The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!

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I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Feeling right, or having success… Which will you choose?

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I have been having a real battle in my tennis lessons lately. My struggle is with my backhand. My teacher has given me very clear instructions on the technique of how to hit a good backhand stroke. When I follow her instructions, I have success.

But do I always follow her instructions?

Nup.

Because, you see, sometimes I decide that I know better. The technique that she has taught me works… but it doesn’t feel right. It feels, well, odd, and new, and… Wrong, frankly. And because it doesn’t feel right, more often than not I decide to go my own way, and do what feels right to me.

And the resulting shot stinks.

But it isn’t just me that has this experience. One of my students recently had a very clear choice between walking in the way that she had decided was most efficient and anatomically correct (but which made her feel like she was sticking her rear end out like a duck), or walking in her usual way and putting up with her lower back aching.

According to FM Alexander, it all comes down to a simple choice.* When I play tennis, I can either go about things in my old usual way and get the same crummy results that I always have, or I can actually listen to my teacher and wholeheartedly follow her instructions. My student can walk in the old achey way, or put her trust in the new way she has decided is best for her purpose.

Even when it feels odd, or wrong.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
Even when I think I probably look like an idiot.
Even if she feels like a duck.

So last week I challenged you to pick an activity and think about what you would actually need to do to complete the activity. This week my challenge to you is to keep refining your plan in odd moments through the day, but to go one step further. Every so often, maybe once a day, put your plan into action. It may feel great. It may feel odd. It might not feel of anything at all. Just give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete edition, p.299f.
Image by Tina Phillips www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Losing “I can’t” – the importance of mental attitude in performance

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When I teach Alexander Technique, I typically encourage students to come in with a activity they’d like to work on. It could be anything from sitting, to running, to juggling, or to using the pedal on a sewing machine. When I ask them why they want to look at their activity in class, they typically use one of the phrases:

  • I’m having trouble with x.[insert activity here]
  • I can’t play this passage.
  • It could have been better.
  • I’m okay up to this point, but then it all goes wrong.
  • I don’t breathe properly.
  • I always run out of air before the end.
  • I can’t hit that note.
  • I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

And when my students say their variation on these phrases, a line or two by FM Alexander runs through my mind: “when…we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … He often finds an enormous difficulty in altering some trifling habit of thought that stands between him and the benefit he clearly expects.” *

FM is pointing us towards an important truth. So often, the way we think about a problem is not only a part of the problem, but actually stands between us and the change of attitude and perspective necessary to find a solution. Or, to quote Stephen Covey, the way we see the problem is the problem.”

So next time you find yourself saying a variant on the above statements, try to find a new and more positive way of articulating the same thing:

  • I want to achieve x, but haven’t yet worked out how to do it.
  • I don’t yet play this passage the way I envisage it.
  • It hasn’t reached my highest standard, but there was improvement.
  • I haven’t managed to continue my thinking into this part [of the piece/action] yet.
  • I’m not sure how the breathing mechanism works.
  • There’s a reason why I run out of air, but I haven’t worked it out yet.
  • I don’t know why that note doesn’t come out right yet.
  • My current standard of performance hasn’t yet achieved the high standard I’ve set myself.

Can you see how these are more open? They either acknowledge the progress already made, or provide openings that will help us to question why things aren’t working out yet.

And the key word is YET. Alter those trifling habits of thought, follow the process of questioning and exploring, and good things will happen.

Let me know how you are going to restate your difficulties in the comments. Or if you’re adept at doing this already, let me know what benefits you’ve experienced. The more evidence that it works, the more people will want to give it a go!

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat edition, p.52.
Photo by Gordon Plant. 

 

 

Simple Steps to Successful Music Practice with Alexander Technique

This post is about why, as a musician, I have had trouble with the concept of practice; about wise words on the subject from FM Alexander and a sports psychologist, and some steps I’m trialling to improve my practice technique.

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I started playing recorder when I was six. I loved it right from the start, but I was very inconsistent in my practice regime. To be blunt, I didn’t have one. I got by on a bit of natural talent (a very little bit), luck, and the odd guilt-provoked practice binge session. It was not a great way to get by!

The discipline of practice has been fascinating to me ever since. How do other people do it? What are they actually doing? Do long hours in front of the music stand really make a difference in and of themselves? It was, therefore, with some excitement that I read an article by a sports/music psychologist Dr Noa Kageyama entitled ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’ What fascinated me was that Dr Kageyama took some pains to tease out exactly what it is that we are doing when we practice.

You will probably laugh when I tell you that it was a major realisation to me the day I realised that practice is actually a skill. It is something that needs to be done systematically and with a degree of reasoning and planning to be successful.

This is revelatory because I wasn’t taught that way. As a child learning how to play, I was told to practice, but wasn’t taught how to do it. It was just something that you did (or in my case, did as little as I could get away with!) Therefore I did it ineffectually.

In The Use of the Self, FM Alexander says that ‘willing to do’ something is all very well, but if you are directing your energy in the wrong direction, applying exertion and willpower will only speed you further along the wrong path.*

This was certainly the case with me. Because I didn’t know how to practice, I made fundamental errors, like going back to the beginning of a piece every time I made a mistake. The result was that I knew the beginnings of my music really well, but not the endings! Playing also became a stressful activity, because the playing of the music would get harder and harder and more stressful as I went along. It is very stressful beginning a piece of music when you don’t know if you are going to be able to make it through to the end.

 

If you practice poorly or with little strategy, you are likely to store up problems for yourself in the long run.

The solution? Teach people how to practice.

This certainly wasn’t done when I was a kid. Based on my experiences of my son’s music lessons, I am not convinced the situation has changed much. I don’t have any information, sadly, on the current state of pedagogy for childhood music education, and what it has to say about the issue of practice. (If you know anything, PLEASE contact me!) But from my reading so far, I can give these tips for the adults. They’re things that I’m experimenting with at the moment.

1.Goals. Have a goal for each practice session.

2. Keep it short. Dame Nellie Melba said beginning singers should only spend 10 minutes actually singing at any one time. I think that is really good advice for any musician who is grappling with the concept of how to practice. Even 10 minutes can be a long time to devote one’s whole mind to a task.

3. Practice without the instrument. Look at the music. Listen to other people play it. Clap the rhythms. Write out the words. Say them as poetry. Experiment!

4.  Do it regularly. Do some every day. Equally, don’t beat yourself up if there is a day where you can’t. Julia Cameron suggests making a deal with yourself to do a certain number of days out of the week. I try for 5 days out of seven.

Do you have any other tips? Tell me about them!

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.440.
Image by nuchylee from freedigitalphotos.net

Steps to conquer stage fright: permission to fail

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. Last week, we talked about the danger of focusing on results.

 

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The other day I read a fantastic blog post by one of my favourite writers, Sarah Duncan. She was advising the readers of her blog to give themselves permission to write rubbish. Sarah wrote:

“I tell students to write rubbish because the worst bit of rubbishy writing on the page is worth more than the most perfect bit of prose stuck in your head. Stuff on the page can be improved, developed, tweaked,given colour and life and energy and style. Stuff in your head is – well, stuff in your head. It can’t be read by anyone.”

I think there are two important points to draw out of this.

  1. To do something well, you have to do it a lot. A lot. And you have to be prepared for some of what you do to be rubbish. There is no point waiting around for perfect inspiration to strike! I wrote about the importance of practice here.
  2. You have to give yourself permission to fail. It is important to allow yourself to be bad at something.

Reasons to be rubbish

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the greatest musicians and artists started off at the beginning. And part of being at the beginning is making mistakes.
  2. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Robert Kiyosaki writes about this very effectively in his book If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t Go to School.
  3. Perfection paralyses creativity. If you wait for perfection before you put the sentence on the page (or the brush on the canvas), you’ll be consigning yourself to a potentially angst-ridden experience.

FM Alexander remarked in 1923 upon the fact that our response to stimuli is in part determined by our psycho-physical condition. He reminds us that “a man’s conception of his present or future financial condition in life is different when he is … in a good and happy ‘frame of mind’, from what it is when he has a ‘grouch’.”*  And Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would tell us that our frame of mind is a decision we have made based upon a thought process. (See Burns’ Feeling Good)

Therefore, making a different decision about how we are going to respond to the concept of failure is actually really important. Nobody particularly wants to fail. So we mentally (and possibly physically) tense up in preparation. It is hard to be creative and perform well when tense.

So if we give ourselves permission to fail, we on’t merely take pressure off ourselves. We may even give ourselves the freedom to perform better.

But what about the performance? I can’t give a bad Groom’s speech!

It’s true that sometimes the rubber has to hit the road. You have to be ready. But that’s why it’s a great idea to give yourself lots of trials runs, having a go in low-risk situations where it is easier to allow yourself to fail. If you have to give a speech, join Toastmasters and get some practice there. If you’re a musician, find a group to play with informally. Play in small competitions. Find places to try things out and be rubbish. Then you’ll be more prepared when you’re in the performance where it has to ‘count’.

Will you give yourself permission to fail?

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.240.

Steps to conquer stage fright: stop focusing on results

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. This week, we talk about the danger of focusing on results.

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I have a number of students who are actors or musicians. They come to me typically because they feel that there is something that is holding them back from performing with the ease and freedom that they desire. A typical lesson goes something like this:

[student plays/performs brilliantly.]

Me:      How did you do?
Student: Okay, I guess.
Me:      What made it okay?
Student: Well, I didn’t hit that note quite the way I wanted, and this phrase didn’t quite work, and I think I could have out more expression into the piece, and my tone wasn’t as good as it could have been…
Me: Hm. But apart from those things, how did you do?
[Student looks puzzled.]
Me: Did you successfully carry out your plan?
Student: Ummm…

 

Now, the point here isn’t that the student is being hard on themselves. (They are, by the way.) The point isn’t particularly that they are attuned only to notice negative things about their performance. (Though this is a common problem with performers.)

The problem here is that the student is focused on the negative results. They are listening to the results – the by-product – of a process. When I ask about the process they were using to get their results, they just look puzzled.

If you are thinking and worrying and focusing on the way the performance sounds while you are in the middle of performing, you are focusing on something that has already happened. It is gone. You have no control over it any more. But if you’re thinking about the sound that is already out there, I can pretty much guarantee there’s one thing that you’re not thinking about.

The process that leads to the sound.

In other words, once you start judging your performance while you’re doing it, you effectively give up control over everything that is to come. And I hope you’ll agree with me that this doesn’t sound like a great idea.

So try keeping your mind on what is useful: your plan and your process. Spend the time working out what you want to achieve, and then focus on that. Block your ears, if you have to, just so that you get a sense of what it might be like to give up the addiction to mid-performance criticism.

Comfortingly, FM Alexander says this:

“the individual comes to rely upon his “means-whereby,” and does not become disturbed by wondering whether the activities concerned will be right or wrong. Why should he, seeing that the confidence with which he proceeds with his task is a confidence born of experiences…”

If we keep working on the process, results will come, and we won’t need to worry about them or listen out for them, because we’ll know that they are there. What a wonderful comforting thought.

Do you keep your mind on the process, or does your inner critic drown out your plan? Tell me about it in the comments.

Photograph by Kevin Leighton.

Steps to conquer stage fright: give yourself time

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. Last week, we examined how our general state of wellbeing (use of ourselves) affects our performance.

This week, we’re giving ourselves time.

Time

Today in my singing lesson, I was reminded of what is possibly the greatest luxury any performer can give themselves.

Time.

Time is a slippery customer. It can seem to move so quickly. It can feel as though it is in someone else’s control. When I asked my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama what they found hardest about doing auditions, feeling rushed came high on the list. My students felt as though they were not able to give themselves the time and space to give the calibre of performance they were capable of giving.

Note this: they felt as though they couldn’t give themselves time.

No one said they couldn’t. No one told them not to take a second to breathe. It was a choice that they made in reaction to the given circumstances (such as the general atmosphere in the room).

Allowing oneself a moment to stop is a fundamental tool within the Alexander Technique. When FM was trying to solve his vocal hoarseness, he realised that:

“if ever I was to be able to change my habitual use … it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving a stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”*

FM realised that if he didn’t give himself this pause, he was far more likely to speak using his body in the more habitual way that caused the hoarseness. If he received the stimulus but refused to do anything immediately in response, he gave himself the chance to put his new reasoned process into action.

So give yourself time.

Stand up. Pause. Then begin the speech.

Finish the sentence. Let it be finished. Then start the next.

Finish the musical phrase. Stop the breath. Allow the body to breathe in. Then sing.

If you stop, you give yourself a priceless gift: the chance to choose what happens next. So what will you choose?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p. 424.
Image by Just2shutter from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: general wellbeing matters

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Then we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Last week, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. This week, we’ll examine how our general state of wellbeing (use of ourselves) affects our performance.

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I am a big fan of snooker, and one of the highlights of my year is the Snooker World Championships – 17 days of non-stop snooker action. I think many snooker fans will agree that one of the great excitements of the past few years has been the anticipation of seeing how player Ronnie O’Sullivan is going to fare in the tournament.

Ronnie is generally acknowledged to be the most naturally gifted player to ever pick up a snooker cue. But he is also widely acknowledged to have not achieved as many tournament wins as his prodigious talent would have suggested he might. Critics suggest that O’Sullivan’s temperamental streak leads to a lack of confidence.*

When Ronnie O’Sullivan won his first World Championship in 2001, part of his strategy for maintaining his focus through the long matches was by working on his general fitness. He took up running, and watched his diet and his sleep patterns carefully. He found that taking care of himself more generally led to a change in attitude at the snooker table.**

 

Why your general use/wellbeing matters.

FM Alexander wouldn’t have been surprised that Ronnie’s snooker abilities improved when he took care of his general wellbeing. FM wrote:

“the success of any particular process … must depend, primarily, on the general condition of psycho-physical development and control present…”

And he goes on:

“By chance or good luck a man may make a good stroke without having attained to a good standard in the general use of himself, but he can never be reasonably certain of repeating it, and the experiences associated with this state of uncertainty do not make for the growth of confidence.”***

In other words, if we want to be good at playing flute, or singing, or speaking in public, we need to pay attention to what we do with our minds and bodies more generally. If we are generally predisposed, as Ronnie O’Sullivan seems to be, to being hypercritical of ourselves, then that tendency will be exacerbated in our specific activity. If we are generally inclined to keep our shoulder muscles tense, then I can confidently predict that we’ll have them extra-tight just before we make that big speech.

This means that we can’t just think of conquering our stage fright when we’re performing. It is a whole-life process of change.

Here are a couple of questions that might get you started on the journey to improving your general psycho-physical condition.

  • What attitude do you have to life generally? Ae you a relaxed individual, or are you a little on the anxious side?
  • Think about the areas of your body that are most tense before you perform. Take a mental check on them now. How relaxed (or not) are they ordinarily?

Today, how can you move beyond your usual state of being?

 

* See the Wikipedia entry on Ronnie for references.
** He talks about this at length in his autobiography, Ronnie: The Autobiography of Ronnie O’Sullivan (co-authored with Simon Hattenstone, Orion, 2004).
*** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.341. 

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: Doing the work

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Last week, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. This week, we’re looking at the importance of knowing what you’re doing.

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Some of you may know that I’ve been in Australia for the past few weeks. Tonight on the news, there was a report about the preparations of Australia’s leading artistic gymnast Lauren Mitchell for the 2012 Olympics. After winning gold medals at the 2010 World Championships, Mitchell said she immediately began preparing her routines for London 2012.

She has been working on them exclusively ever since.

Sometimes we forget the levels of training and dedication that experts devote to their pursuits. In order to win a gold medal, Lauren Mitchell is working every day to make sure that she knows every split second of the routines she will perform later this year. And I am willing to bet that she is working on two different fronts:

  1. The specifics of each routine – the protocols for each move she is going to make. FM Alexander would call this the “means-whereby.”
  2. Her general condition, or the means whereby Miss Mitchell uses her body. (Don’t worry if the distinction seems tricky – this bit is for the Alexander teachers out there!)

Today I want to talk about the specifics – we’ll save the more general for next week.

If there is one lesson to take from Lauren Mitchell, it is this. Excellence takes work. If we want to be good at something, we need to do the work. For Miss Mitchell, it means breaking down her routines into split seconds, rehearsing each and every movement. It means making sure that she knows every movement so well that she barely needs to think about them at all.

So if I am to perform a new piece of music, I should know every note intimately. If I am giving an after-dinner speech, I should know not just every joke, but the position of every comma.

How well do you know the piece you are about to perform? What difference does it make to your nerves when you know it really well? Let me know in the comments.

 

*In the chapter I am looking at from Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, ‘Uncontrolled Emotions and Fixed Prejudices’, you will see that FM uses both ways of writing the words ‘means whereby’, and he seems to make a clear distinction between the two uses. See Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.341-2.

 

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: How to banish panic

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Last week, we talked about the fear factor. This week, we’re talking about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic.

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Last week I talked a little about the fear symptoms we experience when we’re about to perform. I explained that many of the symptoms that we experience are the result of hormonal ‘fight or flight’ response – what FM Alexander described in 1923 as ‘fear reflexes’.*

Right on cue, after I posted my article, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article in Scientific American, entitled ‘This is Your Brain in Meltdown.’ The authors are scientists who have been researching the way even small amounts of stress can cause us to jettison the logic-based functions of our pre-frontal cortex (home of our executive centre), and fall back upon the primitive reactions of our amygdala to take over. The amygdala is responsible for emotional responses, and can cause us to experience mental paralysis and logical ‘meltdown’.

I bet many of us have experienced this kind of mental paralysis. I can remember a music performance where I was so paralysed that I couldn’t remember not just what the first note was, but also what fingering I should use to play it!

So how do the scientists recommend we prevent our brains jettisoning our reasoning and going primitive? Interestingly, current research seems to be confirming FM Alexander’s principle of building a ‘staircase’ of satisfactory experiences to build confidence. The scientists write:

“Animal research suggests that the sense of psychological control that becomes second nature to a soldier or emergency medical technician remains the deciding factor in whether we fall apart during stress… The routines of the drill sergeant are mirrored by animal studies that show that juveniles grow up to be more capable in handling stress if they have had multiple, successful experiences confronting mild stress in their youth.”

 

Steps to success!

If you have a big performance or presentation coming up, here is a plan to help you prepare.

  1. Prepare your speech/performance thoroughly. The better you know it, the less you will need to work your pre-frontal cortex to remember the words or music.
  2. Do trial performances. Find a sympathetic audience or three. Or six. My recorder quartet like to trial new music at our local music festival, where the audience is small but appreciative. If you’re doing public speaking, find a local Toastmasters group (or similar) where the members are friendly and knowledgeable.
  3. Have a goal for your performance. Small goals help you to keep focussed. When I played a recorder solo recently, my goal was not to win the prize at the festival. My goal was to play a very difficult piece of music, to allow for mistakes to happen, and to keep going. And I did.

Do you freeze pre-performance? Do you become irritable? Have you tried having goals and constructing a stairway to success? Tell me about it in the comments!

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscous Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.338.

Photo by criminalatt from FreeDigitalPhotos.net