Big questions: Why do teachers of Alexander Technique use hands?

In Alexander Technique, teachers’  hands are for… what?!

Alexander Technique hands-on work

When starting to learn the Alexander Technique hands – specifically, how the teacher uses their hands in a lesson interaction- are one of the biggest points of question and confusion for a new student. What on earth is the teacher doing with their hands when they are working with a student?

Sometimes a student will say that it feels like I am pushing or pulling them to a different shape. If it’s a group class, this frequently gets a laugh, because the group can see that there is virtually no physical effort being expended on my part as the teacher. And when I ask the student whether I really am pushing or pulling them, they have to answer no.

Sometimes a student will ask, ‘Are you feeling the things that the student is doing wrong?’ Well, sort of. I can feel muscular tensions within the student when I work with them, but am I specifically looking for that? Not really.

So if I’m not ‘pulling’ them into shape, and I’m not specifically looking for the things they’re doing wrong, what exactly am I doing with my hands in a lesson?

Bringing a reasoning intelligence…

It all comes back to what we think the Alexander Technique is for. I think of it as a method for learning how to bring a reasoning intelligence to our movement.* We learn to how to organise our naturally flexible structures in a way best suited for what we want to achieve. We are learning how to use our amazing bodies without excess or unnecessary effort.

So when I use Alexander Technique hands on techniques in a lesson, I am attempting to help the student notice the unnecessary ideas or tensions they are inflicting upon themselves, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to keep doing them!

For example, a student might only want to move their head on their neck up or down in a very limited range (which I tested by using Alexander Technique hands on methods). This brings the limited range of motion to their attention. When I ask them what their neck is for, they might reply, ‘to help me see’. So if I give them a reason to see things outside of their usual range of motion – like an imagined trip to the Sistine Chapel- they may well move their necks much more freely when I next use my hands.

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes there is more chat involved, and sometimes less. Very occasionally there is none involved at all! But in all cases I am using my hands as a tool, to make it increasingly difficult for the student to stick with the physical tension that, through sheer force of will, they are enacting upon their body.

In Alexander Technique hands aren’t the only way to learn.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to experience Alexander Technique hands-on lessons in order to effect lasting and positive change. The classic example of this? FM Alexander himself. He made lasting positive change to his own vocal problems, and didn’t have a qualified teacher around to help him out! We can always do what he did:

  • keep watching ourselves to see if we are doing anything in the way we are going about our activities that is causing our problems;
  • reasoning out what we actually NEED to do for any given activity;
  • endeavouring to do what we’ve reasoned out.

Pick an activity to work on, follow these steps, and see if it helps. Let me know how it goes!

 

* I’m paraphrasing Frank Pierce Jones. See Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., Mouritz 1997, p.2.
Photograph of Jen and student by Gordon Plant.

Big questions: ‘How do I keep it?’

IMG_1769

Do I keep it, or let it go?

I’ve taught a fair few introductory Alexander Technique lessons recently. They tend to go like this:

  • Student comes and sits. They tell me about what is bothering them.
  • I ask some pertinent questions, and do some Alexander ‘hands-on’ work.
  • Student feels better. Their face brightens.
  • I ask if they have any questions. They look at me earnestly, and ask this:
  • “It feels great. But how do I keep it?”

The dark underbelly of ‘how do I keep it?’

The question on the surface seems like a fair one. The student has had a good experience, and wants it to continue. This is completely understandable, especially if the student has been troubled by discomfort, and as a result of the lesson experience the discomfort has gone.
But ‘how do I keep it?’ is a question with a dark underbelly, and the easiest way of teasing this out is with this simple question: “What would happen if you didn’t keep it?”

The classic answer to this question is, “I’d revert to how I was before.” The subtext of this answer is this: I have to work at it for my body to feel like it is working well, and if I stop keeping it up, it will work poorly. In other words, the dark underbelly of wanting to ‘keep it’ is the hidden belief that our bodies work poorly unless we make them do otherwise.

Put that baldly, it is a fairly depressing thing to believe, isn’t it? And yet many of us, whether we realise it or not, work as if that’s the truth.*

But what if it isn’t?

The alternative

You see, if our bodies are essentially poorly functioning, then we’re always going to have to work hard to keep them working well. But if the reverse is true – if our bodies are basically fine and designed to function well – then we wouldn’t have to do anything to keep them going. All we would need to do is to get out of our own way, cut the extraneous and unhelpful, and learn how to use our amazing bodies to best advantage.

In the words of actor Bruce Lee:

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT ed., 382-3.
Photo by Jennifer Mackerras

Will I change my personality? Alexander Technique and psychology

 

Occasionally I get asked questions by students that touch on the relationship between Alexander Technique, psychology, and the possibility of altering their essential selves. The questions can be summarised as follows:

  • Do we have an essential self?
  • Can we change that essential self through the work we do in Alexander Technique lessons?
  • If we can do this, will we all end up the same – perfectly functioning Alexandroids who think and move very similarly?
  • Or will we suffer mini personality crises and become different people altogether?

I can’t really speak to the first question: I have no idea if there is such a thing as an essential something that makes me ‘me’ and you ‘you’. But I do know that there is a very clear link between Alexander Technique, psychology, and physical movement.

Alexander Technique psychology? Try psycho-physical…

definition of Alexander Technique

In the Interactive Teaching Method, where I trained to teach Alexander’s work, we define the Alexander Technique as the study of thinking in relation to movement. Broadly speaking, in lessons my students learn that what and how we think determines the way we move. This is true both in specific tasks and in more general movement patterns. And if we change what and how we think, the way we move cannot fail to change too. The Alexander Technique is a toolkit that can, to paraphrase FM Alexander, help us create/discover/reveal a good manner of use of ourselves that will exert a continuous influence for good upon our general functioning.*

Alexander also says that we think and act “in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.” ** When he says this, I don’t think he uses the word ‘peculiarities’ pejoratively. I think that some of our peculiarities might be beneficial, or at least neutral.

But some of our peculiarities are not benign, or will appear so but have consequences that are harmful to us. Alexander believed that our misdirected activities are the result of incorrect conceptions, and that the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to convince a student to give up the erroneous conceptions and instead use something more useful to guide us.^ Nowhere that I know of does Alexander require us to give up beneficial peculiarities (though he does ask us to hold our ideas lightly and have open minds).^^

Alexander Technique psychology: Alexandroids, breakdowns, or something else?

That’s a whole lot of words, but how do they help us tease out our questions? Does the Alexander Technique have the power to change our personalities? Will we turn into drones or, worse, emotional wrecks?

I’m currently thinking of it like this. John is a circle. Marsha is a triangle.^^^ They both have peculiarities in their psycho-physical make-up: I mean, John is circular and Marsha is a triangle!

Alexander Technique psychology described using image of John and Marsha

But it goes a bit deeper than that. John has bits of him that aren’t completely circle-like. Marsha is troubled by the bits of her that are more round than triangular. These are peculiarities too, but they are ones that get in the way of their true nature. John can’t enjoy his full circleness until he loses the edges. Marsha can’t achieve her potential as a triangle until she has a pointy top. So they both come along to Alexander Technique lessons to learn how to make the changes that will help them fulfil their dreams.

In the course of lessons, Marsha might decide that she was wrong about her triangle-ness. She might realise she was actually meant to be a trapezium. This would be a bigger change to her psycho-physical make-up, to be sure.

Some changes to our psych-physical nature are big, like realising we are a trapezium and not a triangle after all. Some are smaller changes, like taking the bumps out of the circle. But the principal thing that the changes have in common is this: they are changes that work towards an improving manner of use of ourselves. The end goal of the Alexander Technique is not to make us all the same. Rather, it is to give us the tools to become most wholly and uniquely ourselves.

*FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in IRDEAT ed., p.524.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT ed., p.304.
^ ibid., p.293.
^^ FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., p. 57.
^^^ HT Stan Freberg.

How to practice alexander technique (or anything)

How to practice with Alexander Technique

How to practice Alexander Technique is a question high on the list of any beginning student. What should I do? Are there exercises I can do? How long should I be thinking about it each day?

Today I want to demystify the concept of how to practice. Let’s look at how a musician might go about it, and see what ideas we can draw out of the musician’s experience of how to practice.

Imagine a small group music lesson with three young students. It doesn’t matter what instrument; we’ll imagine it’s violin. How do they get better? By practice! But each of them has a different approach to how to practice, and they aren’t all effective.

One goes to the lesson, then goes home and puts his violin in his cupboard. He doesn’t think about it again until just before the next lesson. He then does an hour or two of panicked practice.

The next student practices every day for about an hour. He runs through his pieces all the way through every time. If he makes a mistake, he stops and goes back to the beginning of the piece. At lessons, he never seems to have fixed the places the teacher helped him with in the previous lesson.

The final student practices most days, some days for half an hour, some days only for a few minutes. He’ll pick a piece, play it through to remember which bits are sounding dodgy, and then work on one dodgy bit. When he’s fixed it, he puts his violin away and finds something else to do.

Which student improves fastest?

Which student are you?

How to practice is about quality.

Quality of practice, not quantity, is the key. It doesn’t matter how many times you do an activity (like play a piece of music) if you’re doing it wrongly. And consistency of practice is very important. There’s a growing body of evidence behind what already seemed like common sense: that we retain information better when we work on it regularly.*

The other element that FM Alexander would add to the mix is what sportsmen call mental practice. When he was trying to solve the vocal troubles that threatened his career, FM would practice his new protocols for movement very many times “without attempting to do them.” This ensured that when he did attempt to carry them out, he had a good knowledge of the process he wanted to follow.**

How to practice – the steps.

  • Find a time that suits.
  • Find an activity that suits.
  • Organise yourself to practice mindfully – actually thinking about what you are doing. If you can, pick for yourself a small, achievable goal to aim for.
  • Find time to think about how to do the activity when you aren’t doing it.
  • Do it for a few minutes.
  • Stop.
  • If you reach your mini-goal, have a little celebration.
  • Repeat.
  • And – this is optional, but recommended – let someone know what it is you’re working on, so that they can ask you about it. Accountability really helps.

That’s the Activate You plan for how to practice Alexander Technique. Or, indeed, just about anything. Want to give it a try? Email me and let me know what you’re working on, and I’ll give you any help I can – even if it’s just sending an occasional message to make sure you’re still working!

And don’t forget to have fun!

 

*I recommend Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers (Penguin 2014) for a detailed, lively and very practical description of the research and how to use the findings to improve one’s ability to learn.

** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.41.

First principles: why starting from the top is good

first principles are a pathway to success

First principles – boring?

Working from first principles: you’ve been told to begin at the beginning, but especially if you already know a little bit about the subject area, is it really necessary? If you’re learning something new, or even if you’re doing a refresher in something you already know, it is really tempting to skip the early stuff. Often, first principles can feel like a bit of a waste of time.

I am currently doing a course written and presented by marketing guru and all-round amazing thinker Seth Godin. I’ve been freelancing for years, so after I paid for the course and I looked at the title of the first video, I must confess my heart sank a little. It said ‘Why be a freelancer’. I’ve been running my own teaching practice for years, so my first reaction was to assume I’d done that bit of thinking long ago, and didn’t need to go over it again.

But I listened, and I did the exercises, at first out of duty (I mean, I paid for this!), but very quickly out of excitement. Through going back to first principles, I was rediscovering the reasons why I started teaching and freelancing in the first place. I re-connected with the reasons why I do what I do. It was inspiring!

And that is the gift of going back to the beginning, and allowing yourself to start again from the first principles behind what you do. It gives you the chance to rediscover ideas that you’d forgotten, and hopefully to find again the passion that got you started in the first place.

First principles – different every time

And the beauty of it is that when you encounter ‘beginner’ principles as a non-beginner, they don’t look the same as when you first learned them. I remember when I went back to first principles as a recorder player, and asked myself what I needed to do to play so-called ‘pinch’ notes (higher register notes that require part of the left thumb hole to be uncovered). I discovered just how little of the thumb hole needs to be uncovered for the higher notes to sound. I discovered that I really didn’t need to do very much with my hands to achieve the notes. It was monumental.

This was the process that FM Alexander went through when he created what we now call the Alexander Technique. He was trying to solve vocal problems that caused him to lose his voice onstage. He took that fact – that the problem only occurred onstage and not off – made some hypotheses, and then set out to test them. Every time he ran into trouble, every time it seemed like he’d hit a brick wall, what did FM do? He went right back to the beginning, to those first hypotheses.* And he’d test them all again. Each time the act of going back was a spur to new thinking. He’d go back to first principles, but with the knowledge gained from the false starts.

So don’t be afraid of first principles. They will help you.

  1. Getting the basics right helps you to move faster in the long run – you won’t have to go back and correct mistakes
  2. If you do get stuck, going back to first principles means that you can experience them again on a different level – they’ll be different because you are
  3. Going back to the beginning gives you the chance to make different choices.

And remember – there’s no such thing as wasted effort. You can learn from the false starts just as much as the successes. Have fun, and if you’ve got a question, just contact me and do my best to help.

* FM Alexander, Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417: “I saw that the whole situation would have to be reconsidered. I went back to the beginning again, to my original conclusion…”

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Reducing muscle tension: the whys and wherefores

reducing muscle tension

Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?

It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…

  • They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
  • They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
  • They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
  • They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
  • They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
  • They like it.

There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.

The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*

Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.

And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.

And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
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