Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

make an experimentIf you’re stuck – if you’ve got a problem and you can’t see an easy way out – can you design an experiment? For example, if you’re not sure about whether you are struggling over that semiquaver passage because of fingerings or because of uncertainty about the notes, how could you decide?

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

When I ask them, people tell me all sorts of ideas about what the Alexander Technique is about. Some think the AT is all about nice feelings, or all about theory. Or standing up straight (it’s not!). Some people think it’s about having things done to you, like some kind of therapy. But it’s actually based on experimentation. In the opening chapter to his 1932 book The Use of the Self, Alexander described his technique as

“practical experimentation upon the living human being.” [1]

In other words, making hypotheses and finding ways to test them is not just practical – it’s a fundamental part of how Alexander Technique can help you.

I have a student who had had an injury to one of her hips, and knew that she was probably using it gingerly. But how could she tell exactly how differently she used her (once) injured right leg compared to her left? By coincidence, she was given not one but two pedometers by kind friends. And she created an experiment. She put one pedometer on her left leg, and one on her once-injured right. At the end of the day the left pedometer registered around 900 steps, but the right one only registered 400ish.

Proof? Not yet – the pedometer might be faulty. So the next day she followed the same routine, but swapped the pedometers to the opposite legs. The result? The left one registered 900 steps again, and the right one only 400ish. My student had proof that she was doing something very different with her once-injured right leg. Once she had that proof, she could begin to think of ways to change things.

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

So how do we do it? I suggest we try following FM’s example. When he was trying to work out how to solve the vocal problems that threatened his career, FM said that he , FM followed these steps:

He collected his facts. He knew that reciting brought on hoarseness. He knew that normal speaking did not cause the same problems. By observing the patterns, he could see clear differences between the two different forms of speaking.

He made a hypothesis. Based on his observations, FM concluded that he must be doing something different with his vocal mechanisms while reciting that was harmful, compared to what he was doing when speaking normally. It fitted the observations, but it was still just a hypothesis – he needed to find a way to prove if what he suspected was true.

He designed a test. He watched himself speaking in front of a mirror, first just speaking normally, and then reciting. He repeated these steps, to make sure that his observations were accurate. And from these, he was able to prove, interestingly, that his hypothesis was actually false![2] From there, he could design new experiments based on his new knowledge.

And that’s the point. If FM had tried to fix things without forming a hypothesis or making an experiment, he would have been using trial and error – it would have been sheer luck if he’d solved his problems. Luck is fine, but it doesn’t help you the next time a similar problem shows up. When you make an experiment, you are following clearly defined steps, which means that you’ll be able to follow your reasoning again at a later date. You won’t constantly be reinventing the wheel; or worse, just guessing.

Making an experiment: the steps

So if you want to know what is causing your problem and make steps to solve it, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Collect your facts
  2. Make a hypothesis
  3. Design a way to test your hypothesis
  4. Have fun.

Don’t forget step 4 – that’s what it’s all about, really!

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.22.

[2] ibid., pp.25-6.

Big questions: can I learn Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Jennifer Mackerras teaching

Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson is likely to have experienced the teacher using their hands during the lesson process. Hands-on guidance is one of the tools used by Alexander Technique teachers to help their students change and improve. But there are always debates about whether it is possible to teach without the use of hands – on Skype, for example. For some, the entire concept of Alexander Technique without hands-on is anathema. For others, it is a poor second-best option. For others, it is the necessary way to learn. But who is right, and can you learn as effectively? Let’s think about it…

Alexander Technique and hands

It’s a fairly normal and traditional aspect of Alexander Technique lessons that the teacher will use their hands to give some form of gentle guidance to a student. In a previous post, I described Alexander hands-on as being a means of making it increasingly impossible for a student to carry on with the unhelpful movement behaviours they indulge in; they become aware of what they are doing, and can choose to stop. In this description of Alexander hands-on, we can think of what the teacher is doing as being a kind of psycho-physical disruptor. I help the student disrupt their old way of thinking, and aid them in finding a better way of going about things.

Practical obstacles

In-person lessons with hands-on are great. But they aren’t possible for everyone. Some students live too far away from a teacher to have in-person lessons. And I have encountered many students who simply don’t like being touched; some in certain areas, and some not at all! Some people, for example those on the continuum of autism-related disorders, have significant sensory issues, and being touched is either very stressful or actually painful. Are we really going to tell these people that they aren’t allowed to have lessons unless they submit to something that they may find intensely uncomfortable?

When faced with the choice of no exposure to Alexander Technique at all, versus Alexander Technique without hands-on, the latter starts looking like a great option.

Use of hands in the Alexander Technique

The use of hands-on techniques has had a privileged place in Alexander Technique training and philosophy for a long time now. Some people even go so far as to say that use of hands with a student is essential, or it isn’t an AT lesson. According to this view, the student hasn’t actually learned anything unless hands have been used.[1]

But… We have cases of teachers and students who have learned without the benefit of anyone placing hands upon them. FM Alexander himself would be the classic first example! I think he turned out pretty well, and from his own description he didn’t use hands-on techniques on himself (he did spend a lot of time in front of mirrors).[2] Similarly, FM’s brother AR Alexander was a fine and well-respected teacher. AR famously only had 6 lessons, and none of those involved use of hands.[3]

Ultimately, whether or not you think the use of hands is essential in a lesson comes down to what you think the main job of the Alexander Technique is. If you think that its primary task is to bring an improved sensory awareness to the student, then the use of hands would be near indispensable. And there are a significant number of teachers around who believe that sensory awareness is vital, and that hands are therefore essential.

But this isn’t the main job of the Alexander Technique as FM described it. He said that the “centre and backbone” of his theory and practice was “that the conscious mind must be quickened” (in the sense of being made more alive).[4] Teacher Frank Pierce Jones described it as bringing a practical intelligence into the things that you are doing.[5] If the main task of an Alexander Technique teacher is to improve a student’s psycho-physical wellbeing by improving their ability to reason and direct themselves in activity, then anything that furthers that goal would be a useful technique to use. Hands would be useful, but not essential. Imitation and demonstration would be good, but not essential. Talking and questioning would be good, but still not essential – probably…

So, Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Here’s my point of view, and it’s the basis on which I teach:

Are hands-on techniques good? Yes.

Can you learn without them? Yes.

As long as I do whatever I can to challenge your erroneous ideas, using whatever tools I have available, and as long as you are willing to do the work, you can learn the Alexander Technique.

[1] MacDonald, P., The Alexander Technique As I See It, Rahula, Brighton, 1989, pp.8-9. I don’t think I’m doing a disservice to MacDonald by citing him here. I certainly think that MacDonald’s statement here (and elsewhere) suggests that he did believe hands were essential.

[2] See the first chapter of The Use of the Self for all the mirror references. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, pp.26-7.

[3] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., London, Mouritz, 1997, p.18.

Edward Maisel says in his introduction to his compilation of Alexander’s writings called The Resurrection of the Body that FM and AR were teaching with purely verbal instruction when they set up their teaching practice in London in 1904; hands-on techniques were clearly developed after AR had his 6 lessons. Maisel, E., The Resurrection of the Body, Shambhala, Boston, 1986, p. xxvii.

[4]  Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.39.

[5] Jones, op.cit., p.2.

Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

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

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

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

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

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

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

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

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

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

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

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

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

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

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

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] ibid., p.171.

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

Misdirected effort? How to get back on track.

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againAre you running into a brick wall in the practice room, out on the tennis court, or on the pitch? Do you find yourself working on something, but to no avail? It is very likely that you are suffering from a case of misdirected effort!

Misdirected effort: a case study!

High school English was once of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was studying for my HSC (sort of the equivalent of the UK A levels), and I really wanted to improve my marks in my English essays. But it didn’t seem to matter how many extra hours of study I put in – my marks never really got any better.

Have you had an experience like that? I have had similar experiences as a musician, and my students certainly have reported frustrations in a similar vein. It’s annoying not to see improvement. Lack of progress can be utterly demoralising. And often the problem could be solved so very easily.

The question we fail to ask

Back in high school English class, I failed to ask myself a really important question, mostly because I was too busy reading literary criticism texts to improve my scores. My students fail to ask themselves this too, again because they are too focussed on what they are doing. I’ve known sportsmen, even maths and science students who missed this question too.

‘Am I directing my effort to the right place?’

According to Prof Barbara Oakley, this phenomenon even has a name: the Einstellung effect. It’s where an idea that you already have in mind prevents you from finding a better idea or solution.[1] In effect, you are so wedded to one way of working that any other doesn’t even have a chance of entering your head!

Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?

But why do we behave in this way? According to FM Alexander, it comes down to our belief systems. He said in 1923,

“We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.”[2]

Now it might seem obvious to say that people will think and act according to the make-up of their genes, beliefs and life experience, but note the word he uses to describe them: peculiarities. He isn’t being pejorative or mean – he’s just saying that sometimes we don’t believe things that are hugely sensible. We construct ideas about what we can and can’t do based on experiences (which we may have misinterpreted at the time), memories (which we may not have recalled accurately), and things we’ve picked up from all manner of places (and which may not be true).[3]

So if you think about it, it is hardly surprising that sometimes we get stuck on a particular idea or course of action, and are thoroughly unable to even see that we are stuck!

Solutions

The key to getting unstuck is to develop the mental discipline of stepping back and asking yourself if there is something that you are doing that is getting in your way. This was the very first question that Alexander asked himself when he wanted to solve his vocal hoarseness, and it’s a great question for us all to use.[4]

Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, came up with these four questions that I think expand on Alexander’s question in useful ways. They were originally intended for teachers dealing with organisation change, but I think these questions are great for anyone. Here they are:

  1. Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
  2. Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
  3. Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
  4. Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?[5]

If we ask ourselves these questions, we have the opportunity to see what mental block we have put in front of ourselves. Once we know how we are blocking ourselves, we will know what areas to work upon so that we can direct our effort more effectively. This may mean approaching a difficult semi-quaver passage from the tail end instead of from the beginning, and working backwards. It may mean slowing down, and that may feel odd. It may mean stopping and taking a walk!

When we ask ourselves questions, we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And that is the key to sustained improvement.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., p.19 (loc 345)

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, p.304.

[3] Levitin, D., The Organized Mind, Penguin, p.50.

[4] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion, p.25.

[5] https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/06/23/why-unlearning-old-habits-is-an-essential-step-for-innovation/

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

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

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

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

Why your brain prefers bad things

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

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

Memory encoding bear traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Levitin, p.52.

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

Image by galzpacha on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: who makes the positive changes happen?

making positive changes in Alexander Technique lessons involves fun!

Are positive changes teacher-driven?

For beginning students looking at an Alexander Technique lesson, it can look a lot like the teacher is doing all the work. The teacher does something with their hands, and apparently makes massive positive changes in the student. Even though there is very often a fair amount of talking going on, it can look a lot like most of the work is being done using hands-on techniques BY the teacher TO the student. The balance of power seems very much to be with the teacher.

But I really want to challenge you to reconsider this notion. I want you to consider the possibility that the positive changes that occur in the course of Alexander Technique lessons are in fact student-powered.

Positive changes are student-powered!

As I discussed last week, what I am doing with my hands during an Alexander Technique lesson is NOT sculpting the student according to my ideas of what is right and good. I don’t decide what would be good for my student, and then mould it! Rather, I am making it increasingly hard for the student to STOP sculpting themselves according to their ideas of what is good. My job is to help the student question whether their ideas are good and useful to them, or whether they would be better served by letting some of their ideas go.*

This means that the balance of power doesn’t lie with me as a teacher at all. If one of my students decides that they would rather hang on to their physical tension (and the ideas that lie behind it), then there is nothing that I can do to stop them. On more than one occasion I have worked with students who have found their reasons for their physical tension so compelling that they have refused to give them up, even though their justifications resulted in physical discomfort.

Happily, because most people don’t have such a life-or-death attachment to their ideas, they are happy – sooner or later – to make the shift in thinking that shifts its physical manifestation. The lure of the benefits of positive change is too inviting to ignore.

In addition, the fact that the student is the one with the power means that they can make positive changes without the teacher being involved. Just this past week one of my students failed to make it to class, but read the recap email that I sent to all the class participants. She thought so carefully about that email during the week that, by the time she came back to class, she had made definite positive changes and was experiencing less discomfort in her daily activities.

If the student is the one with the power, and if a student can make progress without the direct involvement of a teacher, then what is to stop you from improving right now? As an Alexander Technique teacher, one of my most important roles is to give my students a space and a framework for examining what they do and how they do it. But you don’t need me in the room with you!**

What is it that you’re doing, and how are you going about it? What one thing strikes you as something that you could do less, or even not at all? Will you take the challenge to drive your own positive changes?

* Alexander spoke of teaching as “placing facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties…” I am of the opinion that this sounds like a great teaching tool and applicable to other age groups too! See FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.88.
** Though, of course, I’d love to work with you in person, too. 🙂
Image by Kevin Leighton.

Big questions: ‘How do I keep it?’

IMG_1769

Do I keep it, or let it go?

I’ve taught a fair few introductory Alexander Technique lessons recently. They tend to go like this:

  • Student comes and sits. They tell me about what is bothering them.
  • I ask some pertinent questions, and do some Alexander ‘hands-on’ work.
  • Student feels better. Their face brightens.
  • I ask if they have any questions. They look at me earnestly, and ask this:
  • “It feels great. But how do I keep it?”

The dark underbelly of ‘how do I keep it?’

The question on the surface seems like a fair one. The student has had a good experience, and wants it to continue. This is completely understandable, especially if the student has been troubled by discomfort, and as a result of the lesson experience the discomfort has gone.
But ‘how do I keep it?’ is a question with a dark underbelly, and the easiest way of teasing this out is with this simple question: “What would happen if you didn’t keep it?”

The classic answer to this question is, “I’d revert to how I was before.” The subtext of this answer is this: I have to work at it for my body to feel like it is working well, and if I stop keeping it up, it will work poorly. In other words, the dark underbelly of wanting to ‘keep it’ is the hidden belief that our bodies work poorly unless we make them do otherwise.

Put that baldly, it is a fairly depressing thing to believe, isn’t it? And yet many of us, whether we realise it or not, work as if that’s the truth.*

But what if it isn’t?

The alternative

You see, if our bodies are essentially poorly functioning, then we’re always going to have to work hard to keep them working well. But if the reverse is true – if our bodies are basically fine and designed to function well – then we wouldn’t have to do anything to keep them going. All we would need to do is to get out of our own way, cut the extraneous and unhelpful, and learn how to use our amazing bodies to best advantage.

In the words of actor Bruce Lee:

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT ed., 382-3.
Photo by Jennifer Mackerras

Will I change my personality? Alexander Technique and psychology

 

Occasionally I get asked questions by students that touch on the relationship between Alexander Technique, psychology, and the possibility of altering their essential selves. The questions can be summarised as follows:

  • Do we have an essential self?
  • Can we change that essential self through the work we do in Alexander Technique lessons?
  • If we can do this, will we all end up the same – perfectly functioning Alexandroids who think and move very similarly?
  • Or will we suffer mini personality crises and become different people altogether?

I can’t really speak to the first question: I have no idea if there is such a thing as an essential something that makes me ‘me’ and you ‘you’. But I do know that there is a very clear link between Alexander Technique, psychology, and physical movement.

Alexander Technique psychology? Try psycho-physical…

definition of Alexander Technique

In the Interactive Teaching Method, where I trained to teach Alexander’s work, we define the Alexander Technique as the study of thinking in relation to movement. Broadly speaking, in lessons my students learn that what and how we think determines the way we move. This is true both in specific tasks and in more general movement patterns. And if we change what and how we think, the way we move cannot fail to change too. The Alexander Technique is a toolkit that can, to paraphrase FM Alexander, help us create/discover/reveal a good manner of use of ourselves that will exert a continuous influence for good upon our general functioning.*

Alexander also says that we think and act “in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.” ** When he says this, I don’t think he uses the word ‘peculiarities’ pejoratively. I think that some of our peculiarities might be beneficial, or at least neutral.

But some of our peculiarities are not benign, or will appear so but have consequences that are harmful to us. Alexander believed that our misdirected activities are the result of incorrect conceptions, and that the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to convince a student to give up the erroneous conceptions and instead use something more useful to guide us.^ Nowhere that I know of does Alexander require us to give up beneficial peculiarities (though he does ask us to hold our ideas lightly and have open minds).^^

Alexander Technique psychology: Alexandroids, breakdowns, or something else?

That’s a whole lot of words, but how do they help us tease out our questions? Does the Alexander Technique have the power to change our personalities? Will we turn into drones or, worse, emotional wrecks?

I’m currently thinking of it like this. John is a circle. Marsha is a triangle.^^^ They both have peculiarities in their psycho-physical make-up: I mean, John is circular and Marsha is a triangle!

Alexander Technique psychology described using image of John and Marsha

But it goes a bit deeper than that. John has bits of him that aren’t completely circle-like. Marsha is troubled by the bits of her that are more round than triangular. These are peculiarities too, but they are ones that get in the way of their true nature. John can’t enjoy his full circleness until he loses the edges. Marsha can’t achieve her potential as a triangle until she has a pointy top. So they both come along to Alexander Technique lessons to learn how to make the changes that will help them fulfil their dreams.

In the course of lessons, Marsha might decide that she was wrong about her triangle-ness. She might realise she was actually meant to be a trapezium. This would be a bigger change to her psycho-physical make-up, to be sure.

Some changes to our psych-physical nature are big, like realising we are a trapezium and not a triangle after all. Some are smaller changes, like taking the bumps out of the circle. But the principal thing that the changes have in common is this: they are changes that work towards an improving manner of use of ourselves. The end goal of the Alexander Technique is not to make us all the same. Rather, it is to give us the tools to become most wholly and uniquely ourselves.

*FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in IRDEAT ed., p.524.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT ed., p.304.
^ ibid., p.293.
^^ FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., p. 57.
^^^ HT Stan Freberg.

Change your mindset, change your world

One of the most important books currently out there in the realms of psychology and self development must surely be Carol Dweck’s Mindset. You may have seen her TED talk – it’s well worth viewing if you haven’t.

I find her work on mindset very appealing not just because it explains why some people seem to have an inbuilt resilience and ability to overcome minor failures and hurdles in their fields of endeavour. More interestingly, every time I read her ideas, I am reminded of a line of FM Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance:

“a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”

Here is a little slideshow I made that explains the basics of Dweck’s concept of the mindset. It tells you what mindset is, and more importantly, how we can use the theory of mindset to help us understand how to learn and grow.

I hope you like it.

http://www.haikudeck.com/p/3EvKzGUoHV

Burning the biscuits: how risking failure fuels improvement

It may seem perverse, but more often than not risking failure fuels improvement. I was again reminded of this when chatting with an artist and visual arts teacher, who works in a high school with teenage students. I asked my new friend what the most common difficulty is that she experiences with her students. The answer was immediate: not going far enough.

I asked the art teacher to explain. She said that, in her experience, students are afraid of making mistakes and ruining their artwork by doing too much and wrecking all the promise of the piece they were working on. So they try to hedge their bets and stop just a little too early.

biscuits

Risking failure: baking the biscuits

Why is this bad? Why should we worry if artists leave their pieces just a little on the side of unfinished – doesn’t this leave the promising beginning intact?

Well, yes. But no. It is definitely a problem. And here’s why.

By never going too far, they don’t learn where just enough is. It’s a bit like making biscuits. If you take every batch you make out of the oven when they’re still a little doughy, you don’t learn how to recognise when they’re cooked.  Most of the time they’ll be edible, but they’ll never be really right. If, on the other hand, you ‘caramelise’ them*, you soon learn what they look like when they’ve gone too far!

In other words, sometimes you have to take things to the point of ‘caramelisation’. You have to go too far. That’s the way you find out where the optimal range lies. You fail in order to find out where success truly lies. If you stop at ‘slightly doughy’, you’ve set a ceiling on your ability to improve.

FM Alexander did the psycho-physical equivalent of ‘caramelisation’ many times in his efforts to discover the way to overcome his vocal problems. He discovered the three tendencies that appeared to be implicated in his vocal distress. He found which one he could directly prevent, and stopped doing it. The other two vanished as well (thereby proving his suspicion that the three tendencies were linked) and his voice improved.

Job done, you would think.

But FM wasn’t satisfied, because he knew that risking failure fuels improvement.  He decided to have a go at putting his head forward, further forward in fact than it felt right to do – just to see if he could make things even better. And the results of that little experiment led to many more months of experimentation and angst. But it also led to the creation of what we now teach as the Alexander Technique.**

If FM hadn’t tried going too far, I wouldn’t be writing this blog to you today.

Yes, going too far and stuffing things up hurts. Artists hate looking at pieces they’ve overworked. I hate it when I burn my bakes. But if you don’t take that risk, you’ll never reach the potential that you were aiming for, and you won’t learn the concrete and practical things that you could do to make it possible at the next attempt.

So… Go on. Go a little too far today, and see what happens.

 

* I’ve watched enough cookery programmes to know that no one burns anything these days!
** You can read about it in FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, p.21ff.