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.

Which comes first when learning new stuff: the repetition or the meaning?

repetition or interpretation

In the work I’ve done with performers (of all types), there seem to be two main approaches to the task of learning new material.

The first is Repetition camp. The performer learns the new role or piece of music through consistent and constant repetition. As they repeat it, they learn the structure and develop an interpretation organically through the rehearsal process. Some performers actually say they can’t really work on interpretation until they have all the words/notes by memory!

The second approach I’ll describe as the Analysis camp. In this approach, the performer does an in depth analysis of the role or piece of music. They develop an interpretation through the process of analysis, and only then do the words or notes stick in the mind. It is the meaning behind the notes or words that causes them to be memorable.

So which is the better approach? Which form of learning gives better results? Well, it probably won’t surprise you that my answer isn’t a straight yes to one or other approach. Unless you’re planning to perform from memory, that is…

Memorising is your goal? Then no mindless repetition!

If your goal is to be able to perform the piece reliably from memory, then just pure repetition is not going to give you a result that will be robust under stress. Associative chaining (that’s the technical term) is great, but if you miss a note or a phrase in stressful circumstances like an audition, the likelihood is that it will be hard to recover. The evidence is that giving yourself cues (technical, dynamic, phrasing, interpretive) gives. You a better chance of performing under pressure.[1]

Why choose? The flexibility issue.

The primary problem with wanting to choose just one of these approaches, and the main focus of my article today, is that it just isn’t very flexible. Here are the three ways you might be missing out by limiting yourself to one single approach to learning new material:

It isn’t mindful.

There’s good evidence that learning and then unquestioningly following a set of instructions will serve you more poorly than interrogating the principles behind the instructions as you learn them so that you can adapt them to other situations. This is particularly true for mechanical skills, but I think it holds true for processes like learning repertoire, too. We need to be able to adapt our approach to the particular material in front of us – that way we make the best of the material according to our unique skills and needs. [2]

FM Alexander would describe this as “keeping in communication with our reason.” He wanted to encourage adaptability:

A proper standard of mental and physical perfection implies an adaptability which makes it easy for a man to turn from one occupation in which a certain set of muscles are employed, to another involving totally different muscular actions.[3]

It isn’t joined-up

When you have two different approaches to something, why keep them separate? I am reminded of AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones speaking about fields of attention. He had had the experience of EITHER noticing what was going on within himself, OR thinking about the external environment. Then he had a breakthrough.

It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress… It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields – one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extrqspection) -= to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.[4]

It suffers from tunnel vision.

In her fantastic book A Mind for Numbers, Prof Barbara Oakley describes a phenomenon called Einstellung. Literally meaning ‘installation’, she describes it as when we ‘install’ a roadblock in our thinking. When faced with a problem or a task, we might be tempted to focus all our effort on just approach to a solution. But it might not be the right one! If we stay committed to the approach we prefer, we are likely to miss other more valuable approaches. [5]

Let’s try for flexibility instead.

Flexibility means:

  • Having a number of different tools and approaches in your toolkit;
  • Being prepared to use different tools according to the material and your goal;
  • Being prepared to change tools if the one you’re using isn’t working, or if the director/conductor tells you to.

I’ve talked before about open-mindedness being one of FM’s highest positive values. Interestingly, one of his definitions of it involves being able to change jobs if necessary; we see a flavour of that in the quote from Man’s Supreme Inheritance earlier in this article. What he is getting at, I think, is having the ability to recognise when things aren’t working, when the circumstances or processes that you are following are not working to help you achieve your goals, and then to change them.

[1] https://bulletproofmusician.com/regular-memorization-works-ok-but-heres-why-deliberate-memorization-is-way-better/

[2] https://bulletproofmusician.com/mindful-learning-day-wife-nearly-failed-driving-test/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.136.

[4] Jones, FP. Freedom to Change, London, Mouritz, p.9.

[4] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., pp.19-20.

Image by njaj from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

First principles: why starting from the top is good

first principles are a pathway to success

First principles – boring?

Working from first principles: you’ve been told to begin at the beginning, but especially if you already know a little bit about the subject area, is it really necessary? If you’re learning something new, or even if you’re doing a refresher in something you already know, it is really tempting to skip the early stuff. Often, first principles can feel like a bit of a waste of time.

I am currently doing a course written and presented by marketing guru and all-round amazing thinker Seth Godin. I’ve been freelancing for years, so after I paid for the course and I looked at the title of the first video, I must confess my heart sank a little. It said ‘Why be a freelancer’. I’ve been running my own teaching practice for years, so my first reaction was to assume I’d done that bit of thinking long ago, and didn’t need to go over it again.

But I listened, and I did the exercises, at first out of duty (I mean, I paid for this!), but very quickly out of excitement. Through going back to first principles, I was rediscovering the reasons why I started teaching and freelancing in the first place. I re-connected with the reasons why I do what I do. It was inspiring!

And that is the gift of going back to the beginning, and allowing yourself to start again from the first principles behind what you do. It gives you the chance to rediscover ideas that you’d forgotten, and hopefully to find again the passion that got you started in the first place.

First principles – different every time

And the beauty of it is that when you encounter ‘beginner’ principles as a non-beginner, they don’t look the same as when you first learned them. I remember when I went back to first principles as a recorder player, and asked myself what I needed to do to play so-called ‘pinch’ notes (higher register notes that require part of the left thumb hole to be uncovered). I discovered just how little of the thumb hole needs to be uncovered for the higher notes to sound. I discovered that I really didn’t need to do very much with my hands to achieve the notes. It was monumental.

This was the process that FM Alexander went through when he created what we now call the Alexander Technique. He was trying to solve vocal problems that caused him to lose his voice onstage. He took that fact – that the problem only occurred onstage and not off – made some hypotheses, and then set out to test them. Every time he ran into trouble, every time it seemed like he’d hit a brick wall, what did FM do? He went right back to the beginning, to those first hypotheses.* And he’d test them all again. Each time the act of going back was a spur to new thinking. He’d go back to first principles, but with the knowledge gained from the false starts.

So don’t be afraid of first principles. They will help you.

  1. Getting the basics right helps you to move faster in the long run – you won’t have to go back and correct mistakes
  2. If you do get stuck, going back to first principles means that you can experience them again on a different level – they’ll be different because you are
  3. Going back to the beginning gives you the chance to make different choices.

And remember – there’s no such thing as wasted effort. You can learn from the false starts just as much as the successes. Have fun, and if you’ve got a question, just contact me and do my best to help.

* FM Alexander, Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417: “I saw that the whole situation would have to be reconsidered. I went back to the beginning again, to my original conclusion…”

Image by tungphoto, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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

broken mirror

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

Imitation in practice

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

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

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

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

Imitation truths

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

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

Moving beyond imitation

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

In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:

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

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

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

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

How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?

Person-Playing-Violin-Posters

“How long does it take to learn the Alexander Technique?”

This was one of the questions that I was asked at the beginning of my group class at Bristol Folk House last night. I love my Folk House students for many reasons. One of them is that they aren’t afraid to ask the questions that I know every student is thinking, but few are game enough to put into words.

It’s a great question, but it needed some clarification. “What do you mean?” I asked.

My student replied that he felt he was having some success in applying what he was learning in class to his everyday life, but he wanted to know how long it would take to be able to do the Alexander Technique really well, and do it all by himself.

Now, my student is expecting a certain type of answer to this question, probably either a time-related answer (x number of months) or an answer about application (depends on how much you practice). Instead, I asked a question in return, and asked the class to answer it. How about you have a go, too!

 

How long does it take to learn the violin?

 

I’ll give you a moment to think of your answer.

 

Got one? Great! We’ll continue. 🙂

My Folk House students gave answers like these:

·        It depends on how good you want to be

·        That’s relative, depending on how much you practice

·        Learning is a constantly evolving process, so you’re always learning

And all of these answers are, on one level, true. How quickly you progress in anything does depend on the quality and frequency of your practice. And learning is indeed a constantly evolving process. But if we settle for these answers, when will be finished learning how to play the violin?

Never.

My Folk House students didn’t look happy with this answer, and neither am I. Never is an unhappy word.

So what if we turned this on its head? Try this for size. As soon as we know that if we pluck or draw a bow across the string of the violin, and that we can change the note by changing the length of the string, we can play the violin. Everything else is refinement.

Can you see that this way of looking at the issue is instantly empowering? A couple of basic facts, and we have the basic tools to go away and work the rest out entirely by ourselves, if we choose to. How fantastic!

The Alexander Technique is no different. In fact, FM Alexander believed that we need to do this stuff for ourselves. Many sources quote him as saying “You can do what I do, if you do what I did.” And what FM did was to work it all out for himself.

As soon as we know that a change in the relationship between our head and our body can make a difference to our freedom and ease of motion; once we understand the power and effectiveness that lies in stopping the unnecessary stuff that is getting in our way; then we have enough basic knowledge to go away and do the Alexander Technique for ourselves.

Everything else is refinement.

Image by Bethany Carlson, stock.xchng

Stage Fright and Alexander Technique: Direct and Indirect Learning

It’s Guest Post Time!
A post from my colleague Karen Evans about her experiences of stage fright, and how we can work indirectly to solve our problems, step by step…

pianohands

This post involves quite a long story about me. My apologies. I think the details are important, in an indirect sort of way.
I play the piano. Not professionally, just in a fairly average, amateur way. And as much as I love it, there’s always been an element of fear. For years I would not play if anyone else was in the room. Usually I waited until the next-door neighbours were out.
On the other hand, I really missed playing with other people. I used to play violin in orchestras, and sing in choirs, and now I don’t (long story). Making music with other people has a buzz all of its own.
However, experiments playing for people to hear were not successful. Butterflies in the stomach I can cope with. Complete congealing of the brain is something different. You can’t see what is written on the page, you have no idea where your hands are on the keyboard and those hands are shaking badly. It is not conducive to playing well. And when this starts at random in the middle of a piece of music and will not stop (oh how I envied those people who say ‘Once I get started I’m fine’), it’s pretty catastrophic.
Now here’s the weird bit. I didn’t set out to conquer my stage fright. It was always something for the future; I had other, much more pressing challenges in the present. But, the idea that “I’m a musician, the whole point is to perform music” kept running round my brain. And here and there little things happened.

 

Little things that make a difference
First, I asked my husband to listen to me (he was delighted!). It took several goes, over several months, before my hands stopped shaking. Then came the Christmas carols for the family singsong.
That turned into a game of ‘hunt the right note’, but fortunately everyone was singing so loud they couldn’t hear me. Next was accompanying my sister for sight-reading practise. I stopped apologising for mistakes only at the point where she got really cross – about the apologies, not about the mistakes!
This all took place over months and years, when the right mood and the right chance coincided. Each time took a lot of courage, and a lot of convincing myself not to sell the piano afterwards. But I kept thinking about it, in a behind-the-scenes sort of way.
Next step; one of my Alexander students, a singer, said he needed an accompanist. We negotiated for rehearsals only, and not in public. He thinks his singing isn’t really up to the standard of my playing, and I think my playing can’t really keep up with his singing. But we rehearse anyway. It’s fantastic fun, and we’re both learning so much.
Then came the fateful day when I saw an advert in the local paper. ‘Piano player wanted for the Ashby Spa WI (Women’s Institute) choir’. Something in my head decided ‘I can do this’, and I did it. I now play regularly for about 20 very lovely women.
So what about the brain congealing? Well, somehow, I’ve learnt to control it. I can feel it starting, and (mostly) I can take a step back and choose to switch it off before it gets too bad. My choir don’t have to endure pages of wrong notes, just a bar or two. Now that’s what I call a ‘changed point of view’! (see Jen’s blog Banishing Stage Fright With the Jazzmen Part 1).

 

Working on the problem by… not working on the problem!
But what caused that shift? How did I learn to do this?? It was nothing I did directly. I’d tried for years to conquer the stage fright directly. Visualisation – no good. Positive reinforcement – nothing. Loads of practice and knowing the piece really well – still no. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway – dreadful. I hadn’t set out with the clear intention of curing myself, I hadn’t deliberately and consistently practised these very helpful techniques until I made them work. I had no definite strategy.
Not directly.
But what about all the other stuff? The carols, duets, the long-suffering and supportive husband?
My sister, my singing partner? The lots and lots of thinking in the background?
Maybe all that stuff did actually come under the heading of learning. Indirectly. Maybe the length of time, the teeny-weeny steps, the ‘in the background’ thinking are as important a part of the process as the most carefully crafted plan, and the most assiduously practised exercises.
But this doesn’t have anything to do with the Alexander Technique, does it? Well, now I come to mention it – maybe it does.
In fact, FM Alexander had very clear ideas on the importance of learning indirectly. He says, ‘A satisfactory technique … must be one in which the nature of the procedures provides for a continuous change towards improving conditions, by a method of indirect approach under which opportunity is given for the pupil to come into contact with the unfamiliar and unknown’.*
So, how did I do?
Procedures – tick
Continuous change – tick
Improving conditions – tick
Indirect approach – big tick
Opportunity – tick
Contact with the unfamiliar – tick
Seems like my adventure is exactly what Alexander had in mind. I wonder if he would have come along to choir practice for a good sing-song??
*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, V ‘Manner of Use in Relation to Change’, IRDEAT edition p.585.
Image by healingdream, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.