Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from pixabay.com

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

Misdirected effort? How to get back on track.

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

Misdirected effort: a case study!

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

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

The question we fail to ask

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

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

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

Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?

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

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

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

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

Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why your brain prefers bad things

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

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

Memory encoding bear traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Levitin, p.52.

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

Image by galzpacha on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How to practice alexander technique (or anything)

How to practice with Alexander Technique

How to practice Alexander Technique is a question high on the list of any beginning student. What should I do? Are there exercises I can do? How long should I be thinking about it each day?

Today I want to demystify the concept of how to practice. Let’s look at how a musician might go about it, and see what ideas we can draw out of the musician’s experience of how to practice.

Imagine a small group music lesson with three young students. It doesn’t matter what instrument; we’ll imagine it’s violin. How do they get better? By practice! But each of them has a different approach to how to practice, and they aren’t all effective.

One goes to the lesson, then goes home and puts his violin in his cupboard. He doesn’t think about it again until just before the next lesson. He then does an hour or two of panicked practice.

The next student practices every day for about an hour. He runs through his pieces all the way through every time. If he makes a mistake, he stops and goes back to the beginning of the piece. At lessons, he never seems to have fixed the places the teacher helped him with in the previous lesson.

The final student practices most days, some days for half an hour, some days only for a few minutes. He’ll pick a piece, play it through to remember which bits are sounding dodgy, and then work on one dodgy bit. When he’s fixed it, he puts his violin away and finds something else to do.

Which student improves fastest?

Which student are you?

How to practice is about quality.

Quality of practice, not quantity, is the key. It doesn’t matter how many times you do an activity (like play a piece of music) if you’re doing it wrongly. And consistency of practice is very important. There’s a growing body of evidence behind what already seemed like common sense: that we retain information better when we work on it regularly.*

The other element that FM Alexander would add to the mix is what sportsmen call mental practice. When he was trying to solve the vocal troubles that threatened his career, FM would practice his new protocols for movement very many times “without attempting to do them.” This ensured that when he did attempt to carry them out, he had a good knowledge of the process he wanted to follow.**

How to practice – the steps.

  • Find a time that suits.
  • Find an activity that suits.
  • Organise yourself to practice mindfully – actually thinking about what you are doing. If you can, pick for yourself a small, achievable goal to aim for.
  • Find time to think about how to do the activity when you aren’t doing it.
  • Do it for a few minutes.
  • Stop.
  • If you reach your mini-goal, have a little celebration.
  • Repeat.
  • And – this is optional, but recommended – let someone know what it is you’re working on, so that they can ask you about it. Accountability really helps.

That’s the Activate You plan for how to practice Alexander Technique. Or, indeed, just about anything. Want to give it a try? Email me and let me know what you’re working on, and I’ll give you any help I can – even if it’s just sending an occasional message to make sure you’re still working!

And don’t forget to have fun!

 

*I recommend Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers (Penguin 2014) for a detailed, lively and very practical description of the research and how to use the findings to improve one’s ability to learn.

** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.41.

Why practice is important, and how to do it well

Practice is one of those concepts that everyone knows is important, but most of us feel we don’t do well. I’ve written about this issue before. It’s partly that we haven’t been taught how to do it properly. If we’re honest, though, often we also struggle with the discipline of it: it can feel so difficult to commit to devoting time to something that we fear may be a little like drudgery.

So…

Here’s a little slideshow I made that speaks to the issue of practice: it’s a short introduction to why practice is important, and a couple of ideas on how to do it well.

https://www.haikudeck.com/practice-practice-practice-education-presentation-ikaS1iUUIY

Enjoy. 🙂

How do good artists get so good? The secret of going from good to great performance.

petri_hannibal_Fotor

How do really great performers get so good? And can we emulate them in any degree at all? Is it, in short, possible to go from good to great performance?

Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood hero, recorder player Michala Petri, perform with lutenist Lars Hannibal here in Bristol. At the end of a truly sparkling first half, the audience spilled out of the performance space and spent the interval sipping wine and wondering at what we’d just seen. A couple of things really stood out for us:

  • She played the entire first half from memory.
  • She barely moved anything other than her fingers (and they moved very fast indeed!), and yet was utterly mesmerising.

And the most common question I heard during the interval? “How does she DO that?!”

 

How she does it, step 1: Practice

Michala Petri has been performing for around 40 years – she gave her first concert at age 11. She’s pretty experienced. She’s done a lot of hours in the practice room.

So how does she remember all that music? She’s practised it! I suspect that she’s played some of those works for at least 20 years. After that time, I suspect that memorising isn’t really an issue.

It also strikes me that Ms Petri’s experience of playing those pieces of music is going to be completely different to the experience I have when/if I play them. Her relationship with the music goes far beyond needing to know what note or phrase is coming next. Through familiarity and close study, she has been able to cultivate such an in-depth knowledge of each piece that even the most difficult piece of Bach has a clear sense of line and purpose.

Put more simply, what takes Ms Petri from good to great performance is not remembering the notes, but her ability to move to a completely different level of relationship with the notes as part of a holistic structure.*

What would happen if we, whatever our field of expertise, were able to do sufficient work that our next performance moved to the level beyond ‘remembering the notes’?

 

How she does it, step 2: Concentration

More than just knowing the piece, however, Ms Petri is able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. She does this by maintaining an absolute focus on what she needs to do to communicate. As FM Alexander said,

We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention. By use this power develops…**

Concentration is the ability to stick with the process you’ve designed, and not to allow your focus to waver. What would happen if you brought that level of attention to your next presentation or performance?

 

How she does it, step 3: do only what you have to

Because Ms Petri has done the practice and the study, because she has lived with each piece of music for a long time, she has developed clear ideas about what she needs to do to communicate the piece to the audience. So she does those things.

And only those things.

That’s why she doesn’t move much – she doesn’t need to. Her fingers and her lungs are doing most of the physical work. Any other movement would run the risk of disturbing them, so she doesn’t indulge in any. This isn’t to say that she looked rooted to the spot. She could have moved as much as she wanted. She just didn’t want to.

What would happen if, in your next performance or presentation, you did only what you believed necessary to achieve your purpose?

Going from good to great performance isn’t without effort, but the steps are clear. Do the work and the study. Take it up with your whole mind, both in rehearsal and in performance. And only do what you need to do.

Simple steps. A world of experimentation and improvement awaits.

 

* Interestingly, the only times she resorted to sheet music were when she was playing very new works that had only been written a couple of years previously. She’d only known them for a couple of years – they hadn’t reached the level of knowledge for playing from memory yet!
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete edition, pp.66-67.
Picture of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal by Tom Barnard.

Doing the work: a swimmer’s perspective on (not listening to) other peoples’ opinions

swimmers

For the past couple of posts I’ve written about Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, whose autobiography is full of insight about the challenges of achieving and maintaining mastery of his sport.

First I looked at how Thorpe describes how he stays in the present moment by not viewing the water or pool as a constant. Then I wrote about how he is able to maintain constant attention on the feedback he receives from the water, because of the type and quantity of practice he has done over his career.

Today I want to look at a hidden benefit of Thorpe’s ability to stay in the present moment as he swims: the freedom it gives him from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

Straight after talking about he ‘listens’ to how the way flows around him as he swims, Thorpe says:

“It’s really rewarding because I receive constant feedback without stopping. I don’t need someone to tell me that my stroke looks great or that it looks terrible because I have an inner sense of the water and the environment is already communicating with me.” *

Because he has trained for many years with top coaches, because he has practiced and analysed his technique, because (in short) he has worked incredibly hard, Ian Thorpe has reached a very high standard. He is able to analyse the conditions present in the water, design a stroke pattern to suit, and then carry out pretty much exactly e stroke pattern he designed.
And the result of this hard work? Freedom from the need to listen to other people’s opinions. He doesn’t need someone else to tell him he is doing well. If he has done a good job of matching his stroke to the prevailing conditions, he’ll make his way through the water faster and more effectively.

He will know that he has done well, because he will have met his own criteria for success. He won’t need to listen to see if he has met anyone else’s idea of what is good.

So often in my work with actors and musicians, they suffer from nerves tying themselves in knots worrying about what the audience is going to think about them. Or worse, the critics. They sometimes get so worried, it stops them from performing what they’ve designed at all. And worse, they then torment themselves by wondering how the great professionals often seem to be able to perform without fear of audience reception.

But here Ian Thorpe gives us the secret. His detachment from what other people think is a result of his complete commitment to his sporting process. His commitment to the water frees him from having to care about other people’s opinions. This gift of detachment comes from a lifetime of hard work and dedication to the goal of being better. This is Sebastian Coe put it:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment— whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”**

So how do we attain even a degree of the detachment from results and outside feedback that Ian Thorpe and Seb Coe achieved? By setting to work. This is what FM Alexander said a teacher should do:

“He asks his pupil not to make any attempt to gain the “end”at all, but instead to learn gradually to remember the guiding orders or directions, which are the forerunners of the means whereby the end may one day be achieved. This may not be today, tomorrow or the next day, but it will be…” ***

So set to work. Do a little bit of practice each day on the techniques and protocols that you’ve designed that will get you towards your end goal. Don’t worry about the end goal: if you work on the basics, slowly and consistently, the end goal will take care of itself.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster 2012, p. xii.
** Sebastian Coe quoted in Daniel H. Pink, Drive, Kindle edition, p.114.
*** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.339.
Image by Neil Gould, stock.xchng

A swimmer’s perspective on deliberate practice

swimmer

Last week I wrote about how the Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s approach to swimming can teach us a lot about the power of staying in the present moment. What Thorpe described was a clear decision to treat every swim as a new experience, and to ‘listen’ to the water to find out how the present conditions would affect the way he would swim.

 

We left Mr Thorpe diving into the pool, and then gliding in the water, prior to beginning a stroke. This week we are going to look at what he does next, because I think it has a major lesson for how we can all stay in the present moment more.

Thorpe continues:

“As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body. I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke…”*

Thorpe doesn’t listen to the water once and then stop. He keeps doing it. As he swims, he is constantly receiving feedback from the water, and he uses that feedback to help him choose how to swim even better.

But how does he do that? How does Ian Thorpe have the time and the brain space to keep that sort of contact with the feedback he receives from the water, even when racing?

The answer is surprisingly simple.

Practice.

Ian Thorpe loves swimming. And not just the racing and winning. He loves the practice. His autobiography is full of descriptions of the technical changes he is making to his strokes as he returns to competitive swimming. And towards the end of the book he says “I enjoy aspects of training that most people would think as drudgery; for me, it’s an exploration of what I can achieve.”**

Thorpe has a fascination with the technical aspects of his sport. This is no different to my musician students: the trombonist playing ‘the opens’, or the flautist playing long notes. By working on the most basic elements of their technique many times, they seek to attain a mastery that will inform and enhance the way they play more complex material.

This type of practice is a long way from ‘performance’. Even James Galway would stretch an audience’s goodwill by coming onstage and playing long notes at them! But it is an essential component of end-of-goal performance readiness.

FM Alexander talks about this too. When he was trying to solve his voice problems initially, he realised that he needed to practice the plan he had created to help him achieve his goal of speaking, but separate it from any sense of end-of-goal performance. And he needed to practice it a lot.

“I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to “do” them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice.” ***

Because Ian Thorpe has spent countless hours in the pool (and out of it) working on his technique, because he has thought, analysed and planned his swimming stroke – because, in short, he has spent his preparation time carefully – he has the space to ‘listen’ to the water consistently and make changes as he swims.

So if there is an activity that is troubling you, can you do this?

  • Can you break the activity down into some basic key elements, like the flautist’s long notes? (Eg for moving from sitting to standing, moving at the hip joint might be a key component)
  • Can you practice the key components by themselves, just for their own sake?
  • Can you find a fascination in attaining mastery of the key components?
  • And when you’ve done this and brought that knowledge back to the activity at hand, does it make a difference?

Email me and let me know. 🙂

 

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xii.
** ibid., p.283.
*** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.424.
Image by franky242 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net