A swimmer’s perspective on deliberate practice

swimmer

Last week I wrote about how the Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s approach to swimming can teach us a lot about the power of staying in the present moment. What Thorpe described was a clear decision to treat every swim as a new experience, and to ‘listen’ to the water to find out how the present conditions would affect the way he would swim.

 

We left Mr Thorpe diving into the pool, and then gliding in the water, prior to beginning a stroke. This week we are going to look at what he does next, because I think it has a major lesson for how we can all stay in the present moment more.

Thorpe continues:

“As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body. I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke…”*

Thorpe doesn’t listen to the water once and then stop. He keeps doing it. As he swims, he is constantly receiving feedback from the water, and he uses that feedback to help him choose how to swim even better.

But how does he do that? How does Ian Thorpe have the time and the brain space to keep that sort of contact with the feedback he receives from the water, even when racing?

The answer is surprisingly simple.

Practice.

Ian Thorpe loves swimming. And not just the racing and winning. He loves the practice. His autobiography is full of descriptions of the technical changes he is making to his strokes as he returns to competitive swimming. And towards the end of the book he says “I enjoy aspects of training that most people would think as drudgery; for me, it’s an exploration of what I can achieve.”**

Thorpe has a fascination with the technical aspects of his sport. This is no different to my musician students: the trombonist playing ‘the opens’, or the flautist playing long notes. By working on the most basic elements of their technique many times, they seek to attain a mastery that will inform and enhance the way they play more complex material.

This type of practice is a long way from ‘performance’. Even James Galway would stretch an audience’s goodwill by coming onstage and playing long notes at them! But it is an essential component of end-of-goal performance readiness.

FM Alexander talks about this too. When he was trying to solve his voice problems initially, he realised that he needed to practice the plan he had created to help him achieve his goal of speaking, but separate it from any sense of end-of-goal performance. And he needed to practice it a lot.

“I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to “do” them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice.” ***

Because Ian Thorpe has spent countless hours in the pool (and out of it) working on his technique, because he has thought, analysed and planned his swimming stroke – because, in short, he has spent his preparation time carefully – he has the space to ‘listen’ to the water consistently and make changes as he swims.

So if there is an activity that is troubling you, can you do this?

  • Can you break the activity down into some basic key elements, like the flautist’s long notes? (Eg for moving from sitting to standing, moving at the hip joint might be a key component)
  • Can you practice the key components by themselves, just for their own sake?
  • Can you find a fascination in attaining mastery of the key components?
  • And when you’ve done this and brought that knowledge back to the activity at hand, does it make a difference?

Email me and let me know. 🙂

 

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xii.
** ibid., p.283.
*** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.424.
Image by franky242 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you dare play the thinking game?

How much, and how often, do you think about the things that you’re doing?

Do you, for example, think about the act of walking as you go to work or to the shops? Or are you resolutely thinking about something else, and plugged into an iPod into the bargain?

Modern life seems to encourage us to keep motoring on to the next thing. And if, as FM Alexander notes you and I are like the vast majority of people, doing pretty much the same things each day, and thinking pretty much the same thoughts, it is very tempting to believe that we don’t need to think.* I mean, we know how to walk – don’t we?

But part of the reason why we have troubles with overdoing muscular effort, or just using the wrong muscles, in so many activities is that we’ve never really sat down and thought about what that activity actually requires.

What do you actually need to do to type on a keyboard? Use a mouse? Play a piano? Raise a teacup to your lips? Do you know?

For the next week, I want you to play and experiment. Pick an activity – something simple.

Spend a little bit of time each day thinking about that activity.

  • What do you actually need to do to carry out that activity?
  • Do you know what muscles or joints might be involved?
  • Does what you need to do change depending n external circumstances (different keyboard, different mug, etc)?

Spend just five minutes a day thinking about the activity you’ve chosen. By the end of the week, I’m hoping that you’ll have formed a clear idea of what that activity actually involves. You may even have started checking that against the reality of what you actually do.

Give it a go. Play. Experiment. If you have time, email and let me know the results, or ask me a question if you need to. Because if you give it a go, and if FM is right, you’ll have just begun the first step in creating a new kind of versatility and control over your mind and body. And that sounds like a pretty good thing to have.

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.65.
Image by Master isolated images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Your amazing brain: 3 Alexander Technique tips to use it well

This is a post about the power of your brain, and how it can get you in – and out – of trouble.

I have played recorder since I was six, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started getting RSI-like wrist pain. I did all the usual obvious routes: doctor, physio, specialist, osteopath… Nothing really helped. In fact, it got so bad that I stopped playing.

Even after I started experiencing improvement in my arms after studying the Alexander Technique, it took years for me to pluck up courage to start playing recorder again. And when I did, I got some help from an experienced and very wise teacher friend, Jill Tappin.

Jill quickly became fascinated with the way I was using my hands. We discovered together that I had a very odd idea about the way my fingers moved. I believed that they should bend where the crease line is at the bottom of my fingers, here:

creases

Of course, that isn’t right at all. They flex much lower, at the knuckle. That’s where the joint is:

mounts

But even though it wasn’t anatomically possible to flex my fingers higher up, I had managed to create a set of complex and exhausting muscular contractions that had the net effect of moving my finger where I believed it was correct.

My brain power overrode my anatomy.

And this is what most students do (though not often with fingers!). FM Alexander says that a student’s “misdirected activities are the result of incorrect conception and of imperfect sensory appreciation.” * That is to say, they have beliefs about the way their head should move, the way their back should curve, where their legs should start – even if these have no basis in anatomic fact. And then they use the power of their amazing brains to make their beliefs a reality, often at the expense of their wellbeing.

The moral of this story? Don’t assume you know how your body works! If you are having a problem in a specific area, discomfort in your hips when walking for example, you’ve probably tried all sorts of things to fix it. But what assumptions have you missed?

  • Learn the anatomy. Check online or in a book, and find out how that part of the body is built
  • Don’t go by surfaces. I got fooled by my skin into thinking I moved where I didn’t. Try to develop a kind of x-ray vision, and think under the skin.
  • Experiment. Test out your new ideas of how things work. You can do this by yourself, or you can get an Alexander Technique teacher to help you. If there isn’t a teacher nearby, a bunch of us now do Skype consultations and can give advice via webcam.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.293.
Photos by Jennifer Mackerras

4 Alexander Technique tips for learning new skills

bike-friends

If your New Year’s Resolution involved learning a new skill or hobby, you might want to consider FM Alexander’s advice for learning something new.

It’s a fairly classic New Year’s resolution, isn’t it? “This year I’m going to learn…” And the skill could be anything: knitting, pottery, scuba diving, extreme ironing… And people have any number of reasons for wanting to learn new things. One of my favourite blog writers, piano teacher Elissa Milne, on a recent blog post even recommended learning a new skill to help teachers understand their students’ struggles better. And whether the activity is knitting or potholing, the Alexander Technique can help you to learn faster and more effectively (as Mark Josefsberg, a New York-based teacher, recently wrote about).

Me and FM on bicycles

FM wrote about bicycles. He said, “I have personal knowledge of a person who, by employing the principles of conscious control which I advocate, mounted and rode a bicycle down-hill without mishap on the first attempt, and on the second day rode 30 miles out and 30 miles back through normal traffic.” * An impressive feat.

Last year I learned to ride a bicycle. My parents tried to teach me to ride a bike when I was young, but for a mixture of practical reasons it never really worked out (gravel path, sloping ground, creek at bottom of slope…). But it has always felt like unfinished business, and even more so when my husband and son started going out on cycle rides and leaving me behind!

So I got some lessons. While I wasn’t as quick off the mark as FM’s friend (in my defence, the traffic is heavier now than in 1912!), it was the experience of my teacher that I was progressing faster than her students normally did, and that I was pre-empting her next teaching point by my questions at the end of each exercise she gave me.

The secret?

How did I and FM’s friend achieve what we did? Here is what FM wrote:

“the principles involved were explained to him and he carefully watched an exhibition, first analysing the actions and the “means-whereby,” then reproducing them on a clearly apprehended plan.” **

So these are FM’s steps to learning something new:

  1. listen to the teacher explaining the principles involved in the activity
  2. watch carefully
  3. analyse the actions and the protocols involved. In bike-riding, for example, which joints are involved in the peddling action? Which parts move first?
  4. make a plan for how YOU are going to do that protocol, and only then give it a go.

If you try these steps, you will discover that your ability to learn is increased, and your fears and worries about learning decreased in equal measure. And me? Well, I’m not the world’s best cyclist by any means, but I can do it without falling off, and I have a lot of fun. And that, surely, is the whole point!

What new skills are you going to learn this year?

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete edition, p.130f.
** ibid., p.131.
Image by Roland Gardiner, stock.xchng

Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 2

Last week I told you the story of Darryl Jones, who played bass for Sting when he started his solo career with the album Dream of the Blue Turtles. Today I want to tell you about another of Sting’s musicians, so that we can learn another useful tool to conquer stage fright.

 

To recap the story…

If you recall, Sting was trying something totally new. He was leaving a very successful band, and was striking it out on his own with a whole new group of musicians. They were about to play their first concert – a new band, playing a  set of songs where half were completely new and unheard, and all of which were being re-interpreted. Sting, if you recall, hadn’t got together just any old band. He had found a group of jazz musicians, and was creating a whole new jazz-rock fusion sound.

Director Michael Apted filmed the build-up to the concert. He asked each musician in turn if they were nervous. Last week we learned from Darryl Jones’ reply. This week we turn to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, to see what he can teach us.

Marsalis

The other jazz man.

Branford Marsalis is another profoundly inventive jazz musician. Back in 1985 he was just at the beginning of his career, but he already had an impressive resume. And he was never one to mince his words! So when Michael Apted asked him if he was nervous about the upcoming gig with Sting, this is what he said:. 

“If I was Sting I might be nervous but I’m not Sting, I play jazz, I know what it’s like to be shat on, you know what I mean? I am a jazz musician, I know what it’s like to play some stuff that nobody wants to hear.”*

I know this is a little stronger language than normally appears in my articles, so bear with me… 🙂

Branford Marsalis isn’t nervous. Why not? Because he is used to an audience not necessarily liking the music he is playing! Marsalis here leads us towards what I believe is a very strong motivating factor that lies behind many performers’ stage fright

they fear the audience’s bad opinion.

Fear of the audience is a strong reason why people fear going out to perform. Back when I worked in professional theatre, I can remember actors nervously  peering out from the wings, scanning the audience suspiciously, and wondering if they would be a ‘good’ house that night. And by ‘good’, they meant an audience that liked them and liked the play.

Wanting to be liked is completely understandable and natural. The problem arises when we think about the audience so much that we begin to lose sight of what it is that we need to do in order to win their good opinion.

We need to perform.

In other words, we need to summon up all that we have learned from our hours of research and rehearsal, all the work that we have done, and carry out the performance in a way that we have reasoned out is going to best achieve our goals.

‘But shouldn’t we be thinking about the audience?’ I hear you cry. Well… Yes, but not in the way that most people do. Obviously we need to remember that the audience is there. But do we need to tie ourselves in knots to try to please them? Well, no, not according to Branford Marsalis! His experience very clearly included situations where, in pursuit of his creative goals, he played in such a way that the audience just didn’t like it. On that day. At that time.

The thing is, not everyone can be happy all the time. But what might you sacrifice in order to satisfy your audience? What if Stravinsky had burned the score of The Rite of Spring straight after its controversial first performance? Western classical music would have been very different!

FM Alexander said, “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? we should reserve all thought, energy. And concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”

Branford Marsalis, when faced with the choice of playing the way he wanted, or trying to be ‘right’ for the audience, chose to play in the way that he had decided was best. He stuck with the process he had chosen. And fear of the audience’s reaction became unimportant as a result.

What about you? Will you stick to the process you’ve reasoned out will get you to your goal?

 

* Sting, Bring on the Night, directed by Michael Apted. Quote occurs at about 60.58 on the DVD release.
** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.587.

You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice

sir-alan-sugar-boardroom

The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!

 

First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.

 

Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?

 

Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Why exercises won’t help (and three things that do!)

When I was younger I was a devotee of aerobics. I was far too embarrassed about my body to actually darken the doors of a gym, so I used to watch a TV programme called Aerobics Oz Style. Each day I’d get myself into my exercise shoes, turn on the TV, and prance up and down to the music, doing my best to follow the commands of the instructors.

Each episode of the show would have one instructor and at least 2 other people (usually female, often blonde) helping to demonstrate the movements. It was a well-produced programme, and the producers chose their instructors and demonstrators well – they were qualified, well-regarded within their profession, and frequently had been competitors and even winners of Aerobics Championships. (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

This was long before I had even heard of the Alexander Technique. But even then, as a wannabe actress, I had sufficient powers of observation to notice something really interesting about the instructors on the show. They were all doing broadly the same movements at the same time. But they didn’t look the same. In fact, if you looked closely, sometimes you could see that they weren’t really doing the same movements at all. And if you experimented and tried out the different movements – say, with a particular armline – you would realise that the different ways the instructors were moving their arms would actually cause different muscles to be exercised.

The instructors were not deliberately doing slightly different things. I think they genuinely and honestly thought that they were all demonstrating exactly the same movement. And yet they were different.

Why does an exercise give different effects on different people?

Simple: because they’re different people. There is a section of FM Alexander’s fourth book where he discusses exactly this point: that a set of exercises could be responsible for different effects in different people. “how could it be otherwise?” Alexander asks.They exist in different private universes, and have different ideas about how their bodies can and should work.  So just as different people walk and speak differently, so they will carry out a set of exercises differently, and will receive different effects as a result.

So why don’t I give out exercises?

Because it could do more harm than good.

Even if we stuck with the basic principle that giving a specific exercise for a specific problem could help that problem directly (and FM has a lot to say about that), there’s still the problem of the private universes. If it is true that every person will have a slightly different conception of how their body works, what the exercise involves, how to do it, etc., then everyone will do the exercise differently. And I as a teacher can have no real idea of exactly what effects my student will get. I woul be a poor teacher if I recommended something and didn’t know if it would work!

If exercises don’t work, what does?!

In his fourth book, at one point Alexander likens humankind to ill-controlled pieces of machinery. He says that “in ordinary mechanics, if we knew that the control or controls of  machine were out of order, we should at once decide to have them put right before expecting the machine to show the mechanical stability and usefulness of which it is capable.”*

In other words, we don’t need to load ourselves up with more things to do – we need to fix the controlling mechanisms, and get the gremlins out that are causing us to malfunction. And how do we do that? Here are three ideas:

1. Paying attention to what we are doing. How often do you actually notice what you do with your body when you are walking or driving a car? One of my students was shocked recently to discover how tightly he gripped the steering wheel.

2. Having a plan for what we’re doing. Have you ever thought about what you actually need to do to walk, or use a computer keyboard?

3. Not leaping into action. Do you jump up as soon as the phone rings? What about trying to receive that stimulus, refuse to do anything immediately in response, and then think about whether you really want to answer?

Alexander wanted us to think. He wanted us to have conscious reasoned contol of our potentialities. With the best will in the world, exercises aren’t going to get us there. But trying out the three ideas above just might.

*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.561.