Do you have an evaluation addiction?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I have a number of students with an evaluation addiction. It crops up strongly amongst the musicians, but it’s by no means limited to their number. Writers have it; artists and businesspeople have it. Sportspeople suffer from it too. And a full disclaimer: this is a problem I continue to work on as a musician.

What do I mean by an evaluation addiction? It’s when a performer, for example, evaluates what they are doing while they are doing it, to the detriment of their own performance. Author Melody Beattie describes it very neatly:

After I finished the first two chapters of a book I was writing, I read them and grimaced. “No good,” I thought… I was ready to pitch the chapters, and my writing career, out the window. A writer friend called, and I told her about my problem. She listened and told me… “Stop criticizing yourself. And keep on writing.”
I followed her advice. The book I almost threw away became a New York Times best-seller.[1]

Once upon a time, one of my students, a violinist with perfect pitch, was so intent on criticising her intonation that she had reached the point where she could barely string a phrase together. She was so busy evaluating her playing (and finding it wanting) that she was actually unable to play.

As I see it, there are two major issues at play here. Let’s look at them in turn.

Evaluation addiction assumes the worst

My violin student had a major problem with negative thinking. I think partly as a result of her perfect pitch, she spent all her time not just listening to the intonation of her playing and berating herself for getting it wrong, but assuming that it would be wrong. Before even picking up the instrument, she had decided on some level that things were going to sound out of tune. And because humans are very adept at carrying out what they have decided, that’s exactly what would happen – she would play slightly out of tune.

We need to address this tendency to project a ‘worst case scenario’ onto what we are about to do. FM Alexander realised that mental attitude was important:

When… we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [2]

If we want to improve our performance, we need to begin by addressing this addiction to assuming the worst.

Evaluation addiction takes up brain space.

The other major issue with evaluation addiction is that it consumes your concentration. The neuroscience of it is that we only have a limited number of ‘slots’ in our working memory – we used to think seven, but the modern estimate is only four.[3] If you choose to occupy one of these four precious slots for evaluating what you’re doing, then what vital part of performing are you going to jettison? Are you going to stop thinking ahead and planning the next phrases in the music? Or maybe quit listening to your ensemble partners? If you’re playing sport, are you going to stop scanning the field for gaps, or stop keeping an eye on the position of your teammates?

Of course, the big irony with giving up so much of our precious attention to evaluation is that it is practically useless. Think about it: when you evaluate something like the pitch of a note, you are evaluating something that you have already done. If you’ve already done it, you can’t change it. It’s out there in the world. Berating yourself about how bad it is might be tempting, but it just isn’t helpful. Believe me – I know this. I’m renowned for the faces I pull if I mess something up in a concert. And when I pull faces, I usually mess up the phrase I’m just about to play as well, because my mind is in the past rather than the future.

If we give up the temptation to evaluate what is already gone and put our valuable attention on what we are about to do, then things are likely to go so much better for us. FM Alexander has these words of comfort for us:

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[4]

Our job, then, is to direct our thoughts to planning what we want to achieve. If we have a clear idea of what we want to have happen, then we have a far better chance of directing ourselves in movement to be able to carry out our designs.

It’s something I’m definitely working on: leaving the evaluation addiction behind, and placing my attention on something that will actually help. Anyone else with me?

 

[1] Beattie, M., The Language of Letting Go, Hazelden, 1990, p.11.

{2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.52.

[3] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, (eBook ed) Penguin, 2014, p.41.

[4] Alexander, FM, The Universal Constant in Living, IRDEAT, p.587.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos

Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

make an experimentIf you’re stuck – if you’ve got a problem and you can’t see an easy way out – can you design an experiment? For example, if you’re not sure about whether you are struggling over that semiquaver passage because of fingerings or because of uncertainty about the notes, how could you decide?

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

When I ask them, people tell me all sorts of ideas about what the Alexander Technique is about. Some think the AT is all about nice feelings, or all about theory. Or standing up straight (it’s not!). Some people think it’s about having things done to you, like some kind of therapy. But it’s actually based on experimentation. In the opening chapter to his 1932 book The Use of the Self, Alexander described his technique as

“practical experimentation upon the living human being.” [1]

In other words, making hypotheses and finding ways to test them is not just practical – it’s a fundamental part of how Alexander Technique can help you.

I have a student who had had an injury to one of her hips, and knew that she was probably using it gingerly. But how could she tell exactly how differently she used her (once) injured right leg compared to her left? By coincidence, she was given not one but two pedometers by kind friends. And she created an experiment. She put one pedometer on her left leg, and one on her once-injured right. At the end of the day the left pedometer registered around 900 steps, but the right one only registered 400ish.

Proof? Not yet – the pedometer might be faulty. So the next day she followed the same routine, but swapped the pedometers to the opposite legs. The result? The left one registered 900 steps again, and the right one only 400ish. My student had proof that she was doing something very different with her once-injured right leg. Once she had that proof, she could begin to think of ways to change things.

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

So how do we do it? I suggest we try following FM’s example. When he was trying to work out how to solve the vocal problems that threatened his career, FM said that he , FM followed these steps:

He collected his facts. He knew that reciting brought on hoarseness. He knew that normal speaking did not cause the same problems. By observing the patterns, he could see clear differences between the two different forms of speaking.

He made a hypothesis. Based on his observations, FM concluded that he must be doing something different with his vocal mechanisms while reciting that was harmful, compared to what he was doing when speaking normally. It fitted the observations, but it was still just a hypothesis – he needed to find a way to prove if what he suspected was true.

He designed a test. He watched himself speaking in front of a mirror, first just speaking normally, and then reciting. He repeated these steps, to make sure that his observations were accurate. And from these, he was able to prove, interestingly, that his hypothesis was actually false![2] From there, he could design new experiments based on his new knowledge.

And that’s the point. If FM had tried to fix things without forming a hypothesis or making an experiment, he would have been using trial and error – it would have been sheer luck if he’d solved his problems. Luck is fine, but it doesn’t help you the next time a similar problem shows up. When you make an experiment, you are following clearly defined steps, which means that you’ll be able to follow your reasoning again at a later date. You won’t constantly be reinventing the wheel; or worse, just guessing.

Making an experiment: the steps

So if you want to know what is causing your problem and make steps to solve it, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Collect your facts
  2. Make a hypothesis
  3. Design a way to test your hypothesis
  4. Have fun.

Don’t forget step 4 – that’s what it’s all about, really!

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.22.

[2] ibid., pp.25-6.

What running a half marathon taught me about doing the work.

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

Last Sunday I ran my first ever half marathon. I’m going to write about it, not because I’m proud of myself (although I am), and not because I want praise. I learned something about the nature of goals and work, and about how we mess ourselves up by misrepresenting them. I’m writing about my experience because I think it simultaneously destroys a couple of myths and demonstrates a really important principle.

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

No, I’m not. Five or six years ago I would have had trouble running for a bus. I’ve been overweight and unfit, and I’m definitely not naturally sporty. I just decided to change, and then did the work to make it happen.

Similarly, FM Alexander wasn’t special. He was just some guy from small-town Tasmania. But he wanted to sort out his vocal problems, so he decided to do the work to make that happen.

Myth 2: “a goal like that is so big, I could never do it.”

This myth is tricky, because it is wrong on two levels. First of all, what looks like the goal (the half marathon) isn’t the true motivating factor. I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to do a half marathon, any more than FM Alexander just decided to found a whole new field of psycho-physical education. He wanted to act again without losing his voice; I wanted to gain a level of fitness to ensure I’ll stay healthy as I get older. For FM, creating what we now call the Alexander Technique was something that happened because he became fascinated with the process of what he was doing to solve his vocal problems. For me, entering a half marathon happened because I got fascinated by distance running, and because having a race in the calendar helps me to stay disciplined with my training. In both cases, the big goal isn’t actually the true motivating factor. FM and I had intrinsic motivations that were way more important.

The second way this myth bites is that it assumes that the Half Marathon (or whatever the apparent goal is) is too big and scary to achieve. Someone new to running will look at the 13.1 miles, and see an overwhelmingly long course. Which it is.

But it isn’t impossible. It’s just a big goal, which needs to be broken down into more achievable chunks. You take advice. You work consistently. And by working the smaller steps, the larger goal takes care of itself. This is what FM was getting at when he said:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that 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.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope I’m modelling here, is that anyone can do the work.

It’s worth repeating: ANYONE CAN DO THE WORK.

Human beings are amazing. We can achieve amazing things, all of us. But certain conditions need to be met before we can unleash our amazingness upon the world.

  • Have a WHY. Motivation is really important, and intrinsic motivation is the best kind. I wanted to improve my fitness so I can maintain my health as I get older. FM wanted to keep acting – a profession he loved.
  • Have a goal. I chose a half marathon (and previously, some 10k races). FM wanted to recite and maintain his vocal condition.
  • Use the tools to hand. FM used a mirror or three. I found a fantastic website that tailor-made a training programme for me. I talked to friends, and gathered advice. Look at what is around that can help you.
  • Get help and external accountability. I made sure that friends knew what I was up to, so that they would ask me how the training was going. FM checked his physical condition with friends and doctors.[2]
  • Keep going. It takes a certain level of persistence and mental discipline to keep going when things get difficult. One of my favourite sentences in the whole of Evolution of a Technique is when FM says, “Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”[3] Even when FM’s investigations were going apparently very badly, he kept working. This is where your intrinsic motivation becomes really important. I had plenty of rubbish training runs, but I still kept going.
  • Be prepared to laugh at yourself. My teacher’s teacher, Marjorie Barstow, advocated it, and I think it’s an important point. Take the process seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

Running a long race isn’t for everyone. But I think we all have ideas and goals and dreams, and often we cheat ourselves out of them. What would happen if you chose to honour them instead, and do the work?

[1] FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat ed., p.587.

[2] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.28.

[3] ibid., p.36.

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

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

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

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

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path.” [1]

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

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

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

Nonplussed by the unexpected

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

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

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

Physical and Mental flexibility

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

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

Small amounts of stress are good

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

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

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

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

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

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

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

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

Big questions: can I learn Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Jennifer Mackerras teaching

Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson is likely to have experienced the teacher using their hands during the lesson process. Hands-on guidance is one of the tools used by Alexander Technique teachers to help their students change and improve. But there are always debates about whether it is possible to teach without the use of hands – on Skype, for example. For some, the entire concept of Alexander Technique without hands-on is anathema. For others, it is a poor second-best option. For others, it is the necessary way to learn. But who is right, and can you learn as effectively? Let’s think about it…

Alexander Technique and hands

It’s a fairly normal and traditional aspect of Alexander Technique lessons that the teacher will use their hands to give some form of gentle guidance to a student. In a previous post, I described Alexander hands-on as being a means of making it increasingly impossible for a student to carry on with the unhelpful movement behaviours they indulge in; they become aware of what they are doing, and can choose to stop. In this description of Alexander hands-on, we can think of what the teacher is doing as being a kind of psycho-physical disruptor. I help the student disrupt their old way of thinking, and aid them in finding a better way of going about things.

Practical obstacles

In-person lessons with hands-on are great. But they aren’t possible for everyone. Some students live too far away from a teacher to have in-person lessons. And I have encountered many students who simply don’t like being touched; some in certain areas, and some not at all! Some people, for example those on the continuum of autism-related disorders, have significant sensory issues, and being touched is either very stressful or actually painful. Are we really going to tell these people that they aren’t allowed to have lessons unless they submit to something that they may find intensely uncomfortable?

When faced with the choice of no exposure to Alexander Technique at all, versus Alexander Technique without hands-on, the latter starts looking like a great option.

Use of hands in the Alexander Technique

The use of hands-on techniques has had a privileged place in Alexander Technique training and philosophy for a long time now. Some people even go so far as to say that use of hands with a student is essential, or it isn’t an AT lesson. According to this view, the student hasn’t actually learned anything unless hands have been used.[1]

But… We have cases of teachers and students who have learned without the benefit of anyone placing hands upon them. FM Alexander himself would be the classic first example! I think he turned out pretty well, and from his own description he didn’t use hands-on techniques on himself (he did spend a lot of time in front of mirrors).[2] Similarly, FM’s brother AR Alexander was a fine and well-respected teacher. AR famously only had 6 lessons, and none of those involved use of hands.[3]

Ultimately, whether or not you think the use of hands is essential in a lesson comes down to what you think the main job of the Alexander Technique is. If you think that its primary task is to bring an improved sensory awareness to the student, then the use of hands would be near indispensable. And there are a significant number of teachers around who believe that sensory awareness is vital, and that hands are therefore essential.

But this isn’t the main job of the Alexander Technique as FM described it. He said that the “centre and backbone” of his theory and practice was “that the conscious mind must be quickened” (in the sense of being made more alive).[4] Teacher Frank Pierce Jones described it as bringing a practical intelligence into the things that you are doing.[5] If the main task of an Alexander Technique teacher is to improve a student’s psycho-physical wellbeing by improving their ability to reason and direct themselves in activity, then anything that furthers that goal would be a useful technique to use. Hands would be useful, but not essential. Imitation and demonstration would be good, but not essential. Talking and questioning would be good, but still not essential – probably…

So, Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Here’s my point of view, and it’s the basis on which I teach:

Are hands-on techniques good? Yes.

Can you learn without them? Yes.

As long as I do whatever I can to challenge your erroneous ideas, using whatever tools I have available, and as long as you are willing to do the work, you can learn the Alexander Technique.

[1] MacDonald, P., The Alexander Technique As I See It, Rahula, Brighton, 1989, pp.8-9. I don’t think I’m doing a disservice to MacDonald by citing him here. I certainly think that MacDonald’s statement here (and elsewhere) suggests that he did believe hands were essential.

[2] See the first chapter of The Use of the Self for all the mirror references. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, pp.26-7.

[3] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., London, Mouritz, 1997, p.18.

Edward Maisel says in his introduction to his compilation of Alexander’s writings called The Resurrection of the Body that FM and AR were teaching with purely verbal instruction when they set up their teaching practice in London in 1904; hands-on techniques were clearly developed after AR had his 6 lessons. Maisel, E., The Resurrection of the Body, Shambhala, Boston, 1986, p. xxvii.

[4]  Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.39.

[5] Jones, op.cit., p.2.

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