Performance as process, not product

Recorders are where I learn about performance as process

When preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

It has struck me recently that it is very tempting to think of an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over. ‘I mean, I’m performing now, I don’t have time for all that exploration stuff!’

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night.

But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process?

In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

When I teach actors or singers, I am often asked to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I have reminded the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that was needed when the answers were first created. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they have placed themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.*

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

 

Thought – performance mismatch: How to actually do what you think you are doing

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Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?

It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.

As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.

I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because  when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.

And what do I most often see?

They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

They are not opening their mouths to sing.

They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.

In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.

Open jaw: 

  • small number of muscles used
  • relationship of head to body is left alone
  • breathing mechanisms left free to do their job

 Open head:

  • muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
  • muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
  • relationship of head to body altered for the worse
  • combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms

If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?

According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.

So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.

When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.

Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: How to banish panic

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Last week, we talked about the fear factor. This week, we’re talking about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic.

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Last week I talked a little about the fear symptoms we experience when we’re about to perform. I explained that many of the symptoms that we experience are the result of hormonal ‘fight or flight’ response – what FM Alexander described in 1923 as ‘fear reflexes’.*

Right on cue, after I posted my article, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article in Scientific American, entitled ‘This is Your Brain in Meltdown.’ The authors are scientists who have been researching the way even small amounts of stress can cause us to jettison the logic-based functions of our pre-frontal cortex (home of our executive centre), and fall back upon the primitive reactions of our amygdala to take over. The amygdala is responsible for emotional responses, and can cause us to experience mental paralysis and logical ‘meltdown’.

I bet many of us have experienced this kind of mental paralysis. I can remember a music performance where I was so paralysed that I couldn’t remember not just what the first note was, but also what fingering I should use to play it!

So how do the scientists recommend we prevent our brains jettisoning our reasoning and going primitive? Interestingly, current research seems to be confirming FM Alexander’s principle of building a ‘staircase’ of satisfactory experiences to build confidence. The scientists write:

“Animal research suggests that the sense of psychological control that becomes second nature to a soldier or emergency medical technician remains the deciding factor in whether we fall apart during stress… The routines of the drill sergeant are mirrored by animal studies that show that juveniles grow up to be more capable in handling stress if they have had multiple, successful experiences confronting mild stress in their youth.”

 

Steps to success!

If you have a big performance or presentation coming up, here is a plan to help you prepare.

  1. Prepare your speech/performance thoroughly. The better you know it, the less you will need to work your pre-frontal cortex to remember the words or music.
  2. Do trial performances. Find a sympathetic audience or three. Or six. My recorder quartet like to trial new music at our local music festival, where the audience is small but appreciative. If you’re doing public speaking, find a local Toastmasters group (or similar) where the members are friendly and knowledgeable.
  3. Have a goal for your performance. Small goals help you to keep focussed. When I played a recorder solo recently, my goal was not to win the prize at the festival. My goal was to play a very difficult piece of music, to allow for mistakes to happen, and to keep going. And I did.

Do you freeze pre-performance? Do you become irritable? Have you tried having goals and constructing a stairway to success? Tell me about it in the comments!

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscous Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.338.

Photo by criminalatt from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 4. Live in the present moment

Next week my recorder quartet will be playing a concert, and my thoughts about the rehearsal process are what have led me to today’s tip for everyday happiness: being in and reacting to the present moment.

PinkNoise

The piece that my quartet will play to begin our concert is called The Jogger, by Dick Koomans (the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet play it extremely well here). It is one of those pieces of music where one person starts, then the next person comes in, copying what the first person does. Then the third person joins, copying the first two players.

The trouble we had initially with this piece as a quartet is that the third player didn’t exactly following the style of playing (intonation) set up by the first two players. And if all the players don’t agree, then the result can sound a little odd.

What happens is that each player goes away and practises the piece on their own. They spend time working on their own style of playing it. But when we get together to practise as a group, we have to find a way to play the music together, sounding as one unit. This means that we really need to spend time listening to each other, and responding in the moment to what we hear going on around us. And if we don’t listen to each other and just press on and play the way we practised, then the result just doesn’t sound the same.

 

Lifting past chairs

But it isn’t only musicians who need to spend time in the present moment. Even on the simplest of tasks we can fall into the trap of not sticking with the present moment, but either dallying in the past or straying into the future. FM Alexander used as his example a person asking a friend to lift a chair:

“You will see at once that your friend will approach the task with a definite preconception as to the amount of physical tension necessary. His mind is exclusively occupied with the question of his own muscular effort, instead of with the purpose in front of him and the best means to undertake it.” *

Our friend lifting the chair approaches the task with “a definite preconception” – they will probably have decided upon the likely weight of the chair and tensed muscles in readiness long before their fingers touch the object. To all intents and purposes, they aren’t really picking up the chair in front of them. They are picking up all the chairs they have picked up in the past!

Most of the time it won’t be the end of the world – misjudging the weight of the chair isn’t likely to have serious consequences! But if we keep relying on our preconceptions, to the point where we forget that we are even doing so, then we are locking ourselves out of the present moment. And that will make it so much harder to react quickly when it really counts.

 

So my task for you this week is this: 

  • Think about the times and places where you do genuinely experience the present moment. For blogger Jamey Burrell, it is when he is running. What about you?
  • And for the next week, keep an eye on yourself. See how often you operate on preconceptions, and whether it sometimes trips you up.

Oh, and if you’re in Bristol next Wednesday lunchtime and have nothing to do, come along to my concert!

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.63.
Image by Gregor O’Gorman