The talent myth: what it really takes to be an ‘overnight success’

Steve Martin worked hard and long to be an overnight successIf you’re in the UK, you may have been watching the amazing young people performing in the BBC Young Musician 2018 competition. Or possibly you’ve watched young people achieving amazing things in competitions like the Commonwealth Games. Very often you’ll hear people talk about how talented these young people are; the term ‘natural talent’ gets bandied around in sporting circles very frequently. But if talent doesn’t really exist (as many writers discuss), then what is the key to achievement? What does it take to be an ‘overnight success’?

It’s not just about the hours

Pretty much everyone involved in sports or performance has heard about the 10 000 hours rule. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, very simply put it puts forward the idea that to  achieve mastery in a skill one needs to do 10 000 hours of practice. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Anyone who has seen a child mindlessly playing through a Bach Minuet over and over with exactly the same mistakes every time knows that just doing the hours mindlessly isn’t enough. We need to do deliberate practice – something that actually deals with the mistakes and moves us forward. So what is it that makes a success from an also-ran?

I’ve been reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin became a huge name in comedy in the mid-seventies, and it would be tempting to think that his talent sprang fully-formed onto the TV screen. However, in his autobiography Martin gives a brilliant description of the sheer quantity of work that it took to be an overnight success.

There are two key principles that led to Martin’s eventual success, and they mirror principles FM Alexander discussed in his work: analysis; and evaluation.

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

Martin certainly did the hours – he started working at Disneyland selling programmes at age 10! But he didn’t just sell programmes. He watched the man who did rope tricks, and learned them well enough to become an assistant. He frequented the magic shop, started working there, and learned the tricks so well that he got occasional work as a magician. And he spent time in the auditorium watching the comedians and analysing their timing. Note that the young Martin didn’t just copy the jokes. He worked to understand how the professionals got their results – he tried to learn the principles behind the laughs.[1]

FM Alexander would have commended the young Martin’s efforts. He wrote:

To achieve these results they must study and master the same principles, but they could never reproduce them by a series of imitative acts divorced from knowledge of the processes involved and skill in using these processes. [2]

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

However, the teenage Martin didn’t content himself with just analysing the efforts of others. He also evaluate his own performance. In his book he shares an example page of the performance notes he used to write after every performance. 

“I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or the Kiwanis Club. “Excellent!” or “Big laugh!” or “Quiet,” I would write … then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.” [3]

By doing this kind of work, Martin mirrored the kind of evaluation that Alexander himself undertook when trying to solve his vocal problems. FM didn’t just work on a trial-by-error basis. In Evolution of a Technique he gives a clear description of how he made hypotheses, tested them, and then evaluated the results in order to refine his ideas.

And Martin, like FM Alexander, kept working and refining over a long period of time: “My act was eclectic, and it took ten more years for me to make sense of it.”[4] So time IS important, but it isn’t the only, or even the primary factor. If we want to be an ‘overnight success’, we have to be prepared to do the long hours not of mindless repetition, but of analysis and evaluation. Those are the skills that we need to hone if we truly want to succeed.

[1]Martin, S., Born Standing Up, London, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p.36.

[2]Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.121.

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

[4] ibid., pp.65-6.

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from pixabay.com

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

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

How to practice alexander technique (or anything)

How to practice with Alexander Technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which student improves fastest?

Which student are you?

How to practice is about quality.

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

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

How to practice – the steps.

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

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

And don’t forget to have fun!

 

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

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

Why practice is important, and how to do it well

Practice is one of those concepts that everyone knows is important, but most of us feel we don’t do well. I’ve written about this issue before. It’s partly that we haven’t been taught how to do it properly. If we’re honest, though, often we also struggle with the discipline of it: it can feel so difficult to commit to devoting time to something that we fear may be a little like drudgery.

So…

Here’s a little slideshow I made that speaks to the issue of practice: it’s a short introduction to why practice is important, and a couple of ideas on how to do it well.

https://www.haikudeck.com/practice-practice-practice-education-presentation-ikaS1iUUIY

Enjoy. 🙂

Don’t copy me! – why imitation can be a poor improvement strategy

broken mirror

Imitation is a powerful force in teaching – any music teacher or sports coach will agree. But is it a force for good? FM Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, clearly was not convinced of its efficacy. He even reportedly told his teacher trainees, “Don’t copy me!” So what’s the problem with imitation?

Imitation in practice

Last week I took my son, a budding classical guitarist, to see the guitar sensation Milos Karadaglic in concert. It was well worth it, particularly to see a musician working with such freedom and gracefulness of movement and expression.

My son was very impressed. He left the concert venue clutching a Milos CD and harbouring a determination to play as well as him. The next day he listened to the CD multiple times, and then got out his guitar to do some practice. And he carefully turned his footstool round the wrong way.

Now, if you don’t know anything about classical guitar, let me explain. The player rests their foot (usually the left) on a footstool to help hold the guitar. And it is usually positioned sloping towards the player. Milos had his footstool sloping away from him. My son wants to be just like Milos, so he turned his footstool around.

Now, it’s just a small example, but it demonstrates very clearly the transactions behind imitation.

Imitation truths

  1. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. We imitate the people we admire. We want to be just like them.
  2. Very often the things the make the imitated person great are not easily imitated. My son cannot instantly copy Milos’ work ethic, his years of practice. These things are not visible, and take time and discipline to copy. So the likelihood is that they won’t be. We copy what we can easily see, not what makes the great artist great.
  3. What we see are the idiosyncrasies and foibles, and these aren’t what made the person great (most of the time). FM Alexander put it like this:“Most of us are aware that if a pupil in some art is sent to watch a great artist… the pupil is almost invariably more impressed by some characteristics of the artist that may be classed as faults than by his ‘better parts’.
    … the characteristics may be faults which the genius of the particular artist enables him to defy. It is possible that the artist succeeds in spite of them rather than because of them.” (CCC, p.364)
    Was Glen Gould a great pianist because he slumped around on a low piano stool and grunted a lot? Or was it because he worked really hard? Obviously the latter. But the visual idiosyncrasies are easier to copy. Luckily for me and my son, Milos only turns his footstool around!

We are not the same as our heroes. This is another really important factor that makes imitation dangerous, according to FM Alexander. We tend to believe that if we see a teacher or a great artist do an activity in a particular way, that it is possible for us to copy them accurately. But FM says this is a delusion. (UoS, p.418) We are not the same as our teachers – we have subtly different physiques, different experiences, different ideas and beliefs. We are different psycho-physical beings. We could not copy our teachers exactly unless we were able to copy their entire general use of themselves!

Moving beyond imitation

So how are we to proceed? If we can’t copy our teachers, what can we do?
Well, I suggest we do what FM wanted his teacher trainees to do: watch closely what he did, and look to the reasons and principles behind why he was doing what he was doing. Once we understand the reasoning behind what our teachers and coaches do, we can have a go at applying it to our own practice.

In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you understand clearly the goal of the activity.
  2. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind why your teacher or coach does the activity in the way they do.
  3. Attempt to apply this reasoning process in your own attempts at the activity.
  4. Get feedback from your teacher or coach on how well you are doing.

Give it a go, and let me know how it turns out.

*All quotes and page references are from the Irdeat complete edition of Alexander’s books. If you want more information on the books, please contact me.
Image by Luigi Diamanti, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How do good artists get so good? The secret of going from good to great performance.

petri_hannibal_Fotor

How do really great performers get so good? And can we emulate them in any degree at all? Is it, in short, possible to go from good to great performance?

Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood hero, recorder player Michala Petri, perform with lutenist Lars Hannibal here in Bristol. At the end of a truly sparkling first half, the audience spilled out of the performance space and spent the interval sipping wine and wondering at what we’d just seen. A couple of things really stood out for us:

  • She played the entire first half from memory.
  • She barely moved anything other than her fingers (and they moved very fast indeed!), and yet was utterly mesmerising.

And the most common question I heard during the interval? “How does she DO that?!”

 

How she does it, step 1: Practice

Michala Petri has been performing for around 40 years – she gave her first concert at age 11. She’s pretty experienced. She’s done a lot of hours in the practice room.

So how does she remember all that music? She’s practised it! I suspect that she’s played some of those works for at least 20 years. After that time, I suspect that memorising isn’t really an issue.

It also strikes me that Ms Petri’s experience of playing those pieces of music is going to be completely different to the experience I have when/if I play them. Her relationship with the music goes far beyond needing to know what note or phrase is coming next. Through familiarity and close study, she has been able to cultivate such an in-depth knowledge of each piece that even the most difficult piece of Bach has a clear sense of line and purpose.

Put more simply, what takes Ms Petri from good to great performance is not remembering the notes, but her ability to move to a completely different level of relationship with the notes as part of a holistic structure.*

What would happen if we, whatever our field of expertise, were able to do sufficient work that our next performance moved to the level beyond ‘remembering the notes’?

 

How she does it, step 2: Concentration

More than just knowing the piece, however, Ms Petri is able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. She does this by maintaining an absolute focus on what she needs to do to communicate. As FM Alexander said,

We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention. By use this power develops…**

Concentration is the ability to stick with the process you’ve designed, and not to allow your focus to waver. What would happen if you brought that level of attention to your next presentation or performance?

 

How she does it, step 3: do only what you have to

Because Ms Petri has done the practice and the study, because she has lived with each piece of music for a long time, she has developed clear ideas about what she needs to do to communicate the piece to the audience. So she does those things.

And only those things.

That’s why she doesn’t move much – she doesn’t need to. Her fingers and her lungs are doing most of the physical work. Any other movement would run the risk of disturbing them, so she doesn’t indulge in any. This isn’t to say that she looked rooted to the spot. She could have moved as much as she wanted. She just didn’t want to.

What would happen if, in your next performance or presentation, you did only what you believed necessary to achieve your purpose?

Going from good to great performance isn’t without effort, but the steps are clear. Do the work and the study. Take it up with your whole mind, both in rehearsal and in performance. And only do what you need to do.

Simple steps. A world of experimentation and improvement awaits.

 

* Interestingly, the only times she resorted to sheet music were when she was playing very new works that had only been written a couple of years previously. She’d only known them for a couple of years – they hadn’t reached the level of knowledge for playing from memory yet!
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete edition, pp.66-67.
Picture of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal by Tom Barnard.