Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

“I just want to play freely – I don’t want to feel uncomfortable”

Often as musicians, we find ourselves playing challenging material – something that is just a little beyond where we feel comfortable. That’s certainly true as we are learning an instrument. I think it’s also true in other areas: I’ve found while training for my next 10km race, often the running that my training programme requires involves me feeling a bit pushed.

And we can have ambivalent reactions to that feeling of discomfort when playing challenging material. Working with amateur musicians, particularly, I often hear the desire to feel comfortable while playing. People want to play easily – they want it to be flowing. They want to be able to ‘switch off’ a little bit and enjoy themselves. They certainly don’t want to feel ‘on the edge’!

Certainly, we don’t want to be ‘on the edge’ all the time. I think it’s important that we rest, and that we take the time to revisit material so that we CAN take a step back and enjoy our music-making (or training…).

On the other hand, I’ve read some material recently that gives good solid evidence for why playing challenging material – at least some of the time – is important for our growth and creativity.

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

When we work on playing challenging material, we are effectively improving our ‘neural networks’. Particularly with complex physical skills like driving a car, playing sports, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, there are too many lines of thought happening at once for them all to be controllable in working memory. When we practise we link parts of the skill together into ‘chunks’ that enable us to streamline how many things we actually need to process. [1]

Mastery in pretty much any field could be defined (in part) by how effectively the performer in question has created ‘chunks’ that help them carry out their skill. Psychologist Adriaan de Groot found this when he studied the ability of novice and master chess players to recreate a chess board from memory. The masters could do it easily, but only if the boards resembled patterns from a real game. If the pieces were random, they did no better than the novices. The chess masters didn’t have better memories – they simply had more experience of more boards. They could divide what they saw into chunks for easy use. [2]

If we work on creating chunks of information by consistently working on challenging ourselves with new and trickier material, we can improve our performance, too.

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

The improvement of mastery from creating chunks alone can help us expand our limits so that we can do/play more challenging material. But we may be expanding our limits in another way, too. In her book Cure, author Jo Marchant describes the ‘central governor’ theory of physical exertion: the concept that we all have a ‘limiter’ in our brains that prevents us from exerting ourselves beyond safe levels. Many believe that particular kinds of physical training – like short-burst high intensity interval training – help to retrain the central governor so that we can exert ourselves a little further.[3] But what if this is true on a psychological level, too?

Psychologist Wendy Mendes studies the effect of changes of attitude to stressful situations on our sympathetic nervous systems. Mendes has found that, put very simply, how we mentally approach a challenging situation determines how stressed we get. If we look on a challenging situation as scary, we will have a larger and longer-lasting adrenaline response than if we look on the same situation as exciting.[4]

As FM Alexander found when investigating his own vocal problems, we can often have inaccurate concepts of what it is that we are doing. We can think we are doing an activity in a certain way, but actually be doing it very differently to how we imagine! [5] This is equally true of activities or material we find challenging. What if the challenge isn’t actually in the activity itself, but exists purely in the way that we perceive it?

If, therefore, we accustom ourselves to testing our limits by playing challenging material, we are improving our ability to mentally approach challenge. We will be better able to cope under pressure.

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

A bit of a challenge, then, is a good thing. It helps us achieve mastery, and enables us to expand our concept of where our limits might lie. It gives us experience that will enable us to cope better under pressure. Just remember to be mindful that the challenge you accept is also realistic. A newbie mountain climber should probably not choose Everest for their first major challenge. Even a relatively skilled pianist might be biting off more than they can chew if they choose some works by Liszt (or virtually anything by Alkan!).

So make sure the challenge pushes you a bit, and then work at it. The results might astonish you.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Penguin, Kindle ed., p.55.

[2] Katwala, A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.33f.

[3] Marchant, J., Cure, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2016, p.80.

[4] ibid., p.171.

[5] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Which comes first when learning new stuff: the repetition or the meaning?

repetition or interpretation

In the work I’ve done with performers (of all types), there seem to be two main approaches to the task of learning new material.

The first is Repetition camp. The performer learns the new role or piece of music through consistent and constant repetition. As they repeat it, they learn the structure and develop an interpretation organically through the rehearsal process. Some performers actually say they can’t really work on interpretation until they have all the words/notes by memory!

The second approach I’ll describe as the Analysis camp. In this approach, the performer does an in depth analysis of the role or piece of music. They develop an interpretation through the process of analysis, and only then do the words or notes stick in the mind. It is the meaning behind the notes or words that causes them to be memorable.

So which is the better approach? Which form of learning gives better results? Well, it probably won’t surprise you that my answer isn’t a straight yes to one or other approach. Unless you’re planning to perform from memory, that is…

Memorising is your goal? Then no mindless repetition!

If your goal is to be able to perform the piece reliably from memory, then just pure repetition is not going to give you a result that will be robust under stress. Associative chaining (that’s the technical term) is great, but if you miss a note or a phrase in stressful circumstances like an audition, the likelihood is that it will be hard to recover. The evidence is that giving yourself cues (technical, dynamic, phrasing, interpretive) gives. You a better chance of performing under pressure.[1]

Why choose? The flexibility issue.

The primary problem with wanting to choose just one of these approaches, and the main focus of my article today, is that it just isn’t very flexible. Here are the three ways you might be missing out by limiting yourself to one single approach to learning new material:

It isn’t mindful.

There’s good evidence that learning and then unquestioningly following a set of instructions will serve you more poorly than interrogating the principles behind the instructions as you learn them so that you can adapt them to other situations. This is particularly true for mechanical skills, but I think it holds true for processes like learning repertoire, too. We need to be able to adapt our approach to the particular material in front of us – that way we make the best of the material according to our unique skills and needs. [2]

FM Alexander would describe this as “keeping in communication with our reason.” He wanted to encourage adaptability:

A proper standard of mental and physical perfection implies an adaptability which makes it easy for a man to turn from one occupation in which a certain set of muscles are employed, to another involving totally different muscular actions.[3]

It isn’t joined-up

When you have two different approaches to something, why keep them separate? I am reminded of AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones speaking about fields of attention. He had had the experience of EITHER noticing what was going on within himself, OR thinking about the external environment. Then he had a breakthrough.

It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress… It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields – one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extrqspection) -= to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.[4]

It suffers from tunnel vision.

In her fantastic book A Mind for Numbers, Prof Barbara Oakley describes a phenomenon called Einstellung. Literally meaning ‘installation’, she describes it as when we ‘install’ a roadblock in our thinking. When faced with a problem or a task, we might be tempted to focus all our effort on just approach to a solution. But it might not be the right one! If we stay committed to the approach we prefer, we are likely to miss other more valuable approaches. [5]

Let’s try for flexibility instead.

Flexibility means:

  • Having a number of different tools and approaches in your toolkit;
  • Being prepared to use different tools according to the material and your goal;
  • Being prepared to change tools if the one you’re using isn’t working, or if the director/conductor tells you to.

I’ve talked before about open-mindedness being one of FM’s highest positive values. Interestingly, one of his definitions of it involves being able to change jobs if necessary; we see a flavour of that in the quote from Man’s Supreme Inheritance earlier in this article. What he is getting at, I think, is having the ability to recognise when things aren’t working, when the circumstances or processes that you are following are not working to help you achieve your goals, and then to change them.

[1] https://bulletproofmusician.com/regular-memorization-works-ok-but-heres-why-deliberate-memorization-is-way-better/

[2] https://bulletproofmusician.com/mindful-learning-day-wife-nearly-failed-driving-test/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.136.

[4] Jones, FP. Freedom to Change, London, Mouritz, p.9.

[4] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., pp.19-20.

Image by njaj from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect. [1]

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf

Do you view performance as process, or as an end?

Pink Noise in performanceWhen preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

Over the last few months, I’ve had a number of students (acting and music) articulate their ideas about an upcoming performance in the following way:

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

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over, and that your job is to deliver a finished product.

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night. But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process? In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

Performance as process

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

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

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.[1]

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

Ideas to promote performance as process

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

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

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?

 

[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Noticing the good: improvement through generating a string of successful experiences

Create a string of successful experiences - a bit like bunting flags!When you practice or perform, do you notice good things you’ve done, or just the things that didn’t go well?

It may not surprise you to know that, in my experience, classical musicians are THE WORST at noticing good things about their performance. They can tell me about intonation problems, about missed position shifts, cracked notes, fluffed semi quavers. Rarely can they tell me about the beautiful phrasing, the breath control, the semi quavers that went by without a hitch. In fact, if I mention the good things I heard, most of the time they didn’t even notice them. It is as if they never even happened!

A lot of musical training is centred around noticing and correcting the things that didn’t work. And don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense to notice our mistakes and to attempt to correct them. But if we notice only the things that went badly, we risk setting ourselves up for a hard time, because we will actually be conspiring with the way our brains operate to work against ourselves.

Why your brain prefers bad things

First of all, our brains are, evolutionarily speaking, really well designed for noticing things that are potentially bad or dangerous. The amygdala – one of the most primitive parts of the brain – acts a bit like a security system to keep us away from danger.[1] Our attentional filter also contains some pretty impressive neuro-chemical systems that are designed to break through whatever we are doing to keep us out of danger. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever been driving on the motorway, and only realised you’d let your mind wander after your brain has jerked you back from drifting into the next lane![2]

Because these systems are neuro-chemically based, and because the brain is a plastic (changeable) thing, by paying more attention to the things that worry us (like intonation problems or fluffed semiquavers) we can actually cause our attentional systems and our amygdala to fire more immediately at errors. We can, in effect, train ourselves to be more anxious!

Memory encoding bear traps

Additionally, when we practice a piece of music, for example, we are trying to create stronger memory traces in our brains so that the information can be retrieved more easily.[3] But what is encoded depends on what we most pay attention to and how strong the emotional connection was (either positive or negative).[4] My memories of the ultrasound department of my local hospital, for example, are primarily of the location of the toilets. I was pregnant and having my 20 week scan, and I had been told to drink water so the scan would be more effective. Increased water consumption and a squashed bladder coloured my perceptions and my memories of the space!

In a similar way, it seems likely that our memories of a piece of music will be coloured by what we paid attention to while we learned it. If all we thought about was the stuff that didn’t work or seemed hard, then that is most likely what we will continue to remember.

Learning to notice good things: creating a string of successful experiences

So the key, then, is to dampen down the effect of the amygdala, and to take advantage of our brain’s abilities in encoding memories by giving it the right stuff to remember. We want to encode positive experiences, not negative ones. And FM Alexander has something to say about how to do this.

A few weeks ago, my lovely colleague Karen Evans and I discussed that one of our favourite sections of FM Alexander’s books is his comment that “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[5] It looks like a simple phrase – because it is. It looks like a truism, too. Obviously, we will be more confident about something if we have success at it. But it really is worth unpacking the significance of Alexander’s comment.

What he is telling us is that, if we want to have confidence in the tasks we perform, we need to have had a string of successful experiences. This string of successful experiences doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves; it gives us a solid foundation of understanding that, because we have completed the task successfully in the past, if we follow the same process, we will have similar success the next time. Our mission, then, is to generate that string of successful experiences.

And we won’t be able to even begin generating that string of successful experiences if we aren’t even able to notice the things that went well. I’ll talk next week about how we begin to structure our practice sessions so that we can generate a string of successful experiences. This week, though, I want to set you one simple task. Each time you practice, can you write down three things that went well? Can you begin each practice session with the intention to notice the good things about your performance, as well as the bad?

Give it a go, and I’ll be back next week with how we can utilise our new-found skills to construct a confidence-building string of successful experiences.

 

[1] Bella Merlin, Facing the Fear, London, Nick Hern Books, 2016, p.20.

[2] Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind, London, Penguin, 2015, p.47.

[3] Barbara Oakley, Mindshift, New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2017, p.34.

[4] Levitin, p.52.

[5] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384.

Image by galzpacha on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change your language, change everything: a neat way to improve your practice approach

change your language and feel more freeHave you ever noticed that the way you describe something changes the way you approach it or experience it? I’ve had that experience recently with my running. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. Prior to the decision, I was ‘going out for a run’ a couple of times a week. But giving myself that goal also encouraged me to change my language. Now I ‘go training’.

The change in terminology changed my approach to the running. I now run more regularly (generally 4 times a week), and with a greater commitment and intensity. I find that I am more prepared to push myself to try a little harder to get up the steep hills in my park, and I’m more committed to keeping going. As a result, I am now able to run further and faster. By changing my language use, I changed my attitude and created an improvement in my fitness.

Change your language; change your flexibility

If you change your language, you change the way you conceptualise the thing you are describing. If you change the concept, you can improve the use.

Regularly with beginning students, I find that they have very little range of motion in their necks – they can’t move their head very far upwards or downwards. When I ask what their neck is for, these students most often reply, ‘to hold my head on’. When I explain the structure of their neck (7 cervical vertebrae, lots of muscles, etc.), and ask them again what they think their neck might be for, they generally change their description to ‘moving my head’. And suddenly the range of motion of their neck frees up markedly!

But this isn’t always true: a person can say that they are, for example, happy with their body shape but not believe it, and not act as if it is true. A person can say that they are writing a novel, and even decide to describe themselves as a writer, yet fail to to do any writing. So when does the change of description create the change in concept, and when does it not?

It’s a phenomenon that FM Alexander understood. Back in 1910 he stated that “A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”[1] It’s one of my all-time favourite sections of Alexander’s work, because he clearly talks about the power behind the changed point of view – the reasoning that goes with it. I didn’t just change my language use when I started to ‘go training’; I had a goal and motivation behind the language. My students don’t just change the range of motion of their necks; they gain an understanding of the structure of their neck which leads them to alter their description.

So how can we use this in our music practice?

Change your language; change the music

Dr Noa Kageyama in his most recent blog discussed something that I’ve been working on with my music students for a while now – the importance of verbalisation. Dr Kageyama recalled Leon Fleischer asking musicians to clearly explain what their musical intent was for a particular passage they were playing. “He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want.”[2]

My students have found the same. One violin student, for example, was having trouble with the intonation and phrasing on a piece by Grieg. After I asked him to explain exactly what he was trying to achieve, his playing of the passage improved substantially. I had encouraged my violin student to ‘own’ the concept behind the musical passage by encouraging him to put it into words.

So if you are struggling with a particular passage, try explaining to yourself (or to a friend) what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Or if you find you have labelled a particular passage ‘difficult’, try to explain to yourself what is difficult about the passage, and then how the passage fits into the structure of what is around it. By doing this, you’ll have changed (or at least improved) your concept of the passage in question. And if you change your language, you open yourself up to new opportunities for discovery and improvement

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.44.

[2] http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/a-technique-for-finding-your-car-keys-faster-that-might-also-be-applicable-in-the-practice-room/

Image by dan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change your language, change everything: a neat way to improve your practice approach

change your language and feel more freeHave you ever noticed that the way you describe something changes the way you approach it or experience it? I’ve had that experience recently with my running. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. Prior to the decision, I was ‘going out for a run’ a couple of times a week. But giving myself that goal also encouraged me to change my language. Now I ‘go training’.

The change in terminology changed my approach to the running. I now run more regularly (generally 4 times a week), and with a greater commitment and intensity. I find that I am more prepared to push myself to try a little harder to get up the steep hills in my park, and I’m more committed to keeping going. As a result, I am now able to run further and faster. By changing my language use, I changed my attitude and created an improvement in my fitness.

Change your language; change your flexibility

If you change your language, you change the way you conceptualise the thing you are describing. If you change the concept, you can improve the use.

Regularly with beginning students, I find that they have very little range of motion in their necks – they can’t move their head very far upwards or downwards. When I ask what their neck is for, these students most often reply, ‘to hold my head on’. When I explain the structure of their neck (7 cervical vertebrae, lots of muscles, etc.), and ask them again what they think their neck might be for, they generally change their description to ‘moving my head’. And suddenly the range of motion of their neck frees up markedly!

But this isn’t always true: a person can say that they are, for example, happy with their body shape but not believe it, and not act as if it is true. A person can say that they are writing a novel, and even decide to describe themselves as a writer, yet fail to to do any writing. So when does the change of description create the change in concept, and when does it not?

It’s a phenomenon that FM Alexander understood. Back in 1910 he stated that “A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”[1] It’s one of my all-time favourite sections of Alexander’s work, because he clearly talks about the power behind the changed point of view – the reasoning that goes with it. I didn’t just change my language use when I started to ‘go training’; I had a goal and motivation behind the language. My students don’t just change the range of motion of their necks; they gain an understanding of the structure of their neck which leads them to alter their description.

So how can we use this in our music practice?

Change your language; change the music

Dr Noa Kageyama in his most recent blog discussed something that I’ve been working on with my music students for a while now – the importance of verbalisation. Dr Kageyama recalled Leon Fleischer asking musicians to clearly explain what their musical intent was for a particular passage they were playing. “He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want.”[2]

My students have found the same. One violin student, for example, was having trouble with the intonation and phrasing on a piece by Grieg. After I asked him to explain exactly what he was trying to achieve, his playing of the passage improved substantially. I had encouraged my violin student to ‘own’ the concept behind the musical passage by encouraging him to put it into words.

So if you are struggling with a particular passage, try explaining to yourself (or to a friend) what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Or if you find you have labelled a particular passage ‘difficult’, try to explain to yourself what is difficult about the passage, and then how the passage fits into the structure of what is around it. By doing this, you’ll have changed (or at least improved) your concept of the passage in question. And if you change your language, you open yourself up to new opportunities for discovery and improvement

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.44.

[2] http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/a-technique-for-finding-your-car-keys-faster-that-might-also-be-applicable-in-the-practice-room/

Image by dan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

Are you in a musical rut? Do you ever find yourself drifting through the same pieces each time you practice? Do you struggle to find the motivation to try something new or difficult?

It can be very tricky to keep momentum, particularly as a solo performer, and especially as an amateur musician. Faced with the choice between doing hard work learning (potentially challenging) new material, or spending time refining something we already know, many of us will choose the latter option. It saves us the pain and trouble of learning the new piece, and we have the instant gratification of improvement. We feel like we have achieved something, even if we secretly know that we haven’t really achieved very much at all.

There are good reasons why we avoid the harder task. Engineering professor and learning expert Barbara Oakley reminds us that “we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.”[1] In her book A Mind for Numbers she recounts a medical imaging study of mathphobes. When the math phobic subjects thought about doing maths problems, the pain centres of their brains lit up. But when they actually started working on the problems, the pain went away. In other words, the anticipation of doing the thing we find uncomfortable is actually painful! But if we get on and do the task, the pain goes away and we are open to the rewards of our labours.

This ‘inertia of mind’ is nothing new: FM Alexander wrote about it in 1910. He reminded us that most people live very narrow lives, doing and thinking the same things every day. But he also reassured his readers that once this inertia of mind is overcome, “it is astonishing how easily [the brain] may be directed.”[2]

So what should we do to get out of our musical rut? My suggestion to you today is to try setting a goal or a deadline for yourself – something that is public, time limited, and just a little bit outside your comfort zone.

Doing the slightly scary…

Setting a slightly scary new goal (like a new performance, or one with a new partner, or with brand new music) has the following benefits:

Deadlines – a performance gives you a deadline to work to
Accountability – other people will know about what you’re doing, so you can’t procrastinate
Novelty – humans like things that are new and shiny. New and shiny goals are more attractive, so we are more likely to spend time on them.
Uncertainty – a bit of uncertainty is good. It’s good to occasionally find oneself doing things that might not work – as FM said, “I could do no harm by making the experiment…”[3]

It’s a tactic I am currently using myself. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. It has had an immediate impact upon the consistency and intensity of my training runs, even though the event in in late September, and as I write it is only early May!

Similarly, my son isn’t particularly ready for his cello exam. But we decided to book for an earlier date rather than waiting a couple of months, as he and I agreed that he will be more motivated by the earlier deadline. We both think that he’ll just get bored if he has the extra time!

But only slightly scary!

But make sure that you put enough safety features in place so that you aren’t paralysed by fear. For example, when I was recovering from stage fright, an important step was playing a solo piece in performance. I pushed myself by picking a stupidly difficult piece (the first movement of the Bach Partita? Please!), but I made sure that I picked a small venue where it wouldn’t matter if I messed up, and I had my consort friends around for support. I also gave myself plenty of time to prepare.

So if you’re stuck in a musical rut, see if you can find a way to create a goal for yourself: a new piece, a new performance, or a new collaboration. Make your new goal interesting, time sensitive if possible, and just a little bit scary. And don’t forget: the anticipation will be painful, but once you get stuck in, the discomfort goes away. Then you just have fun.

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, New York, Penguin, 2014, pp84-5.
[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.67.
[3] Alexander FM., The Use of the Self, IRDEAT, p.413.

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

Are you in a musical rut? Do you ever find yourself drifting through the same pieces each time you practice? Do you struggle to find the motivation to try something new or difficult?

It can be very tricky to keep momentum, particularly as a solo performer, and especially as an amateur musician. Faced with the choice between doing hard work learning (potentially challenging) new material, or spending time refining something we already know, many of us will choose the latter option. It saves us the pain and trouble of learning the new piece, and we have the instant gratification of improvement. We feel like we have achieved something, even if we secretly know that we haven’t really achieved very much at all.

There are good reasons why we avoid the harder task. Engineering professor and learning expert Barbara Oakley reminds us that “we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.”[1] In her book A Mind for Numbers she recounts a medical imaging study of mathphobes. When the math phobic subjects thought about doing maths problems, the pain centres of their brains lit up. But when they actually started working on the problems, the pain went away. In other words, the anticipation of doing the thing we find uncomfortable is actually painful! But if we get on and do the task, the pain goes away and we are open to the rewards of our labours.

This ‘inertia of mind’ is nothing new: FM Alexander wrote about it in 1910. He reminded us that most people live very narrow lives, doing and thinking the same things every day. But he also reassured his readers that once this inertia of mind is overcome, “it is astonishing how easily [the brain] may be directed.”[2]

So what should we do to get out of our musical rut? My suggestion to you today is to try setting a goal or a deadline for yourself – something that is public, time limited, and just a little bit outside your comfort zone.

Doing the slightly scary…

Setting a slightly scary new goal (like a new performance, or one with a new partner, or with brand new music) has the following benefits:

Deadlines – a performance gives you a deadline to work to
Accountability – other people will know about what you’re doing, so you can’t procrastinate
Novelty – humans like things that are new and shiny. New and shiny goals are more attractive, so we are more likely to spend time on them.
Uncertainty – a bit of uncertainty is good. It’s good to occasionally find oneself doing things that might not work – as FM said, “I could do no harm by making the experiment…”[3]

It’s a tactic I am currently using myself. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. It has had an immediate impact upon the consistency and intensity of my training runs, even though the event in in late September, and as I write it is only early May!

Similarly, my son isn’t particularly ready for his cello exam. But we decided to book for an earlier date rather than waiting a couple of months, as he and I agreed that he will be more motivated by the earlier deadline. We both think that he’ll just get bored if he has the extra time!

But only slightly scary!

But make sure that you put enough safety features in place so that you aren’t paralysed by fear. For example, when I was recovering from stage fright, an important step was playing a solo piece in performance. I pushed myself by picking a stupidly difficult piece (the first movement of the Bach Partita? Please!), but I made sure that I picked a small venue where it wouldn’t matter if I messed up, and I had my consort friends around for support. I also gave myself plenty of time to prepare.

So if you’re stuck in a musical rut, see if you can find a way to create a goal for yourself: a new piece, a new performance, or a new collaboration. Make your new goal interesting, time sensitive if possible, and just a little bit scary. And don’t forget: the anticipation will be painful, but once you get stuck in, the discomfort goes away. Then you just have fun.

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, New York, Penguin, 2014, pp84-5.
[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.67.
[3] Alexander FM., The Use of the Self, IRDEAT, p.413.