Do you have an evaluation addiction?

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation addiction assumes the worst

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

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

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

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

Evaluation addiction takes up brain space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos

A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect. [1]

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf

Why a pre-performance performance is a great idea

A pre-performance performance can stop little things getting in your wayEarlier this year my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It reminded me once again of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Learning to follow through: why we bail out on our plans

Musical phrases require us to follow through to the endDo you follow through? Do you push through to the end of things?

My son is currently learning Solveig’s Song by Grieg for his grade 4 trumpet exam. One of the things that he is finding tricky at the moment is playing right through to the end of the phrases. Each phrase is quite long and requires good breath control, and it is so very tempting to cut the long note at the end of the phrase short and have a break!

I have experienced something similar with one of my recorder pieces. I found myself cutting a phrase short, and realised I was doing it because I was already thinking about the tricky phrase coming up!

It doesn’t just happen in music. I once taught a group of actors who were using a chaise longue in a scene. They were all experiencing achiness in the low back. When I watched them, I realised that they all effectively ‘stopped sitting’ a few inches above the seat of the chaise – at the same height as all the other chairs in the rehearsal room! Plonking down those final few inches when they’d already ‘sat’ was causing the low back discomfort.

FM Alexander didn’t follow through, either

FM Alexander found that even after he’d discovered the physical acts that were causing his vocal trouble and had created a plan (and whole new set of mental disciplines) in order to use his voice more effectively, that actually using his plan was a whole other challenge. He reverted to his ‘instinctive use’  – his previous way of using his voice – more often that not. FM realised that he was trying to use a new protocol that he had carefully reasoned out, but was trying to judge how well he was doing by whether he was feeling right.[1] This is a bit like deciding to follow a healthy eating plan but finishing every meal with a big slice of chocolate cake: self-defeating!

Deciding not to follow through = ‘feeling right’

The thing is, when we see the phrase ‘feeling right’ we can be misled into thinking it’s referring purely to physical sensation.  But it can refer to the more subtle pay-off of not having to examine one’s thinking, too. Even as we decide to follow a particular plan in order to take us towards the goal we desire, we can still fool ourselves into thinking we are changing and improving. We can believe we are following our plan, while not actually following through on everything that we need to do in order to change and improve.

If I am shortchanging one phrase to think about the next, I am choosing to feel right (worrying about the next phrase is more important than finishing this one).

When my son stops the final note in the first phrase of Solveig’s Song early, he is choosing to feel right (I would rather stop playing than have to rethink the length of the phrase so I can breathe in further).

If my students stop using their hip joints before they reach the chaise, they are choosing to feel right (I would rather not have to think about the chair height, but just sit the way I always do).

But if we genuinely want to improve, then we really do need to examine our thinking. We need to honour the process that we’re following, and choose to not just follow that process, but also accept all the implications of that process. And sometimes that will involve having to change the way we think. So I’ll need to stop worrying about the next phrase, and just keep playing the one I’m in the middle of. My son will need to rethink his phrasing and breathing so that he can play his piece the way he wants.

What about you? What implications do you need to accept and incorporate, so that you can follow your process all the way through to its conclusion?

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, 1985, pp.44-45.

Be Methodical! Planning, Creativity and Alexander Technique

This is the fourth post in a short series on what FM Alexander can teach us about steps to creativity. The first post was called Make Mistakes! The second post was called Make Decisions! Last week’s post was called Make Allowances!

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I’ve been having an argument with some of my teenage students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama lately. I have been trying to teach them about the usefulness of planning, how it has a central place in Alexander’s work, and how it can help them achieve their creative goals. They don’t like the idea of planning. They think it will stifle their creativity. “But it will destroy our spontaneity!” they insist.

So… What’s the relationship between planning and creativity? Does being methodical bring results? Or does it ruin your spontaneity?

FM and the mirror

Being methodical and going about things in a stepwise manner is at the very root of the work we call the Alexander Technique. When FM Alexander decided to find out the cause of his vocal problems and first stood in front of his mirror, he went about things in a stepwise manner. He decided to watch himself first in ordinary speaking. He knew that he was suffering when he tried to recite, so he looked at his way of going about ordinary speaking first, so he had something to compare to. He saw nothing unusual. Then he watched himself while reciting, and saw that he did things with the relationship of his head with his body that didn’t seem helpful.

But did he stop there? No! He watched himself in ordinary speaking again. And he saw the same changes with his head-body relationship, but smaller.

Now, this is a classic example of a methodical thinker. FM wasn’t satisfied when he found the difference between ordinary speaking mk.1 and reciting. He tried ordinary speaking again – just to be certain.

And FM’s creation of his work is full of this sort of methodical thinking. He would do some observations, gathering as much information as he could. Then he would have a good think. And then he would try an experiment, and give himself time to really work on it. Then he would go back to the mirror, to check what was going on.

 

Being methodical didn’t destroy Alexander’s creativity. It gave it a framework. Because he was so methodical in his observations, he ws able to make reasoned, targeted experiments. Because he had a framework, his creativity had a direction and a purpose. It wsn’t trial and error. There was room for spontaneity precisely because he ‘knew the territory’ so well.

The framework

Do you have a framework built around your creative experimentation? If not, then try Alexander’s:

  1. Observe. Cover all the bases.
  2. Have a good think.
  3. Experiment!
  4. Observe again

Try using this framework. You may find, like my young actors who gave it a go to try to prove me wrong, that it really does help you to be not just more organised, but more effectively spontaneous too.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image by nuttakit from FreeDigitalphotos.net

You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice

sir-alan-sugar-boardroom

The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!

 

First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.

 

Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?

 

Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Teach the chairs…?

chair

When I have a new student, especially if they have a history of back pain, it is pretty likely that at some point they’ll ask me about chairs. Often their workplace has bought them a fancy new office chair, or they’re waiting for one and cursing the chair they’re using at the moment. They don’t like going places like the movies or a cafe because they fear the chairs will be too uncomfortable for them. So they ask me about chairs, and whether they should spend their money on a nice, new, fancy, expensive ergonomic chair.

I especially like it when this question is asked in my main teaching room, because at my desk is just such a chair. It’s one of those kneeler chairs, but it’s a fancy one on runners so that you can rock back and forth like a rocking chair. It has a nice backrest. The upholstery is a lovely emerald green, and the chair wouldn’t look out of place in a set from Star Trek. It’s a nice chair.

I bought it back when I was suffering from severe RSI symptoms in my arms. I spent a lot of money on it, hoping that it would help ease my pain so that I could finish my degree thesis without crippling myself.

The chair didn’t help. It wasn’t because it wasn’t well designed – it is. It wasn’t that I didn’t spend enough money – I spent plenty, believe me! The problem was that the chair didn’t have the power to stop me doing all the extra STUFF with my muscles that was causing the problem in the first place. It turned out the chair couldn’t stop me slumping: I was smarter than it was.

I keep the chair now to remind me of how powerful the human mind really is. It doesn’t really matter how many gadgets we buy or how much we spend. What we need to do is to change the way we think! FM Alexander said that we should waste no time in educating the furniture, but educate the people. Let’s give ourselves the ability to adapt ourselves to our environment, so that we can be comfortable wherever we happen to be.

So how do we do this?

First of all, take a look at the chair. Are all chairs the same? Obviously not! But how often do we actually look at the chair we’re about to sit on? Is it high or low? Very cushioned, or quite firm? With a backrest? If so, what sort?

Ask yourself: what do I need to do to sit in this chair? What joints have I got to help me? Where am I going to bend?

Use this information. Form a plan. Then put your plan into action.

And when you’ve given it a go a few times, drop me a line and let me know how you’re getting on.

Image by winnond, FreeDigitalPhotos.net