Do you have an evaluation addiction?

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation addiction assumes the worst

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

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

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

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

Evaluation addiction takes up brain space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos

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

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

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

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] ibid., p.36.

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

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

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

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

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

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

Doing the slightly scary…

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

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

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

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

But only slightly scary!

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

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

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

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

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

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

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

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

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

Doing the slightly scary…

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

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

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

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

But only slightly scary!

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

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

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

There is no magic bullet: true grit as the key to achieving your goals

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So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.

The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.

The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).

The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.

Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…

Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet

There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.

Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle

The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.

I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.

And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**

The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.

And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.

How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?

By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.

  • Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
  • Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
  • Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
  • Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?

Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
Image by papaija2008 from freedigitalphotos.net

Unbridled enthusiasm – tips for a great New Year from Alexander and Caesari

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Are you filled with enthusiasm for the coming year?

How are you going with your New Year’s Resolutions?

Or have you worked out your goals for 2014? Are you sticking to your plans so far?

If you’re anything like me, you experience a heady mix of emotions at the beginning of the year as you make plans for how you want to best use your time and energies. And it can be tricky navigating a path through the mix of excitement, puzzlement, enthusiasm, fear and confusion.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, as I started one of my holiday reading books, to come across a reminder of some of the most important lessons that FM Alexander teaches us about navigating the process of change and development.

My holiday reading was called The Alchemy of Voice, written by singing teacher E. Herbert-Caesari. In the opening chapter, the author exhorts singing students to strive, experiment and practise daily – all good things, I’m sure you’ll agree! But then he issues this warning:

 

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

What a list! It’s such a powerful selection of principles that I’m going to spend this blog post just talking about the first of Caesari’s three points: the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm.

 

Unbridled enthusiasm – too much of a good thing.

When my son made chapattis recently, he decided not to follow the written recipe instructions. Measuring ingredients seemed slow and tedious. Instead, he decided to put two large double handfuls of flour in his bowl, sprinkle in a bit of salt, and then slosh in some water.

The mix was a little dry, so he added more water.

The mix was still too dry, so he added a little more water.

The mix was STILL too dry, so he added… a lot more water. A whole lot. His chapatti mix looked a little like soup. It needed a lot more flour, and some adult help, to bring it back to being the right consistency.

Caesari’s point at the beginning of his book is that singers are a little like my son. He decided that he knew what chapatti dough looked like, so he didn’t need to measure ingredients. He knew what he was doing. Similarly, Caesari suggests that singers very often think they know what sort of sound they want to achieve, and don’t necessarily follow a reasoned process to get there.

But it isn’t just singers who are like that, and it isn’t just my son. I suspect everyone has this experience. We are convinced we know what our end product should be, so in our enthusiasm to get to the end, we skip some of the slow, boring, tedious, necessary steps that will get us there.

FM Alexander certainly had this experience. In 1910 he wrote:

One day I hope to write an account of how I arrived at the practical elucidation of my principles of conscious control, and when I do, I shall show very plainly how one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm. It is as vivid and keen today as it was over twenty years ago, but I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.**

Enthusiasm and reason

Notice that Alexander doesn’t say that enthusiasm is bad. Neither does Caesari. They both say that unbridled enthusiasm is bad. Unbridled enthusiasm blinds us; it stops us from assuming that we know everything, and causes us to miss out vital steps. It stops us from using our heads.

So this is what we must do:

  • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is good. It keeps us going through the inevitable failures and disappointments along the path to our goals;
  • Remember that we don’t know it all! Humility will keep us remembering that we need to watch out for our hidden assumptions and blind spots;
  • Keep using our heads and following all the steps. It’s hard to be a good musician if you don’t practise. It’s hard to keep fit if you don’t exercise. It’s hard to be a writer if you don’t write! Keep showing up, and keep doing the steps.

If we follow these pointers, then together we can all make a true difference to ourselves, to our families, and to our communities this year. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90. And he did write that account of how he arrived at his principles of conscious control – it’s the first chapter of his book The Use of the Self.
Image by supakitmod from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Does perfect posture for the piano (or anything else!) exist? And if not, what should we look for?

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Does perfect posture for piano – or flute, or singing, or trumpet, or cycling, or anything else, for that matter – exist? This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve recently started teaching Alexander Technique to a new class of music students.

Perfect posture for the piano – or perfect posture for whatever instrument my student studies – is usually high on a student’s agenda at the beginning of a course of lessons with me. If they’re in my teaching room to learn Alexander Technique, they’ve probably booked the appointment because they’re having trouble playing to the standard they’d like. And a lot of the time they’ve been told, often by a teacher or coach, that their posture is poor and needs fixing.

So they’re in my teaching room. Wanting to learn the secret of achieving perfect posture.

I’ve been reading a book called Piano Notes by noted pianist and critic Charles Rosen, and he very much writes what I have experienced in my practice – that looking for an externally verifiable perfect posture is to look at the problem completely the wrong way around.* Let’s investigate.

If there was a perfect posture, then it would have to fit everyone. I other words, any pianist would have to sit the same way, use the same hand technique, and so on. And for this to work for everyone, all pianists would need to be roughly the same size physically and have the same hand shape.

But we know that this isn’t true. Rachmaninov and Richter had famously large hands. By all accounts, Ashkenazy has quite small hands. Casadesus had famously stubby fingers. Is it reasonable for us to expect that all these players should use the same fingering technique and the same hand position? And what about seating position? Should we expect all sizes of people to sit in the same way?

If there was indeed such a thing as a perfect hand position or seating position, we may well be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that those people who weren’t physically suited to it shouldn’t play piano. Hm.

And what about perfect seating posture at the keyboard? If there were such a thing, then there would also be a myriad ways to sit which were not perfect. But what if, in order to get the effect the composer demanded, you had to sit or move in such a way that you left the ‘perfect’ position? That would be a tricky dilemma!

Perfect posture punctured!

Put simply, my students are having trouble maintaining ‘perfect posture’ as they play, because it doesn’t exist. There is no one right way, because there is no one right person. There are so many different shapes and sizes of performer, and so many different demands placed upon them by different pieces of music, that to try to make firm and fixed rules is doomed to failure.

And I think my students know this in their heart of hearts. But they still want fixed rules to follow, because it is somehow more comforting to think that there is a perfect answer out there, and if they just have the secret of it, they’ll never have to think or worry about playing again.

FM knew all about this very human desire for rules we can follow unthinkingly, which is why even in his very first book he was at pains to point out that instructions that helped one student could be troublesome or even detrimental to another. That’s why he didn’t give lists of instructions on how to sit or stand.**

So in the end, we need to work out for ourselves what is likely to be best for our bodies, whether we are playing musical instruments or just chopping the veggies. But how are we to do this? Are there any guidelines that can help us?

Look to the anatomy, and learn from basic principles of how we’re structured. For example, a 90 degree angle between forearm and upper arm is always going to be beneficial to aim for, because it’s where you arm has maximum torque (turning power) and thus the most potential and freedom to move.

Work out what is required of you. For example, if you’re playing piano and come across a section of music that the composer intends to be loud and forceful, make note of this.

Check out the externals. Is the piano stool high, or low? Is the veggie knife sharp? Is the music stand high or low?

Once you know all the contributing elements, you can design your own optimum solution for the circumstances you’re in right now. Just remember that today’s optimum might be different to tomorrow’s!

 

*Charles Rosen, Piano Notes, London, Penguin, 2004, pp.1-3.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., pp.155-157.

Re-evaluate: what to do if you venture too far out of your comfort zone

This is the sixth 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. Week 4 was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity. And last week we learned about the Trust Gap.
This week? What to do if you discovered you’ve ventured too far out of your comfort zone.

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I was never a brave person when I was young. Not physically brave. So there were lots of things that I have simply never tried. One of those was skating. My son had tried ice skating last year and really enjoyed it. So this winter, for my birthday, I decided that it would be fun for the family to go ice skating. My son would have a great time, and I would get to move out of my comfort zone and try something completely new.

But as the day approached, I began to realise that I was making a big mistake. I had a sense that I was moving a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I had a growing awareness that this activity was not one that felt comfortable for me.

One of my friends on Twitter, the lovely Paula White, had a similar thing happen to her recently. She had entered a triathlon, but discovered during the course of training that she had taken on a larger challenge than she was comfortable with. Training sessions, especially in the pool, were becoming anxiety-producing affairs. But Paula is intelligent, brave and resourceful. So she did the only sensible thing. She decided not to do the triathlon.

Sometimes we set ourselves goals, and decide to push our comfort zones. But sometimes we set those goals a little too ambitiously. Or once we start the process we’ve decided is best for achieving our goal, we discover that it involves many more steps than we thought at first. Or we may even discover that our desire to achieve our goal is eclipsed by other priorities.

In those instances, deciding to step away and re-evaluate is A Good Thing.

FM Alexander was very clear about what made for a successful pattern within education (and life):

Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…*

In other words, when we are constructing a plan that takes us outside of our comfort zone, we should be aiming for a series of successful experiences that build confidence. If we are having a consistent series of unsuccessful experiences that leave us feeling anxious or unhappy, there’s something wrong. Either we need to change the way we’re going about the activity, or we need to re-adjust our expectations of what we want to achieve.

So if you’re feeling anxious about leaving your comfort zone, don’t be alarmed at first. But take note of the anxiety. If you are consistently finding that your experiences of the process to achieve your goals are filled with unhappiness and negativity, then maybe you need to re-evaluate.

Remember: there is no shame in quitting, just as there is positive benefit in being wrong and making mistakes. Knowing when to quit is just as important a skill as knowing when to continue. So if you feel as if you’re too far outside your comfort zone, stay “in communication with your reason,”** and make sure you re-evaluate. A little fear is good, but a whole lot? Maybe not so much.

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition, p. 425.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, op.cit., p.159.
Image by renjith krishnan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net