Evaluation vs the power of NOW: What I learned from the 21 minute plank.

ID-100253328

Do you find yourself, as you are competing or performing, veering off into a fruitless evaluation of how you are doing? Do you find yourself obsessing about that difficult semi-quaver passage coming up, or worrying about your aching knee or your breathing?

Sometimes the temptation to indulge in an evaluation of how you are doing mid-performance can be almost overwhelming. Believe me, I know this. But I also know that it is utterly useless, and can’t get you to where you want to be. And the other day I had a very tangible physical demonstration of that principle.

For a little while now I’ve been on the email list of personal success coach Ramit Sethi, and when he offered a free course on increasing your potential that he had titled Hell Week, the challenge it threw down was impossible for me to resist. And what was the first challenge in Hell Week? To push past your ideas on your physical limitations by either doing 1000 push-ups or by doing a 21 minute plank. I chose the latter option, thinking (possibly naively) that it sounded like the easier of the two.

Well.

It wasn’t easy. I discovered that planking for long periods uses many more muscles than I initially realised. More importantly, however, I discovered that it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was just as much a mental challenge, if not more.

When you’re in the middle of the activity, your brain doesn’t stop. Sounds obvious, but think about the implications of that. What are you going to think about as you’re doing the exercise? What are you going to think about as you do the run, or the performance?

What I discovered was this: evaluation mid-exercise doesn’t work. If you congratulate yourself about how well you’re doing, suddenly the exercise gets harder. If you think about the pain, it gets harder. If you think about how much time there is left, it gets harder.

This is the physical equivalent of what musicians have known time immemorial. If you congratulate yourself about the phrase you just played well, you are more likely to make a mistake. If you berate yourself for a mistake just made, you are more likely to go even further wrong. If you worry about what is coming up, you are also likely to go wrong.

The reason is simple. If you are indulging in evaluation, whether good or bad, or if you are anticipating what is to come, you aren’t in the present moment. Your body is in the present, but your mind and your focus are stuck in either the past or the future. And if your focus is not on the present, you can’t influence it.

This is what I learned from doing the 21 minute plank: keeping one’s mind in the present moment is the surest way to success. If you just think of the now, the present moment, it isn’t as hard. The pain isn’t the enemy. The semi-quaver passages and the composer are not the enemy.

You are – potentially – your enemy. You are also potentially your greatest asset.

Where are you going to place your attention? Well, obviously choosing the present moment is a great idea, but how do you achieve that? Many people would want you to focus on the goal. I’m not going to suggest that, because it may do more harm than good. Instead, I’m going to direct you to the work of FM Alexander.

FM Alexander’s suggestion would be to concentrate your thoughts on the means you are going to follow to attain your ends instead of thinking about your goal:

“stress must be laid on the point that it is the means and not the end which must be considered. When the end is held in the mind, instinct or long habit will always seek to attain the end by habitual methods.”(MSI 119)

Alexander would want you to have a goal, absolutely, but in his this passage from his first book he draws a very clear distinction between giving the orders (the mental creation) of the act, and the physical performance (the physical creation) of it. The first you can influence, shape and mould. The second is the outcome of that moulding process.

When I was doing the plank, for example, if I thought about the goal of the exercise (21minutes?!) the enormity of it was so crushing that I experienced an immediate stress reaction that impacted directly upon my stamina and ability to do the work. If I just kept thinking about my breathing and my form, I was able to keep going.

Similarly, my musician students often report the experience that, if they think of what is coming up in the music, they feel anxious; or if they have a big performance, they often feel weighed down by the scale of the task. If they just concentrate on the notes and what they want to convey, the nerves and anxiety vanish: they are too busy to be bothered with them!

My experience, and that of my students, is that staying in the NOW is the key. Not evaluating, not thinking about the goal. Staying in the now.

What will that look like for you today?

 

Image by phasinphoto from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Can you think yourself out of stage fright?

Stage fright is a funny beast. Because it has such a formidable physical dimension, we often fall into the trap of believing that it is primarily a physical phenomenon. But what if it isn’t? What if stage fright is primarily a thinking-based problem that is alleviated by thinking-based solutions?

Today, I want to explore how our levels of anxiety in different performance arenas are first and foremost dependent upon the decisions we make about how comfortable we are with that arena.

Malcolm Gladwell told a story in a recent New York Public Library interview about emotions, and about seeing his father in tears reading Dickens. He followed this with the tale of being taken to a movie by his father. (You can watch this whole interview via this page from the website Brain Pickings – the section I’m referring to starts at 13:35) They rarely went to movies. This one was a particularly sad picture about the Holocaust and the life of Corrie ten Boom. Everyone was crying, except Gladwell’s father. When asked why he wasn’t crying, Gladwell snr said, “It’s just fiction!”

dickens

Clearly he didn’t think that Dickens was biography, so why the thoroughly un-teary response to the biopic of ten Boom? Because he had decided to value it differently. There was something about the written word, and the written words of Dickens in particular, that held a higher value for Gladwell snr. This was a choice that he had made.

Similarly, we can make choices about what things we value and what things we fear. More than one of my students has confirmed my own experience that performing as an actor was far less terrifying than performing as a musician. As an actor, they say (as I once did), the audience see the character. They don’t see YOU, so stage fright isn’t an issue. But this is just another decision.

One of my students is an actor who specialises in improvisation. He loves it because there is a clear framework and a set of rules that lead to a successful performance. He dislikes scripted theatre because it lacks these. One of my other students loves scripted theatre because it has a clear framework and a set of rules, and dislikes improvisation because it lacks these.

Partially, of course, these people like the thing they’re most accustomed to. But more than that, they like the thing that they have decided to like and invest time in. If you decide it, improvisation can be safe. If you decide it, musical performance can be safe. If you decide it, I imagine even stand-up comedy can feel safe. The point is, it’s all a decision.

Once I decided that the audience didn’t really see me even when I was playing music, stage fright vanished. I was completely happy about going onstage. I realised that the audience didn’t care about me particularly – they wanted to hear the music first and foremost. As long as I gave my attention to the music, the audience would be happy, and so would I. And it worked.

What would happen if you decided that the performance arena you think is unsafe and uncomfortable, is actually far more safe and comfortable than you have given credit for?

Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive?

ID-10070670

Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive? Can you be a good communicator if you’re an introvert?

I work a lot with people who have stage fright issues, and I get asked this question a lot. I suspect most of the students who attend my presentation courses would class themselves as introverts, and they frequently believe that their quiet nature is fundamental to their not being comfortable in front of an audience.

Can this be true? Can it really be the case that introversion and performing just don’t go together successfully?

I’ve been doing some personal development reading lately. One of the books I’m reading suggested doing some online personality tests, in order to help me discover how I like to learn and what sorts of environments/contexts would be helpful or harmful to me learning most effectively. So I did a spot of googling and found an online MBTI style test. If you don’t know these, they rank you on a continuum in four different areas, the first of which is introversion vs extraversion.

So how did I do? I came out at 89% introverted, and I think I only came out that low because I bent the truth on a couple of questions.
Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for an illustration of introversion for your pictorial dictionary, I’d be a fantastic candidate. When a friend recently told me about how prior commitments meant he wouldn’t be able to attend a party, I felt relief even though it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my invitation, and I had no connection to the event at all. THAT’S how introverted I am.
But do I combine introversion and performing? Can I perform in front of audiences? You bet! So how do I manage this? How is it that I can be very decidedly one of life’s quiet people, and yet spend much of my working life having a lot of fun working with groups, or playing my recorder in front of audiences? I follow these three lessons from FM Alexander, originator of the Alexander Technique:

1. Get lots of practice.

When FM Alexander was trying to solve the mental (and resulting physical) misdirections that caused his vocal problems, he realised that part of the solution was practicing his new directions “very many times”. Bluntly, if you want to do anything decently, you need to do it with some degree of deliberateness and consistency. Here is Susan Cain, author of Quiet, on her preparations for her book launch:

“my job is to be out here … talking about introversion. And that’s a lot harder for me, because as honored as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu. So I prepared for moments like these as best I could. I spent the last year practicing public speaking every chance I could get. And I call this my “year of speaking dangerously.”  And that actually helped a lot.”

 

2. Speak from your passion.

Why did Susan Cain want to improve her public communication skills? Because she had a subject she was passionate about, and she wanted as many people to know about it as possible: “But I’ll tell you, what helps even more is my sense, my belief, my hope that when it comes to our attitudes to introversion and to quiet and to solitude, we truly are poised on the brink on dramatic change. “

If you have a passion for your topic, you are more prepared to go outside your comfort zone in order to communicate it. In the same way, FM Alexander’s passion for acting meant that he was prepared to do immense amounts of work and suffer innumerable setbacks when trying to fix his vocal problems.

 

3. Communicate in the way that best suits you and your purpose.

I’m going to say something controversial. The audience don’t care about you. (well, maybe they do if they’re your family, or if you’re some kind of celebrity – there’s exceptions to every rule…) Apart from the odd exception, it’s true. The audience only care about you, as such, if you make yourself their issue. Otherwise, they just want to hear what you’ve got to say/play/perform. They care that you do it authentically, but otherwise they primarily want the content.

This is tremendously freeing. It means that you can be authentically nervous. You can be authentically quiet, or authentically loud. How it is said doesn’t matter nearly so much as that it is said truthfully and with integrity. If you want to see this in action, just take a look at Susan Cain, or JK Rowling. They get their message across brilliantly, and both of them are totally their quiet selves.

The key is to do only what you have to do in order to achieve your goals – a key Alexander Technique principle. Pretending to be someone else is unnecessary effort, and does nobody any good.

A quiet person can command respect and attention. A shy person can be a performer. A nervous person can get their point across. An introvert can be a truly great public speaker or performer. All it takes is some attention to principle, and a modicum of consistent, deliberate practice.

 

Image by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright

ID-10050162

Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.

 

* Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039c5f6/Afternoon_on_3_Proms_2013_Repeats_PSM_5_Camerata_Nordica/#programme-info, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Banishing stage fright with the Jazzmen, part 1

Today I want to discuss what we can learn about conquering stage fright (performance anxiety, call it what you will) from jazz musician Darryl Jones.

darryljones_1

One of the first LPs I ever owned (remember LPs?) was Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles. My parents gave it to me for my birthday in 1986 or 1987. I absolutely loved it, and played it a lot. The thing that made it so different, so exciting, was the jazz influence. Sting had managed to get hold of some very well-respected and influential jazz musicians to play in his band, including Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones and Branford Marsalis. 

Now, as part of my current general revisiting of things past, I went in search of the documentary Bring on the Night that director Michael Apted made about the beginning of Sting’s solo career.

It is a fascinating film, and a great piece to watch if you want to see a document on the way creative process is both sheltered and commercialised by artist management. To my mind, however, the most fascinating element occurred towards the end of the film, as the band prepared for their first live gig. Apted asked the members of the band in turn if they were nervous.

Now, let me back up a bit and explain the background. Sting had just left The Police, one of the most successful bands of the 1980s. He was creating a rock/jazz fusion album that most people at the time thought would be a disaster. The jazz musicians were not only doing a different style of music, but flying in the face of general opinion that they were ruining their careers. And  they were all about to go on stage for the first time; a new band, to play a set list where half the songs would be completely new to the audience.

If you were a member of Sting’s band and Michael Apted asked you if you were nervous, what would you say?

Would you be nervous? Would you be scared? Would it affect the way you played?

You see, many people would have very definite answers to these questions. They would feel nervous, and they would view that as a negative thing. And the combination of the physical sensation and their negative interpretation of it would then affect their performance, causing them to play less brilliantly than they would wish.

But is this what the Jazz Man says?

This is what bassist Darryl Jones said in reply:

Darryl Jones: “yeah, always. I mean, I think that’s a good space, to have some nervous energy. So many times that first night is the best night because of that nervous energy.”

So often the thing that separates the truly great performers from the rest of us is their attitude towards nerevousness. We feel the butterflies in our tummy, and conclude that it’s a bad thing. Darryl Jones feel the butterflies, and knows that he’s “in a good space” and ready to go out and have fun.

So, today’s lesson about conquering stage fright from the world of jazz:

We can change our attitude toward nerves.

FM Alexander said something similar when he commented that “a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.” *  If we change our point of view, we can help ourselves and turn something we have labelled negative into something that can help us.

Do you have a performance or a presentation coming up? What would happen if you took the butterflies as a good sign? 

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.44.